Cruising Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway should be on every traveler’s wish list. The road winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains in the southwestern corner of the state, offering breathtaking vistas at nearly every turn. Autumn is an especially good time to visit, as foliage blankets the mountainside in vivid shades of yellow and orange. The valley below is dotted with rushing waterfalls, pristine forests, and charming university towns packed with shops and cafes. There are enough things to do in the Blue Ridge Mountains of VA to keep you busy for at least a week.
Things to Do in the Blue Ridge Mountains, VA
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway runs along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is considered one of the USA’s most scenic drives. It stretches for 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina, connecting Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smoky Mountains. There are plenty of places to pull over along the way to admire the view or set off on an adventurous hike.
I drove a 35 mile section of the parkway, but as bad luck would have it, rain and fog blanketed the mountains. It was still beautiful, even without the sweeping valley vistas.
Of all the exciting things to do in the Blue Ridge Mountains, hiking to Crabtree Falls is easily my favorite. With a 1,200-foot drop over the mountainside, Crabtree Falls is the tallest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River. It’s a three-mile roundtrip hike to the top of the falls, with steep stairs and switchback turns.
If you just want to make a brief stop by the falls, the first overlook is an easy walk from the parking lot. Entrance to Crabtree Falls is free, though it cost three dollars (cash only) to park in the lot. If you visit on an autumn weekend, be prepared to wait for a spot to open up. Crabtree Falls are located near milepost 27 of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
For a much less strenuous hike, head to the Yankee Horse Ridge Trailhead near milepost 34. Here you’ll find a restored stretch of railroad once used by the logging industry. From the tracks, it’s a short climb up to Wigwam Falls, which were gentle even after the day’s rainstorm. The area is free to enter and worthy of a brief stop, if only to stretch your legs.
Saint Mary’s Wilderness
If you have plenty of time and are reasonably fit, you might consider tackling Saint Mary’s Wilderness. This disused ore mine is now a protected wilderness area within George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. A hiking trail follows Saint Mary’s River through the bramble that has grown up since the mine was abandoned in the 1950s. Follow the river several miles and you will be rewarded with Saint Mary’s Falls and Swimming Hole, a natural plunge pool in the river.
The trail can be difficult to follow as there are no markers and you must cross the river several times. I asked directions of people I passed along the way and still had trouble staying on course. By the third river crossing I was soaking wet and decided to turn back when faced with a steep climb up a muddy bank. It was a lovely walk regardless.
Natural Bridge State Park
The Natural Bridge is a rock formation so strong that it supports a working highway across its span. Standing below, it was surreal to hear cars drive overhead and completely out of sight. The impressive 212-foot high limestone arch is the result of millions of years of erosion, thanks to Cedar Creek boring a tunnel through the mountain.
If you follow the walking path beside the creek, you will eventually come to Lace Falls which feature a 30-foot cascade. I was delighted to find two otters playing in the creek next to the falls! Cedar Creek Trail also leads to a recreation of a Monacan Native American village. Entrance to the Natural Bridge State Park costs eight dollars per person and there is ample free parking beside the visitor’s center.
JJ’s Meat Shak
All this hiking and sightseeing will inevitably make you hungry. And what better way to refuel than with a heaping plate of barbecue! When I searched for the best BBQ places near me, online reviews led me to JJ’s Meat Shak in Buena Vista. While the town looks like it’s seen better days, this restaurant is hopping. I recommend the pulled pork platter with spicy sauce, and baked beans and collard greens on the side.
The charming little town of Staunton has been nestled in the foothills since the 1730s and once served as the capital of Virginia. By the mid-1800s, Staunton had developed into a manufacturing hub, producing everything from boots to wagons. The factories may be long gone, but Staunton is experiencing a renaissance thanks to its standout arts and culture scene.
Staunton is home to the American Shakespeare Center, which boasts the world’s only replica of the Blackfriars Theatre. Mary Baldwin University is a private liberal arts college located in Staunton whose classical music school and festival attracts talented students from around the world.
Woodrow Wilson Museum
Staunton also happens to be the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States. He served from 1913-1921 and led the nation through World War I. The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum is dedicated to his life and political career. Exhibits include his desk from Princeton, the 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine used during his presidency, and an interactive WWI bunker.
Wilson is generally regarded as one of our better presidents, though has come under fire recently for his racist views. The museum has updated its exhibits with a more accurate perspective of Wilson’s civil rights failings.
Historic Lexington, VA continually ranks as one of the most beautiful towns in the USA. It dates to 1778 and is named after the place in Massachusetts where the first battle of the American Revolution was waged. Lexington is home to the Virginia Military Institute and Washington & Lee University, two of the oldest colleges in the state.
Three famous generals are buried in Lexington: George C. Marshall, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. There are also museums dedicated to them. But for me, the town’s quaint architecture, trendy shops, and cozy cafes are the bigger draw.
Where to Stay in the Blue Ridge Mountains VA
Fox Hill Bed and Breakfast
It’s best to pick a home base that’s centrally located near a main road for your Blue Ridge Mountains adventure. I thought briefly about choosing a historic hotel in either Lexington or Staunton, but ultimately decided I’d rather wake up to stunning mountain views. Fox Hill Bed and Breakfast delivers on both location and view. Be sure to chat up the friendly owners, they have a wealth of local knowledge and recommendations to share. They also serve up some of the best breakfasts in the region!
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