Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Drive, Day 3

NC Highlands to Asheville and Pisgah National Forest: Milepost 300–400

This is a continuation of a three-part series I wrote this fall covering my motorcycle touring + camping trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway. In my first and second posts, I explored the Parkway’s northern and central regions from its starting point near Shenandoah National Park down to Roanoke, Virginia. I included hiking and camping suggestions, mountaintop vineyards and resorts, epic waterfalls, side trips and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the Modern World. In my third post in the series, I turned off the Parkway and returned home via a big loop through the mountains of West Virginia and Monongahela National Forest. I included more recommendations for WV hiking, camping, eating, refueling, and many more tips for places to explore — including one of the premier rock climbing destination on the East Coast.

I highly recommend reviewing these previous posts, if you haven’t already, for everything you need to know to begin your own Blue Ridge Parkway adventure. Whether you’re motorcycle touring or traveling with your extended family and whether you’re a veteran backpacker looking for wilderness solitude or have never camped before and are just looking for some pretty day hikes while staying in resorts along the way, there’s something for everyone in my series of posts covering “America’s Favorite Drive”!

In this new post continuing the series, I pick up where I left off traveling along the Parkway starting near the Virginia / North Carolina border and heading south to Asheville and beyond. This section (roughly Milepost 300–400) was absolutely beautiful and might be my favorite yet! The Southern Appalachians are spectacular, especially in the fall.

***NOTE: This trip was a car camping / hiking trip but given the many photo opportunities from waterfalls to mountain vistas, I’ve decided to tag this as “photography” and provide specific details to that regard. Nature photography is something that goes hand in hand with all my trips now. Enjoy! Also, for another great post on sunrise photography from the highest mountain in Shenandoah National Park, visit my previous blog: here.

Five Things You’ll Learn From This Post:

  1. How to access and summit Mount Mitchell — the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River at 6,684 feet — known in Cherokee as “Attakulla”.
  2. How to take “glass water effect” photos of Crabtree Falls — an amazing 70 ft waterfall right off the parkway.
  3. How to get the best panoramic mountain vista photos and selfie shots from the most beautiful viewing platform on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
  4. Parkway side trips not to miss! Including: Grandfather Mountain State Park and the swinging “mile-high bridge”; Linville Gorge the “Grand Canyon of the East” and the Linville Gorge Wilderness; the funky Little Switzerland and Emerald City; and more.
  5. How to camp outside of Asheville and explore Pisgah National Forest — while still embracing the great food and brews of Asheville itself. Best of both worlds!

*BONUS: where to find a 10,000-acre old growth forest on the East Coast!

The Route:

This map might be a little hard to see — for a better, more interactive map please visit BlueRidgeParkway.org. But you’ll see from this screenshot that I entered the Parkway near Grandfather Mountain State Park and continued along the parkway to my campsite in Pisgah National Forest just south of Asheville. This was all done (along with day hikes) in one day.

In case you’re following my exact Parkway mileage from previous posts, I did skip a large section of the Parkway near the Virginia / North Carolina border (the section from Roanoke, VA, where I stopped my previous trip in this Parkway series, to Grandfather Mountain where I picked this trip back up). I did this because I took a detour to Grayson Highlands State Park. Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is an incredible region in Southern Virginia WITH WILD PONIES that I highly recommend. For full details covering Grayson Highlands visit my last post: here. This side trip was worth it to me even if I had to sacrifice a section of the Parkway — although I intend to go back and do that skipped section in the spring. If there’s one thing I’ve learned doing these trips, is that every few miles on the Parkway offers another incredible outdoor adventure opportunity.

Stop 1: Grandfather Mountain State Park and the swinging “mile-high bridge”, Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost ~300

Full disclosure — I didn’t actually stop here since I was just getting on the Parkway but I’ve since learned how awesome this state park is! Boasting on its entrance sign “Carolina’s Top Scenic Attraction,” it’s easy to see the draw.

According to the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, “Grandfather Mountain is a place of amazing biodiversity and scenic beauty that towers 5,946 feet above northwest North Carolina. A unit of the United Nations’ Southern Appalachian Man and Biosphere Reserve, the mountain is estimated to be 300 million years old — with certain rock formations dating back 1.2 billion years.”

One third of the mountain is operated as a scenic travel attraction by the foundation. The other two thirds is operated by North Carolina as a 2,456 acre state park. The park offers miles of mountainous ridgeline trails and thick forests. Backcountry camping is allowed. Permits are required for entry.

The foundation’s region operates the “Mile High Swinging Bridge” as well as other hiking and birding trails and educational discovery programs for the whole family. They also operate a sort of “wilderness zoo” with cougars, black bears, bald eagles, river otters and even elk! These animals are living in large enclosures in what would have been their natural habitat (pre-industrial revolution). It’s a cool idea and special viewing platforms allow visitors to get close.

Stop 2: Chestoa View Overlook, Milepost 320.8

From Chestoa View Overlook Platform

Not far down the Blue Ridge Parkway from Grandfather Mountain is arguably the best view on the entire parkway. There’s a parking area and a very short walk to a stone semi-circle viewing platform.

At 4,090 ft, this is an excellent photo op for selfies and sweeping panoramic views looking toward Table Rock and Grandfather Mountain and across endless additional mountain ridgelines east toward the Linville Gorge Wilderness. More information about this spot can be found on the National Park Service’s website: here.

The shadows were getting long by the time I arrived around noon on this late fall day so try to get there earlier in the day for what is likely a breathtaking sunrise or just more direct light.

SIDE TRIP OPTION: Linville Gorge the “Grand Canyon of the East” and the Linville Gorge Wilderness

The Linville Gorge Wilderness Area within Pisgah National Forest is 12,000 acres and one of only two wilderness gorges in the Southern US. The river is 2,000 feet below the ridge so hiking along the rim offers amazing views down into the gorge.

What I think is the most incredible feature about this place, however, is that old growth forests span 10,000 of its acres. Most of the forests in the US were subject to industrial logging over centuries of development. Less than 4% of old growth forests remain in the US and a very small amount of that is on the East Coast (most of it is in the West and Alaska). It is likely that all of the forests you’ve ever taken a walk in are second growth that has been slowly growing back since being clear cut for farming or other industrial needs. It takes hundreds of years for old growth to truly return to an area and its importance to an ecosystem cannot be overstated.

Given its rugged terrain, it was deemed unprofitable to log in the Linville Gorge area and so untouched old growth forests of huge eastern hemlock and eastern white pine remain here as they did thousands of years ago! It is a remarkable example of what the entire mid-Atlantic Appalachian region once looked like.

I’ve written in previous posts about how incredible our National Wilderness system is. These are some of the most pristine natural habitats left in the US — special places where nature still calls the shots. In 1964, with the signing of the Wilderness Act, Linville Gorge became one of the original components of the National Wilderness system.

I stuck to my Blue Ridge route on this trip but there are excellent websites that describe the Grand Canyon of the East in great detail. Visit: Romantic Asheville, the US Forest Service, as well as AllTrails and others for hiking and camping suggestions.

Stop 3: Lunch at Little Switzerland and Emerald City

The OPPOSITE of wilderness, cruise south along the Blue Ridge Parkway another 14 miles and you’ll hit the peculiar but awesome area of Little Switzerland. This is an excellent place for lunch with a beautiful outdoor seating area out back and a firepit that looks across the mountains. The food is great. It’s also a resort if you’d prefer more accommodations during your travels.

For a family activity, a few miles off the Parkway from here is Emerald Village and the NC Museum of Mining. Emerald Village boasts on its website 12 historic real mines and gem buckets where you can collect and keep everything you find.

Stop 4: Crabtree Falls, Milepost 339.5

Back to the Parkway. In my previous post in this Blue Ridge Parkway series, I talked about Crabtree Falls, VIRGINIA — a massive waterfall a couple miles off the Parkway near milepost 27. Another 312 miles south along the Parkway, in North Carolina, there is another Crabtree Falls. This one is just as incredible, if not more so just for the kinds of photos you’re able to take:

Before I get into how I took this shot, IMPORTANT NOTE: Your GPS may take you all over the place if you simply put in “Crabtree Falls.” DO NOT LEAVE THE PARKWAY from Little Switzerland (unless you want to check out Emerald City). On the Parkway, continue south from Little Switzerland 8.5 miles and you’ll clearly see the parking area for Crabtree Falls.

The total hike loop isn’t long — I tracked 3.09 miles on Strava. The trail can get steep but I only tracked 609 ft of elevation gain. I recommend the loop as opposed to an out an back along the same trail. You’ll steeply descend to the falls and then, if you do the loop, will more gradually rise back to the parking area. Going down a steep trail is always easier than going back up one!

How to take that glassy water effect shot!

Now to the fun part. You’ll need an actual camera for this — sorry, iPhone has not yet figured out how to do this. I have a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1000. It’s a few years old and is technically a “point and shoot” instead of a full DSLR, but I love it. I’m still mastering all of its capabilities which are more than enough for my purposes at this point and not having a true DSLR keeps me from having to lug a bunch of extra lenses around.

In order to capture the glass effect you need to have the right light. Low lighting is best — or a lens/filter that simulates it. What you’re doing is slowing down the shutter speed and allowing more light to come through to overexpose your photo. If it’s too bright outside, the photo will wash out and be bright white. Because of the slow shutter speed, you also have to be very careful not to shake the camera as it is much easier to blur your photo. Tripods work best. These are all the same principles as night photography.

When I arrived the base of the waterfall it was early afternoon and the shadows were thick, giving me the perfect lighting for this effect. I didn’t have a tripod with me so I balanced my camera on a rock to minimize shake. I switched my camera to manual mode and toggled my SS / F (shutter speed / aperture) slider. The F / aperture controls the brightness of your image. The higher the f-number, the smaller the aperture and the less light that passes through the lens; the lower the f-number, the larger the aperture and the more light that passes through the lens. (Thank you Nikon: source).

Every camera is different but as I adjust my shutter speed it automatically adjusts my ISO and tends to also adjust my f-number at the same time, although I can control both independently too. For these waterfall shots, I stayed around F-8.0, SS 10 (1/10 of a second), ISO 125. I also had some good ones at F-6.3, SS 15 (1/15 of a second), ISO 125. The longer your shutter is open (ie: lower SS number, until it starts counting up again in whole seconds), the smoother the water will be but the brighter the photo will also be so you have to strike the balance unless you wait until later in the day or night photography. For night shots, my camera goes all the way down to 60 seconds shutter speed and f-2.8, which has enabled me to take some incredible photos of the Northern Lights in the middle of the night. As I mentioned, there are also some filters you can screw onto your lens to help reduce the impact of the sun so you can take these long exposure shots even in the day time.

Going darker is always better in my opinion. If your photos turn out a little too dark, you can always brighten up the shadows or other features in easy to use editing tools built right into your phone, Instagram, or other software. But if they’re too bright and washed out, there’s not a lot you can do.

This is a highly shortened version of many complex photography principles. But hopefully it’s helpful to get you started and experimenting with some tactics that are sure to make your photos really pop!

For more tips check out my previous post on sunrise photography from the highest mountain in Shenandoah National Park! Check it out: here.

Stop 5: Mount Mitchell, Milepost 355.4

As always, this post is getting long but there are a couple more things I have to include — one of which is the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River! I swear I did all of this in just one day.

Mount Mitchell is actually located in a state park that connects to the Parkway. Visit their website to be sure of any road closures, camping or trail restrictions. In 1993, Mount Mitchell was designated as an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

There is a road you can drive all the way to the top. A short hike from the parking lot (where you can also buy some concessions, food and hot coffee) will take you to an observation platform. The mountain makes its own weather and is cloudy most of the time but depending on time of year or time of day you might get lucky. Be prepared for anything, due to the elevation changes. It was 60 degrees while I was hiking Crabtree Falls a couple hours prior but by the time I got to the Mt. Mitchell observation platform the weather was well below freezing with the windchill.

There are miles of hiking trails here that connect to Pisgah National Forest and the Black Mountains which contain 6 of the 10 highest peaks on the East Coast. These trails take you deep into beautiful alpine spruce-fir forests and Fraser firs which smell like Christmas trees. There are also car camping sites managed by the state park and backpacking allowed. Just be careful to leave no trace as this is certainly black bear country.

Other Points Along the Parkway:

As is the case the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway, nearly ever mile down the road there’s another pullout, overlook, hiking trail, historical marker, or other fun thing to explore. There are many points I missed just having one day and exploring this region for the first time. Check out Romantic Asheville for more ideas. You could spend weeks just in this section of the Parkway alone!

Getting closer to Asheville

My recommendation is to drive slowly and stop every 30 minutes or so to take in another amazing view. Also, these pullouts are designed to make it easier to take photos safely without being distracted on the road.

Hikers, cyclists, and motorcyclists alike all use the road with very little shoulder so DO NOT take photos while driving along the Parkway. There is always an accessible pullout nearby and the best photos will be from these pullouts anyway, trust me.

All three days on the Parkway brought sweeping mountain vistas in all directions. I clocked less than 100 miles total on this final day but with all my side stops, I descended into Asheville just as the sun was setting.

Stop 6: Dinner and Craft Beer in Asheville

I won’t spend much time here since it’s pretty much self explanatory. Asheville, North Carolina has some of the best craft breweries in the country and is also quickly becoming a “foodie” haven. It’s hard to go wrong no matter which ones you choose so pick a spot on the GPS, order a growler and some food, and head back to your hotel or campsite to enjoy. There are also many excellent breakfast spots.

Stop 7: Camping in Pisgah National Forest, Milepost ~393 (a few miles off the Parkway)

Just a few minutes south of downtown Asheville, or a few miles off the Parkway depending on which direction you’re coming from, is Lake Powhatan Campground nestled in Pisgah National Forest. This is one of the best and easiest national forest campgrounds within close proximity of a major metropolitan area that I have visited. It has full facilities, car camping sites, firepits, and is very close to human civilization for those who are less familiar with the great outdoors and feel more comfortable being close to others just in case. This campground has it all and I honestly don’t know why anyone chooses to stay in Asheville hotels when the campground is waiting just minutes away!

Lake Powhatan is named after the Powhatan Confederacy — an alliance of over 30 Algonquian-speaking Native Americans communities, that had a total population of nearly 15,000, and that stretched 16,000 square miles across what is now Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. When English settlers and Captain John Smith first landed in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, this powerful Powhatan Confederacy existed under the leadership of Chief Powhatan. Chief Powhatan, whose name was actually Wahunsenacawh in Algonquian, ruled over this vast territory known as “Tsenacommacah” to its people. Many of us might recognize the story of “Chief Powhatan” as the father of Pocahontas. Although, there’s a lot we still don’t know about this story or have gotten wrong due to our desire to construct more romantic American history creation myths. In addition to the sites I hyperlinked above, I recommend the Smithsonian’s 2017 documentary “The True Story of Pocahontas” for more information.

What we do know for sure is that for 10,000 years indigenous peoples lived in this region in what was once a great forest spanning most of eastern North America. As we explore and recreate in these lands today, we are in these peoples’ ancestral, cultural, and spiritual homes.

Additional information on the campground can be found from the USFS: here. Also, unlike some campgrounds where you can just drive up and pay on the spot, you have to make a reservation at Recreation.gov.

This is as far as I went on this trip because I got caught in the tail end of a hurricane storm system blowing up the East Coast — which made for a fun night in my tent 😅. But the Blue Ridge Parkway continues another 70 miles beyond Asheville and into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If previous days on the Parkway are any indication, I’m sure this final 70-mile stretch contains many more incredible hikes and outdoor adventures. And, of course, the Smokies are their own destination worthy of weeks of exploration.

Until next time!

Will Hackman, Hackman Guided Adventures

Be sure to follow Will on Twitter @will_hackman for updates, Instagram @Hackman.Will for pretty photos, and Facebook, and subscribe to this blog to ensure you don’t miss out on future how-to adventures covering: Backpacking | Camping | Mountaineering | Cycling | Bike Touring | Photography | Birding | Yoga | Meditation | Paddling | Water Sports | Writing Retreats | & Wilderness 101s!

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Will Hackman

Will Hackman

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Oceans, public lands, and rivers advocate by day. Climate activist and owner of Hackman Guided Adventures by night / weekends. wc.hackman@gmail.com