Far to our north, just outside the small borough of Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, a series of ridges rise abruptly from the gently-rolling Piedmont. While they may not seem all that impressive, these forested hills are the starting point of the Blue Ridge Mountains. From their timid beginnings they’ll march over six hundred and fifteen miles across seven states, swelling in height and width on their way to Mount Oglethorpe, Georgia.
Virginia holds what can be argued as the most remarkable section of the Blue Ridge’s northern regions. Here the narrow ridgeline expands to become a sea of rolling peaks, some reaching elevations in excess of four thousand feet. This wilderness is protected by Shenandoah National Park in the north and the George Washington/Jefferson National Forest to the south. It’s here you’ll find the northern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway, America’s favorite scenic drive.
Mile marker zero sits in Rockfish Gap at the southern terminus of Shenandoah’s famed Skyline Drive. I-64 passes through the gap as well, allowing easy access for travelers from the Richmond metro area, as well as those coming from I-81. From here the parkway follows the ridgetops for the most part until it reaches the outskirts of Roanoke. This is the last segment of the parkway we had yet to visit, mostly due to the four-hour drive from Tri-Cities. While it is possible to do this as a day trip, we would recommend making this a long weekend and staying overnight in Roanoke or Peaks of Otter. This will allow plenty of time to stop and enjoy the views from the overlooks as well as the many hiking trails.
Starting from Rockfish Gap, it’s only a short drive until travelers reach the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center and Farm Museum at Mile marker 6. Here visitors can get information on Parkway conditions up the road, which is especially important during the winter months. The adjacent museum is composed buildings the National Park Service collected and preserved when the land for the parkway was purchased. Like the Mountain Farm Museum in Cherokee, they are meant to represent a working farm one might find in the 1890’s. Throughout the summer, character actors are present to interact with visitors and showcase traditional crafts as well as farming procedures.
Several thousand acres of park land surround the farm area and protect a series of spectacular rock outcroppings known as Humpback Rocks. Humpback Rocks Trail begins just across the road from the visitor center. It’s a steep one-mile climb to the top, but incredible views of the Great Valley and distant Allegheny Mountains to the west more than make it worthwhile. The trail continues further to connect with the Appalachian Trail to provide further hiking opportunities. Visitors will have the chance to hike the A.T. multiple times along this segment as it crisscrosses the parkway multiple times over the next hundred miles.
We recommend making a short side trip to Crabtree Falls, touted as one of the highest cascade waterfalls east of the Mississippi River and one of the most popular hiking destinations in the state. While not located within Blue Ridge Parkway lands, it’s only a short drive from mile marker 27 at Tye River Gap. As you turn left onto Crabtree Falls Highway (Virginia 56) you’ll pass through the small community of Montebello before descending steeply. A large parking area is located on the right after 6.3 miles. Unlike the parkway’s facilities, this parking lot requires a fee for access, so be sure to bring some cash if you plan on making the stop.
Crabtree Falls Trail is a 2.8-mile loop trail that provides access to the five cascades that make up the falls. The falls are over one thousand feet in elevation from the lowest to the highest, so expect to do some major climbing on the way up. While the waterfalls are beautiful, please follow posted warning signs and view them from a distance. The rocky surfaces are covered in a slick coating of alga and have caused many deadly falls. Those who are up for a challenge can continue to the top of the uppermost falls. Here they’ll be rewarded with a magnificent view of the valley they climbed from far below. The total distance round trip for those who make this final climb comes to 3.5 miles.
Back on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the winding road continues along the Blue Ridge crest another twenty miles before beginning a sharp descent into the James River Gorge. Otter Creek Lake provides a picturesque rest stop on the left. During the wetter months, excess water tumbles over the lake’s small damn, creating a roaring waterfall. This area makes a great stopping point for those who are traveling at a more leisurely pace, as Otter Creek Campground and several hiking trails sit just down the road. Those who prefer the comfort of the indoors can take the thirty-minute drive over to Lynchburg for a great dinner as well as a hotel if needed.
Join us next time and we’ll continue the journey, stopping by the James River, Peaks of Otter, Explore Park, and Roanoke Mountain. For information on the Blue Ridge Parkway, visit www.nps.gov/blri