Things to do / Travel Guide
The scenic parkways and the nearby attractions are the main reasons people come to the southern Appalachian Mountains, so getting around the region is often the whole point of visiting in the first place. A car definitely provides the most convenient and efficient way to travel within the southern Appalachian Mountains. With a car you can easily, and scenically, get to every city and town in the region, and virtually every trailhead and fishing hole. There are no trains reaching the region, but trusty Greyhound can chauffeur you from place to place.
Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway are best for leisurely and scenic drives in the southern Appalachian Mountains. With most of the attractions and the cities of Roanoke and Asheville are close by, I-81 is best for navigating the southern Appalachian Mountains, getting from point A to point B. From north to south, it enters the region in West Virginia's panhandle, a few miles west of Harpers Ferry and Charles Town. Then it heads on southwest on the western side of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, passing through Roanoke, and into eastern Tennessee, passing through Knoxville.
I-81 connects up to the Blue Ridge Parkway via several Interstates cut through the mountains. I-26 and I-40 connect to the Blue Ridge Parkway at Ashville. I-77 connects between the two near the Virginia/North Carolina border. I-40 skirts the northern border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Aside from the Interstates, the region is traversed by lots and lots of country roads. These State Roads and U.S. Highways are often curvy and bumpy, but they do the job. Don't get caught up looking out the window if you're the driver.
In the southern part of the region, Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be entered via:
Highway 441 - bisects the park, entering in Tennessee at Gatlinburg and exiting in North Carolina at Cherokee (This is the only major road to foray into the park itself.)
U.S. Highway 129 (on the Tennessee side) and State Road 28 (on the North Carolina side) - they skirt the southern border of the park
- U.S. Highway 321 - runs parallel the park on its Tennessee northern side
The Blue Ridge Parkway
The southern Appalachian Mountains are most commonly traversed through the Great Smoky Mountains, and through the Blue Ridge Parkway. This parkway starts all the way in Shenandoah National Park, linking with Skyline Drive. It parallels I-81 down Virginia's western border, then switches tracks into North Carolina, finally terminating at the northern tip of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
There are no exits directly onto interstates from the Parkway; rather, country roads connect the interstates to and from the Parkway. This means no slowdowns, and no sudden surges of traffic. However, it's important to keep in mind that the speed limit on the Parkway is just 45 m.p.h. On some turns you might have to slow down to just 15 or 20 m.p.h. In general, expect driving through these mountains to take a while due to all the hairpin turns, as well as because of the scenery that you'll want to stop and admire. In peak season, June through October, traffic can be slow.
The following are approximate distances and driving times to and from the major destinations within the southern Appalachian Mountains region:
- Roanoke to Knoxville - 260 miles, 4 hours
- Roanoke to Harpers Ferry - 210 miles, 3 hours 30 minutes
- Roanoke to Asheville - 245 miles, 4 hours
- Knoxville to Harpers Ferry - 455 miles, 7 hours 10 minutes
- Knoxville to Asheville - 115 miles, 2 hours
- Harpers Ferry to Asheville - 440 miles, 7 hours 10 minutes
Just northeast of the region are two major airports: Dulles International Airport (IAD) and Washington National Airport (DCA). You can fly from either of these to McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS), serving Knoxville, Tennessee, in the region's southwest portion. Daily flights from Dulles to Knoxville are via United Airlines, while those from National are via U.S. Airways. The flights are similarly priced, and they take about an hour and a half in each direction.
The major cities in the region are Roanoke, Virginia, Ashville, North Carolina, and Knoxville, Tennessee. You can travel between these cities by bus non-stop or with just one connection. Service to cities smaller than these is spotty, but can still be up to twice daily.