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Part of the Appalachian Mountain range, the Blue Ridge Mountains — named for the bluish hue that tints the horizon — stretch 550 miles from southern Pennsylvania through Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. The Virginia and North Carolina region is the epicenter of tourism activity for this area of the eastern United States, though the southern tip of the range passes into North Georgia, where the town of Blue Ridge draws outdoor enthusiasts galore. Georgia is also the start of the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail, which winds all the way up to Maine. The Blue Ridge Mountains span a pair of national parks — Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles Tennessee and North Carolina — and are generally a great region to explore whether you’re looking for stunning scenic drives, high mountain adventures, basking in wildlife, or some combo of the three.
If you’re starting your Blue Ridge vacation from western North Carolina, you’ll likely fly into Asheville Regional Airport (AVL), which has nonstop daily service to several U.S. cities. One of the largest international airports in the Southern states, Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) is located near the Blue Ridge Mountains, too, in Charlotte, North Carolina. If you’re starting your trip from the more northern part of the mountains, you have your pick of international airports in the Washington, D.C. metro area to fly into: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI). All of these airports house numerous rental car agencies; you’ll need a vehicle for exploring the region.
Fall is by far the best time to visit the Blue Ridge Mountains, with generally mild temperatures and the trees awash in color. Depending on the elevation — and the farther north you go — peak foliage time in the Blue Ridge can fall between September and late October. Spring in the Blue Ridge Mountains is also alive in greenery and myriad wildflower blooms, with the winter melt creating gushing waterfalls and animals emerging hibernation. If you don’t mind a little cold weather, consider visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains in winter months, December through March, for far fewer crowds and cheaper prices — unless you’re going to the ski resort areas to take advantage of winter sports. Note that while the national parks in the area — the Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Shenandoah National Park — are open in the off-season, many facilities such as visitor centers may be closed.
A 469-mile scenic highway from Western North Carolina up into Virginia may take you several days to drive in full, but the Blue Ridge Parkway is worth the time spent for the scenery alone. It crests peaks in the national parks and skirts through the Pisgah, Nantahala, George Washington, and Jefferson national forests. Just mind the speed limit, which is strictly enforced and triggers a pricey speeding ticket if you get pulled over.
Barely an hour by car outside of the nation’s capital, Shenandoah National Park is a mix of wooded highlands, soaring peaks, and hiking trails galore. Though strenuous and steep, Old Rag Mountain is one of the park’s most popular hikes thanks to the reward of 360-degree views at the end of the steep trek. Not into hiking? You can still enjoy the 105-mile-long Skyline Drive with its various trail heads, overlooks, and picnic areas.
Named for the ever-present mist that hovers over the mountains — the native Cherokee people called it the “place of the blue smoke” — the Great Smoky Mountains comprise the country’s most visited national park year after year thanks to the accessibility of easy trails that lead to gushing waterfalls, the abundance of wildlife such as the curious black bears, and great bike routes such as the Cades Cove loop. Don’t miss Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the range (and the state of Tennessee), not to mention the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi.