America’s Favorite Drive, The Blue Ridge Parkway

One thing Covid has taught us is that we have some pretty incredible places to experience closer to home. I am an avid motorcyclist, which complements my lust for travel and the outdoors. I have had a Blue Ridge Parkway trip on my radar and I thought that this was the perfect autumn to experience it firsthand. I have been researching this trip for over three years. Having gone to college in North Carolina and having made many trips to the South over the years, I have gone over the Parkway and under it many times…but never have spent any time on this national treasure. I just returned from an incredible trip that I want to share with you.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a scenic highway connecting Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive in Virginia with the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Traversing Virginia and western North Carolina, the Parkway encompasses a 469-mile drive through many areas of natural and cultural significance. The biodiversity along the route is incredible. Most importantly, it is arguably the most scenic drive east of the Mississippi! The Parkway, which is America’s longest linear park, runs through 29 Virginia and North Carolina counties. You’ll hug the crest of the world’s oldest mountain range as you wind through the coves and forested slopes of southern Appalachia.

The breathtaking views stamp an unforgettable impression on your mind. The actual construction of the parkway did not begin until late in 1935. The idea resulted from a combination of many factors, the primary one being that jobs were needed. Trained engineers, architects, and landscape architects were left unemployed by the Great Depression and thousands of mountain families were verging on poverty.

The recent openings of two popular eastern parks, The Great Smokey Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park were already attracting tourists to the naturally beautiful but financially poor area, and the increasing availability of the automobile foresaw a new generation of motoring vacations. At that time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had visited Virginia’s first Civilian Conservation Corps Camp while they were working on the Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park. Liking what he saw, he soon approved the concept of constructing a scenic motorway linking the two new parks.

The Blue Ridge area provides an unparalleled diversity of experiences. Outstanding scenery and recreational opportunities make it one of the most popular units of the National Park system. Nature lovers will find majestic mountain vistas and scenic drives, outstanding hiking, biking, equestrian trails, world-class white water and waterfalls, and scenic streams.

Complimenting what nature offers, those searching for cultural experiences and historical connections will discover a land rich in living traditions of music, craft and culture.

Near the Parkway are some of the finest hotels and resorts to be found in the Southeast. For my first trip on the Parkway, I drove about 240 miles, picking it up at Mile Marker 170 in the Meadows of Dan, Virginia—about 50 miles south of Roanoke. I traveled south through the most mountainous route to Mount Pisgah, south of Asheville. Whether you go by car or motorcycle, the trip is spectacularly beautiful. Normally, I do not get along with the Weather Gods, which is why they call me “Captain Cloud Cover” at the office. Mother Nature, however, dealt me an excellent hand and I barely had a cloud in the sky for the six nights that I was away.

For our clients who are motorcycle enthusiasts, the Parkway is a joy to ride. Whether you have a cruiser, a standard, a sportbike or an adventure bike, you will find the journey delightful. I ride a Triumph Tiger 800 XRX, which is an adventure bike.

I love these ADV bikes, which has been one of the fastest-growing motorcycle segments in the U.S. over the last decade. The upright riding position is very comfortable. With the metal saddlebags and two DrySpec waterproof expedition bags, I was able to pack plenty of gear for my week on the road. These bikes have very adequate wind protection, heated grips, cruise control and are still a blast in the twisties. I also like the fact that you can take these bikes on dirt roads and/or pull into a gravel parking lot with a lot more confidence than other road bikes. They have been part of BMW’s lineup for many years, but now virtually all manufacturers have an adventure bike in their lineup. I have been most impressed with my Triumph!

As much as I love to ride and would have enjoyed seeing the entire Parkway, I decided to essentially ride every other day, which gave me two full nights at each location. Since these resorts were incredibly lovely and had a long list of activities to enjoy, I wanted to maximize my time on and off of my motorcycle.

The maximum speed limit on the Blue Ridge Parkway is 45 miles per hour. Many winding segments are 35 miles per hour. If you happen to be on the Parkway on a beautiful weekend day, some moderate traffic can slow you down a bit as well. To give you plenty of time to stop at the scenic overlooks, experience some of the hikes and cultural stops along the way, I do not recommend driving more than 100 miles per day. Thankfully, that works out perfectly in the lower 300 miles of the Parkway through the Plateau and Highlands Regions with incredible resorts, hotels and retreats along the way.

Stop One: Primland, the ultimate mountain retreat in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains

My first stop was Primland, an incredible 12,000-acre luxury lodge that is very centrally located—about a 6-hour drive from Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Nashville, Cincinnati, and my hometown, Pittsburgh. What started as a family property as a timber operation evolved into a hunting destination and today, a world-class luxury mountain getaway with one of Virginia’s top golf courses, a luxury spa, and a myriad of other activities, including hiking, fly fishing, sport shooting, off-road trail riding, nature walks and stargazing in the lodge’s own observatory.

Primland offers a number of different accommodation options from comfortable rooms in the Main Lodge, Pinnacle Cottages with spectacular valley views, Fairway Cottages along the golf course, and several “Treehouses,” which provide unmatched privacy among the trees—again with breathtaking views. I stayed in a Blue Ridge Suite in the Main Lodge which was perfect. The bedroom was spacious and there was a separate living room—plenty of space for a couple. I liked staying in the Main Lodge at Primland. You are very close to the golf course, the bar and most of the dining venues.

After checking in, I settled into a wonderful evening with an early dinner reservation at Elements, Primland’s premier restaurant that features “farm to table” dining, focusing on the abundance of great food available in the region. I can usually find a few dishes that are attractive on any menu. The Elements’ menu, had many delicious options. I started with shrimp and grits and followed that starter up with the fried quail, which was absolutely spectacular!

After dinner, I had a little time to kill before my 9:30 PM reservation in the Observatory. I settled into the main foyer with another glass of wine listening to, “The Mediocre Bad Guys,” an incredible 3-man band from the region. They were super talented. After a bit of time around the fire pit, I made my way up to the Observatory.

It was the first really clear night that Primland had in the last week and the star and planet gazing was astonishing. I learned a lot and frankly could have spent the entire night up there with the astronomer. I did, however, have a long day of travel and I had a full day of activities scheduled the next day.

The next morning, after a great breakfast, I was transferred to the Activities Center where I met my shooting guide. I had booked 50 rounds on the Sporting Clays Course and another two rounds (50 cartridges) at Primland’s 5-stand shooting facility. It was a great morning behind the shotgun. The clays course was incredibly challenging and I really liked the setup for the 5-stand.

When I returned to the Activities Center I ran into a couple of hunters returning from the pheasant fields and they had a great hunt over really talented pointing dogs. After a short transfer back to the lodge, I had a scrumptious lunch and a cold beer at the 19th Pub—overlooking the golf course before my 1:30 PM tee time on the Highland Course.

This mountaintop golf course was simply amazing. Designed in 2006 by Donald Steel, the course was carved from the natural landscape along Primland’s ridge tops. The Highland Course has been widely recognized by some of the very best golf publications as one of the best courses you can play in the United States (#2 in Virginia by Golf Week). From a scenery standpoint, it was awfully tough to beat. After golf, I settled back in at the lodge—enjoying a couple of appetizers from the 19th Pub. I was anxious to get on the Parkway the following day and made it an early night to bed!

Primland’s North Gate is less than 6 miles from the Meadows of Dan entrance to the Parkway at Mile Marker 177. It was a beautiful, but chilly morning. I was happy to be wearing my Patagonia long underwear. It was definitely also a morning for the heated grips! Within a mile of getting on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I was falling in love with the drive and the surroundings. On my first day on the Parkway, I planned to travel 115 miles to Blowing Rock, North Carolina. I found myself stopping at virtually all of the overlooks and other scenic points of interest. It quickly dawned on me that 115 miles is about the maximum that I would like to travel on any given day on the Parkway – either by car or motorcycle. There is so much to see and experience, you would be rushing when traveling a longer distance.

The stop I was most looking forward to was at Milepost 213, the Blue Ridge Music Center, which essentially straddles the North Carolina/Virginia border.

As part of Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail and the Crooked Road and Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina, some of the region’s finest traditional music can be heard on weekends at the outdoor amphitheater from late May through October. On weekdays, visitors are welcomed to a front porch experience with local musicians on the breezeway between noon and 4:00 PM. The Roots of American Music Exhibit gives insight into the history and culture of regional music traditions. There are also a number of hiking trails and a gift shop. As a musician myself, I settled in to listen to Bill and Maggie Anderson, a delightful duo. Ironically, Maggie grew up in Monongahela, PA, which is about an hour south of where I live. She plays the Dobro, which is an incredible instrument.

After an hour or so, I needed to get back on the road and made my way well into North Carolina to the mountain village of Blowing Rock. The drive was really beautiful! Most of us do not realize the mountains we have in the East! The town of Blowing Rock takes its name from an unusual rock formation which juts over 1,500 feet above the Johns River Gorge. Due to the rock’s shape and size, the wind currents from the gorge often blow vertically, causing light objects to float upwards into the sky. Today, Blowing Rock is a really cool village just a mile or so off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is a ton to do in this region, including hiking, mountain biking, and world-class trout fishing. The town itself has a number of shops, galleries and great restaurants.

Stop Two: Chetola Resort at Blowing Rock, in the Heart of NC’s high country!

I checked into Chetola Resort, which is a historical inn dating back to 1846. Guests can stay in Chetola Lodge, Chetola’s Premier Condominiums, or in the Bob Timberlake Inn, which is also on-property. I stayed in the main lodge in a Lakeview Crown Suite, which was enormous. While maybe not as deluxe as Primland, Chetola is a great stop on the Parkway. As my fly fishing guide, Dustin Coffey stated, “Chetola is a luxury basecamp for North Carolina’s outdoor adventures!” After settling into the resort and having a look around, I walked into town for my early dinner reservation at Bistro Roca and Antler’s Bar. It was another great menu to experience. I settled into one of their wood-fired pizzas after a lengthy debate on what to order! Back at Chetola, they had live music in the Bob Timberlake Restaurant. After a nightcap, I enjoyed a quiet evening—excited for my guided fly fishing trip the next day.

In addition to the spa and numerous activities available for visitors, Chetola is also an Orvis Endorsed Fly Fishing Lodge. I was amazed at the number of streams that are accessible in this region. They have lots of walk and wade opportunities—many of which are on privately accessed beats. In addition, they offer float trips for trout and smallmouth bass on six rivers, including the Watauga, South Holston, and Catawba Rivers. Dustin took me to a walk and wade stretch on the main tributary to the Watauga. We had an absolutely spectacular morning casting to giant rainbows and browns. While most of them had a Ph.D., I did bring a handful to the net. It was a spectacularly beautiful stream. At the end of the day, we hiked out of the beat to be greeted by a giant Yeti cooler filled with cold beer and soft drinks.

We toasted to the great day. Dustin had a late afternoon/evening guide trip and dropped me off in town.

I caught the tail end of the Arts Festival and had a great dinner at the Six Pence Pub. I again called it an early night—looking forward to my second full day on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Day five of my trip took me from Blowing Rock to Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway—another 100 miles. This is one of the most scenic regions of the Parkway—passing Grandfather Mountain (5,946 feet) and Mount Mitchell (6,684 feet), the highest point east of the Mississippi River. I was looking forward to traveling on the Linn Cove Viaduct (MP 304), probably the most photographed site on the Parkway and I wanted to hike into Linville Falls. The wild Linville Gorge was one of the first wilderness areas designated by congress. It was really pretty, and after a cold morning of riding, the hike into the falls warmed me up!

Stop Three: Iconic Asheville

I have been to Asheville a few times and absolutely love that town. One of my very best friends from Duke University lives there, as do two friends from Pittsburgh who have made Asheville their home. After traveling alone to this point, I was looking forward to a couple of days with my friends. In addition to the outdoor pursuits available in the surrounding mountains, Asheville is an epicenter of music, arts, and great cuisine. If you like microbreweries, it’s one of the best beer towns in America!

There are a number of accommodation options in Asheville. Most of our clients choose the historic Biltmore Estate or the Omni Grove Park Inn. Both are absolutely beautiful and very well run. For a 5-star experience, these properties are tough to beat. There are also a number of inns and chain hotels in town, which makes walking to restaurants, galleries and music venues very convenient.

I had a great brunch with a high school classmate and her husband and then met my other good friend from Pittsburgh for dinner. He also rides motorcycles and we decided to do a scenic ride the following day heading south of town to Brevard, which is the mountain biking capital of North Carolina. From there, we headed up the Davidson River (another great fly fishing stream), past some spectacular waterfalls on a very scenic excursion.

We ended up on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mount Pisgah and then headed 35 miles back to Asheville on the Parkway. If you are looking for a great place to grab lunch on the Parkway, make a reservation at the Pisgah Inn. It is one of the few dining options right on the Parkway and the views are mesmerizing!

Based on my trips to Asheville, some of my favorite stops on the culinary front are:

Tupelo Honey Café—awesome southern food locally sourced.

Cúrate—a great Spanish tapas menu complemented by great wines.

Biscuit Head—if you are in the south, biscuits are part of breakfast (and most other meals) and it’s awfully tough to beat Biscuit Head!

Sovereign Remedies—a very cool cocktail lounge and restaurant with an intriguing menu. Brunch is fabulous—perhaps the best huevos rancheros I have ever experienced!

Hole Doughnuts—I hate to admit it, but I am a doughnut connoisseur (bad for my waist) and these are some of the best in the world.

The Marketplace—a great outside dining venue, taking in the ambiance of downtown Asheville. The lamb pappardelle was delicious!

Strada Italiano—if you are in the mood for Italian, this is a great stop. Be sure to reserve a table on the covered rooftop terrace.

As my trip was winding down and I was about to embark on a long journey back to Pittsburgh, this road trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway renewed my enthusiasm for travel in the Lower 48. I did, however, wish that I could have extended my trip another two days to finish the southern end of the Parkway, experience The Great Smokey Mountains National Park and to spend a couple of nights at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, which is a world-class destination that our clients thoroughly enjoy.

Courtesy of Blackberry Farm.

It’s only about 60 miles from the end of the Parkway. We are also keeping our eyes on High Hampton, a 1,400-acre escape, set on Hampton Lake—about 45 miles from the end of the Parkway. High Hampton is now under the direction of Blackberry Farm and is currently being renovated for the 2021 season. This historic 100-year old property will be amazing under Blackberry’s design team.

I am looking forward to getting back to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Mountains. My next trip will begin in Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive, followed by the first 175 miles of the Parkway—perhaps ending my trip at Primland. For a world-class outdoor experience complimented with really great accommodation options, this trip is very attractive for our clients. While the Parkway is magnificent any time during the spring, summer, and fall, autumn is the high season when the leaves are at their peak colors, which is generally between October 10 and October 25. If you are thinking about this trip in 2021, now is the time to book. Availability can be limited.

Contact Mike Fitzgerald for additional details and information.