Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Hiking Off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia

Whether you're new to hiking or a long-time hiker, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia offer a beautiful backdrop for your hiking adventures. Hiking is a great way to spend time outdoors with family or friends or to enjoy the joy of nature on a solo hike. With plenty of hiking trails just steps from the your car, the Blue Ridge Parkway offers East Coast hikers a perfect getaway destination to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors and stay active in any season.

The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, stretching between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park, celebrated 80 years in 2015. In addition to being one of America's most popular scenic byways, the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most visited sites in the entire National Parks system.

If you're hiking with little ones, check out the Blue Ridge Parkway Junior Ranger program. Pick up a Junior Range folder at any park visitor center, then complete the activities in the folder and at least three activities on one of the Parkway activity worksheets to receive a Junior Range badge and certificate. Kids who complete all of the worksheets also earn a special Junior Ranger pin.

Whether you prefer springtime hiking when the trees are in bloom, summertime hiking when wildflowers are everywhere, fall hiking as the leaves change color and fall from the trees or winter hiking when the views are unimpeded by leaf-filled trees, the Parkway offers many hiking options.

Enjoy short hikes at Parkway overlooks or longer hikes along the Appalachian Trail, which runs beside portions of the Parkway in Virginia. If you travel the Parkway south into North Carolina, you can access the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from along portions of the Parkway.

Easy Blue Ridge Parkway Hikes 

Mountain Farm Trail at the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center at MP 5.9 offers a self-guided walk through a model pioneer farm. Kids and grown-ups can learn a lot about farm life by reading the signs.

Ravens Roost at MP 10.7 provides an overlook with fantastic views from the parking area. You may also find rock climbing and people flying kites at this overlook.

Big Spy Mountain at MP 26.3 offers long-range views from a short hike to the top of the mountain. There's a bench for relaxing at the top of the mountain.

Yankee Horse at MP 34.4 is perfect for young hikers. A short hike in the woods takes you to a logging railroad exhibit and small waterfall.

Indian Gap at MP 47.5 is a favorite stop for kids. A 10-minute hike in the woods brings you to the Indian Rocks, giant boulder formations perfect for family photos.

Otter Lake at MP 63.1 is a small fishing lake. Walk down the stairs in the parking area and you'll find a shallow creek to hike across using stepping stones. A short hike up the trail brings you to a kid-sized cave.

Take the James River Trail at the James River Visitor Center at MP 63.6 for an easy walk across a long bridge over the James River to the restored James River and Kanawha Canal Lock exhibit.

Thunder Ridge Trail at MP 74.7 rewards your short hike with excellent views of Arnold Valley from a scenic rock overlook. This is a perfect location for family photos during any season.

Abbott Lake Trail at MP 85.7 and Elk Run Trail at MP 85.9 are both located near the Peaks of Otter. Enjoy an easy hike around Abbott Lake or a wooded hike on Elk Run Trail.

Roanoke River Trail at MP 114.9 is an easy self-guided loop trail with nice views of the river. For a more difficult hike, take the Fisherman's Trail down to the river.

Mabry Mill at MP 176.2 is one of the top destinations on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Kids of all ages enjoy taking a trip back in time along the trail. Visit the historic gristmill, sawmill and blacksmith shop and learn about life in rural Virginia.

Moderate Blue Ridge Parkway Hikes

Otter Creek Trail begins at MP 60.8 at the Otter Creek Campground. The 3.5-mile hike follows the creek from the campground through the woods to the James River Visitor Center.

The Trail of Trees begins near the James River Visitor Center at MP 63.6. Signs along the trail identify many species of trees and shrubs native to the valley.

Access the Fallingwater Cascades National Recreation Trail from either the Fallingwater Cascades parking area at MP 83.1 or the Flat Top parking area at MP 83.5, both just north of the Peaks of Otter. The scenic loop trail offers views of the falls, benches along the trail, footbridges and lots of photo opportunities.

Johnson Farm Loop Trail begins at MP 85.9 at the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center. Follow the signs through the woods to the restored Johnson Farm, which offers seasonal living history demonstrations.

Take the 4-mile scenic Roanoke Mountain Loop Road off the Parkway at MP 120.3 to the top of Roanoke Mountain. Enjoy great views from the overlooks along the roadway. The trailhead for the Roanoke Mountain Summit Trail is located at the top parking area. Take a short detour at the Mill Mountain exit at MP 120 and visit the Mill Mountain Star. From the overlook, you can see the city of Roanoke and the mountains of the Roanoke Valley.

Smart View Loop Trail at MP 154.5 is very popular with bird watchers. The 3-mile loop trail passes through woods and across a stream. Be sure to stop at Trails Cabin, built in the 1890s.

Strenuous Blue Ridge Parkway Hikes

Humpback Rocks Trail is a favorite on the north end of the Parkway at MP 6.0. The 2-mile trail takes you to spectacular views from the Humpback Rocks at the top. Teens love scrambling among the rocks.

Apple Orchard Falls Trail at MP 78.4 is a National Recreation Trail starting at Sunset Field Overlook and leading to Apple Orchard Falls. The views of the falls are well worth the hike. Although the hiking distance is relatively short, the return trip is all uphill so pace yourselves.

Sharp Top Trail is one of the most popular hikes on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Start at MP 86.0 for the 1.5-mile hike to the top of Sharp Top Mountain, where you'll enjoy 360-degree panoramic views. If you're feeling adventurous, climb on the giant boulders. There's a shelter near the top of the mountain for overnight hikers.

Rock Castle Gorge Trail at MP 167.1 is 10.8-mile loop trail from the Rocky Knob Campground into the Gorge. Be sure to allow enough time for this all day hike and bring plenty of water and snacks.

Pick up a Blue Ridge Parkway Outdoor guide at any visitor center for information about additional Parkway hikes. There are numerous Parkway hiking guidebooks available for purchase too.

There are also many hiking opportunities available from the 105-mile Skyline Drive, which takes you through the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park.

The Skyline Drive has four entrances between Front Royal and Waynesboro. You'll receive a basic park guide when you enter the Skyline Drive. For more hiking trails, pick up a small hiking guide book at one of the Visitor Centers.

Be aware that some portions of the Blue Ridge Parkway close for snow and ice in the winter. Despite the closures, the Parkway is a wonderful hiking destination any time of year. Whether you bring the family or solo hike, there are picnic areas and scenic overviews located along the roadside and trails of all difficulty levels to challenge hikers of all abilities. Happy Trails!