The Skyline Drive ends at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park at Rockfish Gap, but this beautiful, winding, scenic mountain road continues south under a new name, the Blue Ridge Parkway. Now toll-free and with a higher speed limit (45 mph instead of 35), it runs for 469 miles, all the way to the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. The first section of Blue Ridge traversed by the Parkway is what this site calls the Central Virginia Blue Ridge, the 115 mile stretch between Rockfish Gap and the low gap of the Roanoke River at Roanoke, VA.
Few people realize it, but the Blue Ridge here is higher (nine 4000 footers to Shenandoah's two), wilder, and much less crowded than the section in the Shenandoah National Park. Also, the Appalachian Trail, while still paralleling the Blue Ridge Parkway, is rougher and usually well away from the road, unlike the way the well-graded A.T. closely follows the Skyline Drive. There are no extensive side-trail networks, and no awesome Old Rag Mountain, but aside from that, this long stretch of Blue Ridge has much to offer those who don't need official National Park status and the accompanying visitor centers, campgrounds, and crowds to enjoy their mountains.
South of Rockfish Gap the Blue Ridge very quickly gets higher than any point in the whole southern section of Shenandoah National Park, at Humpback Mountain (3600') and Devil's Knob (3851'), where one of the rare visitor centers on the Blue Ridge Parkway offers a few trails. Further south, near the small town of Montebello, VA, is the greatest concentration of high peaks in the whole Northern Blue Ridge, where the Ridge becomes a rugged highland containing seven of its eleven 4000 footers. The Appalachian Trail passes over
The Priest (4063'),
Rocky Mountain (4072'),
Cole Mountain (4000'), and
Bald Knob (4040'), and a popular loop trail runs over
Pompey Mountain (4032') and
Mount Pleasant (4054'), just to the east of the A.T. The Blue Ridge parkway runs along the western edge of the area, part of George Washington National Forest, and many of the summits offer nice views.
The Blue Ridge, while still a single range, is now quite wide and complex. For example, Tobacco Row Mountain (2932') is a significant eastern
outlier, well away from the main range, that provides great views of the Piedmont and the main ridge from its lookout tower, while many other foothills, spurs, and parallel wooded ridges make the Blue Ridge often over 10 miles wide.
This impressive range is abruptly cut by the James River near Glasgow,
VA, the first time the ridge is crossed by a stream south of the Potomac. The James winds it way through a canyon with mountains rising over 2000 feet on either side, perhaps the most significant water gap in the Appalachains. US Route 501 precariously winds through it, and the Appalachian Trail provides some views as it plunges down and then back up, but the Blue Ridge Parkway wimps out, leaving the ridge and swinging out to cross the James to the east of the heart of the gap. The crossing is the lowest point on the whole Blue Ridge Parkway, 649 feet.
Just south of the James River the Northern Blue Ridge immediately rises
to Apple Orchard Mountain (4225'), highest point on the Blue Ridge in all Virginia, making the Parkway and A.T. awfully steep for quite a bit. Neither, though, goes over the peak, which is the home of a radar station. The Parkway, though, reaches 3950 feet, its Virginia high point. Apple Orchard Falls, on the west slopes of Apple Orchard Mountain, is on a popular loop hike that uses part of the Appalachian Trail.
The Peaks of Otter, Flat Top (4004') and Sharp Top (3852'), are the most popular recreation area in this stretch of the Blue Ridge. A visitor center, a road that carries shuttle buses to the summit of Sharp Top, and a good trail network are the main attractions here, all located right on the Blue Ridge Parkway, although the A.T. is far away to the west at this point. Isolated from other high mountains, the views from these peaks are fine, especially, as one might expect, from Sharp Top.
The Peaks of Otter are the last gasp of the Blue Ridge before the wide, low gap at Roanoke, VA. Not far south from that area the mountains start to peter out, the Appalachian Trail leaves the Blue Ridge to cross I-81 and the
(thankfully for through hikers) very narrow Valley of Virginia over into the Appalachian Ridges, and the Blue Ridge Parkway drops into the lowlands to skirt the sprawl of Roanoke to the east. This is clearly the end of the Northern Blue Ridge; beyond Roanoke, the ridge starts expanding greatly, eventually becoming much more than a single range--the Southern Blue Ridge Mountain Complex.