The Blue Ridge Parkway runs for 469 miles. Its northern extent begins in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and ends at Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina. However you choose to approach the trip, the drive alone is worth the visit, full of dynamic scenic overlooks and without the distraction of bill boards and major towns.
Our journey took us from Great Smoky Mountain National Park, to two campgrounds along the way and finally to Shenandoah National Park. We travelled the parkway in late April, early May and were greeted with the vibrant life and greenery of spring as well as minimal traffic. The caveat of visiting during these months is that we encountered rain and fog throughout. Generally, we felt this was a great time to visit as we could show up at the campgrounds without reservations, never having to alter our route due to over crowdedness. This is a prize when visiting the national parks or simply when you are living on the road and planning ahead can be dizzying.
If you are planning a vacation, start by going to the Blue Ridge Parkway website. Everything is organized by milepost and we found the directory and travel planner to be useful. Also, the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center and Main Headquarters, located at Milepost 384, is worth a stop for up to date information about the campgrounds, any road closures and if you want to stock up on patches and stickers.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park
We were blessed with pine trees, challenging trails and our first glimpse of the Appalachian Trail. We were not blessed with great weather. It had been months since we had seen or smelled a pine tree and the rain had a way of saturating the air so that it felt like we were drunk on pine. It was wonderful.
After a precarious drive, we settled into the cozy, no thrills Cataloochee campground, nestled along a raging Cataloochee Creek in the eastern part of the park. The campground is about an hour from the nearest visitor center (there are 4 in the park) but we always try and choose the more isolated spots. When you do this full time, the weekenders who stay up late partying can be annoying.
On our first day, which happened to be our only day without rain, we drove to the center of park and hiked to Charlies Bunion. This is a moderately challenging, 8-mile trek along the Appalachian trail, which teeters the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. The views along the hike are mostly of condensed trees on either side of the trail, but there are a few lookout points near the apex of the hike which are expansive and particularly breathtaking with a filter of fog.
Our remaining days had us dodging the rain and taking runs along the Cataloochee Creek. The campground was an easy home to love with its tall trees, large spots and a friendly camp host.
A quick note here, like many national parks, the campgrounds are dog friendly but the trails are not.
Linville Falls – Mile Post 316
We stayed at the Linville Falls campground, made no prior reservations and had a packed two days of hiking. The campground, is a short drive from trails to see a series of waterfalls that make up Linville Falls. We took two separate hikes, the first to several elevated vistas and the second, which was a more challenging hike, takes you to the base of the falls for an up-close encounter.
Dogs are allowed on the trails and Brody could partake in his favorite activity, swimming.
Julian Price Memorial Park – Mile Post 297
The space at the campground was limited due to the season but we were still able to get a last-minute spot and just in time for more rain. Unfortunately, the rain kept us inside until the morning of our departure, when we took a quick run around Price Lake, located adjacent to the campground.
Also, before we left, during Brody’s morning walk, I poked my head into the closed portion of the campground, which would open in a few days. From what I could see, this location would have been worth waiting for. Not only was it a large campground with a variety of spot sizes, but the trees and other plant life would have made it an idyllic place to camp.
Shenandoah National Park
The final stop on our trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway was to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. We camped at the Big Meadows Campground which was located near the Byrd Visitor center, a well-equipped camp store and cozy restaurant. After several days in the rain and being away from many modern conveniences, it’s amazing how much a cold beer and warm meal made by someone else can feel like Christmas.
The campground was in bloom, not just with spring flowers but with the first summer tide of tourists. We still found a choice spot to park, but by the second day had neighbors on either side. It is still remarkable to witness the carefree attitude of a campground. Nature is the ultimate healer and stress seems to evaporate by campfire. It’s always great to meet people here, like you are seeing their best-selves, or perhaps their true-selves.
We busied ourselves with a very challenging 11-mile hike to a series of waterfalls. The hike was a combination of two separate hikes and included traditional hiking trails, fire roads and horse trails. Unfortunately, we made a mistake before we even left our car and parked at the wrong location, Upper Hawksbill instead of Hawksbill. We found a horse trail and were naïve enough to think that the map was wrong, rookie move. We eventually got on track but it resulted in an additional 4 miles that we had not planned for, either in water or in the decision to bring our dog. Poor guy was a trooper and fortunately it was a beautiful day and great hike.
Our trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway was an indulgence in fresh mountain air, cozy retreats from the rain and an emersion into spring that made you wonder what you sprouted given the rarity of showering. It cannot be singularly described as the vast lands along a route 469 miles long are surely diverse. Even though we live on the road, there was a revived sense of freedom given our separation from marketing, towns and for the most part phone service. The land was in a state of bloom, at its most vibrant and so where the fellow travelers. The fresh spring air is like an ever flowing shot of caffeine that revitalizes and renews. I highly recommend.