Anchored at either end by national parks— Shenandoah National Park at one end, Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the other—this 574-mile stretch of Appalachian mountain-crest highway is stunning any time of year. In May, wildflowers bloom along with dogwood and mountain laurel, and in summer these mountain reaches stay refreshingly cool and green. We drove it in early fall, missing the vivid foliage of mid- to late October but experiencing an amazing sight: a blizzard of monarch butterflies stubbornly plowing into oncoming traffic, refusing to veer off of their hard-wired migration route. In the winter, whenever snow and ice close some parts of the parkway, you can even cross-country ski here.
Tell the kids that all those trees releasing hydrocarbons into the atmosphere create the mountains’ distinctive haze—blue along the Blue Ridge, slightly grayer (and therefore “smoky”) in the Smoky Mountains. Both parkways are signposted with mile markers, which makes counting down the distances fun for kids, and there are walking trails marked continually (look for signs bearing a rifle-and–powder horn symbol). We also played Spot the Scenic Overlook, keeping watch for the next pull-off area where we could jump out and really drink in those hill-and-valley vistas. Another thing to do is to count the tunnels—there’s only one in Virginia but 26 in North Carolina, most of them in the hilly section below Asheville.
The 105-mile Skyline Drive, which has an entry fee, begins at Front Royal, Virginia, and slices southwest through long, skinny Shenandoah National Park. Around Waynesboro, the road’s name changes to the Blue Ridge Parkway (469 miles in total), and the surrounding greenery becomes the Jefferson National Forest. You’ll cross the border into North Carolina and roll through the Pisgah National Forest, reaching higher elevations as you angle west past Asheville to the Great Smoky Mountains park, which spills west into Tennessee.
You can take a break at several sites en route: At the Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 5.8, Humpback Rocks, the Mountain Farm trail meanders through a cluster of 19th-century farm buildings; at milepost 85.9, the Peaks of Otter, a loop trail leads to the rural Johnson Farm; milepost 176.2 accesses picturesque Mabry Mill, along with a blacksmith shop, wheel-wright’s shop, and whiskey still; Puckett Cabi (milepost 189.9) was the home of a busy 19th-century mountain midwife; the Jesse Brown Farmstead (milepost 272.5) consists of a cabin, spring house, and a Baptist church. At milepost 294.2, Moses H. Cone Memorial Park offers a turn-of-the-20th-century manor house. Because your drive should take at least 2 days, overnight in Boone, North Carolina, where the Hickory Ridge Homestead Museum is a re-created 1780 log cabin farmstead with costumed interpreters.