The Blue Ridge Parkway, a unit of the National Park Service, is managed as a scenic route but also to protect the natural resources along the Parkway corridor. When high elevation nighttime temperatures dip below freezing, there is little winter sun and moisture is on the roadway, sections of the Parkway are closed due to ice and snow and are not reopened until they are safe for vehicular traffic. The roadway is not plowed or salted so closed areas become wonderful winter playgrounds. Stretches of the Parkway may be closed even when the temperature is downright balmy in neighboring towns. When the road is closed to vehicles, it is open to pedestrians, cyclists, skiers and snowshoers alike (unless there is a full road closure to all access as is currently the case between Milepost 121.4 and 135.9; temporary maintenance closures also occur in the winter). Feel free to park at a Parkway access point (as long as your vehicle is completely off the road and you are not blocking a gate) and prepare to experience America’s favorite drive in a whole new way! Be sure to check the NPS road closure details to determine which sections of the Parkway are closed before you depart. Hint: if you zoom in on the Park Tiles map on the NPS maps page, you can find locations of Mileposts, overlooks and trails. Read on for seven options for exploring the wide-open spaces that surround the Parkway.
- Hiking. Some Parkway trails are accessible (and much less popular!) even in winter, like the Mountains to Sea Trail which crisscrosses the Parkway for many miles in North Carolina and trails at Moses Cone and Julian Price Memorial Parks. But when Parkway access is uncertain, there are many trails in nearby areas that can be easily accessed. Virginia’s Crabtree Falls (not to be confused with the Crabtree Falls located at Parkway Milepost 339 just north of Asheville, North Carolina) is located in the George Washington National Forest off of VA Route 56. Transylvania County, North Carolina offers many trails in the Pisgah District of the Pisgah National Forest. Grandfather Mountain and Chimney Rock may also be open if weather conditions allow. Remember as you navigate that mapping systems- including Google Maps- sometimes rely on faulty data (especially when it comes to navigating to Parkway sites), so it’s best to confirm the trail’s location and difficulty with another reputable source such as alltrails.com.
- Visiting Waterfalls. Remember to exercise caution in winter as some trails may be slippery. But the trails are less crowded in cold weather and it is a special treat, when the weather is just right, to view frozen waterfalls. Swain County, North Carolina provides a variety of hiking options, from sections of the Appalachian Trail to hikes on public lands surrounding Fontana Lake to the waterfalls in the Deep Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Their website describes several hikes in the region as well as great tips on how to social distance while enjoying the out of doors. East of Asheville in McDowell County, you’ll find easy hikes to both Tom’s Creek Falls and Catawba Falls. Even popular Linville Falls is accessible from a US Forest Service access point when the Parkway is closed. Many waterfalls can be found throughout the regions surrounding the Parkway. Some can be accessed with little or no hiking like Looking Glass Falls in Transylvania County.
- Winter sports. Several ski resorts in Western North Carolina are just minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you are looking for diversity, drops and terrain parks, then North Carolina’s High Country is a perfect destination. There’s skiing, snowboarding, and even a free municipal sledding hill in Beech Mountain (where they can make their own snow) for children to enjoy. Various levels of skiing, snowboarding, tubing, snowshoeing and even ice skating on a 10,000 square foot outdoor rink are available in Sugar Mountain, NC. But there’s also Cataloochee, nestled up to Maggie Valley and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Full-service ski resorts like Wintergreen are available in Virginia, too. And if the snow conditions are right, there’s great free sledding at Moses Cone Memorial Park near Boone, NC & Explore Park in Roanoke, VA. Check out all these great locations for winter sports! Hint: If you can plan your visit midweek, there are fewer people and lower rates for lift tickets at ski resorts.
- Biking. Bicycling closed sections of the Parkway is a perfect activity on a balmy winter day when there’s no vehicular traffic but watch out for shady patches where you might encounter snow or ice. State maintained roads may be clearer and also offer road biking opportunities. Several towns have greenways perfect for a walk or ride. And forest trails and roads offer more technical cycling for those more accustomed to rocks and roots in the trail. These regions offer a range of bicycling opportunities located across the Parkway and its surrounding areas.
- Fishing. Yes, fishing in the winter! Put on your layers of non-cotton clothing like wool and fleece and prepare to land a trout or musky. A few extra safety precautions are in order like having extra dry clothing, fishing with a buddy, and letting someone know where you’ll be and when to expect you back. But you’ll get to experience crisp winter air, solitude and probably your pick of the best pools in the river. Make sure to have a valid fishing license and check out one of these great areas for fishing this year.
- Stargazing. Bet you didn’t see that one coming! Is there a better time of year to view the glittering night sky than when it gets dark early and is cold enough to snuggle under a blanket with a special someone? Don’t worry if you’re a novice; there are several stargazing apps available to help. Night skies are clearer in the winter because cold air holds less moisture. Public places are less busy, so it’s easier to find a location. And some constellations, like Orion, Cassiopeia, and Taurus are evident and easy to identify in the winter sky. So grab a blanket, some cocoa and binoculars, if you have them, and check out one of these places for stargazing this winter.
- Scenic driving. Warm winter days in the southeast are perfect for a motorcycle or sportscar tour of a scenic route. With fewer cars on the road and less foliage to block those long-range mountain views, a scenic drive is the perfect way to social distance. There are numerous named routes like the Claw of the Dragon, Back of the Dragon, Tail of the Dragon and The Jagged Edge but many unnamed Appalachian Backroads are just as fun to travel. Maybe a scenic spot or a restaurant with takeout service is your destination, or maybe it’s just to get out of the house and enjoy a beautiful winter view. Whatever your purpose, be sure to check the road conditions before you head out to enjoy a scenic drive in one of these areas this winter.
Even when the Parkway is closed this winter, we hope you can enjoy some outdoor activities in the neighboring regions!