I first saw the Blue Ridge Mountains as a gateway from my childhood home in West Virginia to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Cross the Blue Ridge Mountains and you can smell the salt air – or so it seemed to someone who spent half the ride asleep. One summer, returning home from the beach, my dad detoured onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. In the evening light, I saw how the Blue Ridge earned its name as the sky blazed orange and pink above and the mountains – ridge after ridge of them – faded to blue.
In the intervening years, I’ve fallen head over heels for the Blue Ridge, writing about every mile of the Blue Ridge Parkway, chasing waterfalls from the Smoky Mountains to the Shenandoah Valley, finding places that make these mountains – and all of the mountains of the Southern Appalachians – worth exploring. If you’re ready to heed the call of the mountains, here are five places (and one road trip) that’ll make the Blue Ridge your next great love.
West Virginia’s unofficial motto – “Wild and Wonderful” – is on full display at New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. The centerpiece of the National Park comes in three parts: the New River (one of the oldest in the world), the New River Gorge (a near-vertical 900ft/274m drop at Grandview Overlook), and the New River Gorge Bridge (the third-longest single-arch bridge in the world).
I grew up calling it “The New,” and The New was legendary for its whitewater. In fact, 53mi (85km) of river and free-flowing whitewater ranging from Class I-V cut through the heart of the 70,000-acre National Park. Rapids to run, cliffs and boulders to climb, plus nearly 100mi (160km) of hiking and 60mi (97km) of mountain biking trails make it an outdoor lover’s dream. Camp in the Park or stay at one of the adventure outfitters nearby – who, in addition to having campsites and cabins available, also run rafting and climbing trips – or just visit for the day. I’d recommend Bridge Day, the third Saturday in October, for a celebration that’s all about the New River.
The Appalachian Trail passes through downtown Hot Springs, North Carolina, and after a few miles on the AT, a hot spring is exactly what you need. Lucky for you, this adorable little mountain town is aptly named. The Cherokee have visited the springs here for thousands of years, soaking up the healing and relaxing mineral water. Back in 1778, word reached European settlers in the region and they came in droves. These days, Hot Springs has been largely forgotten, overlooked by all but a few: AT hikers, hot spring enthusiasts, and outdoors lovers. It’s a welcome respite from the urban speed of nearby Asheville.
Around town you’ll find cabins and campsites with access to the hot springs, as well as that downtown trailhead for the Appalachian Trail. For a real taste of the Blue Ridge, hike a little ways south to Max Patch. The AT cuts through fields of spring and summer wildflowers on this 4,529ft (1380m) bald mountaintop, where you’ll also get some of the best autumn views around.
When you think of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the last thing you think of is spending the afternoon soaking up the sun on a sandy beach, but at Sherando Lake Recreation Area, that’s exactly what you can do – if you can pull yourself away from the swimming, the hiking, the fishing, and the lure of some mountain peak, that is.
This former Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) recreation area in the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson National Forest has a pair of lakes, 37 tent and RV sites, and miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. Anglers frequent the seven-acre upper lake to fish for trout, bass, and blue gill; swimmers and boaters congregate at the 25-acre lower lake, where I’ve spent many an afternoon with my toes in the sand watching paddleboarders and novice sailors ply the waters of Sherando Lake.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is only 5m (8km) away, and from here – Milepost 13.7 – you’re not far from two of my favorite hikes: Humpback Rocks (north to Milepost 5.9) and Crabtree Falls (south to Milepost 27.2).
When I lived in Southwestern Virginia, friends kept telling me about the “Creeper Trail” (which I thought had to be a scary Halloween hayride on bicycle) and inviting me out for a ride. Finally I did it, and I wish I’d done it sooner. The 34.3mi (55.2km) Virginia Creeper Trail is a rails-to-trails project running from Abingdon, VA, through Damascus, to the Virginia-North Carolina state line, and it’s a mighty-fine bike ride indeed. But it’s not just for cyclists; you’ll see plenty of walkers, joggers, horseback riders, and even a cross-country skier or two (if you’re there in deep winter) along the way.
The towns of Abingdon and Damascus are charming – and if you need a bite to eat or a bit of ice cream to fuel your trip, they’re perfect – but the showpiece is the ride itself. Dense deciduous forests, Christmas tree farms, fields and pastures, creeks, and rivers ensure you’re never bored, and at the end of the ride, near Mount Rodgers, you might even spy a few of the wild ponies that live on the mountain.
The first time I took my wife to Brevard, in North Carolina’s Transylvania County, I told her, “They call this ‘The Land of Waterfalls’ and they weren’t joking.” When she asked what I meant, I pulled the car over and we took a two-minute walk to Looking Glass Falls, only a few miles from our destination and only a few feet off the road. That was the first of a dozen waterfalls we saw on that trip, and even though we’ve been back several times, we still haven’t seen them all.
Looking Glass Falls is just off the highway in the Pisgah National Forest, and adjacent is Moore Cove Falls (requiring an easy 1mi/1.6km hike) and Sliding Rock (a natural waterslide in the middle of a bracing mountain stream), as well as Daniel Ridge, Cove Creek, and Slick Rock Falls, but those aren’t the big ones. For the major cascades, grab a room in Brevard or set up camp in the National Forest, then head to the DuPont State Recreation Forest for a day-long hike to Hooker, High, Triple, and Bridal Veil Falls.
I couldn’t leave out the jewel in the crown of the Blue Ridge: the Blue Ridge Parkway. Unfurling along the ridgelines from Cherokee, NC, to Waynesboro, VA, for 469mi (758km), it’s a low-speed drive (seriously, the speed limit is 45) past rugged mountains and over rolling hills, packed with scenic overlooks, gorgeous picnic areas, waterfall hikes, pioneer cabins, and cities like Asheville, NC, and Roanoke, VA. Whether you go for an end-to-end tour or you just want to cruise along for a couple of hours, it’s simply stunning.
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