Take to the highway for the best weekend adventures in the Blue Ridge.
When school lets out and the heat index begins to climb, it’s time to head for the mountains. No need to pack a month’s worth of provisions for a road trip in the Southeast. You can pack in more in a long weekend than most can in a whole summer. The adventure of a lifetime is within striking distance of even the most carsick-prone traveller.
Few things symbolize the spirit of this country as acutely as the great American road trip. Packing up the car and hitting the open highway is a summer tradition that runs back to horse and buggies making their way to county seats. When one thinks of American road trip icons such as Kerouac, Steinbeck, or Griswold, they are tied together by a craving of adventure and a willingness to go out into the world and seize it. Whether you are traveling across the country or across the state, anything can, and will, happen on the road. Of course, you’ve mapped out a route and planned everything down to the minutest detail, but if everything went according to plan, it would be called a road operation, and not a trip.
Along with fuel and tunes, flexibility is one of the key components of a successful road trip. Don’t let your weekend jaunt turn into the Donner Party by losing your cool. Weather changes, campsites fill up, roads shut down; the ability to adapt on the fly will make or break the trip—especially as tempers and temperatures rise and the A/C breaks and someone has to use the potty and you sat on my sunglasses.
But the road trip is not just about the road traveled and the sights from the car window. The journey may be the reward, but the destination is still the destination. Experiencing new and exciting places is the reason you got in the passenger seat to begin with, so don’t skimp on the outside adventure. Here are five easy weekend getaways.
SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA DO IT ALL
DAY 1: RIDE EXPLORE PARK
Located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 115 outside Roanoke, Va., Explore Park is an easy respite from the rigors of the road. The 1100-acre park borders the Roanoke River with access to fishing, and paddling along with a beautiful river walk with nature observation and picnic areas. Also located in the park is the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center where you can pick up literature on the Parkway and some keepsakes from the gift shop. Explore is home to a living history museum as well as historic buildings and a restaurant; unfortunately, all are temporarily closed.
No worries, mate. The big draw of Explore Park is the mountain biking that lies within its borders, and the trails are always open. Over nine miles of rolling singletrack loop through its hardwood forests. The trails were built by volunteers from the International Mountain Biking Association. Warm up those car legs with a spin on the one-mile beginners’ trail before hitting the longer and slightly more intense intermediate trail. If you feel up for it, take the expert trail down to the river.
Stay: Plenty of places to stop for the night in Roanoke, or head for Roanoke Mountain Campground at milepost 120.5. Be sure to pop into Cardinal Bicycle for all your bike needs.
Play: If riding is not your thing, take a stroll on the self-guided nature walk that connects with the bike trails. No bikes allowed, so you don’t have to worry about looking over your shoulder for downhillers.
DAY 2: GRAYSON HIGHLANDS STATE PARK
You cannot travel in southeast Virginia and not stop by the highest point in the state, Mount Rogers. Though there is plenty to do in the Mount Rogers Recreation Area, bagging the 5,000-foot peak is at the top of the list. Combine that with a chance to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail, and this landmark is a road tripping must.
Begin by parking at the Massie Gap area at Grayson Highlands State Park off Rt. 58. Parking will cost you a few bucks, but it will be worth it. Grab a trail map at the Visitor’s Center before striking out for Mount Rogers via the A.T., hiking through upland pastures and thickets of rhododendron. Keep an eye out for wild ponies on the four-mile hike to the Thomas Knob Shelter and the base of Mount Rogers. A half-mile spur trail puts you at the top of Virginia.
Stay: There is ample camping near the shelter.
Play: Take Route 600 to the parking area almost at the top of Whitetop Mountain, the second highest peak in Virginia and northernmost bald in the Appalachians, to take in the views. Damascus is just east on Route 58, and is known as Trail Town, USA, the friendliest town in America. Be sure to stop in for lunch or dinner.
DAY 3: PADDLE THE NOLICHUCKY
Just over the Tennessee border is the Nolichucky River, holding some of the wildest whitewater in the Southeast. From its headwaters at Mount Mitchell, the Nolichucky snakes through the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi, providing a dynamic backdrop as you run its Class II-IV rapids. The walls of the gorge rise from the river to over 5,000 feet, which will make you feel totally isolated. Though the upper section can be challenging, outfitters will take kids as young as 9 or 10.
If you are looking for a more leisurely trip, skip the upper section and opt for just the lower section with gentler Class II-III. Outfitters like Cherokee Adventures launch from Erwin, Tenn., and have a range of trip options from scenic full day to half-day whitewater. The Nolichucky has something for everyone.
Stay:The Nolichucky Gorge Campground at the takeout has primitive campsites along with cabins or bunkhouses if you are with a group. Be sure to hit up River’s Edge at the base of Devil’s Looking Glass Cliff for the most scenic barbecue sandwich you’ve ever had.
Play: Erwin sits inside Cherokee National Forest with 150 miles of hiking trails, plus the Appalachian Trail. If you are feeling adventurous, check out Worley’s Cave for stalagmites, stalactites, and rooms with 100-foot ceilings.
UPPER SHENANDOAH VALLEY JEWEL OF THE BLUE RIDGE
DAY 1: CYCLE SKYLINE DRIVE
One of the best ways to see Shenandoah National Park is on two wheels via the Skyline Drive. The little brother of the Blue Ridge Parkway bisects the upper portion of the park and is full of the long climbs usually seen out West. The 50 miles from Front Royal to Big Meadows is a classic that will test even the strongest rider.
From Front Royal to the north, the ride climbs over 3,000 feet in the first 20 miles and over 7,000 feet total on the way to Big Meadows Campground. This campground is vast, but make a reservation first, so you don’t have to slog the 50 miles back to your car.
Stay: The campground is the natural choice here, but you can also reward yourself and opt for the rustic luxury of the Big Meadows Lodge just down the road.
Play: Go nuts—you’re smack dab in the middle of Shenandoah National Park! If you want something more subterranean, check out the most popular cave system in the East, Luray Caverns just west in Luray, Va.
DAY 2: FISH MOSSY CREEK
If you are a fly fisherman or fly fisherwoman, it would be reprehensible to pass up the opportunity to fish Mossy Creek. This spring-fed stream wanders through open fields and is one of the most famous stretches of water in Virginia for its huge brown trout and consistent dry fly action. Mossy is open to the public through a partnership with landowners, Trout Unlimited and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and is stocked each fall, with significant holdovers. By mid-July and August, terrestrials or over-sized streamers are your best bet for coaxing hogzilla out from that undercut bank, so pack plenty of ants, hoppers, and double bunnies.
Along with the usual Virginia fishing licenses, you’ll also need a free Mossy Creek permit from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries office in Verona, just north of Staunton. Be sure to stop into Mossy Creek Fly Shop in Harrisonburg to pick up some bugs and get the latest news on how the creek is fishing. As the name suggests, these guys know this water inside and out.
Stay: Camping is available at nearby Natural Chimneys Regional Park, in the shadows of its 100-foot rock towers. With Harrisonburg just to the north and Staunton just to the south, there are plenty of bed and breakfasts to choose from.
Play: Stop into Historic Staunton, a sleepy little mountain town with a lot going on. Stop by the tasting room at Ox-Eye Vineyards downtown before grabbing a bite and maybe taking in a show at Mockingbird, which features both national and regional bands on their stage.
DAY 3: MOUNTAIN BIKE SHERANDO
The Sherando Lakes Recreation Area inside the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest is known as the jewel of the Blue Ridge, but the riding here is no walk in the park. Sandwiched between Waynesboro, Va., the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Wintergreen Resort, the hills climb sharply from the lake. This makes for some epic up and down, big mountain riding through lush forest and rocky terrain.
There are several trails emanating from the Sherando Lakes Recreation Area, and most have a significant amount of climbing involved. The punishment is worth the reward, though, as stunning vistas of the Blue Ridge await each summit. Plus, there is always the ride down. By linking up the Blue Ridge Parkway, it is possible to have a 10-mile descent back to the park.
The best bet is to set out from the Mill Creek parking area and head up the Mill Creek Trail to the Parkway before descending down the Slacks/White Rock Gap trials via the upper Torry Ridge. If you’re feeling brave, take on the epic rock gardens of the lower Torry Ridge Trail, but don’t say we didn’t warn you. Or skip the switchbacks and shuttle a car from the Parkway’s Bald Mountain Overlook.
Stay: The Sherando Lake Recreation Area has ample camping on site, along with several privately run campgrounds in the vicinity. Take a break at Devils Backbone Brewing Company at the base of Wintergreen Resort for local brews and vittles.
Play: Plenty to do at Sherando with its trails and two spring-fed lakes. Relax with a picnic on the beach or hike into the adjacent Saint Mary’s Wilderness for a little small stream trout fishing.
WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA HIT THE HIGHLIGHTS
DAY 1: PADDLE THE NANTAHALA
For all the outdoor adventure immediately available in Western North Carolina, nothing defines the region as acutely as its rivers. From steep Class V creeking to casual floats on big water, Western North Carolina seems to have it all, and so does the Nantahala.
Featuring Class II-III rapids, the 9-mile float from the dam to the Nantahala Outdoor Center is fun for the whole family, with just enough thrills to keep everyone happy. The NOC provides guided trips or rentals for the more experienced. Got your own boat? Feel free to take out at the NOC. Have a beer on the premises and watch the pros on the world-class slalom course or the man-made play wave. Just don’t miss the take-out or you’ll be heading over Greater Wesser Falls, which is not where you want to be.
Stay: The NOC has a bevy of lodging options, from hostels to cabins.
Play: The Appalachian Trail literally runs right through the NOC, so take a hike up to the A. Rufus Morgan shelter, which thru-hikers usually bypass in favor of the NOC hostel. A new play wave and slalom course also provides entertainment from the footbridges crossing the river.
DAY 2: BIKE TSALI
Tsali is one of the most well-known and well-traveled mountain biking systems in the United States. Do not let this deter you, however, as the trail system can handle the load.
Over 40 miles of trails trace the border of Lake Fontana, adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As the smooth and swift trails climb, enjoy the view before tearing down to the lake and taking a dip to cool off. Trails alternate daily between bike access and horse access, so make sure to check the signs before heading out. It’s also just another excuse to spend the night and get the whole experience.
Stay: The Tsali Recreation Area has camping on site, and there are plenty of B & B and motel options in Bryson City.
Play: Head for a hike to Deep Creek Falls at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and stop through Bryson City on your way. This mountain town is building its reputation as an outdoor mecca. Nantahala Brewing Company offers tastings, and you can grab lunch at the Filling Station.
DAY 3: FISH THE DAVIDSON RIVER
The Davidson River outside Brevard is one of the Southeast’s premier trout hatcheries, and for good reason. Consistent hatches, gin-clear water, and big trout make this stream hard to pass up if in the area. Pack your 4wt., 7x tippet and small bugs in order to fool these experienced and occasionally quite large rainbows. They see a lot of pressure, so presentation and patience are the keys to success. Check in with the guides at the Davidson River Outfitters in Brevard for the river beta before heading out.
From Brevard, Highway 276 follows the river all the way to the hatchery 4 miles upstream. Car pullouts are ample, but the fishing gets more technical the farther upstream you travel, so pick your spots. More technical fishing usually means bigger fish, though, so don’t play it too safe.
Play: Hiking trails abound in Pisgah. If there are too many rods on the Davidson, try the Avery tributary or head up the Boylston Highway to fish the North Mills River. For a history lesson, stop by the Cradle of Forestry inside Pisgah National Forest for a look at America’s first school for forestry.
CANAAN VALLEY GO WILD
DAY 1: BIKE DAVIS, WEST VIRGINIA
When the snow is flying, Davis is a magnet for skiers from all over the East, but over the years, Tucker County, centered around Davis, W.Va., has become a premier mountain biking destination. This is a distinction in a state known for its singletrack. Ride out from downtown in any direction and you will hit a trailhead within a few blocks, then ride all day on interconnected trail systems. From the CVI to Moon Rocks to Plantation, the terrain around Davis varies from cruiser fire roads to supremely technical singletrack and everything in between. If going uphill doesn’t suit you, head for Timberline Resort just south of town for lift accessed downhill and more cross country riding, including the 24 hours of Canaan racecourse.
There is more trail than one town should have, so the best way to decipher it all and find the best suited for you is to pick a local’s brain. Stop into Blackwater Bikes downtown for a map and local knowledge. This town has embraced its mountain biking status and welcomes all who ride, so don’t be afraid of being a tourist.
Stay: Davis is chock full of motels and B & B’s to accommodate travelers. Blackwater State Park has ample camping with hot showers and laundry, plus a deluxe 54-room lodge.
Play: Blackwater Falls is one of the most visited falls in West Virginia, but the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge offers relaxing trails and unique flora and fauna observation opportunities. Or head for the Dolly Sods area, with its highland plateau environment reminiscent of Canada.
DAY 2: CLIMB SENECA ROCKS
Climbers love the Seneca Rocks area because of its pillars of Tuscarora quartzite rising above the headwaters of the Potomac River. Even non-climbers, however, can appreciate the stunning beauty of these gray columns piercing the sky. The area holds hundreds of single and multi-pitch trad climbing and scrambling on routes ranging from 5.1 up to 5.11, so experience is necessary if striking out on your own. Don’t worry, though, as guides and classes are available from Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides or Seneca Rocks Climbing School.
Stay: Camping at Seneca Shadows or Yokum’s Princess Snowbird will put you in the heart of climbing culture. For cabins, Harman’s North Fork Cabins are located five miles to the north and sit on privately stocked trout waters.
Play: Nelson Rocks Via Ferrata will give you the feeling of high altitude climbing without the finger and toeholds. Fixed anchors and ladders allow even the most novice to summit their exposed fins.
DAY 3: PADDLE THE NEW RIVER
The 53-mile stretch of the New River that runs through New River Gorge National River area is one of the brawniest in the South. As the river flows north from Bluestone Dam and gets choked into the gorge, the intensity of the river picks up dramatically. The southern (lower) portion of the river flows nicely over Class III rapids and long pools, perfect for a family-friendly leisure trip.
When the river hits Thurmond, things get interesting; Class IV and Class V rapids make this section a popular destination for expert paddlers. You cannot go wrong with either section. ACE Adventure, North American River Runners and dozens of other outfitters run trips all summer long.
Stay: National Park campsites are numerous inside the New River Gorge National River; try the Army Site or Glade Creek, both right on the river. Several outfitters, including ACE and NARR offer deluxe and rustic lodging on site.
Play: The New River Gorge offers an abundance of hiking and running trails along the river. Mountain bike the impressive new Arrowhead IMBA trails or wet a line for trout in Glade Creek.
CUMBERLAND PLATEAU ELEVATION EXHILARATION
DAY 1: BIKE BIG SOUTH FORK
The trails inside the boundaries of 125,000-acre Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area are some of the only national park trails you can bike in the Southeast. Riders are rewarded with great lookouts and vistas of this Cumberland River tributary. Most trails inside the park are shared use between hikers, horses and bikes, but there are multiple bike-only options to choose from. Hit this on Friday or Monday to ride the Grand Gap Loop trail that hooks up to the John Muir Trail; this portion is closed to mountain bikes on the weekend. Most bike trails originate from the centrally located Bandy Creek Visitor’s Center just west of Oneida, Tenn. on Route 297.
Play: Rent a duckie or take a guided raft trip down the Cumberland for Class III excitement. For the history buff, ride the Big South Fork Scenic Railway to the Blue Heron Mining Community, an outdoor museum dedicated to life in a mining town during the 1940s.
DAY 2: HIKE FOSTER FALLS
Foster Falls is a gorgeous 60-foot waterfall that lies inside the Foster Falls Wild Area. A short hike from the parking lot will take you past an observation deck and suspension bridge. From there, scramble down to the base of the falls, or take the Climber’s Loop for a look at some of the best sport climbing in Tennessee. This is one of the wildest and most scenic areas of the Cumberland Plateau, so stop in for a picnic and a dip in the cool waters at the base of the cascade.
If you are in the mood for a longer hike, shuttle a car a few miles down the road to the Grundy Forest State Natural Area trailhead off Fiery Gizzard Road. Taking the Fiery Gizzard Trail will put you on a 12.5-mile hike through forests, over boulders, and beside waterfalls. This trail can be difficult at times, so plan accordingly, but the trail ends at Foster Falls, where you can soak your bones and recover. If you make it a day trip, stop for lunch near scenic Raven Point at the midway point, or if you want to overnight, there are two campsites along the trail.
Stay: Camping is available at both the Foster Falls and Grundy Forest trailheads. Slip into the Dutch Maid Bakery in Tracy City for a snack at Tennessee’s oldest family bakery.
Play: Sport climb the Foster Falls area or head to Signal Mountain right outside Chattanooga.
DAY 3: CLIMB DEEP CREEK
The Deep Creek climbing area outside Soddy Daisy, Tenn., wasn’t discovered until 2007, but its rise as a Southern sport-climbing destination has been meteoric. Following a partnership between the Cumberland Trail State Park and the Southeastern Climbers Coalition, and the purchase of land for a parking area, Deep Creek is now accessible. Trad climbing is available but the area consists mostly of sport climbing routes in the 5.11 range, although there are more moderate routes farther up the trail. The wall rises from the confluence of the Big Soddy Creek and Deep Creek and is located deep in a dense hardwood forest, so you can climb all day without overheating in the Tennessee sun. It’s hard to believe this place was a secret for so long.
Because the area lies adjacent to private lands with sensitive access issues, check out www.secclimbers.org/deep-creek before heading to the trailhead.
Stay: Camping is prohibited at the parking lot or on adjacent private lands, but Chattanooga is right down the road.
Play: The Deep Creek wall is part of the Cumberland Trail, so hike a section of the Three Gorges Segment that wanders through the forest following Boardcamp Creek. •
THE CUMBERLAND TRAIL
The Cumberland Trail is an ambitious project that aims to cut a backcountry traversing the state of Tennessee from south to north. Although the actual trail is still under construction, in 1998 the Justin P. Morgan Cumberland Trail State Park was created as a linear park along the trail. Through the work of the nonprofit Cumberland Trail Conference and volunteers, 175 miles of the planned 300-mile route has been built.
The trail will eventually link Cumberland Gap National Park in Kentucky in the north with Signal Mountain outside Chattanooga in the south, tracing the eastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau, one of the most scenic stretches of land in the Southeast, and through 11 Tennessee counties, two national parks, and one national scenic river area. As ambitious as this sounds, the ultimate goal is to make the Cumberland Trail a southern part of the proposed Great Eastern Trail, a western alternative to the Appalachian trail that will stretch 3,000 miles from Alabama to New York when completed.
Find more info at cumberlandtrail.org.
Now that you know where and what to do, enter our Ultimate Road Trip Giveaway to get you there!
ESSENTIAL ROAD TRIP PLAYLIST
Crank up the stereo, crank down the windows, and sing at the top of your lungs.
“American Girl” (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers)
“Ramblin’ Man” (Allman Brothers Band)
“Running on Empty” (Jackson Browne)
“Paradise City” (Guns ‘N Roses)
“Graceland” (Paul Simon)
“Running with the Devil” (Van Halen)
“Radar Love” (Golden Earring)
“Truckin’” (The Grateful Dead)
“High & Dry” (Radiohead)
“1979” (Smashing Pumpkins)
“Windfall” (Son Volt)
“Thunder Road” (Bruce Springsteen)
“Caravan” (Van Morrison)
Neil Young – He may be Canadian, but it doesn’t get any more Americana than Neil.