There is no better time than fall to travel the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469 mile (755 kilometer) scenic drive that links the Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The lovely city of Roanoke, in southwest Virginia, is a nice stopping point when traveling along the parkway.
With over 310,000 people in its metro area, Roanoke has the restaurants and activities of a much larger city while maintaining the friendliness and charm of a small town. Due to the different elevations in the area, fall colors dazzle throughout the entire season. Blazing reds and flourescent yellows kick off the autumn show as early as September at higher altitudes, and descend down the mountains throughout October. From year to year the temperature and rainfall combine in some magical way that makes it impossible to predict how vibrant the leaves will be, or when the peak of color will occur.
With the clear Carolina blue sky as a backdrop, you’ll be pulling over frequently for the perfect Instagram shot.
Speaking of the drive, be prepared for the many twists and turns–especially if you or anyone else in the car are prone to carsickness. Take some saltines & ginger ale or Coke. There are numerous turnouts and areas to pullover and walk or hike. If hiking, be on the lookout for wildlife!
As for Roanoke, there is lodging and dining in all price ranges. Here is a list of things to do:
- Mill Mountain Zoo & Star are both just off the parkway in Roanoke. You can take a chug around the perimeter of the zoo in a miniature choo-choo, see the animals, then walk over to the city’s iconic star, which sits atop Mill Mountain. Mill Mountain Star, perched 1,045 feet (319 m) above the city, was built in 1949 and is the world’s largest freestanding illuminated man-made star.
- Center in the Square is a seven-story non-profit cultural center in downtown Roanoke. It’s home to the mid-Atlantic region’s largest coral reef aquarium, filled with colorful fish and live coral. The building also houses the Science Museum of Western Virginia with IMAX & planetarium shows, four cultural museums, and the Mill Mountain Theatre. Outside there is a farmer’s market. Activities and events are always going on, and unique restaurants are scattered within walking distance throughout the area.
- Dixie Caverns, in the neighboring city of Salem, was discovered by two boys in 1920 when their dog fell into a deep hole, which turned out to be the cavern. This cave filled with magnificent limestone formations is open for tours 364 days a year. Its main feature is called the “Wedding Bell” and weddings do take place under this formation.
- Mabry Mill is a picturesque grist mill on milepost 176 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. A 45-minute drive south from Roanoke, the mill was built in 1905 and is the perfect place to grab a souvenir bag of grits or corn mill, and a quick bite to eat. For dessert, there is an ice cream counter with some of the most delicious natural handmade ice cream in several flavors. I highly recommend the butter pecan –and then, a long walk around the grounds to walk off the calories.
- Château Morrisette Winery, near Parkway milepost 171, is not far from Mabry Mill. There is a tasting room and tours of the winery, and a restaurant on the grounds. The winery has many different seasonal activities, such as music festivals, art exhibits, etc., so check the calendar at http://www.thedogs.com/Events.
- Natural Bridge can be found about 35 miles north of Roanoke. Natural Bridge is a Virginia Historical Landmark. While there you can visit the Natural Bridge Zoo, which has a wealth of exotic animals. It’s a beautiful area to spend a day.
This is only the tip of the iceberg of things to do in this area of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Depending on how much time you have, plan to see as much as you can, or simply take a leisurely drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, stopping whenever you take a fancy. Either way, you will experience the magic of Southwestern Virginia.