The Blue Ridge Parkway isn’t a road. Roads get you from “point A” to “point B.” The Parkway entertains you from “point A” to “point B.” It is a 469-mile cinematic experience, a masterpiece of the National Park collection, traveling from Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a sense of drama that ebbs and flows with the landscape. The Parkway is arguably the most iconic drive in the U.S., but it is so much more than a scenic drive. With protected peaks, wetlands, and trailheads around every sinuous curve, the Parkway is an avenue for exploration—a wildflower hunter’s dream, a hiker’s delight, a birder’s paradise

We’ve found seven individuals who have made it their purpose to truly explore the Parkway. Forget driving the road, these professionals dig in, whether they’re looking for elusive birds or uncovering long-forgotten historical anecdotes. Some have spent years driving the road from end to end, others spend hours looking for the perfect wildflower. Click through the stories of the explorers below, and use these experts as your guide to experience the Parkway in an entirely new manner. Sure, you might’ve driven this road before. But driving the Blue Ridge Parkway is just the beginning.

Nation on Wheels

Vintage Photo of the Blue Ridge Parkway

Birth of the Scenic Highway

If it weren’t for R. Getty Browning, the Blue Ridge Parkway never would’ve traveled by Asheville. When the road was proposed in the 1930s, one of the preferred routes ran through farmland in Eastern Tennessee, ending near Gatlinburg. The National Park Service’s own landscape architect favored the Tennessee route, but R. Getty Browning, the chief of North Carolina’s highway locating department, was passionate about taking the road through the highest mountain peaks east of the Mississippi. In fact, he was the first person to travel the Parkway as it is today, walking the whole of the southern section to determine the optimal route.

History on a Grand Scale

More Area Historic Attractions

“Browning had a strong argument that the North Carolina route, which was along the ridgeline, was more scenic,” says Dr. Anne Mitchell Whisnant, historian and author of Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History (University of North Carolina Press, 2006). “If you’re building a scenic highway, why not put it with the best scenery?”

Visitors to the Parkway are the beneficiaries of Browning’s vision, which sent the road winding along sky-scraping peaks like Richland Balsam (MP 431), Black Balsam, and Mount Mitchell (MP 349.9); the North Carolina section that Browning fought for offers visitors some of the best ridgeline views along the entire 469-mile highway.

Uncovering Controversy

Tales from the Parkway’s Past

R. Getty Browning eventually steered the route into North Carolina, creating the Parkway as we know it today, but the man himself was forgotten by historians, until Whisnant discovered his signature on so many documents while researching her graduate school thesis on the controversies surrounding the construction of the Parkway.

“You don’t even see his name in other books, but he was crucial to the Parkway’s development,” Whisnant says, adding that iconic views like those of Looking Glass Rock, an hour south of Asheville, are the direct result of Browning’s passion. “He loved the idea of building these scenic highways in the most dramatic settings.”

Expand Your Horizons

Best Blue Ridge Scenic Drives

Driving the Parkway can be mesmerizing. The way the blacktop clings to the landscape, the way you move from forest to open meadows, how one curve begs you to take another…It’s easy to think the road was simply paved through this incredible, natural landscape, but in fact, everything you see along the Parkway was designed meticulously by landscape architects.

Anatomy of a Scenic View

“Look at photos taken of the Parkway alignment before it was built. There were no trees anywhere,” says Gary Johnson, the former chief landscape architect for the Blue Ridge Parkway. The mountains and valleys were barren and eroded after questionable timber and farming practices in the early 20th century and the Park Service consciously rebuilt the forests surrounding the road with native materials, planning where to put plants, grass, shrubs, wildflower bays…The original landscape architect, Stanley Abbott, thought of this National Park System gem as a “museum of American countryside.”

By the Numbers — Historic Design

  • 26 tunnels

  • 176 bridges

  • 91 historic buildings

  • 382 overlooks

  • 910 managed roadside vistas

Gary Johnson first began working on the Parkway in the 1970s while it was still being constructed. In those years, he spent all week driving the length of the Parkway, inspecting various sites, returning home on the weekends only to recreate the weeklong drive the following Monday.

After a stint out west, Johnson returned to the Parkway in 1994 as the chief landscape architect, where his job entailed restoring the landscape to better represent that “museum-like” notion. After decades of rehabilitation, the Parkway is now experiencing “peak beauty,” offering a cinematic experience of scenic valleys and crescendos for visitors driving the road.

“I feel like the more people understand about the effort that went into the Parkway’s design, they’ll have a better understanding about why it needs to be protected,” Johnson says.

Go Wild(flowers)!

Stunning Snapshots & Bloom Schedule

There’s a 22-foot long interactive map at the Parkway’s Visitor’s Center (MP 384) that serves as the first Parkway experience for a lot of visitors. Drag a large monitor across the map, and photos and information pop up at various highlighted points. Vicki Dameron, a regional photographer, has more than 100 photos featured on the I-Wall.

“I hiked on the Blue Ridge Parkway for a year and took pictures from end to end,” Dameron says, adding that of all the aspects of life she captures as a professional photographer, from weddings to portraits, the Parkway is her favorite subject. “I’m always on the Parkway. It’s my sanctuary, my therapist. And it’s free.”

Top Photo Tips

Stunning Snapshots & Bloom Schedule

A self-described “wildflower fanatic,” Dameron sees the Parkway as a 469-mile long wildflower meadow. Western North Carolina has more diversity in flora than all of Europe, and the elevation changes along the Parkway make it an ideal landscape for a variety of different wildflowers. Drive the road between March and November (peak wildflower season), and you’ll see colorful buds sprouting around every corner.

“You pull over to take a picture of one flower, and you see an even more amazing photo in a different spot,” Dameron says. More than 80 percent of the Parkway’s vascular plants are wildflowers. The Parkway’s high rainfall, rich soil, and varied topography generate an environment where many species of wildflower will bloom side by side. The beauty can be overwhelming, but Dameron insists that the key to good Parkway photography is patience. Slow down and let go of the hustle you find in the cities below the ridgeline.

“The Parkway is a place where you can go and ease your mind,” Dameron says. “Your blood pressure can be through the roof when you’re at work, but that all slips away when you’re on the Parkway.”

Hike in Danny’s Footsteps

The Mountains-to-Sea Trail Across North Carolina

The Parkway isn’t just a road that connects two of the country’s most stunning National Parks. It’s also the country’s greatest trailhead, with hiking trails infiltrating the forest from overlooks and pull-offs throughout the road’s length. Nobody knows this better than Danny Bernstein, one of the South’s most accomplished hikers, who can list the Appalachian Trail among her many accomplishments. Bernstein sees the Parkway as a gateway to outdoor adventure, where the hiking is endless, but opportunities also include fishing for trout, swimming beneath waterfalls, picking wild blueberries, cycling, even rock climbing.

Most recently, Bernstein thru-hiked the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which travels 1,000 miles across the state from Clingmans Dome in the Smokies to Jockey Ridge State Park in the Outer Banks.

Top 5 Tips for Getting Outdoors via the Blue Ridge Parkway

Danny Bernstein on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Because the Mountains-to-Sea Trail follows the Parkway for 300 miles, the road has become a “hiking highway,” offering easy access to multi-day journeys and short hikes alike. “When you’re hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, you have the option of getting back on the Parkway every couple of miles, so the variety of hikes is unparalleled,” Bernstein says. “Do you want a three-mile hike or a 15-mile hike? It’s up to you.”

And if you think the views from the Parkway’s overlooks are postcard worthy, you need to experience the view from one of the road’s many adjacent peaks. Bernstein likes the view from Mount Pisgah (MP 408.6), A 5,700-foot peak with a 360-degree view. “From Pisgah, you can see the world,” Bernstein says.

View from the Top of Mount Mitchell

360 Degrees From the Highest Peak in the East

Drive 33 miles north of Asheville on the Parkway and you’ll skirt the edge of Mount Mitchell, the highest summit east of the Mississippi River, clocking in at a lofty 6,684 feet. It’s a jagged, rocky peak with hiking trails that meander around boulders and through evergreen forests that have been known to gather snow even in summer—it’s a rare, high alpine forest typically associated with Canada. Mount Mitchell (MP 355.4) is named for Dr. Elisha Mitchell, the scientist credited with first measuring the mountain in 1835, usurping Mount Washington as the East’s loftiest peak. But there’s still some debate as to whether or not Elisha Mitchell was actually the first to measure the highest point on Mount Mitchell.

In 1856, one of Mitchell’s students, Thomas Clingman, claimed Mitchell had never actually set foot on the top of the mountain and that he, in fact had been the first to measure the mountain properly. In 1857, Mitchell lost his bearings while exploring the peak on a return trip to prove Clingman wrong, slipped off the edge of a waterfall, and drowned.

Frozen in Time

Elisha Mitchell's Watch

When rescue crews led by mountaineer Big Tom Wilson discovered Elisha Mitchell following his deadly fall, they noticed that his pocket watch had stopped, marking the exact time of death at 8:19:56 p.m. on June 27, 1857.

Dr. Tim Silver knows the Mount Mitchell debate well. The historian details the drama between the two 19th Century figures in his book Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America. An avid backpacker and fisherman, Silver actually retraced much of Elisha Mitchell’s explorations of the Black Mountain Range while researching the book.

“There’s a real human drama to this mountain,” Silver says. “Clingman was ostracized and eventually ended up in an insane asylum. And today, it’s kind of an open question about whether Mitchell was even on the mountain during his first explorations in 1835 as he later claimed.”

What The Explorer Saw

Hike in Mitchell’s Footsteps

Today, you can walk in Elisha Mitchell’s footsteps if you’re willing. While the waterfall that took Mitchell’s life is on private property, the Old Mitchell Trail, part of the trail that the geologist took from Asheville, is still intact inside the state park. But don’t get too hung up on which geologist measured Mitchell first.

“Elevation is a relative thing. It only means something in regard to something else,” Silver says. “I’m not sure anyone actually knows the absolute elevation of Mount Mitchell today.”

Flock to These Hotspots

8 Places for the Best Birdwatching

More than 250 bird species have been spotted or heard along the Parkway—roughly a third of all bird species found in North America. Because of the road’s high elevation and varied ecosystems, the 4,000 acres of forest surrounding the Parkway have become a haven for breeding and migrating bird species. Translation: If you want to tick off a chunk of that birding checklist or if you are a newcomer to “birding,” all you have to do is take a short drive on the Parkway.

“In an hour from Asheville, you’re at nearly 7,000 feet. As you climb up in elevation, you go out of one bird’s range, and into another,” says ornithologist Simon Thompson. “The diversity is staggering.”

Thompson owns Ventures Birding Tours, a guiding service that leads birders to the far corners of the earth, but is spending an increasing amount of time guiding day trips along the Parkway, which serves as a massive corridor for migratory birds who tend to avoid developed areas.

Thompson has been bird watching since he was a little boy, and can identify most species just by hearing a little piece of their song. To maximize success on the Parkway, he hits the road just after dawn, driving to various lookouts and hiking short pieces of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Sometimes he makes it as far as Mount Mitchell (MP 355.4), where northern species like the hermit thrush and black-throated green warblers can be found. But one his favorite spots is Craven Gap (MP 377.4), just outside of Asheville, where red-bellied woodpeckers and northern cardinals can be found. Birdwatching Tip: For an unfettered view of Parkway birds, visit in early spring or late fall when the trees are without leaves.

Birdwatching Tip: For an unfettered view of Parkway birds, visit in early spring or late fall when the trees are without leaves.

“People don’t know the birding is so good in the Carolinas,” Thompson says, “but in the spring and fall, you’ll see so many individual species, particularly on the Parkway. It’s like going to Canada, but a lot closer.”

Otters Make a Comeback

See the Live Webcam

The Parkway is known for its winding pavement and dramatic overlooks, but the wildlife surrounding that ribbon of blacktop is equally as dramatic. According to Bob Cherry, the Parkway’s lead wildlife biologist, even though the park is narrow, its length and broad elevation spectrum allow for a wide range of ecosystems, from mountain balds to muddy wetlands. “The more ecosystems you have, the more wildlife species you get,” Cherry says.

Parkway Species By the Numbers

  • 43 amphibians

  • 99 fish

  • 60 mammals

  • 227 birds

  • 31 reptiles

The road has played a key role in a number wildlife success stories. You can find small populations of the endangered Northern Flying Squirrel, a cute nocturnal creature that can soar 50 yards, at elevations above 4,500 feet near Asheville. The number of black bears roaming the Parkway from north to south is on the rise, as are the number of beavers, which were eradicated in North Carolina in 1895, but have since been reintroduced and are thriving. On Waterrock Knob (MP 451.2), south of Asheville, you can even find massive elk that have roamed north after being reintroduced to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001.

Bear Aware: What to Do If You See One

Big game aside, the Southern Appalachians are best known in the wildlife world as the international hot spot for salamanders. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is recognized as having the largest number of salamander species in the world, but the Parkway is a close second, and getting closer every year. “We’re just a little behind them right now in terms of species,” Cherry says. “But we’ll catch them.”

Asheville, any way you like it

Book a Room

Outdoor Adventures

Parkway Packages

Travel Planner Mobile App

Before beginning your exploration of the Blue Ridge Parkway, you need to choose a base camp, and the most popular place to access this iconic drive is Asheville, North Carolina. This eclectic mountain town, a cultural crossroads of the southern Appalachians, has long lured travelers from far and wide, including George W. Vanderbilt. Parkway travelers can even catch a lofty glimpse of America’s Largest Home, Biltmore, while descending into Asheville from points south.

Once basecamp is established you’ll need to survey the perimeter. The Parkway’s Visitor Center (MP 384) will provide complete perspective on all there is to explore in the region. Gain insight from park rangers or utilize their impressive 22-foot interactive map to get your bearings. Here you’ll learn where to discover other Parkway highlights including the Folk Art Center (MP 382) and the North Carolina Arboretum (MP 393.6).

When it’s time to return to base camp, you’ll find there is still so much more to explore in Asheville. Here, you’ll discover a mecca for the free-spirited and a home to hundreds of working artist and craftsmen. You’ll find historical treasures such as the Omni Grove Park Inn, the childhood home of novelist Thomas Wolfe, and a vast collection of Art Deco architecture lining the streets. The booming downtown district is filled with one-of-a-kind boutiques, independent restaurants, chocolatiers, and breweries. What better way to recharge after a day of exploration? Another great source for local intel is the Asheville Visitor Center. Stop by to receive recommendations on the best this city has to offer.