If ever there was a perfect time to take a road trip with little outside social interaction, plenty of open spaces to roam, and lots of beautiful landscapes to cover, the summer of 2020 is it.
Cruising the Blue Ridge Parkway makes social distancing easy. And in our opinion, a Blue Ridge Parkway road trip is one of the finest family or romantic vacations the United States has to offer.
The parkway stretches, winds, climbs, and descends some 469 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains. It creates a marvelous conduit between two of the most renowned US National Parks: Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is rich with history, including tales of Iroquois and colonialists. The road was initiated in 1935 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, but wasn’t completed until 1966 (save for an 8-mile stretch between Linn Cove Viaduct and Grandfather Mountain, which wasn’t done until 1987).
It’s the longest linear park in the US, traveling through four national forests– Jefferson, George Washington, Nantahala, and Pisgah.
Over its length, the parkway has more than 200 roadside scenic overlooks. They each offer unique views of nearby cities, vistas of fertile valleys below, panoramas of the Appalachian Mountains, gorgeous displays of spring flowers, and colorful collections of autumn leaves.
What follows are our picks for the 20 best Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks in NC and VA to gaze out at the great wide wonder of this glorious mountain region.
Best Blue Ridge Parkway Overlooks in NC & VA
- Rockfish Valley Parking Overlook (Milepost 1.5)
- Rock Point Overlook (Milepost 10.4)
- Ravens Roost Overlook (Milepost 10.7)
- Bluff Mountain Overlook (Milepost 52.8)
- Otter Lake Overlook (Milepost 63.1)
- The Great Valley Overlook (Milepost 99.6)
- Quarry Overlook (Milepost 100.9)
- N&W Railroad Overlook (Milepost 106.9)
- Mabry Mill (Milepost 176.1)
- Groundhog Meadow Overlook (Milepost 189)
- Air Bellows Overlook (Milepost 236.9)
- Price Lake Overlook (Milepost 296.7)
- Beacon Heights Overlook (Milepost 305.2)
- Chestoa View Overlook (Milepost 320.7)
- Craggy Dome Parking Overlook (Milepost 364.1)
- Looking Glass Rock (Milepost 417)
- Graveyard Fields (Milepost 418.8)
- Cowee Mountains Overlook (Milepost 430)
- Richland Balsam Overlook (Milepost 431.4)
- Waterrock Knob Visitor Center and Park Store (Milepost 451.2)
BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY IN VA
The Blue Ridge Parkway officially begins in Virginia, just after Skyline Drive leaves Shenandoah National Park. From there, the road winds another 200 miles south before reaching North Carolina.
En route, it passes through Jefferson National Forest and George Washington National Forest. It crosses the James River, skirts Roanoke, and leaves Virginia just after the Blue Ridge Music Center.
Needless to say, there’s an awful lot to see along the way!
1. Rockfish Valley Parking Overlook (Milepost 1.5)
There is immediate gratification for traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway. Just two miles in, the Rockfish Valley Overlook provides a mood-setting panorama of the valley below.
A Native American tribe, the Tuscarora (or “hemp gatherers”), lived along the rivers of this valley for centuries.
But then diseases and aggression from colonial settlers pushed them to travel north and join the Iroquois Confederation in the late 1700s.
2. Rock Point Overlook (Milepost 10.4)
Located at an elevation of 3115 feet, Rock Point Overlook gives an expansive glimpse of the Back Creek Valley and Torrey Ridge to the west of the Parkway.
In addition to the spectacular view, a unique and colorful rock formation called Catoctin Greenstone is prevalent around Rock Point (hence the name).
3. Ravens Roost Overlook (Milepost 10.7)
Widely known to yield one of the best Blue Ridge Parkway views, Ravens Roost Overlook is perched at an elevation of 3200 feet, 1800 feet above the valley below.
Ravens Roost is a remarkable spot for catching spectacular sunset photos. There’s also a short path from the overlook to a rock ledge, which is actually an ideal roost for a raven.
4. Bluff Mountain Overlook (Milepost 52.8)
After the Parkway dips down nearly 1000 feet in elevation, it rises back up to 3400 feet for a quick view of Bluff Mountain and a deeply layered look into the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The overlook itself has a lovely grassy knoll from which to take in the stunning vista, as well as an atmospheric old fence across the Parkway.
5. Otter Lake Overlook (Milepost 63.1)
Otter Lake Overlook is nearly the lowest elevation on the entire parkway.
While it doesn’t provide the traditional expansive views of mountains and valleys, Otter Lake is perfectly picturesque. It’s tree-lined and full of trout, and there’s a stone dam holding back the water of Otter Creek.
There is also a one-mile hiking trail ringing the lake and connecting the overlook to the James River Visitor Center.
6. The Great Valley Overlook (Milepost 99.6)
Despite being encroached upon by forest, the Great Valley Overlook summarizes the gist of the typical Blue Ridge Parkway overlook experience.
The Great Valley, which stretches from New York to Alabama (and hundreds of miles along the Parkway), sprawls out into rolling hills.
It was once a frequent Iroquois travel route, and later used by pioneers.
7. Quarry Overlook (Milepost 100.9)
Though it may not seem like the ideal place for a scenic vista, the aerial view of a quarry can be both eye-opening and humbling.
This massive dolomite (a magnesium-rich limestone) quarry has been operating for longer than a century, and annually yields over six tons of dolomite.
All of this has helped to build concrete and block structures across the nation.
8. N&W Railroad Overlook (Milepost 106.9)
While lists of Blue Ridge Parkway views tend to center on grandiose natural scenery, sometimes humans are good for a beauty mark, too.
As its name implies, the N&W Railroad Overlook involves a railway line from the 1850s.
It once linked Bristol, Tennessee to Lynchburg, Virginia. The grassy valley to the west is dotted with pastoral farmhouses and barns.
9. Mabry Mill (Milepost 176.1)
Technically, Marbry Mill is not listed as an overlook, but a photo op here is such a classic among the Blue Ridge Parkway views that it really does require a stop.
Marbry Mill is an old water mill that’s visible from the Parkway. A short trail around the grounds reveals several more old buildings—a cabin, a blacksmith shop, a sawmill—that make the stop worthwhile.
There is also a restaurant here, and free concerts on Sundays.
10. Groundhog Meadow Overlook (Milepost 189)
Located shortly before you reach the Virginia-North Carolina border, Groundhog Meadow Overlook is often cited as one of the best stops on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Aside from a nice, open area to have a picnic, the overlook also offer an old wooden observation tower once used by the Virginia Forest Service, split rail fencing, and long-distance panoramas.
BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY IN NC
The majority of the Blue Ridge Parkway weaves through Western North Carolina, traversing several national and state forests and parks.
It also skirts exciting, progressive cities like Boone and Asheville, which are imbued with historical noteworthiness but have transformed into hubs of self-conscious modernism.
At its core, though, the Parkway passes through North Carolina with the Piedmont spreading out to the east and the Appalachian Mountains rising up to the west, providing unimaginably beautiful vistas.
So beautiful, in fact, that most visitors are compelled to stop often and soak it all in.
11. Air Bellows Overlook (Milepost 236.9)
Air Bellows Overlook was named for the robust winter winds that often rip through the area, but the majestic view is usually worth braving them.
Looking out from Air Bellows, sightseers are staring at the “Crest of the Blue Ridge.” As a peculiar bonus, the valley below is home to several Christmas tree farms.
The overlook is a wonderful first stop for those entering North Carolina from the north, or a heart-thumping way to say goodbye before traveling into Virginia.
12. Price Lake Overlook (Milepost 296.7)
Price Lake is named after Julian Price, the former owner of the 4,000+ acres worth of parkland (known as Julian Price Memorial Park) it sits on.
The overlook can provide a stunning photo of the lake, and Price Lake is about as lovely as any mountain lake can be.
Beyond that, there are watersports– including fishing and kayaking, but not swimming– and several nice hiking trails to explore.
13. Beacon Heights Overlook (Milepost 305.2)
Beacon Heights Overlook is famous for its sunrises and sunsets, and boasts some big-time panoramas.
Major landscape features seen here include Grandfather Mountain, Grandmother Mountain, Table Rock, and Hawksbill.
Warning: Hiking a short, but steep trail (Beacon Heights Trail) is required to get the optimal views from Beacon Heights. Additionally, it is just south of the world famous engineering feat known as the Linn Cove Viaduct.
14. Chestoa View Overlook (Milepost 320.7)
Chestoa View Overlook is slightly hidden, and it takes a short hike to reach from the parking area.
But, while standing on the overlook’s rock platform, you’ll find one of the best views in the Blue Ridge region.
The jaw-dropping scenery spans across the vast Linville Gorge (part of Pisgah National Forest), with Grandfather Mountain and Table Rock in the background.
A short trail loop provides various panoramas of the mountains. This is also a good spot for an afternoon or early evening picnic.
15. Craggy Dome Parking Overlook (Milepost 364.1)
Vistas from the Craggy Dome parking lot are especially noteworthy, but the real can’t-miss experience here is hiking the Craggy Pinnacle Trail.
Nestled among beautiful trees, especially rhododendrons, the trail circles the summit of the Great Craggy Mountains. Chief among the sights you’ll see is Mt. Mitchell (6,684 ft), the highest point east of Mississippi River.
Nearby, there are several other short hikes, as well as a visitor center and prime picnicking area. This is where to get the best views on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville.
16. Looking Glass Rock (Milepost 417)
Looking Glass Rock is instantly recognizable when driving south from Asheville, but its official viewpoint is at milepost 417.
Looking Glass Rock is a pluton– a geological formation created when molten rock cools slowly beneath the earth’s surface and causes the layer of rock over it to bulge.
This specific formation is especially fascinating because it turns reflective and shiny when wet. Not far from Looking Glass Rock is Skinny Dip Falls, a nice swimming hole fed by a waterfall.
17. Graveyard Fields (Milepost 418.8)
Despite is uninviting name, Graveyard Fields is almost always listed among the Blue Ridge Parkway’s best stops.
Its name refers to the area’s assemblage of tree stumps– whether due to a horrendous windstorm or logging (legends vary)– that resembled tombstones. Later, the stumps themselves were engulfed in a huge wildfire in the 1920s.
Graveyard Fields is a great place to forage for wild blueberries and spot wild animals, such as Black Bears and bald eagles. There are also several hiking trails and waterfalls.
18. Cowee Mountains Overlook (Milepost 430)
One of the highest overlooks on the Parkway, Cowee Mountains Overlook measures 5,950 feet above sea level.
Naturally, this provides another of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s best views and photo opportunities. The expansive view of the Blue Ridge mountains extends over 180 degrees and stretches on, layer upon layer, for miles westward.
Cowee Mountains Overlook is especially good for morning photography, when the sun is still behind the viewing area.
19. Richland Balsam Overlook (Milepost 431.4)
Richland Balsam surpasses 6,000 feet and is, in fact, the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The lofty location allows visitors to survey three different Blue Ridge mountain subranges of the Southern Appalachian: Cowee, Nantahala, and Plott Balsams.
There is also a walk that leads hikers through a spruce and fir forest.
20. Waterrock Knob Visitor Center and Park Store (Milepost 451.2)
Waterrock Knob Visitor Center and Park Store is not technically an overlook.
But it is home to splendid views that include the Great Balsams, the Great Smokies, Cowees, Nantahala, Blue Ridge, Newfound, Black, and Craggy Mountains.
As you’re getting close to Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Waterrock Trail is the last hiking spot for those heading south on the Parkway.
READ MORE: The 10 Best North Georgia State Parks
That’s an awful lot of sightseeing that can be done right from your car, safely socially distanced from others, with just enough on the planned agenda to stretch the legs every now and again and let the family enjoy some fresh mountain air.
Here’s a link for some great Blue Ridge Parkway maps.
And it’s worth checking that official National Park Service website to find out if the Blue Ridge Parkway is open. Especially in late fall, winter, and early spring, when road closures are common depending on the weather. -Jonathon Engels, lead photo by ChanhNguyen via Pixabay