Since we’re on a road trip I thought that it would be fun to compare two roads that get a lot of attention for their scenic routes. Skyline Drive & Blue Ridge Parkway. Before I introduce the competitors and the merits on which they will be judged I want to clear some things up. Partly because I am always being asked questions like, “hey, Jeff — what is the difference between a national park and a national forest??” Good question. Allow me to explain.
I could get all technical on you, but I won’t. Essentially the difference is National Parks are VERY concerned with preservation, that is their number one goal. Due to this almost nothing is altered, ever, within the park. On the other hand National Forests can mandate many different uses for their grounds such as recreation, timber, grazing & fish. Sounds like the National Forests can “tweak” certain things in order to get a desired result where as National Parks must say as is. National Forests have 193 million acres to their name while National Parks only have 84 million acres (55 million of them are in Alaska which kind of feels like cheating if you ask me). So there, now you know.
In the right corner, stretching 109 miles along Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains – costing $20 for a week-long in-and-out vehicle pass and with the average speed limit 35 mph due to it’s winding curves, please welcome SKYLINE DRIVE !!! Skyline Drive’s 109 miles traverse the entire length of Shenandoah National Park with 75 different lookout points.
In the opposite corner (because this is really the best way to introduce competitors) running 469 miles stretching from Virginia to North Carolina with a speed limit of 45 mph please welcome BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY !! The parkway itself is not a national park (unlike Skyline Drive) but the areas that border it on each side are a park of the National Park System – although the forests which you drive through are technically a national Forest (George Washington National Forest). WTF? Any ways, welcome Blue Ridge Parkway.
It’s going to get real judgey in here. I will compare these two roads on easily measured stats such as look out points, cost & amenities along the road. I will also judge them on things that you probably shouldn’t judge a road on such as other drivers, which one was more enjoyable and a comparison of a waterfall in Shenandoah to a waterfall outside of Blue Ridge Parkway.
Access to the Roads
With access to Skyline Drive just over an hour away from Washington DC, which is where we happened to come from, I have to give the nod in this very abstract category to Skyline. Plus the northern entrance to Skyline Drive is in Front Royal, VA. We stopped for gas in this little town and there was some people selling bbq pulled pork sandwiches in a parking lot for $5. We bought two and they were delicious. So that also helps Skyline in this category.
Buuutttt – we’re not going to let Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) take a hit without defending itself. While you cannot easily access this road from Washington DC, it’s only a 30 or so odd minute drive from Charlottesville, VA – home of the Virginia Cavaliers, Thomas Jefferson’s estate and the wonderful Barboursville Winery – so take that. That’s pretty convenient in my eyes.
And you know what else I like? The fact that BRP doesn’t charge you a penny to drive on the ride and Skyline hits you up for $20 to enter the park. Skyline tries to make you think that you’re buying a great deal by telling you that you’re able to come in-and-out of the park at anytime for the next 7 days. BRP also scores points for having a ton of areas to get off the road (think intersections like a normal road) while Skyline Drive only has 3 enter/exit points – beginning, middle & end.
Ultimately I have to give the point for Access to the Roads to Blue Ridge Parkway. No cost to enter, plenty of spots to get off the road if you need to and it’s proximity to major cities along the route such as Charlottesville & Ashville give it the edge.
Winner: Blue Ridge Parkway
We camped in both places. We happened to be coming through Skyline Drive during labor day weekend without any reservations or understanding of exactly what we were doing which kind of back fired. Every single campsite and lodge was filled and we were forced to illegally sleep in our car in a parking lot of a lodge. Nothing to look at here. Just a couple of grown ups moving all their luggage to the front seat and filling up an air mattress in the back. Nope, definitely not staying here tonight.
But, had we stayed at the campground I think that it would have been great. In the morning we woke up, grabbed our bikes and took a ride to the grounds to take a shower. $1 for 5 minutes of hot water, quarters only and it really doesn’t give you a warning when the water will shut off, so make sure you get all those suds off or bring some more change. A standard nonelectric back-in campsite here will cost you $20.
We stayed at Doughton Park off BRP, arguably one of the more boring sites that you could choose along the drive but it’s location (right in the middle of where we came from to where we needed to go) was ideal for us. Getting into the place was a breeze as this was the middle of the week after labor day weekend. $16 got us a basic, non electric back in spot with our own fire pit, picnic table and tent pad. This particular site was lacking in a couple of key areas. For one it didn’t have shower facilities. Or I should say facilities intended for you to take a shower in. I spent 10 minutes washing myself in their bathroom sink and it worked just fine. Cold, but fine. And no laundry facilities either. You will be smelling bad. I thought the trails off the camp site here were a bit inferior to the trails off Big Meadows as well. (We hiked both, NBD).
When the dust settles the extra money spent to stay in Big Meadows (even considering the $20 it costs to drive on the road) was still worth it. The campsite and amenities around it were superior, especially for a couple of glampers like Lindsay and I. Some might argue, and they’d be correct, that the Doughton Park is a much more “legit” or “real” or “raw” or “authentic” camping experience. Whoopity do dah. If you’re paying $16 to have a bathroom, fresh drinking water, a tent pad, picnic tables and a fire pit you’re not exactly Bear Grylls so you can give up on that BS about “real” camping.
Winner: Skyline Drive
Amenities on the Road
Here I will take a look at viewpoints, bathrooms, gas stations & visitor centers.
Both drives did an excellent job stationing visitor facilities to help with planning your drive. The people working the facilities off BRP probably were rejected by Skyline Drive if you can pick up my drift. Both were very knowledgable and helpful, but there was a different caliber of people working Skyline for sure. Point Skyline.
As for bathrooms it’s has to be a tie. There were plenty of places to go in both parks. It’s a fricken forest for crying out loud. But if you needed to actually use a toilet for some reason both roads had plenty of places to stop and the facilities were very clean. Even the campsite bathrooms during the labor day weekend were in great shape. The bathrooms were well stocked too. I’m going to stop writing about how awesome the bathrooms are right now.
Gas stations. Perhaps not a huge concern for others, but we’re a different breed. You see, we don’t always think of those types of things. In fact we entered the BRP with less than a quarter tank after passing many stations on our way there. After 27 miles of driving we had to get off and drive 5 more to a station. Not our best.
Skyline is short (109 miles if you remember…) which makes this sort of a goofy stat to compare. That being said they have a gas station inside the park, about half way through the drive. Super convenient. The prices are slightly higher, but c’mon – you’re paying for all that convenience! But that is about it. If you decided that you wanted to get off the drive and go to a town or something (like we did to drink wine) you have to go quite a ways. There really isn’t anything right off the drive, including gas stations.
Meanwhile BRP doesn’t have a gas station within the mountains/park/forest but there are so many on/off points and gas stations visible from the road. You can drive and feel pretty good about seeing a gas station every 30 miles or so. The book we received from the helpful, if not slightly strange, worker at the first visitors center provided a list of all the mile markers they recommend to stop for gas at.
Winner: a draw.
I said I was going to review the viewpoints here, but I am not. I will do this next. Sorry.
Beauty… and Waterfalls
Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder and since I am writing this it’s all up to me which one is prettier. I will fully disclose that the weather, for the first day on BRP, was better than the two days on Skyline and the lack of traffic on BRP was much nicer than a packed house on Skyline. Consider that when you read this next part.
Both drives are gorgeous, no doubt about that. To me though, Skyline drive was really trying hard. All the workers were up this park’s you know what. The pamphlets and all the material you could get your hands on were basically brag books about exactly how many look out points (75) were on the drive, the types of animals that you could see and all the trails that existed. It was getting a little tired toward the end of our grueling, two-day 109 mile drive. Ha. But really, we get it. There is a lot of lookout points and a ton of people saw a bear or a snake (they had log books at each stop that you could write what you saw, where you saw it and where you are from).
We decided to take Skyline up on one of these hikes after we slept in the car one morning. We were told that the trail entrance no more than 15 feet from our bed would take us on a 4 mile loop with a spectacular waterfall along the way, we simply could not miss it. We did the walk which was gorgeous. Turkeys, deer & I even saw a couple of black bears running around from a safe distance. But the waterfall. Not so much. Maybe the water was low. Maybe the person that recommended the trail had never done it before – who knows. The fact was the waterfall was not really a “fall” but just water.
As for BRP? The nice, albeit hard to follow, lady who gave us some pointers on the park shortly after entering HIGHLY recommended a specific waterfall 10 miles outside the forest/park. She gave us a list of 20 or so waterfalls that we could see in and around the drive but was adamant that the waterfall she was recommending was the best. She also happened to live down the road and I don’t believe had visited any others. But we were sold. And you know what. She was right. This was an actual fall and there were a couple of different viewpoints available (upper and lower falls). Kudos to her.
And the drive. My god the drive. Just awesome. I completely get why this is considered one of the top 10 drives in America. We barely stopped on Skyline Drive and probably made seven stops along BRP. I can’t exactly explain what made such a difference. Could it have been the weather, sure. Maybe it was the type of trees that lined the road or the 45 mph speed limit that allowed us to cover more ground in the same amount of time. I am not really sure, but we both agreed BRP was prettier than Skyline.
Winner: Blue Ridge Parkway. And we weren’t even there in the fall when the leaves turn.
And the Winner is…
Not everyone can get a participation trophy. Both have their pluses and minuses depending on what you’re looking for. Want to visit wineries along the drive? Well then Skyline is the route for you. Want to drive at no cost, obviously Blue Ridge Parkway then. It wasn’t an easy choice for us to make. We enjoyed both drives a lot and are glad we spent the amount of time on each that we did. The next time someone asks us which road is better we be proud to say: “Dude, what the….you didn’t read our blog post??” JK. The winner is Blue Ridge Parkway. You cannot go wrong with either though. BRP edged out Skyline in this review on the account of it’s picturesque drive, beautiful winding tree-lined roads and the ability to come and go as you please.