The Best USA Road Trips

Skyline Drive & Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip

Skyline Drive & Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip
By Amy Balfour

Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway ribbon along the crest of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, curving past some of the finest viewpoints and trails in the Southern Appalachians. Inviting small towns and striking geologic formations dot the surrounding mountain foothills.

Completed in 1939, Skyline Drive was designed with road trips in mind. Trailheads and overlooks border the roadside, and stone mile-markers confirm your exact location. The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway links Shenandoah National Park with the eastern entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. There is no admission fee, and there are no stop lights along the route.

Skyline Drive & Blue Ridge Parkway road trip

Approx distance: 500 miles

Duration: Four to five days

Suggested route: Washington DC, Shenandoah National Park, Natural Bridge State Park, Peaks of Otter, McAfee Knob & Appalachian Trail, Roanoke

Skyline Drive Appalachian Mountains Shenandoah National Park USA virginia

105-mile Skyline Drive running through Shenandoah National Park

Suggested driving route

From Dulles International Airport, which is 30 miles west of Washington, DC, follow I-66 and Highway 55 west for one hour to the northern entrance of Shenandoah National Park. From here, follow Skyline Drive south for 105 miles through the park to Rockfish Gap, a narrow pass that separates the park from the northern entrance of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

From the northern entrance drive six miles to Humpback Rocks, where you’ll find a visitor centre, an outdoor exhibit area and several trails. Continue south on the parkway 40 miles to Route 60. Follow Route 60 west to Lexington, where you can explore the historic downtown and spend the night.

The next morning, drive twenty minutes south on Route 11 to Natural Bridge State Park. From here, follow I-81 south fifteen minutes to Buchanan, which borders the Upper James River Water Trail. Climb back to the parkway and drive to the Peaks of Otter for hiking and an overnight stay at the lodge.

The next day, continue south, dropping to the parkway’s lowest point at the James River before climbing to its highest point thirteen miles ahead at Apple Orchard Mountain. From the Peaks of Otter it’s 35 miles to the city of Roanoke.

Where to stop & what to see

Shenandoah National Park

Family-friendly adventures include hiking, horseback riding and wildlife watching. Splashing around in swimming holes and exploring the grassy wonders of Big Meadows are also popular activities. Top hikes include the 3.9-mile loop to the viewpoint atop Hawksbill (4051ft), the highest peak in the park, and the adventurous ascent to the rocky summit of Old Rag (3238ft). Scrambling over the boulders at Bearfence Mountain is also fun. Leaves typically change colour in mid-October. Campgrounds, cabins, and lodges are scattered along the length of Skyline Drive.

Rockfish Gap

Kids dig the eerie Blue Ridge Tunnel Trail, a 2.25-mile path on an abandoned railway line. Nearly one mile of the trail is a dark and narrow tunnel barreling straight through Afton Mountain. A headlamp or flashlight is required. After your hike, drive down to Route 151, also known as the Brew Ridge Parkway, for lunch at one of the many roadside breweries.

Humpback Rocks

A steep one-mile trail rockets from the Parkway to Humpback Rocks, a jagged rock ledge jutting from Humpback Mountain. From the ledge you can see the narrow spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains as it stretches north and south toward the horizon, separating the rolling Shenandoah Valley in the west from the flat Virginia piedmont to the east. An interpretive trail at the base of the mountain passes a collection of wooden cabins and farm buildings that offer a glimpse of 1890s mountain life.

Natural Bridge State Park

Soaring 215ft above a picturesque creek, the limestone arch at Natural Bridge has been a popular destination for travellers for centuries. An easy trail follows Cedar Creek under the arch to a reconstructed Monacan Indian village and a waterfall. Just outside the park, the leafy Belfast Trail ascends to the unusual Devils Marbleyard, a field of enormous quartzite boulders blanketing a steep mountain slope. It’s a worthwhile detour for budding geologists and adventurous travellers.

Upper James River Water Trail

The sleepy town of Buchanan is a major drop-in point for adventures on the Upper James River Water Trail, a 45-mile route through a pristine stretch of river in the mountain foothills. With eight different segments, the family-friendly trail is excellent for fishing, paddling (Class I and II rapids), tubing and wildlife watching. Twin River Outfitters offer river trips and shuttle service. A fun swinging bridge crosses the James River north of downtown.

Peaks of Otter Recreation Area

Three peaks cluster around Abbott Lake on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The striking Sharp Top Mountain draws hikers looking for a quick climb to 360º mountain-and-valley views. A shuttle runs to the summit in summer. Other trails here swing around the lake, climb to an 1850s farmhouse, and pass rocky cascades. Stop by the Peaks of Otter Lodge for a lakeside lunch. The lodge gift shop sells the famous POO bumper sticker, which confirms your Peaks of Otter visit.

Roanoke & Mill Mountain

A longtime railroad hub for the mining industry, Roanoke today is a multi-faceted metropolitan area. Dubbed the Star City after the 88.5ft-high neon star that overlooks downtown from Mill Mountain, Roanoke is a popular basecamp for adventures in the surrounding mountains, rivers and lakes. Multi-use greenways crisscross the city, and several trails climb to the star.

Appalachian Trail & McAfee Knob

One of the most photogenic sights on the Appalachian Trail (AT) is McAfee Knob, a rock ledge that juts over a sweeping view of Catawba Valley just west of Roanoke. To reach McAfee Knob, hike four miles north from the AT parking area beside VA 311 on Catawba Mountain.

Skyline Drive & Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip

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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