As fall rolls in, the air is filled with the smell of a new school year. This year, tour some of our nation’s finest four-year institutions near Virginia’s Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway. Offering magnificent views of the Shenandoah Valley, Piedmont region, and Blue Ridge Mountains, Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway are great alternatives to the Interstate, with plenty of natural wonders and stunning views to make your college tour a trip to remember. Surrounded by intense beauty and collegiate energy, Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway will lead you to a new chapter of life.
Begin your college tour in Winchester, a few miles north of Skyline Drive, with a visit to Shenandoah University. Founded in 1875, this liberal arts institution rests in a beautiful country landscape only an hour or two from Washington, D.C. After your visit, head south about 20 miles on US 522/340 into Front Royal. Here, you may take the Skyline Drive and ascend into the heights of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
But first, consider a small side trip in which you descend into the mountains’ depths to view one of the treasures of the earth – the anthodites of Skyline Caverns, just a couple miles west of Skyline Drive along Stonewall Jackson Highway in Front Royal. In the Skyline Caverns, you’ll enjoy the comfortable 54-degree year-round temperature in these caves, which were discovered in 1937. Take notice of the twisting and winding, tube-like rock structures. These “anthodites” are a very rare, naturally occurring phenomena, and Skyline Caverns is one of the few places on Earth where you can see them. If you have some time, join one of the expert-guided tours through the cave system.
The next college on your itinerary lies south of the byway, easily reached via I-66 and I-81. But instead of taking this road, treat your college-bound progeny to the poetry of nature by taking ‘the road less traveled by.’ A short distance along the heights of the ridge to the east lies views of our nation’s largest national park close to the metropolitan areas of Washington DC and Baltimore -- Shenandoah National Park. Skyline Drive forms the backbone of this breathtaking park along the Blue Ridge Mountains, offering multiple overlooks into the Shenandoah Valley. Stop and explore more than 500 miles of hiking trails, such as the Appalachian Trail, waterfalls and other natural features, and magnificent wildlife on this 10-mile segment of Skyline Drive. Stop at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, just five miles along the drive, to orient yourself and learn more about the byway.
After about 10 minutes more along the byway, take Lee Highway/US 211 heading west and descend out of the Blue Ridge Mountains to visit another set of caves. This 10-mile sidetrip brings you to the Luray Caverns. First discovered in 1878, these caverns are known for their vast range of captivating colors. The reds, whites, blacks and yellows of these caves, caused by different minerals, will inspire more than a few pictures.
From here you can travel west on Lee Highway and south on I-81 to visit two colleges in the town of Harrisonburg just 20 miles away. Or consider returning to Skyline Drive for more natural wonders. About mid-way along the byway, you’ll reach another oddity of Skyline Drive: Swift Run Gap, a wind gap that has long been used as a crossing between the Shenandoah Valley and Piedmont region. From Swift Run Gap, travel west on US-33 about 20 miles to Harrisonburg to reach the next college on your trip. Here you will find Eastern Mennonite University, a Christian school that offers 37 majors and 35 minors.
From Eastern Mennonite University, head south on VA 42 for about seven miles and you will reach Bridgewater College. Founded in 1880, Bridgewater College was the first coeducational college in Virginia. From Bridgewater College, work your way back to US 33 and return east to Skyline Drive where you can continue your journey south.
The next 40 miles of the byway offer more scenic valleys and awe-inspiring peaks. Don’t forget to keep your eyes open for some of the wildlife! The Blue Ridge Mountains are a bird watcher’s paradise as there are several species that migrate through the area. If you’re lucky, you might see a fawn or even a bear. If you’re traveling in the fall season, you won’t be able to get enough pictures of the blazing reds, oranges and yellows.
At the end of the byway, your journey splits and heads east or west. You can go east to visit Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, or go west to stop at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. To go to Staunton, take I-64 west for 12 miles then take exit 222 looping onto US 250 heading west. This will take you into Staunton, home to Mary Baldwin College, a private, four-year women’s college that was founded in 1842. Or you can go east on US 250 for seven miles, merge onto I-64, then take exit 120 into Charlottesville to visit the main campus of the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819.
Or, you can continue your college journey on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which begins immediately south of Skyline Drive. Stop at the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center about 5 miles along the Parkway to orient yourself for the journey ahead, which includes places such as Whetstone Ridge or Wigwam Falls. About 45 miles from the visitor center, swing onto US 60 heading west into Buena Vista, hometown of Southern Virginia University, a private liberal arts institution. Return to the byway and continue heading southwest. Along the way, check out Otter Creek, near the James River, the lowest point on the byway. Take a walk on one of the nearby trails to get a personal feel for the plant and animal communities which make Otter Creek a unique stop on the byway. Check out the James River Visitor Center or stop for lunch at the restaurant.
On your way to the city of Roanoke and the next set of colleges, be sure to stop at one of the many pullouts and overlooks along the way to see spectacular views of the Peaks of Otter, Abbott Lake, and the Roanoke River Gorge. In Roanoke, stop to visit Hollins University, the oldest women’s college in Virginia, ECPI Technical College, and Jefferson College of Health Sciences. After looking around Roanoke, return to the byway and journey south to Smart View, site of a beautiful, moderate hike through forests with views of streams and bluffs. Stretch your legs and refresh yourself for the rest of your college tour!
Keep your camera handy as you continue south along the byway! Along with stunning views of mountains and forests, you'll pass historic Mabry Mill. Framed by dark woods in a grassy meadow beside still waters, it's a favorite view with photographers. Another beautiful stop is a few miles further south just after you enter North Carolina -- Cumberland Knob, where construction first took place for the Blue Ridge Parkway. This beautiful recreation area is a great place to stop for more pictures or a leisurely hike. It's also close to the Blue Ridge Music Center, a venue for musical traditions and performances, operated jointly by the National Park Service and the National Council for the Traditional Arts.
Continue south on the Parkway into North Carolina about 60 miles, then take US-421 south from Deep Gap or US-321 west from Blowing Rock and head into the town of Boone, home to Appalachian State University, which covers 1,300 acres of downtown Boone and offers 140 undergraduate and graduate degrees.
While in Boone, return to the byway on Blowing Rock Road/US-321. On the way visit the Wild West at Tweetsie Railroad, North Carolina’s first and oldest theme park. Ride through the surrounding mountains and enjoy the alluring landscape surrounding Blue Ridge Parkway before you return to the byway for a stop at Moses H. Cone Memorial Park. Named after Moses H. Cone, the “Denim King,” the park includes Flat Top Mountain and Rich Mountain in its 3,516 acres, as well as the lovely 23-room Flat Top Manor once used by Cone and his family.
Continue south on Blue Ridge Parkway for another 25 miles past Grandfather Mountain, the picturesque Linn Cove Viaduct and Linville Falls. Just south of Linville Falls Visitor Center, turn off the byway onto Linville Falls Highway (US 221) for a trip to the underground wonderland of Linville Caverns. Bring your jacket; the Linville Caverns have a year-round temperature of 52 degrees. Continue south about 20 miles and return to the Blue Ridge Parkway via NC 226A and the town of Little Switzerland. This European-inspired town is a delightful place to spend a few hours strolling through its Swiss-themed shops, resorts and restaurants.
Our next college stop is about 50 miles south, a few miles before Asheville, North Carolina and not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway's Folk Art Center. The town of Swannanoa holds Warren Wilson College, a private liberal-arts college, founded in 1894 upon the philosophy of sustainability. After exploring the campus, head south from Swannanoa and get on I-40, going west into Asheville, crossing over the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Once in Asheville, you’ll come to the final college of the tour: the University of North Carolina-Asheville, which was founded in 1927 and is home to more than 3,400 students. While in Asheville, visit one of America's grandest estates, Biltmore Estate, a technological marvel of its time. Check out the Smith McDowell House Museum, located four miles south of the University of North Carolina-Asheville. Go back in time when you come to this museum, the oldest surviving brick structure in Asheville.
Though your college tour is done, explore more of what Blue Ridge Parkway has to offer. Turn north a few miles after the Waterknob Rock Visitor Center to reach Ghost Town in the Sky, a Wild West theme park, located at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains. With staged gunfights, rides, shows and more, there is something for all the family. Continue to the end of the byway and explore the Oconaluftee Indian Village. Enjoy a first-hand look at a working and living village that hasn’t changed since 1759. Take a tour or watch a demonstration and learn about a unique culture from a very different time.
Now that you’ve completed your college tour, consider the beautiful landscape, educational opportunities and great memories along the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway. The future is waiting and the road is calling!
- Copyright © October 2006 Bob Ward.
- Public domain. Courtesy of Shenandoah National Park
- Public domain. http://www.luraycaverns.com/
- Copyright © August 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation.
- Public domain. Photo by Gary Johnson
- Public domain. Photo by Gary Johnson
- Copyright © December 2001 NC Division of Tourism: Film & Sports Dev..
- Copyright © 1998 Grandfather Mountain.
- Copyright © 2002 Mike Booher.