Things to do / Travel Guide
Stick your head out the window! An inverse topic might be better for this region: Drives that Aren't Scenic. What with the Alleghenies, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the Smokies, scenic views define the region more than any other attribute. The two biggest attractions are arguably the parkways - Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway connecting that to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These parkways aren't just roads where billboards are forbidden – they're actually National Parks just like Yellowstone or any other. Following are highlights of these two, as well as other smaller drives throughout the region.
Skyline Drive skips from side to side of the Shenandoah Valley. All in all, 75 overlooks are scattered along its 105 miles, where you're treated to scenes of mountains and valleys, the Shenandoah River, lush farmland, waterfalls, and more. The highway connects the city of Front Royal in the north to Waynesboro in the south; at a maximum speed limit of 35 m.p.h., be forewarned that peak months bring slowed traffic.
One particularly scenic stretch along Skyline Drive is that between U.S. Highway 211 and Big Meadows Wayside, a campground. From north to south, this strip offers views leading up to Pinnacles Overlook of the rolling piedmont and of Old Rag Mountain, which is a good climb if there ever was one. Then there are views of Stony Man Mountain, and expanses of greenstone. The heart of the Shenandoah, Whiteoak Canyon, is now just around the corner. Six waterfalls drop from this steep gorge, girded by hemlocks and oaks; the canyon is a symbol of untamed splendor.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
This must be beautiful country, if even the area between the two great National Parks has been made into a National Parkway. The Blue Ridge Parkway is deservedly the most celebrated scenic route in the East. The parkway snakes 469 miles, and larger than any other parkway in the nation. There's another overlook every mile or so, of mountains, or waterfalls, or farmland.
There are some 200 overlooks in these more-than-450 miles, and they're really all good, so it may be difficult to decide where to get on and off. A good idea might be to get on and off at the bigger cities running the drive's span. These cities include Staunton, Roanoke, Boone, Asheville, and Waynesville. The parkway was built so that none of the cities take away from its views; aside from these there are plenty of smaller towns, visitors' centers, and rest stops at which to rejuvenate.
For example, a good stretch is from Cumberland Knob to Doughton Park. Along the way you'll pass an amazing view at Fox Hunters Paradise, a serene pond surrounded by the parkway on one side and trees on the other, the dome-shaped Stone Mountain, the rolling hills of Virginia morphing into North Carolina's mountains at Mahogany Rock Overlook, an old log cabin dating to 1880, and Bluff Mountain and Basin Cove. All this in just 30 miles!
Closer to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Linn Cove Viaduct is a wonder of architecture and construction. It skirts the entire slope of Grandfather Mountain, at 1,200 feet long. From the parkway you can see the Catawba River Valley. Soon after the viaduct, traveling south, you pass another fantastic overlook, Beacon Heights.
Scenic Driving in the Potomac Highlands and Greenbrier Valley
Don't forget West Virginia, which really is as wild as they claim. Aside from a town here and there, the eastern areas of the state, the headwaters of the Potomac River and where the Greenbrier flows are quite remote and beautiful. The landscape is rocky, covered with hills, and creased by raging rivers.
Three routes in eastern West Virginia are simple to follow and yield great views. They actually meet, making it even easier. They are:
- U.S. Highway 219 affords views of the alpine scenery around Bickle Knob, the hardwood forests and meadows of Snowshoe Mountain, the town of Marlinton's old-time train station, and the massive boulders and rock formations of Beartown State Park. From Elkins, in the north, to Lewisburg, in the south, it's around 100 miles, or a two-hour drive. If you're driving southward, Lewisburg is at the junction of the 219 and I-64.
- State Road 150, the Highland Scenic Highway, cuts a loop leaving from and returning to U.S. Highway 219, around the small community of Woodrow. You get splendid views of the Alleghenies. The loop is about 30 miles altogether.
- In Greenbrier Valley: State Route 16 is also known as the Coal Heritage Trail, and you can take it between Beckley and Welch. There are 50 miles of attractions you'll want to see on the road, such as coal towns - where miners lived, strip mines, tipples - where coal was unloaded from trains, and other such railroad structures.
Scenic Driving in Nantahala National Forest
Don't limit yourself in Nantahala National Forest, south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as you can't go wrong practically anywhere. Along U.S. Highway 64, you get to see Boteler Peak, and along the Cullasaja River there are more than 10 waterfalls cascading from right near the highway. Cullasaja Falls itself measures a distance of 250 feet from top to bottom, while nearby Bridal Veil Falls spills 120 feet.
U.S. Highway 64 connects to Waynesville via U.S. Highway 276, otherwise known as Forest Heritage Scenic Byway. The 40 miles of this highway cut through Pisgah National Forest. Catch Looking Glass Falls, where the granite face looks like a mirror on account of the water sheen. Closer to Waynesville you pass through some mountain villages and fruit orchards.