Location: From Waynesboro to Fancy Gap, Virginia
Webpage: National Park
General Description: The parkway, which is America’s longest linear park, runs for 469 miles (755 km) through 29 Virginia and North Carolina counties, mostly along the Blue Ridge, a major mountain chain that is part of the Appalachian Mountains. Its southern terminus is on the boundary between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina, from which it travels north to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and offers access to the Skyline Drive. While the two roads join together end-to-end, they are separate and distinct entities, built as two different projects and managed by two different National Park Service units. The Blue Ridge Parkway was built to connect Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
1) We began our trip on the Virginia portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway at the northern terminus near Waynesboro, Virginia. Traveling south our first stop was at the Visitor Center at Humpback Rocks. This is a small Visitor Center providing basic information about the parkway and a few exhibits about farm life in the Blue Ridge area of Virginia.
2) We stopped at a couple of overlooks after the Visitor Center, which were disappointing since the weather was foggy and wet so visibility was limited to a few feet.
3) We did stop at the overlook for the Greenstone Trail at mile 8.8. Even though it was a light rain at the time we took the 0.2 mile self-guided Greenstone Trail which is a short loop trail among the greenstone rocks on the side of the ridge with a few interpretive signs about the geological history. Unfortunately, they need to update the signs as most were not readable or missing entirely. Still it is a nice moderate and short hike in the light rain.
4) We stopped for lunch at Wigwam Falls, which is at mile 34.4 at Yankee Horse Ridge. This is a short loop trail up to the base of the falls which were very impressive with all the recent rain in the region. This is also the location where they have reconstructed a short section of the 50 miles of narrow gauge railroads into the Blue Ridge for timber harvesting in the early 20th century.
5) After lunch the rain had stopped and the fog had lifted so we started to appreciate the many overlooks along the drive through the George Washington National Forest. We enjoyed the stops along Otter Creek where you can watch a mountain stream flowing over the many rock formations alongside the road.
6) We stopped at the James River Visitor Center where you can walk across the James River to a reconstructed lock of the James River and Kanawha canal that was heavily used in the 1800s. Unfortunately, you can longer see very much of the canal as most of the towpath became a railroad bed. You don’t hear very much about this canal since it was a struggle to get it completed, with construction beginning in 1790 and was not fully complete until 1851 by which time competition with railroads made it obsolete. We also took a mile hike along the riverbank known as the Trail of Trees where they have identified many of the trees and shrubs along the trail. Unfortunately, they need to update their signs as many of the plants being referred to are gone and the hemlock tree is dead.
7) Our travels down the Blue Ridge was interrupted due to very rainy weather for early a week, but when we picked up where we left off, the weather was beautiful and the fall colors were much more vivid and widespread. The overlooks to both the east and the west as we headed south from the James River were now beginning to show off their fall colors.
8) At mile marker 83 we stopped and hiked the Fallingwater Cascades Trail. This is a 1.6 mile loop trail that drop 260 feet from the parking lot to the Fallingwater Cascades. The trail is rough, but well-maintained with a nice bridge at the top of the cascades. However, the bridge at the bottom of the cascades is gone, so you have to cross over on rocks to continue the loop. I would strongly recommend going counter-clockwise on the loop as the descent is quick with many steps, but the uphill his much less severe covering much of the distance climbing back up from the Cascades.
9) The Peaks of Otter Visitor Center is a nice facility at mile-marker 86 with bathrooms and a nice view of all three of the Peaks.
10) From the Peaks of Otter, the Parkway opens up along the Blue Ridge with few overlooks and more rural farms and pastures on either side. Most of the time you feel you are in a valley, without realizing that you are still over 1000 feet above the valley on either side. It is known as “The Spine of the Blue Ridge.”
11) The Roanoke River crosses the Blue Ridge in a picturesque gorge where the Blue Ridge crosses it. It is well worth the stop and hike down to the overlook over the gorge.
12) Just to the south of the Roanoke River is the Virginia’s Explore Park with a nice Visitor Center and a number of period buildings and numerous trails. They have brought a grist mill, barns, one-room school house, blacksmith, and two log cabins to the site to exemplify a small mountain community. They have also created a palisade fort as this was the frontier in the 1700s. When we were there in October, all the buildings were closed and boarded up during the week and it was obvious they are suffering from a long budget shortfall. Most of the buildings and fencing, especially the stockade around the fort, is falling into disrepair. We did enjoy the short walk along the river to get back to the parking lot.
13) Just south of the Explore Park there is a 4 mile one-way paved driving loop to the summit of Roanoke Mountain. At two different overlooks at the summit you get some great views of Roanoke and Salem to the west and the Piedmont mountains to the east.
14) Traveling south from Roanoke Mountain, the Blue Ridge continues along the broad ridge, often giving the impression of being in a valley rather than a ridge. There are many picturesque farms and pastures along this stretch, along with wooded partials. However, there are not many overlooks with any view so travel is relatively fast, although watching all the fall colors during the drive and on distant hillsides make the drive worthwhile.
15) The Rocky Knob Visitor Center is a very small information cabin outside the campgrounds, so unless you are planning on camping there, there is very little reason to stop.
16) One of the largest attraction along the Parkway is Mabry Mill at mile marker 178. Even at 10:00 in the morning during the week, the parking lot was nearly full. Along with a restaurant and country store, you can explore the two mill races feeding the grist mill. They keep the mill wheel running all of the time there is sufficient water, which was not a problem with all the rain over the weekend. Unlike most grist mills, the water wheel provided power for not only the grinding of corn, but also was used to run a small sawmill and wood working shop. Along with the grist mill, you can also explore the blacksmith shop and cabin they reassembled at the site. During late fall, they make sorghum and molasses, as well as, apple butter at the site and we were fortunate that the blacksmith was there while we were visiting.
17) At mile marker 179, where the Blue Ridge crosses over Round Meadow Creek, there is a short (0.6 mile) trail that leads down to the creek before circling back around to the parking lot. Especially with the recent rains, this was a pleasant walk along a mountain stream with beautiful fall colors in the trees.
18) At mile marker 190 is the Puckett Cabin, which is a small mountain cabin of Mrs Puckett who lived to over 100 years old providing mid-wife services to over 1000 children during her long life. There is an interpretive sign that gives her history and you can explore the outside of the cabin.
19) Near the North Carolina state line is located the Blue Ridge Music Center Visitor Center, which during Friday-Sunday in the fall hosts local musicians and live entertainment. We enjoyed listening to a number of songs performed by the large group of musicians. The exhibits within the Visitor Center are also well worth the time and they provide history of mountain music through blue grass and country music, including the instruments, artists, and music. You can spend hours listening to all the music available, along with a nicely done video system of interviews, documentaries, and performances.