Traveling has always been one of my passions. It exposes us to new cultures and experiences and makes the world a more tolerant place.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is considered one of the most scenic byways in the United States and offers travelers the opportunity to see one of the country's most beautiful regions. Connecting Great Smokey Mountains National Park at the southern end with Shenandoah National Park at the northern end, the Parkway meanders along for 469 twisting, undulating miles.
We recently had an opportunity to experience the magic of the Parkway when we visited Asheville, North Carolina. Although we drove just a small section, from the Asheville Visitor Center to the Museum of North Carolina Minerals in Spruce Pine, we took our time and spent an entire afternoon to cover just 54 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
As luck would have it, this particular stretch of the Parkway is one of the more scenic and interesting to drive. In just 50 miles or so you can stop at the Folk Art Center, Craggy Gardens, drive to the top of Mount Mitchell, visit Little Switzerland, and explore the Museum of North Carolina Minerals. Add in numerous scenic stops along the way, and you can see how easy it would be to spend an entire day covering just 50 miles.
I actually think that the perfect day trip from Asheville would be to make it to Linville, home of the Linville Falls and caverns. You would have to get a fairly early start, but it is certainly doable.
For most visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway, the attraction is the scenery and there is no shortage of it here. The sweeping views that seem to go on forever are reason enough to visit, and you will find yourself mesmerized by the natural beauty that abounds here in western North Carolina.
You should certainly take advantage of the many scenic stops along the Parkway as they offer easy access to some of the best views. With numerous Visitor Centers, historic towns, campgrounds, and hiking trails, there is something for everyone along the way.
Asheville Visitor Center
The Asheville Visitor Center is a great place to start a journey on the Parkway. It is loaded with useful information and displays, and the park ranger on hand can certainly answer any questions you may have.
What we learned from our visit to the Visitor Center is that we would be climbing over 3,000 feet in elevation over the next 16 miles. As you climb up to the ridge of the mountains, the landscape definitely changes, and before you know it, there are stunning views in every direction. The scenery is of nothing but pure North Carolina forest as far as the eye can see.
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Folk Art Center
The first stop after heading northeast from the Visitor Center is the Folk Art Center. Located at milepost 382 of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the center is home to the Southern Highland Craft Guild.
The center has three art galleries, a library, bookstore, craft shop, and of course an information desk. It’s a great place to see firsthand the craftsmanship of the very talented folks in this area and to learn about the history of crafting that dates back to the 19th century.
Folk Art Center Information:
- January to March: Open 9 am to 5 pm daily.
- April to December: Open 9 am to 6 pm daily.
- Closed Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Thanksgiving.
The next stop on the Parkway is the area known as Craggy Gardens. The visitor center is located at Milepost 364, while the picnic area and trails are at Milepost 367. The Craggy Gardens are known for having some of the Parkway’s most colorful floral displays with Catawba rhododendrons, violets, and blackberry to name just a few.
The relatively short hike up the Craggy Pinnacle trail takes you to a 360-degree view of the high peaks and valleys below. It’s just one of the numerous scenic stops along the way.
Mount Mitchell State Park
Next up is probably the highlight of this section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Mount Mitchell State Park. The access road to the peak is route 128 and it is located at Milepost 355. This is a great place to take a lunch break and that is exactly what we did.
The Mount Mitchell Restaurant is located on route 128 before you get to the summit and there is also a small gift shop there. If you didn’t pack a lunch for the day, the restaurant is reasonable and a nice break from sitting in the car. From here, it’s just a short ride to the summit parking lot and the short trail that takes you to the top of Mount Mitchell.
The North Carolina State Park system has done a great job in making Mount Mitchell accessible to virtually anyone with a desire to get to the summit. From the parking lot, it’s just a short hike on an easy trail to the observation deck, where the view is stunning in every direction.
You have a 360-degree look at the surrounding mountains and the beautiful green carpet that goes as far as the eye can see. At 6,684 feet, this is the highest point east of the Mississippi River, and getting here completes a lifelong dream of mine.
What surprised me upon arriving at the summit was the extent of the services offered here. In addition to providing an easy trail to the summit, you also have access to numerous hiking trails, the Cultural and Natural History Museum, campsites, a full-service restaurant, and a wonderful gift shop. All you need is a little cooperation from Mother Nature and your day is complete.
Museum of North Carolina Minerals
Continuing north on the Parkway from Mount Mitchell takes you to Little Switzerland at Milepost 334. The small community was named because its rolling hills and valleys resemble the foothills of the Swiss Alps. This section of the Parkway is famous for its gems, and both the Gemstone Mine and Emerald Village draw visitors looking to do a little panning for gold and gem hunting.
Further up the Parkway is the Museum of North Carolina Minerals. Located at Milepost 331, the museum is open seven days a week and has over 300 different minerals from the area on display. This particular region of the Blue Ridge Mountains is known to have some of the richest mineral and gem deposits in the area and can make for a fun and educational visit.
- Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm.
- Admission is free.
If you got an early start, you can probably make it to Linville, home of the Linville Falls and Linville Caverns. There is also a Visitor Center and winery there, so it can make for a nice ending to your journey for the day.
The three-tiered falls are the most visited on the Blue Ridge Parkway and two trails will take you to the falls with a few overlooks along the way. The 1.6-mile round-trip Erwins View Trail and the 1.4-mile round-trip Linville Gorge Trail both start at the Visitor Center and are considered strenuous, so be prepared.
From the Museum of North Carolina Minerals, we took route 226 south to route 221, which took us to Interstate 40 and back to Black Mountain, our home for the week. I hope you enjoyed this tour of a particularly scenic stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which makes for a wonderful day trip from the Asheville area. Certainly, any part of the Parkway that you get an opportunity to drive will be beautiful and a memorable experience.
Questions & Answers
Question: With all facilities closed, is it still worth the trip?
Answer: That’s a tough call. The scenery will always be there, but without facilities it could difficult. We enjoyed the visitor centers and the top of Mount Mitchell but if everything is closed you’ll need to plan for food and bathroom breaks. I guess it depends if you are traveling from outside the area or are you somewhat local. If coming from afar perhaps another time.
Question: Have you driven Blue Ridge Parkway in VSA? My husband and I are going in October and he does not like sharp, downhill curves.
Answer: I’m not sure what you mean by VSA? If you are referring to Virginia, I have driven that section. I did not find it any worse than what we experienced in North Carolina.
© 2018 Bill De Giulio