Content Produced in Partnership with Jackson County Tourism
It's no secret the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most scenic drives in America. The twists and turns, occasional tunnels and the sweeping views of the Great Smoky and Blue Ridge mountain ranges make it a bucket list destination for many, especially in the fall. There's more to the Blue Ridge Parkway than driving it, though. From the best viewpoints to the most brag-worthy hikes, here's how to spend a day on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Morning Hike Along Richland Balsam Trail
Located at milepost 431 about 11 miles into the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Richland Balsam Trail will make you believe you're in the middle of the Pacific Northwest — not North Carolina. Full of psychedelic green moss and spruce fir trees, this is one of those hikes you'll want to do midmorning as the clouds and mist move through the mountains. At 6,410 feet, Richland Balsam Overlook is also the highest hiking point of the entire parkway, and the trail has several more overlooks on the backend for hikers to enjoy. Despite the 700 foot elevation gain, the 1.5-mile loop hike is relatively simple, and both families with young children and more experienced hikers would find it worth their while. As a special bonus, summer wildflowers in bright yellows, purples and creams can be found along the trailhead well into September. If you miss out on the flowers, don't worry. The trail is considered to be the "best smelling" trailhead on the parkway due to the amount of spruce firs (not even a Yankee Candle could capture how wonderful it smells!). Editor's Note: Parking and access to this trail can be found at the Haywood-Jackson Overlook. More details below.
Take in the Views at Richland Balsam Overlook
This is the part that's a little confusing about the Blue Ridge Parkway: Some overlooks are strictly for motorists, while the overlook's actual hiking trail is about a half-mile away. Richland Balsam Overlook and Richland Balsam Trail are very good examples of that. While the hiking trail we just listed is the highest peak on the parkway, the scenic overlook is actually the highest point on the parkway motorists can encounter. It's worth stopping to take a picture with the sign and to take in the views, especially when the summer wildflowers are in bloom.
Feel the Burn at Waterrock Knob
Just because a hike is short does not mean it will be simple. Though it's less than a mile round-trip, Waterrock Knob's steady — and sometimes brutal — half-mile incline is one of the most challenging on the parkway. This steep hike has incredible payoffs though, and on a clear day hikers can see up to 50 miles in all directions. It's worth noting that Waterrock Knob is also the highest visitor center on the parkway and one of the last before you enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park, making it one of the busier sections of the drive. Because Waterrock Knob is such a treat at sunset, we recommend tackling this hike mid or late afternoon and packing a picnic for dinner. After the hike, check out the visitor center, then pull out a few folding chairs or blankets from the car to settle in for dinner with a view.
Don't Overlook the Overlooks
There are plenty of omg-worthy moments up and down the Blue Ridge Parkway, and while we've highlighted a few of our personal favorites, we'd be remiss not to mention the sheer number of overlooks up and down it. Sometimes less than a third of a mile apart from one another and with each one seemingly better than the last, these overlooks showcase the staggering beauty of the mountain chain. So, go ahead, and shamelessly stop at as many overlooks as you can throughout the day — we did.
How to Do It
With the city of Sylva in Jackson County as your base, you're less than 10 minutes away from the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway and only a 30-minute drive away from each of the hikes and viewpoints featured on this list. Wary of the clouds and cooler weather, we took our time and fueled up with a latte and a breakfast salad from the folks at White Moon before heading out to the parkway midmorning. Once back in Sylva, we celebrated with a pint from Balsam Falls Brewery — after hiking Richland Balsam we felt it complemented the day perfectly. With a great brew scene and plenty of hometown pride, this quaint town is just one of four incredible mountain towns in Jackson County that's sure to delight. Click here to learn more.