Paddling Along the Blue Ridge Parkway


We started in August. Our plan was a leisurely three weeks cruising the Blue Ridge Parkway from north to south. We had hiking shoes in the truck, kayaks and mountain bikes on the roof, and our new travel trailer hitched up behind.

For 469 miles, the parkway follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. With over 15 million annual visitors, it’s by far the busiest unit of the National Park Service. People typically go for driving tours, mountain lodges, scenic overlooks, wine tastings, and a crowded fall-colors season. Not exactly our scene, honestly.

We never considered the Blue Ridge Parkway as a destination itself. On occasion, we might drive a short section on the way to other adventures. But the parkway does pass through some of the most scenic and rugged parts of the Appalachian Mountains. A closer look at the surrounding terrain revealed intriguing trails and a series of paddling runs worth exploring. Once we had our camper, a new type of trip seemed possible: move slowly, set up basecamps, and try to beat the crowds by venturing outward.

James River: Balcony Falls
We first stopped to hike, pulling into the wooded Big Meadows Campground, at a crisp elevation of 3500 feet in Shenandoah N.P. On day two, we drove over to the trailhead for the Old Rag summit hike, a strenuous 9.5-mile loop involving plenty of boulder scrambling. The views were amazing. The Thursday crowd was small. The route was fun but challenging. We spent the next day mostly limping around camp and drinking beer in the meadow.

On the fourth day, we headed south on Skyline Drive and continued onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. We still didn’t feel like hiking, so we skipped Humpback Rocks. At mile 60.8, we pulled into the nearly empty Otter Creek Campground. The rundown facilities seemed about as old as the parkway, itself, which was built over fifty years beginning in the 1930s. Otter Creek is the lowest point on the parkway (elevation 649 feet) and the warmer weather felt perfect for some paddling.

The next day, I pushed off in my kayak near Glasgow, Virginia. The first hundred yards were on the small Maury River, before a sharp rapid dropped into the wide James River. The Balcony Falls run is five miles of class II-II+ through the forested James River Gorge. It’s a whitewater classic, popular with locals and beginners.

Floating with the current, I turned to watch the young couple I’d met at the put-in. She was a raft guide and experienced paddleboarder leading her boyfriend who was learning to hardshell. They came through fine but moved slowly, so I turned downstream and eddy hopped between chutes and ledges. The low flow felt particularly manageable. The gauge at Buchanan, located 22 miles upstream, reported only 650 CFS, but there was maybe an extra hundred from inflows.

Just over a mile downstream, I came across several groups of paddlers on a long beach. Some were gearing up to run Balcony Falls, a class III where the gorge narrows. Other people were swimming or taking a break on shore. It was a friendly scene, so I chatted with a few folks before paddling across the pool to boat-scout the rapid.

Upstream of Balcony Falls, James River

The route seemed straightforward. I dropped through the center and climbed onto rocks to watch the paddlers behind me. All came through with clean lines. I was back in my boat when the young couple appeared above the lip. The leading paddleboarder went to her knees and nailed the drop.

Her boyfriend didn’t fare so well. He nervously paddled away from the main chute toward a shallower channel that zigzagged through boulders. In an instant, he was upside down, his arms flailing. He frantically pushed off rocks and lifted his head, gasping for air. That’s when I realized two things. He’d been wearing a black baseball cap, not a helmet. And his face was bleeding.

He wet exited. I grabbed his paddle and nosed his kayak into an eddy. He suffered a minor flesh wound and a bruised pride—I hope he learned his lesson for not wearing a helmet. Offering a few words of encouragement, I parted ways to complete the run.

The next mile involved navigating through fun boulder gardens. I fell in with some welcoming locals, who told of their favorite high-water flows. Then a dark storm rolled in. We lowered our heads and paddled through driving rain. My wife was waiting with our truck, and the weather sent us west toward drinks and dinner at the excellent Devil’s Backbone Brewing Co. in Lexington.

Outside of the Otter Creek Visitor Center on day six, we met Justin, a tour cyclist who was riding the entire parkway on his way from Washington D.C. to his small farm in rural Georgia. We wished him luck before following an interpretive path to an intact section of the old James River and Kanawha Canal. Built in the early 19th century, this navigable channel extended nearly 200 miles, starting in Richmond, passing through the gorge, and ending near Buchanan. After the Civil War, the canal towpath was converted to a railway that’s still in operation.

With the rest of the day, we drove out to the restored Appomattox Court House National Historic Park and visited downtown Lynchburg. All told, this James River stop was a winner. Next time, we’d aim for better water, bring my wife’s ducky, and check out more sections.

Otter Creek Kanawha Canal Site

Roanoke River Gorge
On day seven, we drove two hours south to the mountain metro of Roanoke. We looked forward to camping at the 1,100-acre Explore Park, which touts itself as an outdoor adventure destination. Sadly, it was more miss than hit. The disc golf course was fun, and the park’s onsite brewpub in a historic 1800s tavern made for a great evening. But the RV campsites were oddly cramped, and the mountain bike trails were like riding on staircases made of roots.

Over three days, we enjoyed exploring Roanoke. We walked at Mill Mountain Park, home to the iconic hilltop star, checked out the interesting transportation museum and a few solid breweries and restaurants. We also made an afternoon trip east to the fascinating Booker T. Washington National Monument. While in Roanoke we had hoped to mountain bike the metro’s top trail system at Carvins Cove. Heavy rain had other ideas, which pointed my wife toward an inside day and me toward paddling.

The Roanoke Gorge is a three-mile class II run along the northern boundary of Explore Park. The put-in is just off the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile marker 114.9. Scouting from the bridge high above, I could see the sporty intro rapid called Little Niagara. The hike from the Roanoke River Overlook parking lot down to the river wasn’t great. Only a quarter mile, but with a steep 150-foot elevation drop on a muddy path with slippery rocks.

The small hydroelectric dam just upstream was releasing around 220 CFS. Not much, but just enough to get down. I spent about twenty minutes at Little Niagara, which was channelized enough to offer some surfs and attainment lines. Then I pretty much bombed the run. There were a few ledgey drops, a few rising waves, a few scrapey riffles. I waved at friendly anglers wading in the shallows, who seemed just as puzzled as me that I was paddling here.

While I will give most sections of river a chance, we came away from Roanoke with mixed feelings. We liked the city, and I would like to return to bike Carvins Cove, and maybe hike the Triple Crown, someday. But when it came to Explore Park, and paddling the Roanoke Gorge, one time was enough.

Upper New River
Leaving Roanoke, we had a long day of driving. We made brief stops for a short walk at Rocky Knob, a self-guided tour of historic Mabry Mill, and a small museum at the Blue Ridge Music Center. Thus far, we’d found the 217 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia to be surprisingly peaceful, other than a busier section through Roanoke.

Once we crossed into North Carolina, traffic increased, and impatient drivers began tailgating.  Due to construction closures on the parkway, we detoured through busier towns. On one hectic stretch of highway, we passed Justin. He was standing on the shoulder, next to his bike, looking tired and stressed out.

Fortunately, after backtracking on the parkway, we found Doughton Park to be a picturesque landscape of rolling meadows and forests. Due to the road closure just north, it was even quieter than usual. We set up for three nights in a campground filled with friendly regulars, who walked laps together on the paved loop each night. Our first full day was spent hiking ten miles through the park, which ranges in elevation from 3,500 to 4,000 feet. We passed fields of wildflowers, enjoyed wide open vistas, and stopped by the preserved Brinegar Cabin.

On day 12, we diverted to New River State Park for a warm summer float trip. I’d paddled the New River Gorge and Gauley several times where I learned that the Upper New was opposite of most headwaters, calm instead of steep. With only one vehicle, we drove to the visitor center and locked my bike near the U.S. 221 access. Then we drove upstream to the public access at Gentry Road Bridge and launched our boats.

The float was great. Classic Appalachian scenery. Steady current. Occasional friendly floaters of all ages. My bike shuttle back to the truck was nice too. Before we left, we walked around the park and scouted the campground. A solid destination for camping and float trips.

Upper New River float

Nantahala River Gorge
Moving faster through the North Carolina mountains, we caught up with Justin just past the famous Linn Cove Viaduct on day 13. He described a harrowing ride on the recent detour, including one driver running him off the road.

We were like old friends now, laughing about the simpler days on a quaint parkway in Virginia. We all camped at Linville Falls for one night, where we hiked the short trails together and shared stories of past adventures. The last time we saw our new friend was on day 14 outside the Museum of NC Minerals, where a small crowd had gathered to hear his tale. Hopefully, we’ll cross paths again someday.

From there, my wife and I diverted off the parkway to Black Mountain Campground for a few nights. The next day, we drove the switchbacks up to Mount Mitchell State Park to see the highest summit on the East Coast, at 6,684 feet. A chilly hike took us through dense fog, slick rocks, and scraggly spruce-fir forest along the rugged spine of the Black Mountains.

On day 16, we returned to the parkway. After a hiking stop at Craggy Gardens, mile 364.6, we zipped through Asheville. We were in familiar territory now, having driven the parkway around Pisgah National Forest and the Smokies many times before. Thus, we made a beeline to our final camp.

Tsali Recreation Area is about 25 miles west of the parkway’s southern terminus at Great Smoky Mountains NP. The next few days were a fun mix of mountain biking along the shores of Lake Fontana and paddling laps on the Nanty. Our friends came for a few days and ran a raft with my wife, while I kayaked alongside. This classic Southeastern run has eight miles of class II+ whitewater, continuous current, and a splashy finale at Nantahala Falls. Waiting at the takeout is NOC’s riverside bar.

On day 19, we made a symbolic Sunday drive along the southern end of the parkway, starting from Cherokee. Up we went to Richland Balsam, mile 431.4, the highest point on the parkway at 6,053 feet. Our last stop was a waterfall hike at popular Graveyard Fields. I dropped my wife off at a friend’s house in Waynesville, so she could catch a ride home for work on Monday. Fortunately, I’d get a few bonus days of paddling and mountain biking before bringing the camper home.

Nantahala Falls

French Broad: Section 9
It had been a dry summer in the Southeast, and the water was low on natural rivers. But a small bump from a recent rain meant the French Broad was still in range. While hanging out at NOC, working on a project about paddling courses, I’d met a longtime instructor. For day 21, he invited me to join him and a private guest on Section 9. I’d never managed to paddle this classic run over the years, so I was stoked at the chance.

We took our time on the four miles from Barnard to Stackhouse. Told jokes in the eddies. Surfed on the fly. Did some fun skills drills here and there. Many of the class II and III rapids wound through huge fins of bedrock, rising overhead. Even though it was under 1000 CFS, the day was a blast.

It was a perfect way to end a fun trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We might not need to drive all 469 miles again—not anytime soon, at least. But I definitely can see us dropping in from time to time. Especially now that we know how many adventures—and rivers—can be found along the way.