The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most iconic road trip destinations in the country. People come from far and wide to enjoy the scenic overlooks, exciting hiking, and winding roads of the two-lane Parkway through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. It’s not hard to find a list of things to do or places to go, but it’s easy to forget there are things you’re just not supposed to do on the Parkway. But the Blue Ridge Parkway doesn’t have a long list of things you can’t do; this is more just like things you shouldn’t do to get the best experience out of your adventure.
1. Don’t be in a hurry to get anywhere.
The maximum speed limit on the Parkway is just 45mph, and the average is a little lower at 40mph. Some point are only 25mph. The Parkway is certainly not a bypass, short cut, or a road you can take to get anywhere fast. In fact if you are in a hurry of any kind whatsoever it’s best to just skip the Parkway.
A few months ago I drove onto the Parkway near the Pisgah Inn and stopped at the first scenic overlook. A sign read, “Cherokee 60 miles.” Two girls hopped out of the car next to me, read the sign, and said, “Hey, Cherokee is just an hour away.” They hopped back in their car and sped down the Parkway completely unaware that 60 miles on the Parkway is more like a two hour drive.
The speed limit is a factor, but there are so many others. Winding roads and narrow tunnels will force you to slow down a bit (unless you’re a speed demon with something to prove to yourself that no one else cares about). The speed limit is just that: a limit. There is no minimum speed limit and many drivers prefer to take it a bit slow and enjoy the stunning views. Sometimes wildlife like deer, bear, and wild turkey will decide to cross the road. There are a few stretches of road marked for safe passing of other vehicles but they are a few and far in between.
The max speed limit is just 45mph and there are many reasons why you’ll end up going a bit slower than that. Don’t be in a hurry to get anywhere on the Parkway. If you have dinner reservations, plans to meet up with others, or a deadline of any sort it’s better to just avoid the Parkway and find another route.
2. Don’t pass up anything.
As a travel photographer I have one very simple rule: never pass something interesting. By the time you turn around and go back it could be gone. It is sometimes easy to turn around on the Parkway but there are times you’ll drive for miles without passing another scenic overlook or safe place to make a u-turn.
I was out on the Parkway near Grandfather Mountain before sunrise (my least favorite time of the day to be honest). I was looking for a place to capture a sunrise photo before spending my day at the exciting private attraction just off the Parkway. This wasn’t exactly the best spot because the Parkway just doesn’t face the correct direction for a sunrise photo in early summer. I passed a small parking area on the left just as I caught a glimpse of warm sunlight hitting the Linn Cove Viaduct behind me. But I decided to keep going, hoping to find a better overlook for the sunrise photo. I never found it and instead ended up driving for about ten miles before finally turning around and heading back. By the time I got back to that parking spot the warm glow was gone, and so was my sunrise photo.
You will pass a lot of interesting sites just right off the side of the road. Sometimes these amazing sites will be hidden from view or require a hike on a trail. Falls Creek at Milepost 272 is only a parking lot on the side of the Parkway until you spend about fifteen minutes on an easy trail to stand right beside a stunning little waterfall. Linville Falls at Milepost 316 is a couple miles off the Parkway down a side access road. Devil’s Courthouse at Milepost 422.4 has a nice parking area and a scenic view of the rocky outcropping, but you have to take a short but strenuous trail to reach the summit to find a stunning overlook.
Take your time while driving along the Parkway. Don’t pass something interesting hoping to turn around and find it again. If you have the time (and dedication) stop at each and every scenic overlook to find out why it’s there and you just might discover something amazing. Have you ever passed the sign pointing toward Waterrock Knob at Milepost 451.2? Shame. That’s one of the best views on the entire Parkway and it’s just five minutes off the main road.
3. Don’t tread where you’re not supposed to.
I had hiked to the scenic overlook at Devil’s Courthouse while lugging my camera bag on my back. When I first arrived I couldn’t capture any photos because the view had taken my breath away. I stood back for a long time just enjoying the absolutely amazing views, the crisp summer breeze, and peaceful atmosphere. But all that was ruined by a group of teens who arrived with a thunderous racket.
Posted signs warned people not to climb over the 3′ rock wall onto the exposed rocky outcropping. It really should be obvious in a situation like this: one slip on a slick spot of the outcropping and you’ll be the latest fatal victim of stupidity. But I watched as the gaggle of teens dared one another to cross the wall and creep closer and closer to the edge.
Nevermind the fact you could end up killing yourself while treading where you’re not supposed to; if you fall a rescuer will have to go after you whether or not you die, and now you’re putting their life in danger. This simple rule also goes beyond the dangers of a fatal encounter. Devil’s Courthouse is just one of many places marked as a wildlife sanctuary where people are not supposed to wander. These areas are fragile at best and easily destroyed with frequent footsteps and litter.
It might be exciting to hop a fence or leave the trail, you’ll probably get some great selfies while you’re still alive, but the risk of life and limb and potential of destroying nature or wildlife is just not worth the effort. Don’t be that person who decides it’s fun or worth that Instagram post.
4. Don’t treat the Parkway like a race track.
Just because the Parkway features hundreds of curves doesn’t mean it’s a race track meant for high-speed maneuvers. The speed limit exists for a reason as well as the double yellow lines which, of course, means no passing to most drivers. But there are always those few.
I was climbing up a long section of the Parkway from Asheville, North Carolina toward Craggy Gardens. It’s a pretty steady climb with a 45mph speed limit along several curves. I was doing the speed limit but that wasn’t good enough for the group of motorcycles behind me. One by one they decided to speed past me on a double yellow line, sometimes in the middle of a curve, and quickly disappeared as they sped up the Parkway faster and faster. The first three made it past me without any difficulty, but the fourth almost bit the dust right then and there (and nearly took a few others along with him). In the middle of his attempt to pass me a van appeared in the opposite lane.
Remember when your math teacher said one day you would use those strange math puzzles in real life? You’re driving 45mph to the North, and the opposing vehicle is driving 45mph to the South, how quickly are you approaching each other? When you have a 90mph difference between opposing vehicles and you’re in the wrong lane of traffic you don’t have very long to make a decision. This motorcyclists decision was to quickly move right over on top of me, forcing me to leave the paved portion of the Parkway with my tires on the right side in the grass. If I hadn’t driven off the road the motorcyclist would have hit my left side, forcing him to slam head on into the van on the opposite side, and three vehicles would have been in a bad accident that probably would have killed the motorcyclist.
But don’t think this is limited to only motorcycle riders because it’s not. It’s also not limited to Mustang drivers or the local car club or any type of sports car. I have seen minivans driving over 60mph, been passed by pickup trucks on the double yellow line, and seen classic cars drifting around curves. If you get yourself killed I’m sure people will miss you, but if you get others killed I hope you can live with the shame. That is unless you’re dead, too.
5. Don’t keep the windows up.
I was driving along the Parkway one time with the grandmother. The windows were down and the sunroof was open. She pulled on her little hat to block the sun from her eyes and asked why my air conditioning wasn’t working. “It’s working fine,” I replied. “I just prefer to drive on the Parkway with the windows down.”
So many people will say they want to “get some fresh air” but then drive through nature in sealed vehicle with air conditioning or heat blasting through the vents. The added comfort is nice, but what about all that nature just right outside your window? Can you hear the birds chirping or the concert of crickets in the air? Can you smell the fresh pines and clean mountain air? Can you feel that cool breeze on a warm summer day?
Keeping the windows up while driving the Parkway is like taking a vacation in a virtual reality salon (yes that’s a real thing, no I will never do it). It’s one thing to look at the stunning scenery along the Parkway from the comfort of your car, but it’s another thing altogether to roll the windows down and smell the air, feel the breeze, and listen to the wildlife. It adds several more layers of sensory appreciation to your experience on the Parkway and just might make the difference between just another scenic drive and the best day you’ve had in a long time.