Visiting the Blue Ridge Parkway in the quiet season between November and May may yield a narrower palette of colors, but this is offset by a much longer range of view. Clear winter air and bare branches enable visitors to see ridge after ridge of distant mountains, views you miss when the trees are fully leafed out.
Overlooks to enjoy these vistas are spaced about every five miles or so. Particular favorites are: Roanoke Valley Overlook at Milepost 130, Smart View at 154, Rock Castle Gorge at 168, and Groundhog Meadow at 189.
On winter and early spring drives, you’re more likely to have the road to yourself. This is a good thing, as long as you watch the weather or call for updates at 828-298-0398 to avoid being stranded in a snowstorm. Then enjoy the peace and quiet. Early spring is an especially good time to cycle this ridge-top route, when RVs and carloads of sightseers are in short supply. Pick up snacks from nearby Parkway towns such as Roanoke, Floyd, Meadows of Dan, Hillsville, and Fancy Gap because the Parkway concessions don’t open until May.
Look for wildlife: turkeys, deer, hawks, vultures, and woodpeckers are still around. Bird sightings are best from overlooks near brushy fields or the edges of forests, park rangers say. Chickadees, tufted titmice, and juncos flit through evergreen forests.
The diversity of wildflowers along the path of the Blue Ridge Parkway in spring is truly amazing, more than the wildflower diversity in all of Europe, some botanists say. Blooming starts in late March. April and early May, before the tree canopy shadows the forest, is the best time of year to see flowers. The forest floor is covered blooming plants, such as Chickweed, Wild Ginger, Rue Anemone, Toothwort, Spring Beauty, Trout Lily, Dwarf Iris, Trillium, Foamflower, and Jack-in-the-pulpit.
The sights don’t end at night. In the country darkness, you’ll be more likely to see celestial objects. On April 21 and 22, the Lyrids Meteor Shower is likely to produce about 20 tailed meteors per hour at their peak. The lighter Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower will show up around May 5 and 6. Look to the east.
With the leaves down or in early bud, travelers are more likely to catch glimpses Appalachian Mountain history in the old log structures and the white rock churches started by legendary mountain preacher Robert Childress. A stop at Mabry Mill, the Aunt Orlena Puckett Cabin, and the Matthews Cabin give visitors a chance to explore facets of life in the early 1900s. Winter is also the time to visit old cemeteries along the byway: Painter Cemetery at Mile Post 186.3 and Bowman Cemetery at Milepost 188.8, both in Carroll County and Goodson Cemetery near Milepost 213 in Grayson County.
A visit to the Blue Ridge Parkway in the quiet season can be truly rewarding. Although Parkway concessions aren’t open, nearby bed-and-breakfasts and many wineries, such as Chateau Morrisette, are welcoming and ready to serve you.