The Blue Ridge Mountains Are Fall Road Trip Gold

Foliage as far as the eye can see

It’s hard not to be drawn to those majestic blue peaks running down the western spine of the Old Dominion. Part of the Appalachian Range—and one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, dating back more than 1 billion years of existence—the Blue Ridge Mountains are home to America’s Favorite Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a stretch of one of the most visited footpaths in the world, the Appalachian Trail.

The spring shows off the first blooms of dogwood and redbud but the high season around these parts is fall when visitors swarm to see the glorious, flame-colored foliage. Here, there’s a setting for every speed whether you’re cruising along the scenic Skyline Drive at 35 mph or doing some extreme hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Following are some of the most beautiful places to visit in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Located at the northern end of the Blue Ridge, Shenandoah rocks a whopping 500-plus miles of hiking trails. Bears, wild turkeys, and deer are out in large numbers in the spring and summer; in the fall it’s all about chipmunks. Hikers can cross the Appalachian Trail off their bucket list (about 105 miles of the iconic trail runs through Shenandoah), tackle sweeping summits, and go chasing waterfalls.

If you plan to camp out or book lodging in the park reserve your spot a good year in advance—particularly if you’ve got your eye on October, the busiest time of year. For a great place to stay near Shenandoah post up in a camping site at Big Meadows where you can spend your evenings stargazing.

Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Skyline Drive

Shenandoah surges in the fall months when tons of people come out to do the Skyline Drive. The 105-mile highway runs through the park along the crest of the mountains and has 70 overlooks along the way that are perfect for selfies or a panoramic portrait of the hazy blue peaks and fiery orange treetops. The drive has a 35 mph speed limit and is absolutely packed with cars so come prepared with snacks and a high-octane leaf-peeping playlist.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway

One slow-paced, less-crowded alternative to Skyline Drive is the Blue Ridge Parkway boldly nicknamed America’s Favorite Drive. The full 469-mile parkway stretches from Rockfish Gap at the southern end of Shenandoah, trails through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and ends in Cherokee, North Carolina. More than 200 miles of this gorgeous road run through the Blue Ridge Mountains at a meandering 45 mph.

Highlights along the Virginia stretch include the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests plus a number of overlooks with incredible mountain scenery. Pick a scenic spot for a picnic like Mabry Mill (the Parkway’s biggest attraction, located at Milepost 176), or catch some authentic Appalachian mountain music in Southwest Virginia. If you need speed you can still access the various attractions on the Blue Ridge Parkway at a number of access points off the major north-south Interstate 81.

Mabry Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crabtree Falls

About six miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Nelson County, Crabtree Falls is the highest vertical drop in Virginia and one of the tallest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River. Crabtree has five major cascades spilling down more than 1,200 feet. The first overlook is near the parking area and easily accessible and experienced hikers can tackle the trail to the upper falls and an additional four overlooks.

The Mill Mountain Star

Should you ever find yourself driving on Interstate 81 near Roanoke, Virginia, one of the finer roadside attractions in the state is the Mill Mountain Star (also known as the Roanoke Star). The world’s largest free-standing illuminated star made its debut as a Christmas decoration in 1949 and quickly became the iconic symbol of this railroad town. Fun fact: It was dedicated by Roanoke native John Payne, who played Fred Gailey in the original Miracle on 34th Street.

Giant stars aside, this area also happens to be a bucket-list destination for cyclists; it’s been designated “a silver-level ride center” by the International Mountain Biking Association. The extensive greenway system is great for casual riders and families while the challenging terrain at Carvins Cove attracts mountain bike aficionados from across the country. Whether you bike, hike, or drive up the view of the Roanoke Valley from the top of Mill Mountain is worth it.

Biking the Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Virginia’s Triple Crown on the Appalachian Trail

Hikers can catch three of the most stunning vertical ascents on the Appalachian Trail in one 32-mile loop known as the Triple Crown (you can also do any of these hikes as a standalone from their trailheads). You’ll need some serious bouldering skills—and some climbing gear—to make it up the rock walls to Dragon’s Tooth, a 35-foot quartzite rock spire. Next, a moderately difficult hike will take you to McAfee Knob, a huge rock ledge offering incredible panoramic views of the mountains (a great spot to watch the sunrise, too). The final gem on the last stretch of the loop is Tinker Cliffs which is made of limestone that’s more than 250 million years old.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rogers

The highest peak in Virginia at 5,729 feet, Mount Rogers has one of only six living high-altitude spruce-fir forests—the only one of its kind in the state. The downside is that the thick forest and rhododendron thickets make it tough to get a bird’s-eye view of your surroundings. But ambitious hikers approaching the summit from the Massie Gap Trail in Grayson Highlands State Park may be rewarded with a different spectacular sight—wild ponies.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Blue Ridge Music Center

If you got really into the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, you’ll want to check out this region where music icons like Ralph Stanley, The Carter Family, and The Statler Brothers were discovered. Southwest Virginia is known for its Appalachian musical heritage, from old-time string bands and bluegrass to gospel and blues. The Blue Ridge Music Center—one of the major venues on Virginia’s Crooked Road Music Trail—is located at the bottom of the state off the Blue Ridge Parkway (MP 213). You can usually watch a concert whenever the center is open or tour the museum to learn about the history of music in the mountains. Come in August and you can catch the annual fiddler’s convention in the nearby town of Galax.

Asheville, North Carolina

Want to keep the Blue Ridge Mountains party going but miss the comforts of city life? Continue just a few hours southwest to Asheville where you’ll find a high concentration of hipsters and a local culture to match. Hit the non-profit Center for Craft to check out boutiques and small-batch vendors, hang out at Fleetwood’s for rock bands and comedy nights, or find your niche and try your hand at one of The Chop Shop Butchery’s classes. You can always head out of town for a day trip deeper into the mountains to natural havens like Pisgah National Forest. Afterward, you’ll still have plenty of time left to get down to some classic bluegrass hits back in town.

Worth Pondering…

O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away, you rollin’ river
O Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away I’m bound to go

—lyrics by Nick Patrick and Nick Ingman

The Chattanooga Choo-Choo, More Than a Hotel

All Aboard! Opened in 1909 as Terminal Station, the train depot welcomed thousands of travelers during the golden age of railroads

Chattanooga sits on the banks of the Tennessee River in the Appalachian Mountains, bordering Georgia. The city boasts impressive museums, fun things to do, a vibrant downtown area, and lively shopping and arts districts. Major attractions include the Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Zoo, Lookout Mountain, Incline Railway, the antique carousel at Coolidge Park, and the Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

Chattanooga and the Tennessee River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After hearing this building’s name and seeing its architecture, I wondered whether we were visiting a train station or a hotel. Well, it’s both. This building was originally a hotel before the Southern Railway acquired it in 1905. Four years later, it opened as Terminal Station and eventually became a major hub transporting more than 50 passenger trains a day. From the time it opened to its closure in 1970, all trains traveling south passed through Chattanooga. Although well-known in the railroad industry, the Chattanooga Choo-Choo didn’t become a household name until the Glenn Miller Orchestra created a song of the same name which was featured in the 1941 movie Sun Valley Serenade.

Chattanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Terminal Station was saved from the wrecking ball by a group of local businessmen who were inspired by the song and wanted to spare the building from demolition. They invested $4 million before its new grand opening on April 11, 1973, and the beautiful Terminal Station once again opened its doors to welcome visitors to Chattanooga.

Chatanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is among the Historic Hotels of America. Some of the original station tracks still run through the property and sleeper cars have been restored and converted into hotel accommodations. Fascinated by the history of the hotel, I marveled at the antique train and ornate hotel lobby and then perused the surrounding entertainment complex which features two full-service restaurants and numerous bars, two music venues, a comedy club, a distillery plus various retail outlets, and the Glenn Miller Gardens.

Glen Miller Gardens, Chatanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The two-acre Glenn Miller Gardens sits on where the 14 tracks and 7 platforms served millions of train passengers for over 60 years. This beautiful setting is named after the world-famous musician who recorded the Chattanooga Choo-Choo song. Stop and smell the roses while you stroll through gardens. Sit and relax in a rocking chair. Play a game of Jenga (block-balancing game), life-sized checkers, corn hole, bocce ball, and more. The Glenn Miller Gardens is an oasis among the bustle of the city.

Dome of Terminal Station, Chatanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The attraction is located in downtown Chattanooga and the free electric shuttle stops right outside of the hotel. It’s free to explore the hotel even if you’re not a guest but you’ll need some cash if you plan to do some shopping or dining at the complex.

Following a look-a-round at Chattanooga Choo Choo, we drove up Lookout Mountain making brief stops at Incline Railway, Rock City, and Ruby Falls. Since a heavy smoke and haze hung over the city during our visit several years ago, we decided against exploring these attractions further.

Incline Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Opened in 1895, the Incline Railway transports passengers up the steepest part of the mountain that at its extreme reaches an incline of 72.7 percent, making it one of the steepest passenger railways in the world. The original coal-burning steam engines were replaced by two 100-horsepower motors in 1911 but other than that the railway hasn’t changed much in its more than 120 years of operation.

Lookout Mountain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Leaving Lookout Mountain we stopped at Sugar’s Ribs for take-out. The Carolina style of barbecue is highlighted by a menu full of slow-roasted meats and wood-fired sides. But the restaurant also serves tacos and potato nacho plates, salads, and “mini” versions of your favorite main dishes.

Sugar’s Ribs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This spot on Missionary Ridge serves up great mountaintop views (on clear days) and tasty smoked spareribs moist on the inside and crunchy on the outside. The prices are completely fair for the quality and quantity of food you receive. A half-slab of spare ribs was $15.95 with a side.

Also took home tasty pulled pork. We paired the delicious meat with Texas pintos, turnip greens, miniature cornbread, and a trio of sauces. All the sauces are “Carolina-style” with a vinegar base.

Sugar’s Ribs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I especially enjoyed the “Hot Lips” sauce with jalapeño, habanero, onion, and garlic. This sauce was not unlike the salsa verde you might find at a Mexican restaurant, but honestly, I didn’t find it hot enough to require a formal request to use it. My favorite of the sauces was the spicy, vinegary “Great Sauce.” Whatever sauce you require, Sugar’s has something you’ll enjoy.

Worth Pondering…

Chattanooga Choo Choo

Hi there Tex, what you say
Step aside partner, it’s my day
Bend an ear and listen to my version
Of a really solid Tennessee excursion

Pardon me, boy
Is that the Chattanooga choo choo? (yes yes)
Track twenty-nine
Boy, you can gimme a shine
Can you afford To board a Chattanooga choo choo
I’ve got my fare And just a trifle to spare

You leave the Pennsylvania Station ’bout a quarter to four
Read a magazine and then you’re in Baltimore
Dinner in the diner
Nothing could be finer
Then to have your ham an’ eggs in Carolina

When you hear the whistle blowin’ eight to the bar
Then you know that Tennessee is not very far
Shovel all the coal in
Gotta keep it rollin’
Woo, woo, Chattanooga there you are

—Songwriters Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, first recorded 1941 by Glenn Miller