Blue Ridge Parkway Tour:
Blowing Rock to Asheville
Second in elevation only to the stretch of Blue Ridge Parkway just west of Asheville, this craggy section of the Blue Ridge Parkway between Blowing Rock and Asheville is just as rich in fabulous high country scenery and spectacular overlooks.
It 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 with grand views from the summit. You'll also enjoy 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 culture, art and history, starting with Moses Cone Park and Moses Cone Manor, the estate of the nineteenth century "Denim King" who built his mountainside mansion here and surrounded it with extensive apple orchards.
Today, his elegant mansion still stands and contains a gallery featuring stunning quilts, glass, pottery, fabric art and carvings created by members of the renowned Southern Highlands Craft Guild. Moses Cone also created an extensive network of carriage roads that wander through the surrounding hills and are now enjoyed by cyclists, hikers and equestrians. One of the many carriage roads traces the shore of lovely Bass Lake, creating one of the gentlest, loveliest walks in the region. Just a short distance off the Blue Ridge Parkway, the historic resort town of Blowing Rock serves up a heaping helping of fine boutique shops, art galleries and some of North Carolina's best restaurants. At the other end of this tour, the fabulous Folk Art Center just outside Asheville is yet another, and even larger, craft shop where you can peruse and purchase the works of some of the mountains finest artisans.
Planning your trip:
From Moses Cone Park just beyond the Blowing Rock turnoff, to the Folk Art Center at Asheville is a total distance of just 94 miles, but there are so many possible overlooks, side trips and attractions along the way, that you can make this a half-day, full-day or two-day outing. If all you do is stop at the major Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks you can leave at 8 a.m. and be comfortably exploring downtown Asheville by lunchtime. But if you take one or more hikes or take the side trips to Mitchell Mountain or Spruce Pine, you probably won't get to Asheville 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. 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 a weeks to cover them all. Our recommendations would 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). And we always enjoy 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 by driving north from the Asheville area and the state park is accessible via the NC Highway 80 entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway.For southbound travelers, exit the Parkway at NC 226 (Milepost 330.9), follow to I-40 West, and at Exit 55, follow US 70 West back to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The detour is approximately 45 miles in length, and is well marked by bright orange detour signs. This road closure will remain in effect until late spring 2009.
From Blowing Rock to Asheville,Here are our favorite attractions as well as overlooks, hikes and side trips by mile post:
If you are starting in Blowing Rock, be sure to take time to explore the charming downtown. You'll find lots of enticing shops, art galleries and several fine restaurants. If you haven't had breakfast yet, we love the the funky charm of the historic Village Cafe (follow the stone path from Kilwin's Ice Cream on Main Street) which offers wonderfully prepared waffles, French toast, omelets, and a host of other upscale breakfast and brunch dishes in a cottage-like atmosphere. Once fortified, you should head out of town toward the Blue Ridge Parkway (West on Highway 221).
Before you reach the parkway, however, if you want to start with a pleasant and lovely walk, watch on the right for one of the two turnoffs that lead to Bass Lake. A level, wide .6 mile walking trail surrounds the lake, offering 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 waters. This trail is a favorite with Blowing Rock natives and visitors alike, who come here to enjoy the scenery, walk thier dogs and enjoy the beauty of the mountains.
When you are done walking around the lake, continue along Hwy 221 for half a mile to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Yes, you will go south toward Asheville, but not yet. First turn right and drive north along the Blue Ridge Parkway for about half a mile 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 craftshop 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 take a hike along one of the estate's 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 Blue Ridge 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. Return to the Blue Ridge Parkway and head south.
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 the Blue Ridge Parkway to Moses Cone Park and Blowing Rock.
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 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 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 one of the Blue Ridge Parkway's top attractions.
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 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.
Mile Post 310: Lost Cove Cliffs Parking AreaThis 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 316.5: Linville Falls. This lovely area encompasses the spectacular twelve-mile long Linville Gorge. Carved into the mountains by the relentless force of the Linville River, the gorge and lovely Linville Falls have been a tourist destination since the late 1800's. From the parkway, a short drive leads to the Linville Falls Visitor's Center run by the National Park Service. From this point, several trails lead to and around the falls. The trails to the cascade are easy to moderate in difficulty. Most popular are the 1.6 mile long Erwin Trail that offers four overviews of the falls from above, and the 1.0 Mile long Plunge Pool that leads to the river near the foot of the falls. There are also trails that follow the river as it tumbles through the deep gorge.
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 laboreres were primitive and dangerous, and fatalities were common.
When the railway was completed, the railway owners appreciated the high south facing meadows in one are 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, you can stop at the Altapass Orchards and 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 331: The 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.
What's For Lunch?
There are three good places to find a restaurant along this mid-stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. One is in Spruce Pine. Exit on Hwy 226 at Mile Post 331 and travel six miles north. 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.
Or you can continue a little further along the Blue Ridge Parkwayto 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.
If you are just heading into Mitchell State Park (Mile Post 355.4) 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.
If you make it all the way to Asheville for lunch (it must be raining), then you have lots of excellent choices. Our suggestion: Get off the Blue Ridge Parkway at Hwy 70 and take Hwy 70 west to Broadway. Head south to Pack Square. If you are in the mood for spicy, creative, south-of-the-border fare, try Salsas near the corner of Broadway and Patton. Otherwise head south on Broadway (becomes Biltmore) for two blocks to Doc Chey's Noodle House. Bon appetite!
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 the Craggy Gardens area, in late spring and early summer Mount Mitchell explodes with the colorful blooms of mountain laurel, rhododendron and flame azalea.
Mile Post 364.5: Craggy Gardens. This visitor's center is situated on a high narrow ridge between two mountain peaks. This ridge, barely wide enough to accommodate the parkway's two lanes, drops steeply away on both sides of the road, offering spectacular, panoramic views in two directions. In mid June, this whole area is "rhododendron central" and the vibrantly blushing pink blooms lie thick along the parkway, trails, and mountain sides. The Visitor's Center displays highlight the flora and fauna of the surrounding mountains. If you don't want to walk the full Craggy Gardens Trail (above) you can start from this end of the trail where the distance to the shelter and the meadow bald with its fabulous views is only about a quarter mile. If you want a more challenging hike you can travel half a mile north along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Craggy Pinnacle Trail which takes you .7 miles up a moderately steep incline to Craggy Dome where the view in all directions is sublime - particularly during the early summer rhododendron blooms.
Mile Post 367.6: Craggy Gardens Picnic Area This picnic area lies a short drive off the parkway, and unless you actually brought a picnic (in which case we could recommend more scenic places to eat it) what you are here for is the start of the delightful, moderately strenuous Craggy Gardens Trail. The trail starts at the highest point of the picnic area and rises gently over a mile or so to a large shelter. At the shelter you can choose between two directions (actually you should go both ways) Trails to the right of the shelter meander up and across a heath and rhododendron filled mountaintop bald that offers dream-like vistas across the surrounding lower mountains. Also from the shelter, the main trail continues another quarter mile to the Visitor's Center at Craggy Gardens which stands beside the parkway. Allow an hour an a half for the round trip from the picnic area. Note: if you don't want to hike for a mile or more to get to the great views this trail offers, you can drive on to the Craggy Garden Visitor Center (see below) and take a much shorter hike to them from there.
Mile Post 382: Folk Art Center. This is the premier place to buy finely-made mountain arts and crafts in Western North Carolina. The multi-thousand square-foot interior is filled to overflowing with gorgeous pottery, wood carvings, textile art, colorful quilts, glittering glass art and lots and lots of handcrafted items produced by the rigorously juried artists of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild. There are also craft demonstrations by members of the guild during the summer months. We have watched a native flutes being shaped by a woodcarver, a blacksmith forging remarkably delicate artworks, fine cups and bowls being turned on a wheel by potters and many other crafts being created by regional artisans. On the center's second floor there is a museum that displays a fascinating collection of historic crafts as well as rotating shows of works by significant mountain artists.
You are only a few miles from downtown Asheville here and the quickest way to get into town is to exit at Mile Post 382.5 Hwy 70 and continue west on Hwy 70 along Tunnel Road into the heart of downtown. Other Asheville exits off the Blue Ridge Parkway are 384.7: (US 74) 388.8: (US 25), and 393.6 US 191 (NC Arboretum and West Asheville).
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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