Blue Ridge Parkway Tour:
Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Asheville
Welcome to Carolina High Country! This fabulously scenic section of the Blue Ridge Parkway passes just below the very highest peaks to be found along the entire route. The celebrated Mount Pisgah at 5,721 feet is just a young cousin to Waterock 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 Waynesville and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the way. Others keep it to a daytrip, hitting the highlights and making a fast return trip to Asheville along Interstate 40.
Here are our suggestions for exploring this section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, including side trips and ideas for extending your tour to a two day excursion.
The Blue Ridge Parkway begins at Highway 441 north of Cherokee. But before you jump on the parkway, continue on Hwy 441 a short distance north to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and the Oconaluftee Mountain Farm Museum. This well-preserved collection of nineteenth century log buildings was gathered from nearby mountain communities. The most prominent building is the charming Davis House, hewn from chestnut logs harvested before the great blight of the twentieth century killed all the American chestnut trees in the mountains. The farm's other buildings include an apple house, barn, springhouse and smokehouse.
A quarter mile up the road, water still flows down the millrace to the Mingus Mill where the heavy stones grind wheat and corn much as they did when John Mingus built the mill in 1886. This was a technologically advanced mill for its day, employing an efficient turbine to power the machinery and utilizing precision cut stones imported from France to grind the wheat into flour. The farm and mill are operated by the National Park Service and a miller is often on hand to demonstrate grinding wheat with water-driven machinery.
When you are done visiting the farm, you are ready to return south on 441 to start your tour of the Blue Ridge Parkway
A Note about Milepost Markers: there are actually posts placed every mile along the Blue Ridge Parkway that are marked with a mile number. When a milepost like 388.8 miles is given, you must estimate .8 miles beyond physical Milepost 388.0 Technically the intersection of Hwy 441 and the Blue Ridge Parkway marks the end, not the beginning, of the parkway as counted by Mileposts. This is Milepost 469.0 and from here, the Milepost numbers will decrease until you exit the parkway at Asheville. The first Asheville exit is at Milepost 388.8 (Hwy 25)
From Milepost 469.0 to Asheville, here are our favorite stops: Milepost 451: Waterock Knob. This is the second highest point along the Blue Ridge 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 by members of the Plott family in the 1800's from dogs brought from Germany by Johannes Plott.
Milepost 443: The closest exit to the pretty town of Waynesville, whose good restaurants and interesting shops can be found just four miles north along Hwy 23/74.
Milepost 431.4: Richland Balsam, elevation 6,053. The view here is only middling-spectacular, but many people stop to take their picture by the sign announcing that this is the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway!
Milepost 430.7: Wowee, Cowee! The Cowee Overlook offers one of the most dramatic and often-photographed vistas along the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. Here rank after rank of mountain peaks march towards the misty horizon. The elevation of 5,960 feet means you are above the neighboring peaks and looking down on them as they extend as far as the eye can see.
What's for Lunch? Three Possibilities:
If you packed a picnic lunch, Graveyard Fields (Milepost 418.8) is a good place to enjoy it. You can hike the short but steep trail down to spread your fare out atop large smooth boulders beside a rushing mountain stream.
The restaurant at the Mount Pisgah Inn (Milepost 408.6) offers better-than-average tourist fare, and it comes with a splendid view.
The other possibility is to take the scenic byway tour (below) which starts at Milepost 423 (Hwy 215) At the intersection of Hwy 215 and 276 turn north on Hwy 276 into Waynesville. 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 that line Main Street. Return via Hwy 276 remaining on that highway all the way back to the Blue Ridge Parkway to enjoy some new scenery.
If you are ready for a change of scenery, this is a good place to head off the Blue Ridge Parkway and drive through some of the lovely green valleys you have been seeing from on high along the Parkway.
Mile 423.2 Hwy 215 North (east) to Hwy 276 south back to the Parkway.
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 even more famous by the Nicole Kidman, Jude Law movie of the same name.
Tip: Unfortunately, while this route goes through lovely countryside, it does not offer a good view of Cold Mountain. The best place to get a view of Cold Mountain is at the end of this side trip, when your return along Hwy 276 to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Backtrack north for about a mile along the parkway to Milepost 411.8. Park at the Wagon Gap parking lot and 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.
This route follows some of the most gorgeous stretches of the Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway. The highway drops steeply down the mountain following the cascading West Fork of the Pigeon River. Watch on your right for wide spots in the road where you can park and walk down to watch the river tumble through some of the prettiest mountain scenery anywhere. Partway down the mountain, the road crosses a small stone bridge. As you cross the bridge you may notice a plume of waterfall on your left. There is a place on the left just past the bridge where you can pull over and park. Walk back to get a close-up view of this pretty cascade as it dashes downward in a silvery cascade over smooth water-worn boulders. This stream feeds lovely Lake Logan which you will pass at the foot of the mountain. The road then passes through miles of wonderfully pastoral countryside with its patchwork of small farms and woodlands, and each turn in the road offering new views of the surrounding mountains. Eventually you will come to a busy four way intersection with Hwy 276. For "Cold Mountain" fans, this very old crossroads marks Bethel, the oldest settlement in Haywood County. Bethel was, 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.
At the Bethel intersection, turn right on Hwy 276 to trace the main fork of the Pigeon River through the tiny farming community of Cruso and on through more lovely farmlands. The road rises ever more steeply into the mountains as it returns to the Blue Ridge Parkway following the sparkling river, which you see first on one side of the road then on the other.
A few miles further on, Hwy 276 reconnects with the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you continue south and east, you will have only skipped ten miles of the parkway and one significant point of interest: Graveyard Fields. If you want, you can backtrack on the Parkway five miles and enjoy the short hike down to yet another cascading mountain stream and waterfall, before continuing on the parkway to Asheville.
For 2 day itinerary: From the intersection of Hwy 215 and 276, you can turn north on 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.
Take a Hike: This region of the 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.
Safety 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.
Milepost 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.
Milepost 413: Pounding Mill Overlook. This popular stop offers panoramic vistas and one of the best views of the towering sheer stone face of Looking Glass Rock. This is the rounded mountain in the center of your view, named for the glistening of winter ice that collects on its 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 411.8: Wagon Gap Road. Park in the large lot here and walk a short distance along the 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 base of the mountain and based his story on the true-life adventures of one of his ancestors, W.P.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.
Just Off the Parkway:
Milepost 411.0 Hwy 276 South (east) to The Cradle of Forestry
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 parkway on Hwy 276.
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 Blue Ridge 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.
Milepost 408.6: Mount Pisgah Inn. The 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 Blue Ridge Parkway paraphernalia. The Inn has rooms that all offer incredible views, but availability is limited or non-existent in peak season, so reserve far in advance if you want to stay here
Take a Hike: 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.
Great Scenery: 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. From around Milepost 411.5 to the Pisgah Inn at Milepost 408.6, the parkway offers 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 left, but to the right 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 stretching to the horizon.
Milepost 404.5: Mill Valley Overlook. The best view of lovely Hominy valley is not found at the Hominy Valley Overlook at mile 404.2, it is here. Yes, this overlook presents a stunning vista of mountain ridges to the west, but if you turn around and walk across the parkway, you'll get the best possible view of the lovely pastoral Hominy Valley, whose emerald green patchwork of farmlands lies some two thousand or more feet below.
Milepost 400.0: Bad Fork Overlook. This panoramic vista offers one of the best views of the towering rounded dome of Mount Pisgah in the distance. From this overlook, the road heads downhill for several miles, passing through several tunnels, including the longest one on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Pine Mountain Tunnel (1,434 feet long).
Milepost 393.8: French Broad River Overlook. Stop here for a great view of this big, gorgeous north-flowing river. This mighty river helped shape and flows through the broad valley where Asheville was settled.
Two Day Itinerary: Milepost 393.6: If you have time, exit here and tour the North Carolina Arboretum, which is located just off the exit. The Arboretum grounds cover over 434 acres. There are several acres of formal gardens, and miles of gravel roads that wind through the mountainous property that make for great hiking and biking. You can continue a few miles north on Hwy 191 and watch for a mall on your right where you can feast on richly spicy fajitas, or other Mexican favorites at Papas and Beer Restaurant.
Other Asheville exits are Milepost 388.8: (US 25), 384.7: (US 74) or 382.5: (US 70).
Two Day Itinerary: You may want to continue on to Milepost 382.0 to visit the Folk Art Center. This is the premier place in Western North Carolina to purchase high quality crafts from fine regional artists who are all members of the rigorously juried Southern Highland Craft Guild. In addition to its amazing offierings of quilts, pottery, paintings, photography and more, the center also features a museum of mountain crafts, as well as craft demonstrations by guild members during the high season.
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.