A 7 Night Self-Drive Trip
I’d no idea this region was so accessible to the major transport hubs of Washington / New York until I began investigating it as a possible short road trip. A huge tourist destination for USA residents, only a handful of acquaintances at home had any clue of its whereabouts.
This route begins with a drive through Shanandoah National Park and then joins the Blue Ridge Parkway. We went as far as the town of Asheville in North Carolina but with more time, we could have continued on to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Nobody does national parks like the US National Park Service. They are all uniquely amazing and offer an incredible range of services, activities and events. However, ignoring their emphasis on leisure enjoyment, wilderness and relaxation, we were going to whizz through as much as we could in one week!
Start Point: Washington DC
Finish: Asheville, North Carolina ( or Charlotte Airport to be precise!)
1 night – Front Royal, Charlottesville, Lexington, Boone, Blowing Rock
2 nights – Asheville
Even without a direct flight to Washington, you should easily reach Front Royal on day one. Collect your car at the airport and it’s a comfortable 75 mile drive.
You’re just here to sleep – pick a motel. We pre booked the Cool Harbor Motel. ( Luckily – as we were delayed for several hours due to bad weather – this motel had 24 hour service so was still open when we finally arrived at 3.00 a.m.)
The SKYLINE DRIVE winds along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains through Shenandoah National Park for about 105 miles. A 5 minute drive from Front Royal will bring you to the North Entrance. With an early start and allowing for the 35 mile per hour speed limit and also for time to enjoy a few shorter trails and some of the 75 scenic overlooks, you will still reach Charlottesville by mid/late afternoon. Collect your detailed map at the visitor centre close to the Entrance Station and head south. At times you will see the Shenandoah River in the valley below and might spot deer or bears. It must be stunning in autumn but very busy. If you haven’t brought a picnic, you can lunch at one of the visitor’s centres.
Extending for 2160 miles, the Appalachian Trail is a path stretching from Maine to Georgia, 105 miles of which is in Shenandoah. At times the trail is very close to the driving route and Marker Posts can be found and followed.
(Looking as though he’s walked the full trail!! Probably just still jet lagged!)
Although it’s about 40km off route, Charlottesville is worth a bit of a detour and a nice spot to spend an evening. Allow time to wander along main street and around the centre. Jump on the free trolley that loops out around the University of Virginia. We were sorry we couldn’t fit in a guided tour of the campus which was established by Thomas Jefferson and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We stayed at 200 South Street. There’s a free cheese and wine reception in the evenings and they serve a good breakfast.
FOOD AND DRINK
South Street Brewery close to our accommodation. Good atmosphere, good food and good beer..
(South Street Brewery)
The main attraction in the area is Monticello – the home and burial place of Thomas Jefferson. The rear of the house might look familiar – it being the image on the back of the US 5 cent or nickel coin. Visits can be prebooked on line and you need to allow about a half day. As well as a tour of the main house which lasts about 30 minutes, the admission price includes a tour of the grounds and a slavery tour – both lasting about 45 minutes. There is a shuttle service from the Visitors Centre to the house but if you return via the 25 minute walking trail , you pass Jefferson’s Grave.
Go back into Charlottesville for lunch or have something at Monticello before you get back on the road and join the Blue Ridge Parkway
(You can’t get away from us!)
Lexington was quieter than expected for July. There were no horse and carriage rides to be seen – but then the weather wasn’t great. There is plenty here for Civil War enthusiasts with buildings and museums dedicated to Stonewall Jackson, Robert E Lee and George C Marshall.
(Stonewall Jackson House and Museum)
(Robert E lee Memorial Church)
(Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery)
We opted for the Hampton Inn which was an easy walk to all landmarks and restaurants.
Natural Bridge is worth a visit. Thomas Jefferson liked it so much he bought it from King George 111 in 1774. Allow enough time to follow Cedar Creek Trail beyond the bridge to Lace Falls. There is an entrance fee and the round trip is just over 2 miles in length.
Peaks of Otter – This area has trails starting from the visitor centre, the most popular being the 1.5 mile Sharp Point Trail. It takes about 2 hours to climb to the summit and another hour to descend. It is a steep and strenuous route but you can time your visit to coincide with the seasonal shuttle bus which departs hourly from the local store . The shuttle will bring you to within a quarter mile of the top which still leaves a 1500 ft hike to the top of Sharp Top Mountain. A shorter option is the 0.8 mile self – guiding Elk Run Loop behind the centre.
Mabry Mills – Quiet enough during the week, the restaurant here is a handy spot to stop for something to eat if you haven’t brought a picnic. There’s a mill, blacksmith and saw mill on site. There are often basket – making and blacksmith demonstrations during the tourist season. Weekends are busy with live music on Sunday afternoons .
As you drive along, you will see Snake Rail Fences and Log Cabins – originally the lumber came from chestnut trees
Boone – I must admit to low expectations of Boone and was prepared for motels, gas stations and fast food outlets. There was plenty of that of course but actually a nice town centre and main street also.
(There is a branch of the famous Mast General Store here which sells pretty much everything).
Plenty of choice around – we stayed at the Sleep Inn which was fine
FOOD AND DRINK
We’d a very good meal at the Red Onion Cafe
Blowing Rock – REALLY not worth it but you’ll go anyway because it’s marketed as the greatest attraction on the East Coast. Its neither as big nor as spectacular as expected but the views are great – which of course you will see elsewhere on the drive anyway!
Moses H. Cone Memorial Park – Moses Cone made his money producing denim. After his wife’s death he offered this property to the Parkway to be used as a public park. Today it is the home of the Parkway Craft Centre and there are tours available of the house as well as walking trails in the grounds.
Grandfather Mountain -At a hefty $40 entrance fee (includes audio tour) you’ll need to allow a few hours to get value from your ticket. We saw quite a few cars turning and leaving when they learned of the admission price at the gate. Once inside, there are various attractions as you make your way up the mountain to the Mile High Suspension Bridge – America’s highest suspension bridge, it spans an 80 foot chasm and offers 360 degree views. There are hiking trails and picnic areas, shops and a restaurant.
(There are 7 natural habitats in enclosures)
We spent the night at the Meadowbrook Inn in Blowing Rock. For those suffering from nature fatigue, the is a small Tanger Outlet Mall for a bit of retail therapy.
Julian Price Memorial Park. Start your day with a 2.7 mile walk around Price Lake.
Linn Cove Viaduct – This section of the Parkway was delayed for twenty years as environmentalists, landowners, engineers and architects tried to agree on a way of preserving the environment on the slopes of nearby Grandfather Mountain. You can read about the construction of the viaduct and a 1 mile round trip on a paved trail brings you underneath the construction
Crabtree Falls . This waterfall hike is worth allowing 1.5 – 2 hours out of your day. The trail descends almost 1 mile to the falls. Of course, what goes down must go up!! You can retrace your steps and head back the same way or continue and loop back on a longer but more gradual ascent.
Craggy Gardens – Great in June when the rhododendrons are in bloom or in autumn when mountain ash berries dominate.
(View from Craggy Gardens)
Asheville presents a change of scene – coffee shops, galleries, vintage shops, lively nightlife and music festivals.
(The town is full of quirky installations)
(The old Woolworth store is now full of arts and crafts stalls)
(Our visit coincided with the Leaf Music Festival which added greatly to the buzz in town)
Biltmore Estate – George W. Vanderbilt created the largest private home in America for his family as an escape from everyday life. The 8,000 acre estate has been open to the public since 1930 and is still run as a family business. There is a choice of tours, shops and restaurants
(Library and Bowling)
(Dining Room and 1916 Organ)
We spent 2 nights at the Country Inn and Suites which is about a 10 minute drive from the centre of town.
We drove to Charlotte Airport for our onward journey.
Slow up and enjoy some longer walking trails and hikes
Continue on to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Spend a few days in Washington DC before you start on your road trip
Fly on to New York City from Charlotte Airport
Don’t forget ESTA
Lots of weekend activities along the Blue Ridge drive but also extra traffic
Restaurants may close around 9.00/10.00p.m. especially in smaller centres.