Blue Ridge Parkway Tour:
Asheville to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Welcome to the High Country! This stunningly scenic section of the Blue Ridge Parkway passes just below the very highest peaks to be found along the entire route. The much touted Mount Pisgah at 5,721 feet is just a young cousin to Waterrock Knob at 6,292 feet and Balsam Knob at 6,410 feet. The parkway itself reaches its highest elevation of 6,047 feet when it traverses the flanks of Richland Balsam. There is so much to see and do along this 80 mile stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway that many people make it a two-day outing, taking time to explore the delights of Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the historic town of Waynesville along the way. Others keep it to a daytrip, hitting the highlights and returning to Asheville along Interstate 40.
Starting in Asheville you will enter the parkway at either Mile Post 382.5 (US 70), 384.7 (US 74) or 388.8 (US 25). If you haven't visited the Folk Art Center at mile 382.0 and it is after 9 am, you may want to stop in to peruse the stunning quilts, pottery, hand blown glass, paintings and other artworks by the renowned artisans of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild . Otherwise, head south on the Blue Ridge Parkway and get ready for some great scenery.
Mile Post 393.8: French Broad River Overlook. Stop here for a great view of this big, gorgeous north flowing mountain river. Asheville was settled along the banks of this beautiful waterway. From here, the road climbs uphill for several miles, passing through several tunnels, including the longest one on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Pine Mountain Tunnel (1,434 feet long).
Mile Post 400.0: Bad Fork Overlook. This panoramic vista offers one of the best views of the rounded dome of Mount Pisgah in the distance.
Mile Post 404.5: If you zipped past the Hominy Valley Overlook at mile post 404.2 overlook, don't fret, this overlook is far more spectacular, presenting a stunning vista of mountain ridges to the west, and if you turn around and walk across the Blue Ridge Parkway, you'll get a much better view of the lovely pastoral Hominy Valley, whose emerald green patchwork of farmlands lies some two thousand or more feet below.
Mile Post 408.6: Mount Pisgah Inn is a popular stopping point. There is a restaurant, good hiking trails and a pretty gift shop that features a good assortment of fine mountain crafts, books and parkway paraphernalia. The inn has rooms that offer incredible views, but availability is limited or non existent in peak season, so reserve far in advance if you want to stay here.
What's for Lunch? Three Possibilities:
The restaurant at the Mount Pisgah Inn
offers better-than-average tourist fare, and it comes with a splendid view. If you started early, it may be too early for lunch but you can drive up the parkway for three miles to Hwy 276 and take it a few miles south to the Cradle of Forestry Museum, explore for an hour or two and come back for lunch. If it's a weekend, reservations are a good idea.
If you packed a picnic lunch, the place to enjoy it is a few miles further on at Graveyard Fields (Mile Post 418.8) where you can hike down to dine beside a rushing mountain stream.
The other possibility is to press forward to Waynesville via Hwy 23/74 at Mile Post 443.1 (Balsam Gap) then drive four miles east. There you can enjoy lunch at the superb Sweet Onion Restaurant and follow it up with an hour or two of exploring the colorful shops and galleries that line Main Street.
The parking lot of Mount Pisgah Inn is the starting point for one of our favorite Blue Ridge Parkway hiking trails. This 1.2 mile (round trip) moderately challenging trail leads from the Inn along a ridge to where George W Vanderbilt built his Buck Spring Hunting Lodge in 1896. His lodge could accommodate up to a dozen guests and offered a splendid view across the mountain peaks of the Pisgah National Forest. While the lodge is gone, the view is still exceptional and the stone springhouse which encloses Buck Spring still stands. Those wanting a more challenging hike can continue another fairly strenuous mile (500 foot elevation gain) to the summit of Mount Pisgah for a truly breathtaking 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains.
Take a Hike:
In late spring and early summer the stretch of Blue Ridge Parkway that passes along the flanks of Mount Pisgah is resplendent with the brilliant blooms of mountain laurel and rhododendrons. Beyond the Pisgah Inn, the next three miles of the parkway offer some of the most awe-inspiring views to be found anywhere along the parkway. Here, laurels and rhododendron hug the steep rise of mountain to the right, but to the left the rugged weather has stunted the growth of trees and shrubbery, opening long stretches that present unbroken vistas of row after row of forested mountain ridges gradually fading into the horizon.
Side Trip: Mile Post 411.0
If you love forests or just a walk in the woods, you owe it to yourself to stop at the Cradle of Forestry center four miles south of the Blue Ridge Parkwayon Hwy 276.
Hwy 276 South (east) to The Cradle of Forestry
In 1895 Dr. Carl A. Schenck became the Chief Forester of Biltmore Estate. Appalled by the over-logging and degradation of the Blue Ridge forests at the hands of untrained woodsmen, he began the Biltmore Forest School in 1898. Teaching early sustainable forestry practices, this was the first forestry school in America and is considered the birthplace of modern forestry methods.
Today the excellent Forest Discovery Center at the Cradle of Forestry stands in the heart of a 6,500 acre historic site within the Pisgah National Forest, and houses a re-creation of the early Biltmore Forestry School that Schenck started here over a century ago. Here too, is an excellent museum that highlights the history and work of the school. The 15 minute introductory video is a must-see.
2 Day Itinerary: About five miles beyond the Cradle of Forestry, a paved area on the left shoulder announces Looking Glass Falls. The sixty foot cascade can be seen from the road, but there is also a paved stairway that leads down for a better view. On your return to the parkway, watch for Sliding Rock Recreation Area on your left. Here in warm weather, swimmers slide down a 60 foot long natural granite waterslide into a clear, deep pool. If you brought some cutoffs (thicker material between you and the rock is recommended) you can join in.
If you are ready for a change of scenery, it's time to head off the Blue Ridge Parkway along Hwy 276 north. This scenic byway circles the famous Shining Rock Wilderness Area and the spectacular 6,030 foot high Cold Mountain made famous in the best selling book by Charles Frazier and then even more famous by the Nicole Kidman, Jude Law movie of the same name.
Mile Post 411.0, Hwy 276 North to Hwy 215, return to parkway.
Tip: Unfortunately, while this route goes through lovely countryside, it does not offer a good view of Cold Mountain. For the best view of Cold Mountain, don't turn off the parkway at Mile Post 411.0, instead travel along the parkway and park at Wagon Gap parking lot at Mile Post 411.8. Walk a little farther along the shoulder of the parkway until the view opens on your right. The prominent sharp peak you see is Cold Mountain. After enjoying the view for a while, return to Mile Post 411.0 and turn north on Hwy 276
This route follows some of the most splendid stretches of the Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway. The highway drops down the mountain and follows the Pigeon River through the tiny farming community of Cruso, winding through lovely pastoral landscapes of small farms, woodlands and the sparkling Pigeon River, which you see first on one side of the road then on the other.
After about 14 miles, you will come to a busy four-way intersection where Hwy 110 crosses Hwy 276, becoming Hwy 215 as it does. For Cold Mountain fans, this is Bethel, the oldest settlement in Haywood County. Bethel was, at least in part, the inspiration for the fictional town of Cold Mountain in the bestselling book. Author Frazier modeled his book's fictional hero after his real life great, great uncle, who lived in Bethel. Like his fictional counterpart, the real W.P. Inman enlisted in the Confederate Army and was wounded in battle. Disillusioned with the war, he left his hospital bed and walked 300 miles home.
Turn left and head south on Hwy 215. This winding country road travels through countryside that is ever more captivating and beautiful as it rises slowly at first and then faster to rejoin the Blue Ridge Parkway. The stream you will glimpse along this stretch of road is the West Fork of the Pigeon River, which eventually joins the main stream of the Pigeon River. The West Fork tumbles out of the mountains to feed lovely and serene Lake Logan, which you will pass on the way.
From Lake Logan the route begins a steep climb, switchbacking up the mountainside to rejoin the Blue Ridge Parkway. Watch for a low stone wall on the right which marks a pretty waterfall that cascades close to the road. There is a small area to pull off the road just before the falls, but it's hard to see and you may have to turn ahead to come back and park. The water here is crystal clear and icy cold as it cascades over well worn rocks. If you'd like to get a closer look at this lovely stream, the place to do it is a little farther along the road, where wide shoulders offer a place to pull off the road. Here paths lead down to the stream, which tumbles through some of the prettiest and wildest mountain scenery in the United States.
A few miles further on, Hwy 215 reconnects with the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you continue north and west, you will have only skipped ten miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway and one significant point of interest: Graveyard Fields. If you want, you can backtrack on the parkway 5 miles and enjoy the short hike down to yet another pretty, cascading mountain stream and waterfall. Then continue on the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
For 2 day itinerary: From the intersection of Hwy 276, 110 and 215, you can continue on Hwy 276 to explore the delightful and historic town of Waynseville whose streets are lined with early twentieth century commercial buildings housing great cafes, bookstores, colorful gift shops, galleries and more. Waynesville also offers numerous inns and B&B's making it the best place off the Blue Ridge Parkway to find accommodations.
411.8 Wagon Gap Road: Park in the large lot here and walk a short distance along the Blue Ridge Parkway for a splendid view of the spectacular 6,030 foot high Cold Mountain, which rises from the heart of the famous Shining Rock Wilderness Area. Yes this is "that" Cold Mountain of book and movie fame. Author Charles Frazier lived in the tiny community of Bethel near the foot of the mountain and based his story on the true life adventures of one of his ancestors named "Inman" who enlisted in the Confederate Army, was wounded and walked over 300 miles to return to Cold Mountain during the last days of the Civil War.
Continuing on the Parkway from Mile Post 411:
Mile Post 413 Pounding Mill Overlook: This popular stop offers panoramic vistas and one of the best views of the sheer granite face of Looking Glass Rock, named for the glistening of winter ice that collects on the rounded mountain's vertical granite cliffs. In summer it is an extremely popular climbing site, except for a few weeks, when it is closed to protect the nests of the peregrine falcons who call it home.
Mile Post 418.8 Graveyard Fields: There are several theories as to where the unusual name of this highland valley came from. Many speculate that a windstorm or fire left ranks of sun-bleached tree trunks that looked like tombstones. Whatever the truth, this is a good place to stretch your legs by hiking the short, steep but partially paved trail downhill to view the tumbling mountain stream and the cascading lower falls. A longer two mile round trip trail leads to the more remote upper falls. On fine weather weekends this popular place can be crowded enough to make other stops preferable.
Take a Hike:
This region of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which includes the Shining Rock Wilderness, is home to some of the finest Blue Ridge Parkway hiking trails. Within a short distance are such legendary hikes as the Art Loeb Trail, the Mountains to Sea Trail, the Shining Rock Trail, Investors Gap Trail and Black Balsam Trail. Several trails can be accessed at the end of the short Forest Road 816 at milepost 420.2.
Note: They call this wilderness for a reason. Don't head out even for a short walk without sufficient water, a recent map, compass, basic survival kit and the skills to use them. If you have these things, this area can provide you with unparalleled hours, days, or even weeks of superb hiking.
Mile Post 430.7 Wowee, Cowee! The Cowee Overlook offers one of the most dramatic and often-photographed vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Here you'll find the classic view of row after row of mountain peaks stretching to the misty horizon. The elevation of 5,960 feet allows you to look over the other peaks. But it isn't the highest spot along the parkway. That comes next at:
Mile Post 431.4 Richland Balsam: Elevation 6,053. The view here is not too spectacular but many people stop to take their picture by the sign announcing that this is the highest point on the parkway!
Mile Post 443: The closest exit to Waynesville, just four miles north along Hwy 23/74.
Mile Post 451 Waterrock Knob: This is the second highest point along the parkway and the highest point in the Plott Balsam Range, named for an early German settler Johannes Plott, whose descendents lived in farms along the base of these mountains. The Plott hound, famed for its fearlessness, was bred in the 1800's by members of the Plott family from dogs brought from Germany by Johannes Plott.
Exploring The Blue Ridge Parkway
Itineraries From West to East:
Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Asheville This beautiful drive starts at historic Oconoluftee Farm Museum in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and includes stops at Richland Balsam, the highest point on the parkway, as well as incredible Cowee Overlook, hiking and waterfalls at Graveyard Fields, more hiking at Mount Pisgah, Mount Pisgah Inn, sidetrips along scenic Highway 215 and Highway 276 to the fascinating Cradle of Forestry Center.
Asheville to Blowing Rock A wonderfully scenic tour starting at the renowned Folk Art Center, and including stops at Craggy Gardens for hiking and spectacular views, the UNESCO Biosphere of Grandfather Mountain, lovely Linn Cove Falls and Moses Cone Park, where nineteenth century carriage roads offer great hiking and the historic mansion contains a fine craft shop packed with quilts, pottery and other works by mountain artisans.
Blowing Rock to The North Carolina/Virginia border (Coming Soon)
Itineraries From East to West:
The North Carolina/Virginia border to Blowing Rock (Coming Soon)
Blowing Rock to Asheville This journey though awe-inspiring vistas starts in the charming town of Blowing Rock and takes in the fabulous trails and historic mansion of Moses Cone Park, the engineering marvel of the Linn Cove Viaduct, the UNESCO Biosphere of Grandfather Mountain, the trails and awesome vistas of Craggy Gardens, ending at the renowned Folk Art Center which is chock-full of fine mountain crafts including carvings, hand-woven textiles, pottery, glass art and more.
Asheville to Great Smoky Mountains National Park This popular day-trip starts in Asheville and crosses the lovely French Broad River before climbing to Mount Pisgah and beyond to the spectacular vistas of Cowee Overlook and the highest point on the parkway at Richland Balsam. Other highlights include the lovely trails and waterfalls of Graveyard Fields and historic Oconoluftee Farm Museum and Mingus Mill in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Take Me To: