Appalachia is a vast region in the eastern United States, extending from southern New York State all the way down to Alabama. It’s the name of a cultural region in the central part of the Appalachian Mountains. In the heart of the region, in western Virginia and North Carolina, you can go on an epic Appalachia national parks road trip.
In this relatively small area, you’ll find both Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks, which are interconnected by the world-class Blue Ridge Parkway, also a unit in the National Park Service system. It’s basically a huge three-part series of adjacent National Park Service sites, all featuring phenomenally scenic roads—the ultimate road trip destination in eastern America.
Appalachia National Parks Road Trip Itinerary
This Appalachia national parks road trip takes about two weeks, including time to pick up a rental car or motorhome rental and get to and from the starting and ending points. Note that this is a linear—not circular—road trip, from the northern entrance of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Days 1-2: Shenandoah National Park
Kick off your epic Appalachia national parks road trip with a visit to the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center in the northern part of Shenandoah National Park. Pick up a map and get some additional info on the park’s fauna and flora and history.
Then, continue your way down Skyline Drive, the park’s only road. Following the ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles, this is one of America’s most iconic and popular drives. There are an incredible 75 overlooks along the way, offering breathtaking views of the mountain ranges and valleys in between. Take your time and slow down. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife, such as white-tailed deer and black bears, which are present in abundance. Maybe even take in a short hike or two.
On day two, stop at Big Meadows, a huge area of grassland and brush in the very center of the park. Grab a bite to eat at the wayside or enjoy a picnic. Take a look around the visitor center and its exhibits. Just north of Big Meadows lies the trailhead of one of Shenandoah National Park’s best hikes. A 1.4-mile round trip, this hike leads down to Dark Hollow Falls, tumbling down for 70 feet—an impressive sight.
Continue your drive on Skyline Drive, stopping at overlooks as you please. Just after leaving Shenandoah National Park at its southern entrance, you’ll find yourself on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Days 3-6: Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a public road managed by the National Park Service. Because it’s essentially a mountain highway, driving this most scenic of roads is completely free. What sets the Blue Ridge Parkway apart from other mountain roads, however, is that there are no traffic lights for its entire 469-mile length. You can drive the whole thing without having to stop once. But that would, of course, be ridiculous.
Just like Skyline Drive, the Parkway is lined with overlooks offering amazing mountain, meadow and valley views. There are also numerous picnic areas, info centers, campgrounds, hiking trails and historic exhibits.
The Blue Ridge Parkway, incidentally the most visited unit in the National Park Service system, is not a destination in itself. Rather, it’s the journey that matters. Allow at least four days to drive it, taking in major highlights such as Peaks of Otter, Mabry Mill, the Linn Cove Viaduct and Mount Pisgah.
Starting at Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway ends where Great Smoky Mountains National Park begins.
Days 7-9: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
An essential destination on the United States east coast, Great Smoky Mountains National Park receives the highest number of annual visitors of all national parks in America. Spend the last three days of your Appalachia national parks road trip exploring the woods, waterfalls and summits of this fantastic park.
Begin your visit at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, which features a museum, a bookshop and an info desk. Get yourself a map. You’re free to fill in your days in Great Smoky Mountains National Park as you like—there’s plenty to discover. However, make sure not to miss Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, Mingus Mill, Laurel Falls and Grotto Falls.