7 Days of Fall Colors on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
September 18, 2017
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Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
September 18th, 2017
Share story

Last autumn I was finally able to check something off my travel bucket list: drive the entire Blue Ridge Parkway end to end in a single trip. The falls colors were just starting to peak, the weather was beautifully perfect, and I had nothing but time. I started in Waynesboro, Virginia. Seven days and 469 miles later I arrived in Cherokee, North Carolina. I sat at a welcome sign at the southern entrance to the Parkway with a big grin on my face and all new favorite memories. I had finally done it.

I had been on the Blue Ridge Parkway before. I grew up just an hour away and my parents would take the family on long Sunday drives around Mabry Mill and Doughton Park. I had driven the section from Blowing Rock to Cherokee more times than I could count at this point. But despite all my time and travels I had never been able to visit the northern end and I had never driven further north than Roanoke. All that changed in 2016.

Day 1

Waynesboro, VA to Roanoke, VA

My journey began where the Skyline Drive ends; the scenic route through the Shenandoah National Park seamlessly connects with the Blue Ridge Parkway on a bridge crossing I-64. The Parkway is free to travel so unlike my previous day on the Skyline Drive there was no ticket booth to really mark the entrance. There was only the first scenic overlook: Milepost 0.2 – Afton Overlook.

It was only a few miles until I came to the first visitor center at Humpback Rocks. It was a Friday and the skies were clear so the parking lot was full of day trippers and bike riders eager to experience a day on the Parkway. Inside the very nice visitor center I picked up a few early Christmas gifts, grabbed a hot chocolate, and chatted with a ranger about what to expect for the next 90 miles to Roanoke.

The fall colors were really starting to peak, maybe just past peak, along the mountain tops on this section of the Parkway. I stopped at Ravens Roost and immediately hopped out of the van to admire the absolutely gorgeous view. Of course I also immediately hopped back in; it might have been a clear and sunny day but a fierce wind pierced my hoodie and sent chills to my bones. I bundled up very nicely and tried this view again but the wind actually made it quite miserable to stay outside for very long.

I had made a promise to myself for this entire road trip: take my time. I pulled over at just about every overlook and parking area even if I couldn’t see anything at first. This is how I discovered a short section of an old logging railroad across a wooden bridge at the Yankee Horse Parking Area. It was discoveries like this that made my entire day and it was far from the only one.

I spent my lunch hour at the lowest point on the entire Parkway: the James River Visitor Center. There was a nice hiking trail across the bridge and a tiny museum inside the visitor center. Interestingly I would pass the highest point on the Parkway in Virginia just seven miles down the road at Apple Orchard Mountain. It was during this long climb up the mountain that my low fuel warning first came on and would lead to an interesting little adventure later that day.

I pulled into the Peaks of Otter area about an hour before sunset. It was absolutely buzzing with activity from the guests at the inn, people eager for a meal with a great view of the lake, and children outside playing in the lush green field by the water. I captured a few sunset photos before eventually making my way down into Roanoke to spend the night. It was a good first day on the Parkway.

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Day 2

Roanoke, VA

It had already been a couple of weeks since I left Syracuse, New York for my road trip along the Appalachian Mountains and I was getting tired. By the time I finally dragged myself out of bed and hit up the nearest Starbucks for coffee and quality time with my laptop it was already noon. I decided it was just too late to hit the Parkway again so I decided to spend the day in the city that bills itself as Virginia’s Blue Ridge.

I spent most of the day in Roanoke exploring the Virginia Museum of Transportation, the O. Winston Link Museum (fantastic photography), and finding some great local places to eat. But that was in Roanoke; what about the Blue Ridge Parkway?

With about three hours of light left I headed back up the Parkway to an area called Virginia’s Explore Park. This is only accessible via the Parkway but it’s actually owned and operated by the county, not the national park service. The short side road leads to a few really nice scenic overlooks and then eventually the park itself. The park has a visitor center with information about the Roanoke Valley, a nice gift shop, restrooms, and a few trails to walk.

But my main goal of the day was to drive the one-way loop road across Roanoke Mountain. The entrance is located at Milepost 120.3 near the Mill Mountain Parkway. Once you start the road it’s a kinda steep and curvy climb until you reach the stunning Mill Mountain Overlook. From here I could see Roanoke between two mountain peaks. It was quiet, peaceful, and comfortable (no wind to pierce my clothing this day).

I continued up the mountain to the top (where the road begins to loop back down) and found the Roanoke Mountain Overlook. You don’t actually see the city from here but it’s still a great view. I set up my gear for a sunset photo, cooked my dinner, and sat back in a chair for the rest of the afternoon. After capturing a couple photos I packed it all up and headed back down into the city for my last night.

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Day 3

Roanoke, VA to Galax, VA

My second morning in Roanoke went much better than the first. After a quick coffee and breakfast I was on the Parkway just an hour after sunrise and on my way to an amazing day. Couldn’t really keep up with the scenic overlooks though I did try with my notepad beside my all day. I was more focused on capturing photos of the amazing fall colors.

The drive heading out of Roanoke is…slow. I don’t want to say boring because I don’t think any ten-mile section of the Parkway is boring. But leaving Roanoke the Parkway rides along some of the lowest mountain peaks on the entire stretch and the scenic overlooks are somewhat lacking. I found myself surrounded by more homes and subdivisions than I’d seen anywhere else so far. ‘

My first big stop of the day was Rakes Mill Pond. It’s just a little pond with a small waterfall over the dam on the side of the road, but that’s not what made it such a big stop. There was an abandoned dog here. He was well-groomed and looked healthy, had a collar, but he was all on his own when I pulled up along with two other cars. He immediately came over to me and hopped up on my knees to say hello. But as the other cars left I realized he was here on his own. I seriously thought about taking him with me for awhile but what would I do with a dog in a van on a road trip for the next couple of weeks? It broke my heart to think of leaving him behind so I gave him some food and sat there for awhile. Eventually a woman pulled up in a car, threw a leash on him, and took him away. She refused to speak to me so I never found out the full story. But after this I was back on the road again.

I made a side trip into the town of Floyd. If you’ve never been to this small country town you need to go. It almost doesn’t matter what day of the week you visit; it’s a small country town with a few nice shops and friendly locals. It was a Sunday but the locals were still out in force with a huge jam session happening at the general store.

When I got back on the Parkway it was getting late. I always hate this time of year because the sunset is so early. I arrived at Mabry Mill and thought about getting something to eat at the restaurant, but instead just took a walk through all the exhibits. So many people stop, take a single photo or selfie of the mill, and then immediately leave without realizing there is so much more to do.

It was getting late, I wanted a sunset photo, but I had no idea where to go. This frantic search begins about two hours before sunset every day for me. I began driving down the Parkway looking for a scenic overlook with a great view but none of them faced west. I kept going and had just about given up when I came upon this large field on the western side of the Parkway with two cars parked. A ranger had told me a few days ago that it’s actually legal for vehicles to park on the grass along the Parkway. I pulled off, set up my gear, and captured a single sunset photo before calling it a night and heading into the small town of Galax.

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Day 4

Galax, VA to Boone, NC

I was getting pretty excited at this point. Not only was I just a day away from my favorite section of the entire Parkway but I had now managed to check something off my travel bucket list: I had now traveled the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. Not all at once; I still had a few days left to check that one off. But I had now driven every mile of the Parkway at least once.

My day started off with coffee and breakfast at Cumberland Knob Recreation Area just across the border into North Carolina. After spending four days traveling across Virginia I had finally said goodbye to my home state. I had all of Cumberland Knob to myself, which was good cause I somehow managed to rip a gaping hole in my jeans and needed to change without a restroom. I hiked a short trail that led up a hill to a secluded covered shelter, captured some early morning photos, and then hit the Parkway again.

I had reached the point of best fall colors I would see during this trip. I guess the combination of longitude, altitude, and weather had finally combined perfectly for me. I couldn’t drive more than a few miles at a time without seeing some stunning scenic overlook I needed to visit. I wanted to hike every trail but I knew I didn’t have the time. I should have spent two days here but I foolishly didn’t.

My favorite stop of the day was at Doughton Park. I had no idea just how much this park had to offer and I was about to discover something completely new. The park stretches on for awhile with picnic shelters, tables, and parking areas. I took a little nap here under the shade of a bright orange tree. But as I was leaving I saw a few vehicles parked up on a hill to the side. I decided to investigate.

A short hike from the parking lot brought me to the most stunning view I would have on the entire Parkway during this trip. I stood behind a short stone wall on the edge of a cliff at Wildcat Rock Overlook. I looked out across the landscape as mountain ranges dwindled along the horizon. When the sun came out from behind the clouds the full force of the fall colors were put on display in brilliant fashion. I couldn’t believe I had found this view and didn’t want to leave.

I spent nearly two hours sitting there before finally tearing myself away. It was getting late again and I wanted to find that sunset location. I only had a few miles to the point I was supposed to head into Boone so I didn’t know if I would find anything. But sure enough I came around a curve and spotted what would turn out to be the location of my favorite sunset photo I have ever captured.

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Day 5

Boone, NC to Asheville, NC

 

Have you ever had one of those nights when you just couldn’t sleep? Screeching tires from a group of guys with lifted pickup trucks woke me up just after midnight. Then came the shrill alarm from the grocery store across the street at two in the morning. The last straw for me was the obnoxiously loud street sweeper at five. I was done trying to sleep and half an hour later I was heading for a sunrise on the Parkway.

But my hopes for a stunning sunrise photo were dashed the moment I was within sight of the Parkway: a heavy fog obscured the mountainous landscapes in all directions. The fog was so thick the visibility was down to just a few feet. I pulled into the first scenic overlook I passed but never once saw the rising sun. I had to check my watch to even know it was past sunrise.

The heavy fog didn’t last long and by the time I rolled into Moses. H. Cone Memorial Park the sky was clear and sun beaming brightly through the colorful leaves. I strolled into the Parkway Craft Center to browse the wonderful collection of arts and crafts for sale by local artisans. The view from the front porch of the craft center, located inside Flat Top Manor, was absolutely gorgeous.

Just a few minutes down the Parkway I came across Julian Price Memorial Park and the large lake just beside the road. Some of that early morning fog was still drifting around Grandfather Mountain. I parked at the end of the lake, crossed over the bridge, and found a nice trail hidden in the thick rhododendron bushes that looped around the lake. It was a good first hike of the day.

Fall colors were peaking beautifully around this section. I stopped just short of Grandfather Mountain for a scenic photos. I stopped again just before the Linn Cove Viaduct. I wanted portrait photos, landscape photos, and panorama photos but the days were short and I had to keep moving. I opted to go for a hike on the Tanawha Trail beneath, under, and above the viaduct rather than hike at Linville Falls. It was a nice, easy walk compared to the rather strenuous hike at the waterfall (if I had hiked all the way to the end like I usually do).

I made my first ever stop at the Museum of North Carolina Minerals. It’s a nice museum with a visitor center for the county, restrooms, and information about the Parkway. But with light fading again I decided to get moving to a potential sunset photo at Mt. Mitchell. I was excited at the possibility of capturing an amazing sunset photo of the fall colors from the highest point on the east coast. I spent about thirty minutes packing my camera and video gear, changing clothes (it was cold up there), and filling my water bottle.

But just as I threw on the ridiculously heavy backpack and started to leave the van a ranger pulled up to remind me the park was closing in ten minutes. Say what?! Turns out it’s actually impossible to see sunset from Mt. Mitchell ever unless you happen to be camping up there because the park always closes before the sun hits the horizon. I was disappointed, but I was not to be defeated.

I raced down the Parkway as fast as allowable, skipping over several overlooks, trying my very best to reach Craggy Gardens in time for the sunset. There are actually three different ways to enjoy this scenic area of the Parkway: Craggy Pinnacle, Craggy Knob, and the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center. With limited time I couldn’t take a hike to the pinnacle or knob so I just set up my gear at the parking lot beside the Parkway and captured what I could before losing the light for the day.

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Day 6

Asheville, NC to Sylva, NC

I stayed at Sweet Peas Hostel for my night in Asheville and that was actually a bit of a problem. The hostel was so comfortable and the people so friendly I didn’t want to leave in the morning! I was a bit lazy and got out a bit late but as it turned out that was fine; I had just about reached the end of the fall colors on the Parkway.

Unfortunately I was completely sidetracked by something I had never discovered before: the North Carolina Arboretum. Turns out this amazing destination borders the Parkway but you would never know it unless you knew to look for it. I had decided to take Brevard Road out of downtown Asheville to reach the Parkway and found the entrance to the arboretum completely by accident. It was a happy accident as I paid for parking, grabbed a map, and hiked around a few of the short trails.

When I finally reached the Parkway I found a lot of fantastic fall colors at first, but they faded the further south I drove. Some of the highest peaks of the Parkway are between Asheville and Cherokee and it was about that time when anything above 5,000′ was past peak. I found more burnt oranges of dead leaves than vibrant colors.

I found some nice color at the Looking Glass Rock Overlook. I had always wanted a great photo of this unique rock formation and now I had one. But as I passed Mount Pisgah, Graveyard Fields, and Devil’s Courthouse I began to realize the best of my fall colors photos were already behind me. My final stop of the day was an amazing sunset photo at the Cowee Mountain Overlook but it was a sunset photo devoid of any fall colors.

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Day 7

Sylva, NC to Cherokee, NC

After a wonderful night’s rest in the small town of Sylva it was finally time to finish the Parkway. I was so close now, but the forest fires were really starting to cause some problems. It was actually a bit tough to breathe at times and the smoke was as thick as an early morning fog.

I got back on the Parkway and headed toward one of my favorite places: Waterrock Knob. I always have a good time up there, but this time it was a bit heart breaking. I stood at the edge of the parking lot looking down the valley toward Cherokee. I could normally see the town and the casino hotel from here, but not today. The smoke had drifted over the town and cut visibility in half.

I decided to hike the short trail leading to the summit of Waterrock Knob. I usually just stop at the visitor center, use the restroom, and leave but this time I wanted to do something more. The trail was very steep but paved about halfway up so it was an easy hike. I stopped at the first overlook for a few photos before continuing on the top.

After returning to my van and continuing down the Parkway I realized those photos at Waterrock Knob would be my last for this particular journey. The colors were gone and the smoke from the wildfires was getting worse. Smoke isn’t as pretty as fog and it threatens to choke your lungs and sting your throat. Several of the overlooks were swamped in the heavy smoke so I just kept driving.

Still by the time I reached the southern end of the Parkway I couldn’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment and joy. I had finally driven the entire Blue Ridge Parkway from one end to the other. But I hadn’t just driven it; I had also experienced it. Amazing sunsets, exciting hiking trails, fantastic shopping, and comfortable nights. It was a great experience and one I will never forget but if I ever do I have a few photos to remind me.

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