The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of America’s most iconic roads. Running through and over the Appalachian Mountains, the parkway connects Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is visited by more than 15 million sightseers every year making it the most toured national park unit in the US. While most tend to see it by car, stopping at overlooks along the way, every cyclist knows that it is best seen by bike. Welcome to the cyclist’s guide to bikepacking (or bicycle touring!) the Blue Ridge Parkway. Whether you plan to bikepack the entire route, or are just cycling the Blue Ridge Parkway in sections, check out our advice below.
The first question you may be asking yourself is “how long is the Blue Ridge Parkway?” The parkway is 469 miles and runs from Afton, Virginia to Cherokee, North Carolina. Also important to the cyclist is how much elevation gain is there across the parkway? The total elevation gain Southbound is 48,601 feet! Northbound is a little bit higher at 48,722. The second question you may be asking yourself is “why in the world would I put myself through that?” The views of course! From the viaduct, to Mt. Mitchell, to Mabry Mill to Apple Orchard Mountain, there is another spectacular view around every corner. On my several trips through the Blue Ridge Parkway I am still finding new overlooks that take my breath away.
Where to Start
Northbound or Southbound? Many cyclists complete the parkway in either direction. Regardless of where you live, there are some pros to traveling in either direction.
- Summit Mt. Mitchell earlier while you are still fresh
- Descend from Apple Orchard Mountain, the largest climb of the trip.
- End near Charlottesville, VA and skyline drive which offers easier transportation options home.
- Option to start in Asheville, NC which is one of the neatest cities on the east coast and has a major airport.
- Progress to the more mountainous terrain as the trip goes on.
- Conquer Mt. Mitchell as a finale to the trip.
- Attempt the full climb of Apple Orchard Mountain from the lowest point on the parkway (James River) to the highest point in Virginia.
- Option to end in Asheville, NC with easy transportation options home.
If you are going on a Blue Ridge parkway bike tour, you’re going to need a few places to stay. The good news is that the parkway has campgrounds in abundance! Especially in the southern areas of the parkway, you can find bike-in campgrounds run by the park service. Some favorites include Linville Falls, Crabtree Falls, and Peaks of Otter. Shower facilities are limited at the park service campgrounds, so sprinkling in some private campgrounds can be a good plan to keep you and your clothes clean. If you aren’t the camping type, you can find hotels, motels, and cabins along the way as well. Do yourself a favor and stay in at least one campground during your stay. Experiencing nature, communing with other travelers, and being just a little bit dirty are all part of bikepacking the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Always a popular topic among adventure cyclists, food will be an important part of your tour! The Blue Ridge Parkway bike tour is no exception. This is an area where the Blue Ridge Parkway both delivers in full, and can leave you wanting more. In the more populated areas around the parkway, you are spoiled with options. Don’t miss white duck taco shop in Asheville or Sweet Donkey Cafe in Roanoke. Breweries are also popular with New Belgium, Star Hill, Big Lick, Sierra Nevada, and many many more just waiting for your tired cycling legs to roll in. Make sure to plan a stop at Mabry Mill and the Peaks of Otter restaurant which both sit directly on the parkway. Do not forget to pack extra meals and snacks however. There will be long stretches between cities that have almost no food available. Sometimes towns that seem right along the route may require miles and thousands of feet of descending to reach. So stock up in the towns where food is plentiful and save yourself from the gas station poptarts for dinner later.
I would recommend a road bike or a touring bike for a Blue Ridge Parkway bike tour. You aren’t going to be seeing any gravel or singletrack unless you end up off of the parkway (there is some killer mountain biking near Asheville). That being said, a touring bike is going to be more sturdy and reliable. If you are camping, you need a bike that can support all the weight of your gear, food, water, and clothing. Having a touring bike with wider tires (32mm-40mm) will give you a more comfortable ride. A road bike will be faster. If you are on a credit card tour, a road bike might be best for you. Not sure what kind of tour you want to go on? Take our quiz.
Bikepackers and bicycle touring junkies are often big weight weenies. Oftentimes I think steps such as cutting the handle off of your toothbrush, or buying an $800 tent that weighs 3 ounces less may be overkill. Ok, those examples are definitely overkill for the ordinary bike trip. A Blue Ridge Parkway bike tour is a place where weight really does matter. When you’re riding 1.5 times the height of Mount Everest, those extra ounces really start to add up. A lightweight backpacking tent, we love Big Agnes, and a good sleeping bag or quilt, check out Enlightened Equipment, will go a long way in saving weight and space. Weather can be a bit unpredictable (more on that later) so bringing a rain jacket is a must. Do not forget a good headlight and tail light for the foggy mornings and numerous tunnels. Also recommended is a removable handlebar bag so you can quickly bring your valuables with you for that bathroom of restaurant stop. Last but not least, don’t forget a pair of walking or hiking shoes to enjoy the many trails and hikes that litter the parkway. Most campgrounds have a fantastic mountain to climb for an even better view. Feel free to use our gear checklist to help you pack.
Weather and Road Conditions
The weather and road conditions on the Blue Ridge Parkway can greatly impact any bike trip. The weather is usually warm enough between May and October. Be careful when you are at elevation in the shoulder seasons. Storms can blow in quickly in the mountains, and you don’t want to be in a vulnerable position. Most campgrounds and ranger stations will have the day’s weather report for you to read and plan your trip around. Weather can be very local, varying from valley to valley. You may ride over a climb in the sun, descend into a rainstorm, and come out the other side back into the sun. Embrace all the weather that the Blue Ridge Parkway has to throw at you, and come prepared! Similarly, road conditions can vary. The national park service website lists road closures. Make sure to check ahead for a safe detour if an upcoming section is closed.
Now that you’ve learned about riding on the parkway, its time to plan your own trip. For tips on planning your own trip, check out our trip planning article. Interested in bikepacking the Blue Ridge Parkway, but aren’t sure you want to go it alone? Check out our guided tour of the parkway, as well as other guided trips that we offer