If you’re short on cash this summer or just need ideas for new things to do, here are some activities that won’t cost you anything but time and gas to get there and back:
- Go to a National Park- While the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park don’t have an access fee, Shenandoah National Park does. There are however, six days in 2021 when that fee is waived and you can access all national parks for free. Other museums and sites often have a fee-free day as well, contact them to ask for details.
- Visit a waterfall– There are numerous waterfalls in the Shenandoah, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park regions. The link above shares the Milepost location as well as the length and difficulty of the hike (some can be seen from the Parkway or an overlook!). Some Forest Service sites do charge a day use fee (like Crabtree Falls in Virginia), but most are free to access.
- Take a hike (or a stroll)- Nature is good medicine and helps to boost our mood and attitude. Find trailhead locations on our interactive map, trail details on our hiking page, and lots more locations where you can find hiking, biking, and paddle trails in picturesque places near the Parkway regions.
- Pack a picnic- The Parkway picnic areas are all open this summer, so gather up some food, games and friends and head to a sunny spot. Eat a meal, toss a football, or just take a nap in the shade. But you aren’t limited to just picnic areas- pull up a camp chair at an overlook or pull off the shoulder (just remember that all of your vehicle must be off the road and you mustn’t block a gate) and spread out a blanket. Attractions along the way, like wineries and museums or even lodging, may also offer up a picnicking place, but fees may apply.
- Experience an event- Our events calendar lists a variety of free (and fee-required) events from one end of the Parkway to the other. You can find Fourth of July fireworks or listen to live music and lots in between. The Floyd Country Store in Floyd, VA is renowned for its delicious food and ice cream and free weekly Saturday Americana Afternoons and Sunday Music Jams. Pull up your chair, tap your toe, dance a step or two, watch and listen to the traditional music and Appalachian flatfooting and clogging. Other music venues dot the Parkway as well, from Asheville’s Shindig on the Green to Midday Mountain Music at the Blue Ridge Music Center and Big Walker Lookout’s weekly Mountaintop Music.
- Download our app- BRPA’s free smartphone mobile app can help you find your way and see what else there is to do on your journey.
- Learn something new- Attend an educational program, explore a historic structure, watch a living history or craft demonstration, discover exhibits at a visitor center or interpretive trail. Check out National Park Service programs at the Points of Interest along the Parkway. (Some structures, demonstrations and exhibits may not be available in 2021, so be sure to check the NPS Operating Hours page prior to traveling if you want to see something specific.)
- Take a picture- Leave No Trace principles (and Park Service guidelines) embrace not taking objects from a national park. But there are limitless opportunities for capturing spectacular images, from waterfalls to sunsets and sunrises to majestic rolling vistas and cloud-studded mountaintops. The joy of digital cameras is that you can delete the pictures you don’t like, so click to your heart’s content. Note that drones are not allowed and there are special guidelines for commercial filming and still photography.
- Enjoy the view- Who says there has to be a destination? Just go for a drive, stop at an overlook, catch a sunrise or sunset, identify a bird or wildflower, walk through a tunnel of blooming rhododendron, watch the hillsides turn green in spring or the leaves change to shades of amber in the fall, or search for falling stars or constellations from a dark location at night.
- Cast your line- There are many places to fish on or near the Parkway. You’ll likely need a license and some gear, but you can fish for free in many Parkway waters, adjacent national forests, and in nearby communities.
- Stroll a Main Street- Hop off the Parkway and head to a nearby downtown for some people-watching and window shopping. Check our interactive map for the main access points to enter and exit the Parkway.
- Discover history, art & architecture- An increasing number of towns offer a free brochure (often digital) describing the historical buildings and architecture, murals, or sculptures along a walking route. For example, Wytheville, VA offers a 64-page Historic Walking Tour; Asheville’s Urban Trail traces a path to 30 sculptures stationed around downtown; Virginia’s Blue Ridge shares a walking tour following the steps of explorers Lewis & Clark in Fincastle, VA; the Waynesboro, VA Street Arts Trail highlights the town’s murals and other public art in the form of a scavenger hunt; Lynchburg, VA provides an Architectural Walking Tour and a Historic District Walking Tour to help you discover the history hidden in the downtown architecture; and the Appalachian Mural Trail website helps you create a self-guided tour of murals from Tennessee to Virginia (some driving may be necessary depending on your choice of murals).
- Donate your time- The Park Service depends on partner organizations and volunteers to help keep the Parkway’s 469 miles, eight campgrounds, 15 picnic areas, 272 overlooks and miles of trails beautiful and user-friendly. Among other options, you can be a Habitat Defender in Shenandoah National Park, Adopt an Overlook along the Parkway, or Adopt a Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Contact a partner organization or the Park Service via the links above to find an available opportunity near you.
Are the best things in life free? There are a lot of free things to choose from in the regions surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway. But we won’t tell if you spend some money along the way to support the businesses and organizations that help make these activities available at no cost to all of us as visitors.