It has been an unusual last year-and-a-half in the world, in our nation and here in the High Country. As pandemic, social unrest in the cities and more has affected our lives, many sought refuge on our section of the beautiful and historic Blue Ridge Parkway in 2020 and now in 2021.
According to a report by the Outdoor Foundation, 8 million more people went hiking on the trails of the U.S. in 2020 than in 2019. As for 2021, the numbers seem to be leveling as other attractions begin to open with the onslaught of the various vaccines.
Currently, the section of the Blue Ridge Parkway starting north of Deep Gap and heading south to the highest mountain east of the Rockies in Mt. Mitchell is wide open except for a detour at the 316 milepost. There, the wonderful double arch bridge on the parkway built more than 80 years ago that goes over the Linville River is being repaired.
Access to the Linville Falls campground and trail system near the restored bridge is open. The parkway reopens at milepost 317 at the Rte. 221 exit, which leads to the western side of Linville Gorge and Linville Caverns. One easy detour to take is the short connector road at milepost 314 that goes from the Parkway to Rte. 183. After turning right, Rte. 183 quickly meanders into the village of Linville Falls and the Old 105 western rim road that leads into Linville Gorge.
Then, Rte. 183 dead ends at Rte. 221. There, either turn left onto Rte. 221 to go to Linville Caverns, or turn right to find the BRP entrance ramp less than a mile away where you can continue your parkway journey to the southwest.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is perhaps the most traveled scenic road in all of America. Beginning on top of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, the 469-mile long drive was meant to ride the high ridge lines of the Blue Ridge Mountains to showcase the immense natural beauty of the region.
As it winds its way from Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina, the road is marked by mileposts which come in the form of white blocks seen on the roadside as you travel. Built during the Great Depression and sanctioned by President Roosevelt, the Blue Ridge Parkway has a historic aspect to it as well as the beautiful stone archway bridges found throughout the length of the road were built by the WPA workers of the day.
Ultimately, however, it is the incredible vistas and views that make this road a destination for tourists from all over the United States as well as the world. While the Rocky Mountains are taller and majestic in their own way, much of what you see above a certain height is all rock. The Appalachian Mountains found here, however, are millions of years older. And, because they have been eroded by nature to a lower elevation, they are covered by some of the most diverse forests in North America. Those attributes make this region a great place for summer adventure.
The section of the BRP that runs through the Boone, Blowing Rock and Banner Elk regions of western North Carolina is considered one of the more picturesque of the journey and there will be much to do along the way.
As the pandemic continues, check in with the websites listed in the sidebar or with the businesses mentioned in this article for any news concerning facility closures, altered hours of operation or restrictions.
As the attractions found on various sections of the BRP are highlighted below, we will travel from north to south. The northern end of our journey starts in Ashe County as the BRP winds its way south. It is a mellow and pristine stretch of the roadway, which leads to the newly-refurbished Northwest Trading Post found at milepost 259. There you will find many items for purchase as well as information.
A few miles further and you will find a wonderful overlook at milepost 264. There you will find interesting signage that tells the story of Tom Dooley, who was the subject of a world-famous true murder ballad that folk musicians have sang for many a decade. Also, behind the sign is a small grassy knoll and when you briefly hike to the top of it, the view of Yadkin Valley is breathtaking.
As you continue to travel south, you will come up on the Deep Gap exit that will put you onto Rte. 421. This is the exit to use to get to the lovely mountain college town of Boone, where there is much to do as far as food, shopping and more.
At milepost 294 on the BRP you will find the Moses Cone Manor. The old house and 1,000-plus acres of wonderful land was turned into a park many years ago. There you will find a gift shop filled with works made by artists specifically located in the Appalachian Mountains.
The Moses Cone Manor house continues to be renovated in 2021, however, and certain sections of the house will be closed to the public while other sections are open. The beautiful grounds surrounding the house will also be open, including the popular Fire Tower Trail, which crosses the Parkway near the parking lot and heads toward a fire tower that overlooks the city of Boone.
For those wanting to get off the parkway for a while and explore a unique mountain town, look for the exit onto Rte. 221 just past Moses Cone manor heading south. That exit will take you to the famous tourist town known as Blowing Rock. There you will find tourist attractions, a museum, lots of shopping opportunities along a walkable downtown area and fine dining restaurants.
Back on the parkway, at milepost 296 you will find Price Lake and its campground, amphitheater, picnic area and boat ramp. A good place for family camping, there is a lot to do at Price Lake and in the surrounding areas. Check beforehand for availability during these restrictive times.
At milepost 299 of the BRP, you will find the beginning of a run of more adventurous hiking trails including the Boone Fork Trail found on the right. Exploring the northern side of Grandfather Mountain, it is a moderate, mostly level trail that is a beautiful five-mile roundtrip.
For those not in the mood to hike, on the left at milepost 301 is a pull-over known as the Wilson Creek Valley View. Whether you stay in your vehicle or walk along the edge, the view is magnificent, especially if the sun is shining on Wilson Creek Gorge below at sunrise or right before sunset.
At milepost 300 you will come across one of the more popular mountain trails on this section of the BRP called the Rough Ridge Trail. The parking lot is usually filled with vehicles, especially on a warm, sunny day, mostly because this moderately difficult trail takes you to some of the more stunning overlooks found on Grandfather Mountain. The path can get crowded on the weekends, so social distancing may be required, but the views are wonderful.
When you get back on the BRP and travel a little further south, you will experience one of the more famous sections of the road; the Linn Cove Viaduct. The last section of the BRP to be built, it is a curvy engineering marvel that shoots out over Wilson Creek Gorge. Before the main part of the viaduct begins, there will be a parking lot to the left called the Yonahlossee Overlook that provides a trail that runs alongside and underneath the viaduct and that walkway also provides some great views.
For an even higher adventure, continue just a mile or so past the Linn Cove Viaduct and take the Rte. 221 exit to Grandfather Mountain State Park. There you will find many sights and activities for the whole family. For an entrance fee, the trip to the top of Grandfather Mountain will feature a wild animal zoo, trails to hike, a gift shop, a restaurant and the famous Mile High Bridge to walk across. The views are stunning and on a rare, crystal-clear day you can see the skyline of Charlotte, 90 miles away on the horizon.
At Grandfather Mountain State Park, you are still asked to reserve entry into the park online at its website. It is an easy process and it keeps overcrowding from happening. More information on entrance fees, tourist reservations and opening and closing times of Grandfather Mountain State Park can be found at grandfather.com.
As an added attraction, the folks at Grandfather Mountain have announced the return of the well-attended Grandfather Mountain Scottish Highland Games to be held on July 8-12. The games will feature true competitions, including various Scottish sports and heavy games such as the caper toss and more along with a full slate of daily live music, bagpipe and pipe and drum band contests, Celtic dancing and wrestling competitions, good food and arts and crafts.
If you continue on Rte. 221 past the entrance to Grandfather Mountain, that will lead to the resort town of Banner Elk. Within a short distance of this mountain village, you will find Sugar Mountain Ski Resort. In the summer months, this resort provides opportunities for high altitude mountain biking and hiking.
Just a short drive away, Beech Mountain Resort also features high altitude mountain biking and hiking along with mountain disc golfing, live music, an onsite craft brewery and the famous mountaintop 5506’ Skybar accessed by ski lift.
Grandfather Vineyard and Winery, Banner Elk Winery and Linville Falls Winery are also found in and around Banner Elk, with both featuring award-winning wines and live music in the afternoon on weekends.
As you travel further south and make the needed, quick detour mentioned above, you will end up at the beginning of the aforementioned Old 105 road also known as Kinstler Highway. This gravel road quickly leads to a parking lot where a trail begins leading to spectacular views of Linville Falls.
If you have a vehicle with 4-wheel drive or all-wheel drive capability, this sometimes challenging gravel road will take you to many Linville Gorge trails. Linville Gorge is a true wilderness area and can be dangerous for novice hikers. Research the gorge and the trails found within before you venture forth.
For those with an able vehicle, however, almost exactly four miles down the gravel Old 105 road will be the turn off on the left to Wiseman’s View. This is an easy, short and paved wheelchair accessible trail that leads to some of the most magnificent views of Linville Gorge. If you only have a 2-wheel drive vehicle and it is raining or the conditions are wet, however, this gravel road can be hazardous and worth avoiding.
After those hikes, return to Rte. 183 and turn left until you reach a dead end at Rte. 221. At that three-way intersection, if you turn left onto Rte. 221, you will soon find the entrance to the popular Linville Caverns just a short drive away. As of this printing, Linville Caverns was hoping for a summer of 2021 opening, so check in at linvillecaverns.com for updated information.
When you return to the Blue Ridge Parkway and continue southward, this exceptional roadway will lead you to even more great summer views and fun stops along the way with places to explore such as Crabtree Falls, the town of Little Switzerland, the Museum of North Carolina Minerals, the live music venue known as the Orchard at Altapass and more until you arrive at the city of Asheville or the Great Smoky Mountains further west. And, you will eventually come across the turn off to Mount Mitchell at milepost 355. At 6,683 feet in elevation, Mount Mitchell is the highest mountain east of the Rockies and the good news is that you can drive virtually all of the way to the top.
There is much to take in on this truly special section of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the fall of 2021. Have fun, be safe and go explore!