We all love peak season in the mountains, but it’s difficult to plan a trip. Without knowing the exact week the colors will reach their peak, and with accommodations booking up months in advance, it’s a bit of a gamble to choose your dates.
What if I told you there’s an easy way to head out when you get the word the colors are reaching their peak? Besides being a great state in general, North Carolina is also home to part of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
You can pick a day and be on the Blue Ridge Parkway in just 3 hours from Raleigh, 2.5 hours from Durham, or 1.5 hours from Greensboro.
It’s a long, but leisurely day without a ton of crowds. Three hours to reach the BRP, three hours to explore and enjoy a picnic lunch, then three hours home. One full 9-hour day, or less, depending on how much time you take.
Would that be worth it?
If it’s too much for one day, you can book a hotel or Airbnb close to home. Enjoy an evening in Greensboro and have breakfast the next morning at one of the fabulous restaurants there.
Or stop at Red Oak Brewery on the way home and relax in their beer garden.
Read on for a stress-free way to explore all that autumn color.
- Preparing for a Day on the Blue Ridge Parkway
- Where are the Best Colors on the Blue Ridge Parkway?
- Overview of the Blue Ridge Parkway Route
- Itinerary for a Day of Autumn Viewing on the Blue Ridge Parkway
- Autumn Viewing on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Preparing for a Day on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Keep an eye out for when the colors will change. One resource you can use is the Smoky Mountains Fall Foliage Prediction Map. Also, keep an ear out for when Grandfather Mountain announces they’ve reached peak viewing.
There are no shops for food and water on this stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. To maximize your time, you’ll want to stay on the Parkway and avoid exiting for food or restroom breaks. This requires a bit of advance planning.
Pack plenty of water. If you have a water filter, there are creeks in a few locations to top up, otherwise plan on 2 to 3 bottles per person.
Bring a picnic lunch in a cooler and a few snacks to keep you powered through the day.
Restrooms are located at Julian Price Memorial Park and Moses Cone House.
Fill up on gas in Wilkesboro. It’s one of the last places to stop before you reach the Parkway and prices increase in Boone and Blowing Rock.
While this stretch of the Parkway is not overly crowded, there will be a lot of vehicles on the road. I had no issues parking in overlook lots or nearby along the side of the road. You may have to wait for a few cars to pass if you want a photo of the road, but it was doable when I visited on a Friday.
Make sure you have a power cord for your phone and a new battery in the camera. With all the photos and videos you’ll be taking, the battery may drain quickly.
There is Limited Cell Signal on the Blue Ridge Parkway
This is important enough to have its own section. There is limited cell phone signal on the Blue Ridge Parkway regardless of your carrier.
Most people reported that AT&T fared better than Verizon, but there are several dead zones for all carriers. There are also several places with “fake” LTE where your phone shows signal but the apps are unable to operate.
You won’t necessarily need your phone as you drive along the Parkway. The road is straightforward and easy to follow. However, you will need it to find the entrance, plan any trips to exit for food, and locate the best exit as you head home.
This means you need to think ahead. If you plan to stop at a local town for lunch, start thinking about signal and securing directions around 11 am. As you drive, check your phone at each stop. The minute you have signal, start searching for restaurants in the area and download the directions. Then, just leave your phone alone until you’re ready to stop for lunch.
Another option if you have some signal but not enough to do a thorough search for restaurants, is to simply look for nearby towns and pull up directions for where to exit and how to reach the downtown area. Once you’re closer to town, you should have better signal to find a good place to eat.
Follow the same process as you head home. Even if you don’t need GPS for the next hour, pull up the directions when you have signal and let the phone sit. Once directions are downloaded, you should be fine. Exiting the parkway isn’t always straightforward and you may need GPS to get you back to the highway.
Where are the Best Colors on the Blue Ridge Parkway?
The brighter colors are at higher elevations, generally above 3000 feet. Grandfather Mountain, Bryson City, and Great Smoky Mountain National Park will all have great fall colors.
The section of road highlighted below is at a lower elevation. There is still plenty of color and areas where the golds really pop, but it won’t be as intense as in photos of areas mentioned above.
As you follow the parkway closer to Blowing Rock, the foliage becomes brighter because you’re heading up in elevation. There’s a distinct difference in fall color as you enter Pisgah National Forest near the Moses Cone House.
You’ll see a lot of fir trees that remain green mixed in with the color. I feel this provides a natural look and helps the yellows and reds truly pop.
Keep in mind that bright colors come with big crowds. It’s a tradeoff.
Overview of the Blue Ridge Parkway Route
Your adventure starts with the Blue Ridge Parkway Deep Gap entrance off 421 North, just before it intersects with 221. The entrance will be on your left. When you reach the T intersection, head right to go South.
You’ll follow the Blue Ridge Parkway south, stopping at various locations, until you reach Green Mountain Overlook.
The Linn Cove Viaduct is 4 miles further down the road if you’d like to continue. It can be crowded during peak viewing season, and you may wind up parking over a half mile away. However, it’s worth the effort if you’ve never seen it.
Keep an eye on the time, and when you’re ready to head home, just turn around and drive North on the Parkway.
The route listed is 23 miles each way if you stop at Green Mountain Overlook, and 27 miles if you continue to the Linn Cove Viaduct.
While it may seem like a 30-minute trip, you’ll find it can take 2-3 hours with all the stops. Since the Parkway continues, you can always continue driving south toward Linville or beyond.
Itinerary for a Day of Autumn Viewing on the Blue Ridge Parkway
When you hear Grandfather Mountain is at Peak Autumn Color, start planning your day.
The night before your trip verify how long it will take you to reach the starting point. Enter “Blue Ridge Scenic Point” as your destination in Google Maps. This will only work with Google Maps.
Use GPS Coordinates (36.2206906, -81.5048969) for other apps. While not exact, it’s close to the first overlook on this route.
Plan your departure to arrive at the entrance ramp no later than 10 am.
Reaching the Blue Ridge Parkway
The Deep Gap entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway is on the left as you head North on 421. You’ll make a right to go south at the T intersection. The colors will be better in this direction.
As you begin your drive, the colors will appear nice but not spectacular. This is due to the elevation. You’ll see the colors improve as you continue heading southwest.
While the view at the first overlook won’t be the best, take a moment to stop and note the beginning of your journey.
Working Your Way Toward Blowing Rock
As you work your way toward Blowing Rock, relax and stop at any overlooks or pullouts that catch your attention. The way the Parkway winds, better lighting could be in either direction. As you stop, you’ll have the opportunity to get photos in both directions.
You’ll see pockets of yellow and gold trees. Thunder Hill Overlook has incredible views and is worth the stop.
As you move closer to Moses Cone Memorial Park, the colors become brighter. This is due to a gain in elevation as you move into Pisgah National Forest.
The change in color is abrupt. Suddenly, you’ll notice the fall colors are more prominent.
My advice is to keep moving southwest and leave Moses Cone Memorial Park for your return. You’ll likely see cars lined up and down the road. I found that the crowds dissipated after 3 pm.
Lunch at Julian Price Memorial Park
By now you’ll be hungry and ready for lunch. Pass by the Julian Price Lake and Campground and pull into the Julian Price Memorial Park. It has plenty of parking and tons of picnic tables set along a creek. They’re spread out to give each group plenty of space and privacy. If you have kids, they can run around and stretch their legs.
This is a great place to spend time exploring. It’s also perfect for a bathroom break. Just past the first parking lot on the left is a small building that houses restrooms with flush toilets and sinks. Bring some soap or hand sanitizer with you as this often runs out.
While you’re here, take a moment to walk to the Blue Ridge Parkway and get some photos of the road. There’s a beautiful line of colors to the south and a small red barn across the parkway to the north.
Green Mountain Overlook
This is a great location to end your trip if it’s getting late. You’ll cross a small bridge that looks like a mini version of the Linn Cove Viaduct. Parking is at the overlook on the far side of the bridge to the left.
If you’re feeling daring, walk down the bridge for some great photos. There’s a view of the entire valley from the middle of the bridge.
I also found that walking under the bridge, aiming your camera upwards, provides a good angle if you don’t feel like playing a game of frogger with the cars.
It did feel safe walking along the bridge. The lane heading north is wide with room to walk, and the cars slowed down.
The Linn Cover Viaduct if You Have Time
While my official southbound section ends at the Green Mountain Overlook, if you have time, the Linn Cove Viaduct is worth the effort.
The reason it’s not on the official itinerary is due to the crowding. This may be the most popular destination on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway.
For those patient enough, continue south for 4 miles and park when you see an opening in the line of cars on the side of the road. There’s a lot of movement as people pull in and out, so you should be able to find a spot.
Another option is to stop at the Yonahlossee Overlook just before the Linn Cover Viaduct. Yonahlossee offers a good view of the viaduct from a distance.
I would not go further than the Viaduct unless it’s earlier than 3 pm.
Heading Back North on the Blue Ridge Parkway – Julian Price Lake
As you head back, going north on the parkway, you’ll find the crowds easing up a bit. This is an excellent time to stop at Julian Price Lake. You can park along the side of the road.
As the sun begins to settle, a ray of light shines across the lake. Lucky photographers may encounter kayakers on the lake to enhance their photos. Continue walking northward on the parkway to catch different angles of the lake.
Moses Cone Memorial Park
By now, the crowds at Moses Cone Memorial Park have lessened. You may be able to park on the grounds, but the parking lot is small. It’s possible you’ll need to park just outside the entrance, along the road.
The entrance is marked “Arts and Crafts building.” There’s no sign that says, “this is the entrance to Moses Cone”.
In 1901, Moses Cone, a textile entrepreneur, built Flat Top Manor, the large, white, 20-room mansion. It sits on a 3500-acre estate with 25 miles of carriage trails.
The park is run by the National Park Service and offers horseback riding, hiking trails, and a pond. Ranger-led tours of the house, affectionally called Cone Manor, are held seasonally. There is no charge, however, you need to register. Even if there’s no tour scheduled, the first floor of the home houses a craft store and a small gift store.
There are two restrooms on site. The first is just down from the parking lot in the carriage house, and the second is down near the Bass Pond. Most visitors will head to the carriage house.
Finishing the Route
After Moses Cone, you’ll lose elevation, and the colors will begin to dim. If you want any last-minute photos, pull over and grab them fast. In the evening, you’ll find the light is often better behind you.
When you reach 421, head south towards Wilkesboro. Depending on how tired you are, you can head home, stop for dinner on the way back, or even stay in one of the local towns for an evening. Tweetsie Railroad runs its Ghost Train this time of year and is a fun thing to do the night before or after your Blue Ridge viewing.
Nearby West Jefferson has several Airbnb options and offers a small mountain town feel. If you want to stop somewhere closer to home, Winston-Salem offers the opportunity to enjoy the local Yadkin wineries the next day, or explore the Moravian village.
Greensboro offers a big-city experience for a decadent dinner or eclectic breakfast.
Understandably though, after a long day of driving, you may want to just head to the comfort of your own home.
Autumn Viewing on the Blue Ridge Parkway
There will always be some FOMO with autumn viewing on the Blue Ridge Parkway. When you get home, you’ll kick yourself for not heading to a specific location, starting out earlier, or any number of things.
It’s important to keep perspective. There are other people kicking themselves because they took out almanacs a year before and convinced themselves they made hotel arrangements at just the right time, then missed peak color by two days.
There’s always a trade-off. The only safe way is to schedule two weeks in the mountains and head out to the Parkway every day. Even then, you could miss it if the weather is warmer or colder than expected.
The thing to remember about the Blue Ridge Parkway is that it’s a journey. And since it’s so close, you can go out again and again. As a matter of fact, it may be a good thing to leave a few items for next year.