Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway follows the ridge line of the Blue Ridge Mountains as it winds for almost 217 miles from Shenandoah National Park to the North Carolina border. The entire 469 mile Blue Ridge Parkway through both Virginia and North Carolina is one of the most visited areas managed by the U.S. National Parks System.
I love road trips, and driving the entire Blue Ridge Parkway sounds absolutely idyllic to me. However, in my recent travels around the region, I’ve learned that driving the parkway straight through would be a terrible mistake. Why? Because there are so many fun places to stop just off the parkway. Not to mention that my kids would most certainly revolt if I attempted to drive over 200 miles at 45 MPH on windy roads with them in the backseat for an entire day. So, here’s my guide for an unforgettable road trip through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway.
Look at Your Map
The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the few places that my loyal friend, Google Maps, has failed me; there is simply not enough cell phone service up in the mountains to rely on your iPhone to get you to where you want to go. I highly recommend doing some research and developing a rough itinerary before heading out into the Blue Ridge Mountains. Also, don’t forget to pick up a map of the parkway at a visitor center along the way and use it for your more impromptu explorations for a safe and fun road trip through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway with kids.
Parents know that getting out of the car to hike, bike, play or enjoy a museum is absolutely essential when bringing the kids along on a road trip. So, I have listed my favorite places in the region by their mile post (MP) on the Blue Ridge Parkway from north to south so families can make a plan to get out of the car and explore.
Wintergreen Resort – approximately one mile east the Parkway at MP 13.5
Wintergreen Resort is certainly one of the best places for a family vacation up in the Blue Ridge Mountains during any season. Nestled high in the mountains, the views from the resort are some of the most spectacular in Virginia. With restaurants, children’s ski school and summer day camp programs, a nature center, and plenty of outdoor adventure activities to keep the teens busy, Wintergreen Resort is a place where everyone in the family can enjoy a true relaxing vacation. To top it all off, Wintergreen Resort is only minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway so it the perfect place to be based as your family explores.
Crabtree Falls – 6 miles east of the Parkway at MP 27
Crabtree Falls is one of the most rewarding hikes for families that I have experienced with my kids in Virginia. The bottom of the falls is only a short 5 minute walk from the parking lot along a paved path. For those that would like to spend more time exploring, a trail rises steeply alongside the falls. There are five major cascades dropping a total distance of 1,200 feet making this the highest vertical-drop, cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River.
Natural Bridge – 15 miles west the Parkway at MP 61.6 or MP 63.7
Virginia’s Natural Bridge is one of the United States oldest tourist destinations, popularized by it’s first owner, Thomas Jefferson, who built a guest cabin on the property. Since the late 1700s, this 215 foot high natural geological formation has been one of Virginia’s most iconic tourist destinations. Yes, it has become a bit commercialized over the years, but considering its place in our nation’s history and its inherent natural beauty, it should still be on the itinerary for any family visiting the area. I hope that my own kids remember their visit last fall the same way that my husband remembers his first visit with his grandparents decades ago.
James River Visitor Center and Otter Creek – MP 56.0 – MP 63.7
As your family drives along the Blue Ridge Parkway, you’ll want to be sure to spend an hour or two exploring the Otter Creek area. A 3.5 mile trail paralleling the parkway and Otter Creek connects the Otter Creek Campground with the James River Visitor Center; the trail has several access points along the Parkway. Behind the James River Visitor Center, there are tables for picnicking alongside the James River and the entrance to an impressive pedestrian bridge running all the way across the river to an exhibit on canal locks on the southern shore.
Lynchburg – 22 miles east the Parkway at MP 63.7
If you’re not much of a camper, it’s likely that you’ll be looking for a home base to return to each night as you explore the Blue Ridge Parkway. Look no further than Lynchburg! In comparison to nearby Roanoke, Lynchburg is a particularly great fit for families with younger children and history buffs.
What does Lynchburg have to offer families? Lynchburg is home to my personal favorite children’s museum for kids in the 4-8 year old age range, Amazement Square. Amazement Square features a four story climbing structure with slides and tubes for the kids to climb around inside and get their wiggles out. In addition to fun and games, there are some truly unique exhibits where kids can learn about the local canal system and Native Americans while they play. In addition to Amazement Square, Lynchburg is home to several family-friendly, locally owned restaurants with children’s menus; my favorite children’s menu of the bunch can be found at The Depot Grille, conveniently located just across the street from Amazement Square. Finally, the whole family will love Lynchburg’s green spaces, parks, and bike paths.
Lynchburg is also the perfect place to dive into the history of the early 1800s and the Civil War. Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park, the location where Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Grant, is only a 30 minute drive outside of town in one direction, and Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s most accomplished work of architecture, is 30 minutes outside of Lynchburg in the opposite direction. There’s also plenty of history within walking distance of downtown Lynchburg from the Point of Honor, a historic residence overlooking the city, to the Old City Cemetery.
Where to Stay
When my family spent a weekend in Lynchburg, we enjoyed staying at the Holiday Inn Lynchburg conveniently located downtown within walking distance of several family-friendly restaurants and many of our favorite attractions. Admittedly, downtown Lynchburg is still in the midst of a period of revitalization, which will eventually bring even more hotel choices to the downtown area. I felt comfortable walking around town at all times of day. And, what is better than being only a short walk from CAO Artisan Chocolates where it’s possible to treat the kids to a cup of gelato at almost any time of day?
Peaks of Otter – MP84 – MP 87
If your family is looking for lodging or even just a hearty lunch on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, the Peaks of Otter Lodge is your best bet. In season there is both a dining room and quick service restaurant at the lodge. The lodge sits on the edge of a small lake where our family enjoyed picnicking with the food that we purchased at the quick service restaurant. Across the lake stands the imposing and distinctive Sharp Top Mountain. While hiking Sharp Top is quite the feat, there is a shuttle bus that takes visitors to a viewpoint within 1,500 feet of the top of the mountain. There’s plenty of hiking available from a flat path around the lake to more strenuous full-day adventures; the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center is available to guide families towards appropriate hiking trails and provide maps in the summer and fall seasons.
Roanoke – 5 miles south of the Parkway at MP 112.2
Roanoke is another great city to explore when driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, and it is by far the best place to spend a rainy afternoon in the region. It’s especially great to travel here with tweens and teens because it has a variety of indoor museums that cover a diverse array of interests from transportation to art.
All of downtown Roanoke’s museums are within walking distance of its Historic City Market. In fact, there are several museums located adjacent to the market at the Center in the Square including the Science Museum of Western Virginia and the Roanoke Pinball Museum. The Science Museum of Western Virginia, located at the top of the Center in the Square, has a butterfly garden looking out over the city of Roanoke and contain exhibits ranging from the chemistry behind the illumination of the Mill Mountain Star to the workings of the human body. Just downstairs from the science museum is the Roanoke Pinball Museum, which is sure to be a favorite for parents who spent their childhoods hanging out at the local arcade. It’s the perfect place to bring back childhood memories all while bonding with your kids.
The shops and restaurants in Roanoke are another highlight for families visiting the region. Grab the largest slice of pizza you’ve ever seen at Benny Marconi’s then head down the street to The Candy Store to spoil the kids rotten in a place that will bring you right back to your own childhood. It’s probably not the healthiest snack, but certainly unforgettable.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Roanoke is the place to stay when visiting Roanoke with it’s super convenient location just across the railroad tracks from downtown. However, if like us you’re in town on the day of a big football game or conference, we’ve found the newly remodeled Hampton Inns in Southern and Southwestern Virginia to be a great option. While the Hampton Inn Salem is a bit of a drive from downtown Roanoke, we loved its stylishly remodeled rooms and awesome complimentary breakfast.
Booker T Washington National Monument – 20 miles southwest of the Parkway at MP 121.4
The Booker T. Washington National Monument is quite a drive from the parkway; however it is close to Smith Mountain Lake so families vacationing in this area are likely to drive past this incredible educational resource. Families visiting the Booker T. Washington National Monument will learn about his early life as a slave on a Virginia plantation in the years leading up to the Civil War. The museum exhibits are perfect for early elementary school age children and provide opportunities for them to relate to the jobs that as a six to nine year old, Booker T. Washington would have been required to do as a slave. The cabin where Booker T. Washington lived with his mother and siblings has been reconstructed so that kids can see what sort of living arrangements a slave might have experienced in 1860s Virginia. Be sure to ask for a Junior Ranger booklet to help get the most out of your visit.
Fairy Stone State Park – 16 miles west of Parkway at MP 165.2
Fairy Stone State Park is one of Virginia’s 36 fabulously managed state parks. It features cabins that can be rented by the week during the summer months and for a minimum of two nights at a time in the off season. In the spring, my kids and I enjoyed hiking along the edge of the lake to a small earthen dam. As we drove around the lake, we were excited to see large foam water toys being installed for the summer season in the area reserved for swimming by the lake’s beach.
Rocky Knob – MP167-174
There are plenty of spectacular views along Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway. In the Rocky Knob area there are several pull-outs where families can park their car and take a moment to savor the view. My kids especially liked the picnic area at Rocky Knob; on a spring afternoon we had the entire area to ourselves — although in season, I’m sure it is quite popular. There are large boulders for climbing on and around; when it’s not busy, it’s the perfect place for a game of hike and seek.
Mabry Mill MP 176.1
Get pancakes all day long at the Mabry Mill Restaurant on the Blue Ridge Parkway! It’s the perfect place to stop for any meal right on the parkway during the summer and fall. If you visit as we did in the off season, you will be disappointed to find the restaurant and gift shop closed; however, the area is still beautiful to walk around with blooming trees in the spring months. As we strolled the pathways around the mill, we saw the waterwheel turn and ducks playing in the lake. During the summer months, I can imagine that this place is really hopping with live folk music and staff from the National Park Service demonstrating crafting techniques from the Appalachian region.
The Crooked Road Music Trail (Highway 58) – MP 177.7 and The Blue Ridge Music Center – MP 213
As we exited the Blue Ridge Parkway onto Hwy 58 at the Meadows of Dan, I was surprised that the scenery kept getting more impressive as the road got even more windy. Families driving the Blue Ridge Parkway should make sure to take a detour east along this beautiful highway. As we drove we passed by many signs for Virginia’s Crooked Road Music Trail; this region of Appalachia is not just famous for its scenic beauty but also its rich country music heritage. Along this trail families can visit with music and instrument makers whose craft has been handed down through generations. Of course, there are all sorts of music venues along the trail; in the summer months it’s difficult to travel this way without stumbling upon live bluegrass or country music.
The Blue Ridge Music Center, open seasonally, is one of the final places to stop on the parkway in the state of Virginia. The museum is the host of a summer concert series and home to a museum featuring an exhibit on the “Roots of American Music.”
All photos by Melissa Moore unless otherwise stated.
Disclosure: My family was hosted by Wintergreen Resort, Discover Lynchburg, and Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge. All opinions are my own.