Consider the long road to Asheville. Leaving Cherokee or Maggie Valley, soar along the highest portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Choose a portion, or do the whole section, it is a worthwhile detour. This is the land of Fraser firs, mountain meadows, and waterfalls. With very few people, great weather, and the impressive bloom of late spring and summer, May and September are my favorite months to travel this route. Throughout the spring and summer this section of the Blue Ridge Parkway is almost never as crowded as the park roads. With hundreds of overlooks, these are what I consider the best of the best stops on this most mountainous section, with a few tips from yours truly, just one of many mountain transplants.
As a day trip this route from Cherokee is 75 miles by parkway with a 1 hr/52 mile return to Cherokee on four lane highways. If you are staying near Cherokee, I recommend shortening the travel time and maximize touring time by taking the fast four lanes out of Cherokee to Dillsboro and Sylva, getting on the parkway at Balsam, NC. You can pick this southernmost section of the parkway up on your return to the Cherokee or Maggie Valley area by getting back on the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Balsam Gap / U.S. 19/23 junction. With good weather, this small section offers the excellent sunset views and the best long range views of the Smokies.
Richland Balsam is the highest peak of Great Balsam Mountains and the highest point on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. This land of swirling in mist and moss is an entire ecosystem within itself. There is a short nature trail that provides a very cool hike. (mile 431.4)
Watch the soaring Peregrine Falcons and the rock climbers, take the short but steep paved half mile trail up to the sinister rocky cliffs and overhang caves at Devil’s Courthouse. In Cherokee folklore this was once home to once home to the slant eyed giant Judaculla. This is the only place where you can see the French Broad, the Pigeon, and the Tuckasegee River Valleys from a 360 degree perch. the (mile 422.4).
My favorite spot for a short hike is on the mountains above Graveyard Fields. Turn left on the paved spur road into the Shining Rock Wilderness, an 18,000 acre wilderness area at mile 420.2 (before reaching the always crowded parking lot at Graveyard Fields at mile 418.8). Park by the road on the right, near the a large stand of Fraser Firs. (Before reaching the parking lot at the end of this 2-3 mile spur road.) Now that you have done the hardest climbing by car, follow the Art Loeb Trail 1.5 miles to the 6,000 feet summit of Black Balsam Knob. This is the best trail for spectacular views from large meadows of the now famous Cold Mountain, Graveyard Fields, the Balsam Mountains, Looking Glass Rock, and Mount Pisgah. (mile 420.2)
The crowds are gathered at Graveyard Fields parking area below with good reason. The short trail to the worthwhile Upper and Lower Graveyard Falls and The Falls of Upper Yellowstone Creek. (mile 418.8)
Don’t miss stopping at Looking Glass Rock Overlook, This peculiar granite dome is a favorite photo stop. Here is a little secret. If your are here on a warm day, hike down the trail across the road from the Looking Glass Rock Overlook to a great little swimming hole with few people and extremely cold water. Two small waterfalls drop into a narrow but deep grotto. Locals call it the Skinny Dip.(mile 417.1)
As you approach U.S. 276, strongly consider taking this 15 mile detour south on Pisgah National Forest Scenic Byway which features many scenic attractions and the deservedly popular Davidson River Campground. In most other parts of the U.S., this area and the adjacent wilderness area would most likely have become a separate National Park. Being the oldest national forest in the country, Pisgah National Forest certainly has the look, feel, and better facilities than most national parks. See the separate listing for Pisgah National Forest - Forest Heritage Scenic Byway. You could make it a quick detour to view the magnificent Looking Glass Falls, or you could spend the remainder of the day exploring this attraction packed short route. (Mile 411.9)
Should you decide to overnight, Davidson River is my top pick for campgrounds and or Pisgah Inn is my top pick for reasonable accommodations with a spectacular parkway view. Continue north on the Blue Ridge Parkway for three miles from it’s junction with U.S. 276 to Mount Pisgah and Pisgah Inn.
Pisgah Inn is a great stop for all three meals. Many locals drive up for their good food, reasonable prices, and the fabulous views. This national park service concession’s rooms are also quite comfortable as well as being reasonable. Each has it’s own balcony and rocking chairs. For the best view of the entire area, the hike up Mt. Pisgah is very popular. This Jekyl and Hyde trail ranges from easy to difficult. This is also a great place to start a gorgeous morning drive to the Biltmore Estate. (20 miles) Also on Mt. Pisgah, Mt. Pisgah Campground is the highest campground on the parkway. It has basic amenities, small sites, and no showers. There is a camp store up at the inn. Though most of the sites are small and close together, the large rhododendron provide privacy. Expect cool weather and bear warnings. (mile 408.6)
Look carefully as you approach Asheville and you can clearly see the Biltmore Estate between the overlooks as you approach the French Broad River Valley. (If your planning a visit to Biltmore, it is at mile 388.1, U.S. 25) Exit at N.C. 191 north. The newly constructed North Carolina State Arboretum is an excellent stop. There is a large formal garden, visitors center, education center, restaurant, bookstore, and miles of trails. Most locals go here for the trails. ($6 parking fee) There are two bike trails within the arboretum’s large preserve and the Hard Times Trail toward Lake Powhatan out the other entrance is nationally known mountain biking trail. While I prefer Davidson River, Pisgah National Forest’ Lake Powhatan Campground (at the same exit) provides hot showers with it’s wooded campsites and a location that is practically in Asheville. Avoid the Hard Times Loop and it’s small slanting tent sites. (mile 393.6)
As a day trip it is only an hour away by four lanes back to Cherokee or Maggie. Take a left on N.C 191 north in Asheville to I-26 north and I-40 west to exit 27. Follow the four lane of U.S. 23/74 south to Cherokee or Maggie Valley. Get on the Blue Ridge Parkway going south at Balsam Gap to see the section you missed en route if you got on at Balsam Gap going north. The best sunsets on the 469 mile length of the parkway are at Waterrock Knob. It‘s only a 26 miles to the end of the parkway and the starting point of the tour at entrance to Great Smoky Mountains at Cherokee. It is only 12 miles to Soco Gap and U.S. 19 at the gateway to Maggie Valley.
Waterrock Knob provides a rare 360 degree view from the car and a small interpretive center. This is the highest mountain in the Plot Balsams and has extraordinary sunsets.. Beyond Soco Gap and the exit to Maggie Valley are the last cinematic sunset views of the Smokies especially at Big Witch Overlook and Mile High Overlook. (mile 451.2)
I avoid The Blue Ridge Parkway completely on fall weekends. Even weekdays are very busy during this season. If it‘s cold and raining in the valleys it is cold and snowing on the Blue Ridge Parkway. National Park rangers are usually quick to close the parkway in threatening weather, but I found myself driving between Maggie and Waynesville once in a driving snow. We literally feared for our lives, but escaped unscathed as we slipped and slid our way down the parkway. Dense fog is reason to change course in the summer.