Blue Ridge Parkway Tour: Asheville to Blowing Rock
Second in elevation only to the stretch of Blue Ridge Parkway just west of Asheville, this craggy section of the Blue Ridge Parkway between Asheville and Blowing Rock is just as rich in fabulous high country scenery and spectacular overlooks.
It also takes you close to the stunning Mount Mitchell, which at 6684 feet, is the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. Located just a short drive off the parkway, Mount Mitchell State Park makes a great side-trip, offering grand views from the summit. Also along the way are the fascinating stops with awesome vistas at Craggy Gardens and Grandfather Mountain; as well as the engineering marvel of Linn Cove Viaduct.This stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway also offers a wealth of art and history, starting with the fabulous Folk Art Center just outside Asheville. Here the works of some of the mountains finest artisans are on display. At the other end of this tour, the Moses Cone Park encompasses the estate of the nineteenth century "Denim King" who built his mansion on a high hillside overlooking scenic Bass Lake and the extensive orchards he planted across the rolling hills. Moses Cone also built an extensive network of carriage roads that now are enjoyed by cyclists, hikers and equestrians. One of these many carriage roads traces the shore of Bass Lake, creating one of the gentlest, loveliest walks in the region. High above the lake his elegant mansion still stands and contains a gallery for the stunning quilts, pottery, glass and fabric art and carvings of the renowned Southern Highlands Craft Guild. Just a short distance off the Blue Ridge Parkway, the historic resort town of Blowing Rock serves up a heaping helping of fine boutiques, shops, art galleries and some of North Carolina's best restaurants.
Planning your trip:From the Folk Art Center near Asheville to the turnoff at Blowing Rock is a total of just 94 miles, but there are so many possible stops and things to see and do along the way, that this you can make this a half-day, full-day or even a two-day outing. If all you do is stop at the major overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, you can leave at 8 a.m. and be comfortably exploring Blowing Rock for lunch. But if you take one or more hikes, or take the side trip to Mitchell Mountain or Spruce Pine, you probably won't get to Blowing Rock until dinnertime. Moreover, you could easily stop to hike for hours at Craggy Gardens, Linville Falls, or Mount Mitchell in which case you may want to plan on finding a room in Little Switzerland or Spruce Pine for the night. If you choose to stay overnight during peak season without a reservation, finding a room can be difficult. Your best bet will be to try hotels in Spruce Pine which has more selection and is farther from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
If hiking is on your agenda, you should plan ahead, as there are so many excellent Blue Ridge Parkway hiking trails along this route it would take weeks to hike them all. Our recommendations include one of the two short but impressive trails at Craggy Gardens. There are more good trails at Mount Mitchell State Park, which is one of the premier hiking destinations in the state. Farther along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grandfather Mountain also has excellent trails of varying degrees of difficulty (admission is charged). We also love the elegant carriage trails at Moses Cone Park, which lead through the estate's rolling forest and along the shores of lovely Bass Lake.
Note: Blue Ridge Parkway Closing: Milepost 367.6 to 355.3 Between Asheville and Blowing Rock: A rockslide and roadway repairs have closed the Blue Ridge Parkway to all activities including foot traffic and bicycling between the entrance to Craggy Gardens Picnic Area and the entrance to Mt. Mitchell State Park. The picnic area is accessible driving north from the Asheville area and the state park is accessible via the NC Highway 80 entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
For northbound travelers, exit the Parkway at US 70 East in Asheville, follow to the intersection with I-40 East, and at Exit 86, follow NC 226 back to the Blue Ridge Parkway near Spruce Pine. The detour is approximately 45 miles in length and is marked by bright orange detour signs. This road closure will remain in effect until late spring 2009.
Side Trip, Mile Post 355.4: Mount Mitchell State Park
The Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains don't get any higher than this. At 6684 feet the peak of Mount Mitchell is the highest summit in the east. Mount Mitchell State Park lies just 2.4 miles north of the Blue Ridge Parkway along Hwy 128. Once inside the park, a leisurely two mile drive takes you through the park and up the mountain to a parking area near the summit. From the parking lot a 1000 foot long walkway leads to the summit where you'll find breathtaking views of the Appalachian Mountains stretching to the horizon in all directions. A new observation tower at the summit is under construction and should be open in 2009
For those who like to reach their mountain summits the old-fashioned way - by hiking - the park offers a variety of good trails, several of which lead to the summit. A favorite is the strenuous 2.2 mile hike along the Old Mitchell Trail, which starts near the Park Office. Whatever trail you choose, as you climb over 5,000 feet, you will find a wonderland of spruce and fir pine forest that closely approximates the ecosystems found in central Canada. Like other high elevation areas along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in late spring and early summer Mount Mitchell explodes with the colorful blooms of mountain laurel, rhododendron and flame azalea.
What's For Lunch?
Look at your watch. If you are just heading into Mitchell State Park and it's near lunchtime, you may want to eat at the restaurant near the mountain summit. The food is acceptable and the view is outstanding. There are two other places to eat along this mid-stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. One is in Little Switzerland. Take the exit at Mile Post 334 and follow Route 226 A to the roadside Switzerland Cafe. The cafe serves better-than-average traveler's fare with lunches that include salads, home-smoked barbeque, smoked trout, wraps and sandwiches as well as vegetarian specials.
You can also travel just a bit further along the Blue Ridge Parkway and exit on route 226 at Mile Post 331 and travel six miles north to Spruce Pine. Coming into town you will pass the usual cast of chain restaurants but pass them up and head into downtown (Hwy 226 to intersection with Hwy 19 go straight on Highland Ave, continue till you cross a bridge, turn right on Roan, bear right on Locust) . At 169 Locust Avenue you'll find DT's Blue Ridge Java, which serves really good sandwiches, gourmet coffee and deli fare. Or head up the hill one block to 198 Oak Avenue and the appropriately named Upper Street Cafe, where you'll find colorful decor and sit-down dining featuring creative handcrafted dishes featuring local ingredients and a nice selection of fresh-baked goodies.
If you make it all the way to Blowing Rock for lunch (it must be raining), then you have lots of excellent choices. One of our favorites is the Storie Street Grill which offers elegant takes on classic pub fare including crispy fish and chips, as well as first rate salads (try the curried chicken with pecans and golden raisins), and hearty burgers and sandwiches. Also great for lunch is the quirkily elegant Village Cafe with entrees such as pan sautéed pecan crusted chicken breast on a bed of organic greens with goat cheese and Dijon vinaigrette, or sandwiches like smoked turkey and tomato-basil white cheddar. Bon appetite!
Mile Post 331: Museum of North Carolina Minerals. Exit here for the National Park Museum of North Carolina Minerals, a small museum dedicated to showcasing the wealth of spectacular gems and minerals that can be found in the mountains of North Carolina. The museum shares space with a well stocked visitors center and is located right at the intersection of the route 226 and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Milepost 328.3: The Historic Orchards at Altapass. Altapass means "high pass" and this narrow gateway into the Blue Ridge Mountains has been popular since after the last ice age, when buffalo and elk used it to travel to and from high meadow pastures. It was a trail used by the Cherokee, and for many years after the arrival of European settlers, it was a British-enforced demarcation line between the lands that could be inhabited by colonists and lands owned by the Cherokee. After the Revolutionary War, settlers poured into the area. One of the first of these was Charlie Mckinney, who settled here around 1790 with his four wives. Each wife had her own cabin and between them they bore Charlie a total of 42 children.
In 1908 the Clinchfield Railroad finally succeeded in completing a railway through the mountains along this route. This huge engineering feat required thousands of laborers, who built 18 tunnels in a 13 mile stretch. The working conditions for these laborers were primitive and dangerous, and fatalities were common.
When the railway was completed, the railway owners appreciated the high south facing meadows in one area of Altapass and planted commercial apple orchards that year. The orchards thrived until they were bisected by the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the 1930's. For many years the once beautiful and productive orchards languished. But in 1994 they were purchased and an ongoing effort to restore them and to preserve Altapass History was undertaken. Today, The entrance to the Altapass Orchards is right off the Blue Ridge Parkway. At The Orchard Store you can sample a wide range of products made from apples grown here. There are also hayrides around the pretty orchards that feature live story-tellers, and on many days, local mountain bands perform live music. The Orchards at Altapass are a great place to participate in the living history of the mountains and it is one of the few attractions located directly on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Mile Post 310: Lost Cove Cliffs Parking Area. This overlook has little to recommend it unless you happen to be here on a misty evening after a rainstorm. Then, on rare occasions, it is reportedly the best place on the parkway from which to see the mysterious Brown Mountain Lights. These glowing orbs of multi-colored lights have been spotted floating over Brown Mountain by reputable witnesses for over a hundred years. Theories, including railroad lights (until the railroad ceased operations but the lights didn't) swamp gas and moonshine stills, have all been proposed but no-one has conclusively proved what the source of this unusual phenomenon is.
Mile Post 305: Beacon Hill Parking Area. This large parking area offers a splendid view of Grandfather Mountain, and is the starting point for a short hike to one of the most impressive overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Enter the woods across the small paved road and turn right on the trail. A short jaunt uphill along the Mountain to Sea Trail leads to steep steps that end at two large rocky outcroppings that offer spectacular views.
Side Trip: Mile Post 305: Grandfather Mountain.
At the end of the last ice age, the glaciers receded northward and flora and fauna from warmer southern climates flooded into North Carolina's piedmont and lower elevation mountains. But in the high altitudes of these mountains the cold climate plants and animals, which would be more at home today in Canada, maintain a tenuous hold. These unique ecosystems, separated from other cool climate systems and surrounded by lower altitude warmer ecosystems are sometimes called "Sky Islands". A classic example is Grandfather Mountain, which is home to 70 rare and endangered species that inhabit no less than 16 distinct natural environments. In 1898 famed naturalist John Muir visited this mountain and declared it "the face of all heaven come to earth".
For years, Grandfather Mountain has been touted as the only privately owned nature attraction that is also a UNESCO Biosphere Preserve. This is no small accomplishment given the rigorous controls that must be met to retain this certification. In the 1970's, Grandfather Mountain owner Hugh Morton was faced with the question of how to make his mountain accessible to the public safely while maintaining the pristine environment. His solution was to create a nature-based attraction and charge admission, which in turn allowed him to build trails, interpretive centers and the famous "Mile High" suspension bridge that spans an eighty foot rocky gorge near the mountain's summit. In addition to being an environmental destination, the park is also a refuge for injured animals that are native to the mountains, including black bear, cougars, eagles, river otters and more. Visitors to the park can see them in their large and natural enclosures.
What most people come to Grandfather Mountain for, however, is to hike one or more of the park's 11 trails. These range in difficulty from gentle rambles that lead to spectacular overlooks, to challenging backcountry hikes that lead through multitudes of different and unique natural environments. In places some of these trails involve hand-over-hand ladder climbs up the craggy rock spires of the mountains summit.
In recent years The Nature Conservancy has taken over management of a large tract of wild lands along the western side of the mountain. And in 2008 it was announced that North Carolina's State Park system would be purchasing a large portion of Grandfather Mountain and continuing Morton's dream of protecting and preserving this unique ecological treasure while making it available to all.
Mile Post 304.0: The Linn Cove Viaduct. At first glance, this curve of elevated concrete roadway doesn't look much different from elevated freeways found in any major city. In fact, however, it is the most complex segmented bridge in the world. In the 1970's the park service still needed to complete the last 7.5 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway at this location. Grandfather Mountain owner and devout environmentalist, Hugh Morton, felt that normal road construction as had been done on earlier sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway would damage the fragile ecosystems of Grandfather Mountain. The solution was this unique elevated roadway made up of 153 pre cast sections. Each of the sections was meticulously planned and constructed with its own shape and curvature, and then, one by one, they were brought to the site and gently lowered onto the landscape. The elevated road system was completed in 1983 at a cost of 10 million dollars. Today it is renowned as an engineering marvel and is one of the Blue Ridge Parkway's top attractions.
Mile Post 303.9: Yonahlossee Overlook.This overlook is the best place to park and walk back for a view of the Linn Cove Viaduct. Stay on the path on the outside of the guardrail for safety. The next two overlooks, Wilson Creek (Mile Post 303.6) and Rough Ridge (Mile Post 302.8), offer different and interesting views of the Viaduct as it wraps around Grandfather Mountain.
Mile Post 296.7: Price Lake Parking Area.Price Lake is a lovely at any time of the year, but particularly in autumn when brilliant fall colors explode across the forest covered mountainsides and the dazzling hues are reflected in the lake's still waters. But once you have admired the beauty for a while, there is little else to do here but move along to Moses Cone Park and Blowing Rock.
Mile Post 294.6: Hwy 221, Bass Lake and Blowing Rock. Take Hwy 221 off the parkway toward the nearby charming village of Blowing Rock. First, however, if you are up for a pleasant and lovely walk, watch on the left for a turnoff (about half a mile from the parkway) that lead to Bass Lake. A level, wide .6 mile walking trail surrounds the lake and offers wonderful views of the surrounding mountains. This is one of two lakes that Moses Cone built on his estate, and as you walk around the lake there are several places where you can see his palatial mansion sitting in a pretty hillside meadow, high above the sparkling lake waters. This trail is a favorite with Blowing Rock locals and visitors alike, who come to enjoy the scenery, walk dogs and enjoy the beauty of the mountains.
A mile beyond Bass Lake on Hwy 221 the lovely mountain town of Blowing Rock offers lots of enticing shops, fine art galleries and several excellent restaurants. For lunch, we love the upscale creative, pub-fare of Storie Street Grill on Main Street, or the funky charm of the historic Village Cafe (follow the stone path from Kilwin's Ice Cream on Main Street). Storie Street Grill is also a good choice for dinner, or if you are in the mood for fine dining, try Crippens Country Inn a block off Main Street on Sunset Drive.
Many visitors head off in search of "The Blowing Rock", the legendary attraction for which the town was named. It lies a few miles outside of town and is part of a privately owned park (admission charged). The shape of the rock overhang supposedly focuses the constant strong updrafts from the valley below, so that paper or other light objects thrown from it will be blown back up to the throw-ee. The rock itself is somewhat ho-hum, but the park's real attraction is the stunning panoramic views that can be enjoyed from several points along the carefully landscaped network of trails.
From the town of Blowing Rock, you can take Hwy 221 to the nearby college town of Boone, or head a bit east on Hwy 194 and then l1 miles north to visit the historic Todd General Store, or drive through beautiful Valle Crucis to explore the historic and charming original Mast General Store.
Otherwise, hop back on the Blue Ridge Parkway and continue just a short distance east to:
Mile Post 294.0: Moses Cone Manor House. In the heyday of the wild west, cowboys and pioneers needed durable clothes, and Moses Cone made his fortune weaving some of the strongest denim going. The toughness of cotton denim made early blue jeans practical, and created a fortune for Mr. Cone. Much like Asheville's George Vanderbilt, Moses Cone was drawn to the beauty of the mountains, and in the 1890's he bought 3,500 acres for his estate. Here he built his elegant mansion, planted 40,000 apple trees, created two lakes and miles of carriage roads. The roads still exist and are open to hikers and equestrians, who come from all over to enjoy them and savor the beauty of the surrounding mountains.
The Cone Mansion today houses an excellent shop that features the stunning works of artists from the Southern Highlands Craft Guild. Room after room is filled with beautiful pottery, weavings, quilts, carvings, handcrafted jewelry and glass art. The view from the porch is splendid, particularly in the fall when the gentle mountainsides are blanketed with bright autumn colors.
A row of hardwood rocking chairs on the front porch, overlooking the lake, makes this a fine place to pass some time on a sunny afternoon. Many visitors take time to explore one or more of the lovely carriage roads. An excellent map of the estate grounds, carriage roads and other trails can be obtained inside the mansion. One of our favorite hikes lies a short distance from the house. To reach the Rich Mountain Trail, drive a short distance south along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Hwy 221, turn left and follow the road under the parkway and uphill for a short distance to a small roadside parking area by a gated fence. From here the old carriage road heads up the mountain, passing high pastures where cattle still graze placidly and then winding corkscrew-like up to the high crest where old stone walls create a good sitting or picnic area from which you can enjoy the awesome views that spread out in a 270 degree panorama of misty hills and valleys. On a quiet mid-week day, you might have this fine view, and maybe even the whole mountain to yourself, making it easy to imagine that you are a farmer from long ago, tending the cattle that lazing in the sunny meadow far below.
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.
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