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What to do along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Last modified: 9/21/2014 12:55:00 AM
Picture the Blue Ridge Parkway as a crooked spine running through the Appalachian Mountains. Government stewardship of public lands is splashed across the map in confusing variety – a national park at either end, national forests, historic sites, monuments and state parks along its 469 miles.

Most of us know it as the road that snakes through some of the most glorious fall color in North America and wraps around some of the highest mountains east of the Mississippi River. All those curves and dips offer up opportunities aplenty for hiking, fishing, picnicking, camping and viewing waterfalls.

Although it is administered by the National Park Service, the parkway is not really a park. Most of its man-made attractions are technically off the parkway in small communities within an easy drive. The attractions are diverse and many and range from wine-tasting to theater, bluegrass music to a train ride.

Here are my recommendations for attractions to see on or near the parkway. My list starts near the southern end, by Great Smoky Mountains National Park near the North Carolina-Tennessee state line, and runs north and east into Virginia and Shenandoah National Park.

Ride a train: The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad boards passengers in Bryson City, N.C., 13 miles from the southern entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Excursions, usually three to four hours, run along the Tennessee and Nantahala rivers and across Fontana Lake, or to historic Dillsboro. It’s a particularly fun way to see fall color, and there’s a railroad museum at the depot with model layouts.

Learn about Native American culture: The town of Cherokee is the home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation. Oconaluftee Indian Village is a replica of an Eastern Cherokee community from the 1760s, with demonstrations of Cherokee dance, mask-making, basket-weaving and other traditions.

Tour a palace: George W. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House, with 250 rooms, is the largest privately owned mansion in America. Tour the palatial house as well as much of the 8,000-acre estate, which includes wine-tasting, botanical gardens, even a horseback ride in the backwoods of the estate.

Go to the theater: About 30 miles south of Asheville is Flat Rock Playhouse, 60-year-old professional equity theater and official State Theatre of North Carolina. The Playhouse hosts productions from mid-February to December.

Climb the highest mountain: Thirty-two miles northeast of Asheville and just north of the parkway is Mount Mitchell State Park, named for the 6,684-foot peak that is the highest point east of the Mississippi. You can drive almost to the top, then walk a short trail to a deck on the summit where on a clear day, the view is said to extend for 85 miles. At the top is an interpretive center and hiking trails, and nearby is a restaurant that is open daily May through October.

Hang out in Mayberry: Mount Airy, N.C., about 20 miles east of the parkway, is where Andy Griffith grew up, and the small town plays the connection for all it’s worth. You can visit Wally’s Service Station, eat at the Blue Bird Diner, see a show at Andy Griffith Playhouse, visit Andy Griffith’s childhood home or take a tour by a Mayberry squad car.


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