With its sweeping vistas and meandering nature, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a scenic delight year-round. But fall is the most celebrated season on the Appalachian Mountain road, when the winding two-lane boulevard is a spectacle with the golden glow of leaves and cool mountain mist. And as we continue to worry about the spread of the coronavirus, a road trip with fresh air and panoramic views lends itself nicely to traveling.
Constructed in segments from 1935 — part of Roosevelt’s New Deal — through 1987, the 469-mile parkway connects Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park to North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is our country’s longest linear park. It can take a week to drive if you want to loll and linger, making many stops along the way.
A shorter, 177-mile stretch, from the road’s starting point in Afton, Va., to Meadows of Dan, Va., can be done in three days. Well-known points of interest on this section of the drive include Mabry Mill (Milepost 176), one of the most photographed stops of the parkway, and scenic pull-offs like Pine Tree Overlook (Milepost 95.2) and Roanoke River Gorge (Milepost 114.9). But venturing off the beaten path, by grabbing a meal or exploring a lesser-known hiking trail, is part of the serendipitous charm of journeying along the old scenic motorway. Here are eight of the parkway’s most notable detours:
Natural Bridge State Park
Pull off the parkway where it crosses the James River near the enclave of Big Island (Milepost 63.7) and follow U.S. 501 to State Route 130 for 16 miles along the river. The Natural Bridge, a 215-foot-tall limestone arch, was once owned by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington allegedly chiseled his initials on the rock face while surveying the bridge. Frontiersmen like Daniel Boone saw the geological formation as the gateway to the West.
To view the bridge, follow Cedar Creek Trail from the park’s visitor center about a mile. Standing at the base, it’s incredible to think that the giant gorge was carved by the gentle creek that flows beneath it. Continue past the arch to Lace Falls, the 30-foot cascade that marks the end of the trail.
Currently, shuttle service is no longer available and the park’s Monacan Indian exhibit is closed. Unvaccinated guests are required to wear face coverings inside park facilities and outside where social distancing is not possible. (6477 South Lee Highway, Natural Bridge, Va. Age 3-12, $6. Age 13 and older, $9. Parking, $5 per car at trailheads.)
Peaks of Otter Lodge
After checking in at this rustic 63-room lodge right off the parkway (Milepost 86), an early evening stroll around Abbott Lake is recommended, as enjoying a drink at the bar, eating comfort food in the dining room and then embracing the serenity of the lodge’s quiet hours from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Particularly during the pandemic, the motel-style exterior entrances to suites are a boon, while a private patio or balcony offers an al fresco perch with views of Sharp Top Mountain and beyond.
The lodge traditionally closes after Thanksgiving, but this year plans to close Nov. 7. Other pandemic protocol changes include reduced hours and a limited menu for the dining room and bar, along with the addition of a grab-and-go food section. (85554 Blue Ridge Parkway, Bedford, Va. Nightly room rates start at $160.)
Sharp Top Mountain
Follow up your stay at the lodge with a 3-mile round-trip hike on neighboring Sharp Top Mountain. Access the trailhead across the parkway from the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center, and prepare yourself for a steep ascent, where you’ll encounter several flights of stone steps on the trail. At the top of the 3,875-foot peak, you’re greeted by an old stone shelter and rewarded with 360-degree views. If a high-intensity hike isn’t your idea of fun, purchase tickets at the lodge to ride the shuttle, which will drop you 1,500 feet from the top. (Milepost 86, round-trip shuttle tickets: $12 for adults and $6 for ages 2 to 12. One way: $10 for adults and $5 for ages 2 to 12.)
Exit the parkway at Mill Mountain Park (Milepost 120) and drive three miles to see the Roanoke Star, an 88.5-foot Christmas decoration erected in the 1940s. After the city of Roanoke fell in love with it, the star was never taken down and is illuminated every evening.
Gather at the star’s overlook for a photo op and take in views of downtown Roanoke. The 568-acre Mill Mountain Park is also home to a zoo, a children’s discovery center with nature programs and exhibits, and miles of hiking trails; so, if you’re traveling with children, plan to explore. (2198 Mill Mountain Spur, Roanoke, Va.)
Poor Farmers Market
A few hundred yards off the parkway in the town of Meadows of Dan (Milepost 177.7), fuel up your car and grab lunch at this old-fashioned country store that serves home cooking like sausage-and-chicken biscuits ($2.65), barbecue sandwiches ($5.50) and potato salad made with mountain-grown spuds (starting at $3.25). Outside, the open-air market carries locally grown produce, and this time of year you’ll find cabbage, apples and potatoes.
Work up an appetite by spending the morning traversing woods and meadows on the Rock Castle Gorge Trail at Rocky Knob Recreation Area (Milepost 167). Then you can enjoy sandwiches on the store’s covered porch, joined by the owner’s friendly cats. (2616 Jeb Stuart Highway, Meadows of Dan, Va.)
Chateau Morrisette Winery
If you have time to explore this neck of the woods, also visit Mabry Mill (Milepost 176) for an obligatory photo op, and then head five miles down the parkway to the winery (Milepost 171.5) for mountain views and a taste of Virginia terroir with a mix of red and white varietals. While the winery’s restaurant is closed and traditional tastings are on pause, you can purchase a flight ($10) or bottle ($8 to $26)on the crush pad and grab lunch from the hut.(291 Winery Road Southwest, Floyd, Va.)
With FloydFest, an annual summer music festival in July, the laid-back mountain town of Floyd is on the map as a music destination. Visit this honky-tonk six miles off the parkway (Milepost 165) for performances on weekend evenings, when you can listen to regional acts playing blues, funk, and Americana and jam bands. Hungry? The pandemic has forced the Roadhouse to slightly scale back hours and its menu, but you can still pair a Virginia craft beer with “The Appalachian” pizza ($15), which in lieu of marinara sauce uses apple butter made by the local volunteer fire department, and is topped with sausage, caramelized onion, aged white Cheddar and goat cheese. (302 South Locust Street, Floyd, Va. Tickets range from $8 to $30.)
Floyd Country Store
For more music, just a block from the pizza parlor is the Floyd Country Store, which hosts its Friday Night Jamborees. The weekly old-time and bluegrass music sessions, with flatfoot dancing, are lively outside gatherings. (206 South Locust Street, Floyd, Va. Tickets are $12 for reserved seating, $8 for adults, $5 for children age 7-12, free for children 6 and younger)
Note: Be sure to call ahead to any destination, as operating hours or services may have changed because of the coronavirus. And at many facilities along the Blue Ridge Parkway, including those run by the National Park Service, masks are mandatory indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status.
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