January 26 is National Plan for Vacation Day and I’m including my tips for vacation planning amidst the unpredictability of 2021. My husband and I have sadly been planning back-to-back transatlantic and Mediterranean cruises for more than a year that have just been canceled. But, we’re still healthy and still employed, so we’re trying to look on the bright side and are plotting a tentative travel course along the Blue Ridge Parkway for 2021. Last year, we visited the Roanoke area and from Rocky Knob (Milepost 165) to the Northwest Trading Post (Milepost 258.7). This year, we are hoping to tour the entire Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park and explore the Parkway from Milepost 0 at Rockfish Gap to at least Roanoke, VA, and maybe further south to Fancy Gap, VA. If we had more time, I’d drive all of the Parkway.
Academic research shows that trip planning and anticipation bring positive effects. This year, I call that hope. Hope for national unity. Hope to be able to gather with friends and family again. And hope for safe travel.
Here’s my insider trip-planning tips that I am hoping to utilize this year:
- Collect a list of new places that appeal to you. As I discover cool places described in BRPA materials (website, app, or printed travel planner), I add them to my travel wishlist on a pad of paper (you could also save them to your favorites in our app). These are some of the things I have added to my list:
- Hikes—the Coolest Hike in Virginia, Nelson County’s Crozet Tunnel Greenway
- Restaurants—Hole Lotta Doughnuts in West Jefferson is very enticing
- Breweries—Devils Backbone in Nelson County, VA
- Stores—Nancy’s Candy Company in Meadows of Dan, VA
- Gem mines—Emerald Village in Spruce Pine, NC
- Wineries—Cardinal Point Winery in Nelson County has a German Shepherd in their pictures and my husband wants to meet it since his last shepherd passed in 2019
- Caverns—Luray Caverns in Luray, VA, Skyline Caverns in Front Royal, VA, and Lost Sea in Sweetwater, TN
- Cultural sites—Oconaluftee Indian Village & Unto These Hills in Cherokee, NC
- Museums—VA Museum of the Civil War & New Market Battlefield State Historical Park in New Market, VA
- Theater—Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA will likely be offering some of their productions at the Moonlite Drive-In Theater again this year (how cool is that?!).
- Holiday traditions—Dollywood in Sevierville, TN is a magical Christmas light display
- Spectacular view—Ober Gatlinburg in Gatlinburg, TN
- Just last week I added an itinerary for Wytheville, Virginia to our website and discovered several places that I would enjoy visiting. I had two stops in mind for Wytheville before I read their itinerary and now I have a whole list!
- Beagle Ridge Herb Farm lets you cut fresh lavender and walk through a butterfly house. They have events all season long where you can create wreaths, make your own essential oils and spa products, discover cooking with lavender and even learn to grow your own.
- The New River Trail State Park sounds fun for biking
- The Log House 1776 Restaurant makes a moist and melt-in-your-mouth delicious apple cake
- Big Walker Lookout has live music outside on the porch every weekend May to October, and
- The downtown museums, especially the Edith Bolling Wilson museum celebrating our First Lady from 1915-1921, sound very intriguing.
- If those things don’t appeal to you, check out itineraries for many different regions of the Parkway here and maybe something else will whet your travel appetite. Or check out our interactive map which filters by many different activities so you can see where each is located and find more details.
- Add any places you’d like to re-visit. Last fall we stayed on the Parkway in Fancy Gap, VA (Milepost 199.4) at Fancy Gap Cabins & Campground (amazing sunsets and wonderful hospitality at this private campground located directly on the Parkway) and went north to Rocky Knob. Raspberry Taxi wine and wood-fired pizzas outside at Villa Appalaccia Winery near Floyd, VA were a delightful treat after a hike at Rocky Knob. We stopped at Mabry Mill to snap some pictures, and have toured the mill before, but someday I’d still like to try the famous pancakes at the Mabry Mill Restaurant. We also went south to Northwest Trading Post, stopping at Doughton Park for a picnic and short hike and a peek in the windows at the Bluffs Restaurant. I’d like to get back to that historic restaurant this year when they open and my husband wants to hike the Mountains to Sea Trail at Doughton Park, so it’ll be a win for both of us. Last summer we camped in Roanoke at Explore Park and spent a day in the Bedford Area at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, the National D-Day Memorial, and Peaks of Otter Winery. We hiked to Sharp Top at Peaks of Otter (from personal experience, I do not recommend this on a Saturday during a pandemic). We want to go back to the Roanoker Restaurant in Roanoke, VA for the best fried chicken ever (I plan to get the biggest box of chicken that they have to go, even though you have to call and order it an hour in advance, because even my pickiest-eater-in-the-world 18-year-old cat was licking the chicken when we had our backs turned in the camper; she had several teeth removed in 2013 and we’ve been following her around with a plate of wet cat food since then so I’m thrilled when she eats any protein) and Peaks of Otter Winery for fresh fruit picking (it was too hot in July last year) and their apple cider doughnuts which melt in your mouth. Olde Liberty Station was closed when we went last year, but I still want to try one of their legendary cheesecakes.We live west of Asheville, NC so we are very familiar with the Pisgah District (Milepost 340-469.1) of the Parkway. We have hiked to the top of Mt. Pisgah and to both waterfalls at Graveyard Fields, climbed Frying Pan Tower, hiked sections of the Mountains to Sea Trail, eaten at the Pisgah Inn, camped in the Shining Rock Wilderness Area at Black Balsam, biked at Bent Creek, visited the North Carolina Arboretum, and biked the Heintooga Spur Road into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (when it was closed to motorists).We have also been to Linville Falls, Craggy Gardens and NC’s Crabtree Falls, all of which are very popular areas to visit and can be crowded. Just this last weekend, we walked a closed portion of the Parkway near Waynesville, NC and it was refreshingly peaceful.
- Consider social distancing. I am looking for sites where it is easy to social distance during this pandemic. I will be wearing a face covering and I do not want to spend my vacation worrying about and physically dodging other visitors who are not wearing masks. That is stressful for me and cancels out any relaxation I might get from the trip. So I am looking at websites to see what safety protocols are in place. If a venue’s website overtly states that they will assume you have a medical condition if you are not wearing a mask, then I am not likely to visit that location in 2020. I am looking for dining to go, outdoor experiences, overlooks, hikes, campgrounds with space, and will have to evaluate whether indoor experiences will have to wait until I feel safe and am vaccinated.
- Plot places on a map. My next step is to plot my desired locations on a map of the Parkway. You can absolutely do this online in a mapping program (just keep in mind that maps sometimes lie, especially about what sections of the Parkway are currently open), but I am going to start with a paper map so I can see where all the locations are. To locate the sites, you can use the search box on our website (each location has a page showing more information and the closest Parkway access point), use our interactive map, or download our BRPA Travel Planner app (an added bonus here is that each BRPA member’s listing will have an option to view the location on a map or get driving directions). In the app, you can even save places to your favorites to be able to locate them easier later. And, if you download the optional offline maps, you’ll have them saved on your device if you are traveling and don’t have internet access or cell service.
- Determine your lodging. After I have plotted locations on a map, I can guess how much of the Parkway we can travel in a day based on how many stops I want to make along the way and then pick lodging locations accordingly. Keep in mind that the speed limit on Skyline Drive is 35 miles per hour and the Parkway’s speed limit varies from 35 to 45 miles per hour depending on the location. And some areas of the Parkway (like Asheville and Roanoke) have more lodging options available closer to the Parkway than other areas. Our interactive map visually shows where different types of lodging are located along the Parkway and would be a super resource during this stage of planning. To determine lodging locations, you’ll also have to factor in your desired route.
- Plan your route. If you are stopping at motels or tent camping, this might involve less logistics. But we will be towing a trailer and bringing an 18-year-old cat. Logistically, I am considering how to do the least amount of backtracking while moving the trailer the fewest number of times which may well involve using the nearby highways to drive a loop each day. I am also considering parking lot size. Smaller venues will likely have smaller lots and stopping by while towing the trailer would be very challenging. For example, we visited Villa Appalaccia last year for a delightful afternoon. But if we had pulled into their lot while towing the trailer, we likely would have had to back all the way out to the road as the parking lot was pretty full, there is only one access, and there wasn’t space to turn around. And because they are located on a narrow dirt road, you can’t park on the road and walk in. If you have a question about a venue’s accessibility for your rig, one option is to utilize satellite imagery in mapping programs like Google maps. You can zoom in to see how big a parking lot is, if there is parking for bigger rigs, and if there is more than one access point to the parking lot. I doubt that most venues are cat-friendly so I’m planning our route so that she is snuggled up in her bed in the trailer during the day at a campground with electricity (so I can control the camper temperature). I will not soon forget the May trip we took to the Outer Banks when we discovered upon arrival that the camper air conditioner wasn’t working. Even with the windows and doors open, it was so hot that we were all roasting and uncomfortable. We learned some valuable lessons from that trip. Also know that some sections of the Parkway will be closed for repairs, like Roanoke to Adney Gap (Milepost 121.4 to 135.9) and the Linville River Bridge area from Milepost 316.5 to 317.5, so check the NPS road closures page for details as any closures may affect your route.
- Plan for off season and midweek. Many lodging facilities are open year-round, being busiest in October during leaf season. But most Parkway campgrounds are scheduled to open at the end of May (a couple appear to be opening April 2 for fishing season- check recreation.gov for more details) but that is subject to change. We are looking for campgrounds with electricity either on or very near to the Parkway. BRPA’s interactive map visually shows where lodging options are located so you can see how far from the Parkway they are. I am hoping to travel on weekdays in April or May in hopes that there will be fewer travelers then. But with so many folks working and schooling remotely, all bets are off for the travel season this year. And keep in mind that there’s no firm date for when the Parkway will open to motorists; it is based on weather and safe road conditions. A lot of visitors were on the Parkway in 2020 and I expect that outdoor recreation will be popular in 2021 as we continue social distancing. So planning for off season, midweek and early morning travel is important to avoid crowds, especially if you plan to visit popular areas like Graveyard Fields, Craggy Gardens and the Linn Cove Viaduct.
- Be flexible. Since much of the Parkway is currently closed due to snow and ice and we don’t know exactly when portions of the road will be open, I am not making reservations yet. And if virus cases continue to spike and I don’t feel like traveling is safe, then we can pick up these plans and move them later this year, or even next year.
I hope that you are just as excited as I am about the many things to see and do along the Blue Ridge Parkway and that you will begin to plan your vacation for when it is safe to travel again. I will be right there with you, hoping, planning, and dreaming.