The Blue Ridge Parkway lets loose in the rugged mountains of the North Carolina high country, swooping above the clouds, shooting through tunnels and nudging against the slopes of ancient mountains. Great Smoky Mountains National Park awaits at the end of the drive.

Western North Carolina road trip

Approx. distance: 600 miles

Duration: Four days

Suggested route: Charlotte, Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, Grandfather Mountain, Linville Falls, Mount Mitchell State Park, Nantahala Outdoor Center & Appalachian Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Charlotte.

View from Mount Mitchell North Carolina USA

The view from Mount Mitchell, North Carolina

Suggested driving route

From Charlotte, North Carolina, drive two hours northwest to Boone. Home to Appalachian State University and a thriving mountain music scene, Boone is a festive place to soak up Appalachian culture. In the morning drive eight miles south to the village of Blowing Rock, the only town that runs alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway. If conditions are right, you might catch a blanket of clouds undulating on the near horizon—a mesmerising natural phenomenon known as a thermal inversion.

Explore Moses H. Cone Memorial Park then drive 10 miles south on the Parkway to Grandfather Mountain, navigating the Linn Cove Viaduct on your way. An engineering wonder that hugs the slopes of the vast mountain for seven scenic miles, this elevated roadway was completed in 1987—the last section of the Parkway to open. From Grandfather Mountain it’s twenty minutes to Linville Falls.

Forty miles south of the falls, the East Coast’s highest peak soars skyward at Mount Mitchell State Park. Rhododendrons are a June highlight at Craggy Gardens further south. Appalachian arts and crafts spotlight the skills of regional artisans at the Folk Art Center east of Asheville.

Drop from the mountains into Asheville, a fun-loving small city famous for its microbreweries; more than 30 at last count. There’s also a good dining scene, and downtown thrums with live music on weekends. For aesthetic pleasures, don’t miss the vast gardens at the Biltmore. The castle-like former home of industrialist George Washington Vanderbilt II was completed in 1895. Lodging options include an inviting hostel, chain hotels and the stately Grove Park Inn.

Rejoin the Parkway for the final 80-mile push to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But there’s one last adventure before entering the park, a 26-mile detour to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a family-friendly adventure resort near Bryson City. From Bryson City, return to Hwy 441 and enter the park at the Oconaluftee Entrance Station.

Where to stop & what to see

Moses H. Cone Memorial Park

Pedestrian-friendly carriage trails meander across the grounds of the former summer home of 19th-century textile magnate Moses H. Cone. It’s a tranquil place to ease into the day, with the aesthetically pleasing trails unfurling past lakes and mountains views. Tours of the home are available in summer.

Grandfather Mountain

The mile-high swinging bridge is the star attraction at the commercially-run Grandfather Mountain, an outdoor recreation area with wildlife habitats, a nature centre and mountain trails. You’ll also find a restaurant and numerous picnic tables. The bridge isn’t as scary as the hype suggests, but it is a fun diversion for the kids. The adjacent Grandfather Mountain State Park has hiking trails and backcountry camping.

Linville Falls

The leafy Erwin View Trail hugs the powerful Linville River for .8 miles (.13km) as it drops over two sets of falls that power through a narrow gorge. The lower falls twist through a tight canyon then take a dramatic 45ft plunge. The Linville Gorge Trail takes hikers to the base of the falls, but no swimming is allowed. The Linville Falls Campground sits in a bend in the river. Reserve a campsite ahead of time or try your luck with first-come, first-served.

Mount Mitchell State Park

From the Blue Ridge Parkway, Hwy 128 curves to the summit of Mount Mitchell (6,684ft), the highest peak in the eastern US. A circular pedestrian ramp from the summit parking area leads to expansive views of the surrounding Black Mountains. Extremely fit travellers with extra time in their schedule can tackle the Mount Mitchell Trail, which powers from the Black Mountain Campground in Pisgah National Forest to the summit of Mount Mitchell in a steep six-mile climb. There is a campground in the park.

Nantahala Outdoor Center & Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Tucked deep inside a forested gorge on the banks of the Nantahala River, the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) looks like it was ripped from the pages of a fantasy novel packed with adventures. But these adventures are family friendly, with whitewater rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, ziplining and navigating an aerial playground as outdoor options. Hikers can step right onto the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail, which crosses the 500-acre resort. Overnight options include a hostel, bunkhouses, cabins and a motel. Two restaurants overlook the river. This is one of eight NOC outposts across North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This rugged park, established in 1934, sprawls across the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee. The crest line of the mountain range doubles as the border between the two states. The Appalachian Trail also runs along the crest, dipping into both states on its run between Georgia and Maine. Outdoor activities include hiking, cycling, horseback riding and camping. For wildlife watching, drive the popular Cades Cove Loop Road or explore the remote Cataloochee Valley. The hike to Gregory Bald is strenuous, but the peak-and-valley views from this mountain-top meadow, especially when the flame azaleas bloom in June, are breathtaking.

About the author

Western North Carolina Road Trip Route

Amy Balfour

Amy has authored or co-authored 26 books on the USA for Lonely Planet. Her articles and essays have appeared in Backpacker, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Houston Chronicle, Redbook, Southern Living, Women’s Health, Vegetarian Times, the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

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