Stargazing in the Blue Ridge Mountains - lawepw via Flickr

How to Plan a Blue Ridge Mountains Stargazing Trip

Space on Earth Space Tourism

I’ve always had a romanticized notion of the Blue Ridge Mountains that run from North Carolina through Virginia. The rolling green mountains are a far cry from the rolling fawn-colored plains and rusty hills of my home state of Oklahoma. I’ve dreamed of the day when my battered hiking shoes would walk the Appalachian Trail, which weaves 2,190-miles through the Mountains.

The Blue Ridge Mountains are also home to The Blue Ridge Parkway. The road is a sinewy and forested drive through some of the most striking views in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s also a favorite way to get out into the dark skies and do some stargazing.

The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway also largely avoids major cities. This means light pollution isn’t a big problem along many of the roadways and overlooks. Even nights with a full moon can show up to about 2,500 stars from any given location along this road.

Sit back, turn off the headlights, and view the heavens from one of the prettiest drives in America.

The History of the Blue Ridge Parkway

Sunrise at Virginia's Blue Ridge

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (“FDR”) is known for his conservation efforts during The Great Depression of the 1930s. FDR expanded the National Park Service in 1933 to include historic sites as well as parks and monuments. The Blue Ridge Parkway was part of the FDR’s New Deal program. The New Deal helped put thousands of people to work, and the Blue Ridge Parkway was one of the New Deal’s top park projects.

Snaking through 29 counties in Virginia and North Carolina’s Appalachian mountains, the road is the longest road planned as a single unit in the United States. The parkway grants travelers access to the mountain passes and the panoramic views along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was also instrumental in encouraging tourism, to help the Appalachian region survive the Great Depression.

The Blue Ridge Parkway

Today, the parkway is more popular than ever. Millions of visitors explore the scenic roadway each year by car, bike, motorcycle, and RV. Along their way, those millions of visitors are exploring under some of the best stargazing skies in America. If you’re planning a trip to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway, be sure to plan a night or two to enjoy the dark skies above you.

How to Get to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains

Roanoke, Virginia is a thriving community tucked along an area called the Virginia Blue Ridge. Virginia’s Blue Ridge includes the counties of Botetourt, Franklin, and Roanoke, as well as the cities of Roanoke and Salem. I flew into the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport; road-trippers can easily get to the city by driving Interstate 81 To Interstate 581, which leads directly into the city.

Of course, many drivers start their journey on the Blue Ridge Parkway starting either at Rockfish Gap on the south side of the Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive in Virginia or from the north near Cherokee, N.C. at Oconaluftee.

Stargazing visitors to the Virginia Blue Ridge area can start their journey in Roanoke and base their nightly trips from the center of town. The Blue Ridge Parkway has several entrance spots in Roanoke, so the storied roadway is easy to access and find. Tthe whole Virginia Blue Ridge area includes easy drives to other amenities, restaurants, and adventures in the five-county area.

How to Go Stargazing in the Virginia Blue Ridge

Stargazing in the Blue Ridge Mountains - tackyshack via FlickrPhoto credit: tackyshack via Flickr

  1. If you are not staying overnight in the area or camping, roadside pullouts north and south of Roanoke on the Blue Ridge Parkway are numerous. The pullouts south of Roanoke tend to slope down, which also helps in limiting light from passing vehicles. The farther you get from Roanoke or surrounding towns, the better the darkness.
  2. While camping in the area, most campgrounds have good stargazing right in the area. The area offers primitive camping or RV camping at numerous sites and is easily accessible from Roanoke.
  3. Find a local state park. You might have to drive a bit outside of Roanoke, but the area also boasts of four state parks. You can enjoy water fun, boating, starry skies and fishing opportunities at Smith Mountain Lake State Park, Fairy Stone State Park, and Claytor Lake State Park. Each of these also has space for camping and cabin rentals. One of the loveliest natural wonders on the U.S. east coast is located at the Natural Bridge State Park.

Where to Go Stargazing in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Stargazing in Blue Ridge Mountains - eatsmilesleep via FlickrPhoto credit: eatsmilesleep via Flickr

Of course, it’s easy to go stargazing on your own in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. If you’re looking for expert advice, we’ve got the info for you. Frank Baratta, an instructor for the public stargazing programs that Roanoke’s Parks and Recreation Department hosts, shared his best spots for catching the celestial sights.

“We normally go up on the Blue Ridge Parkway because of the convenience of it and the darkness of the sky,” Baratta said. “There are so many access points to the parkway and so many beautiful overlooks in the area. Of course, the question of light pollution is the biggest concern, and the key is that the farther away you get from the cities, the better the skies.”

Roanoke is in the western area of Virginia, he said, and the surrounding rural areas are also ideal for stargazing. Unless you are familiar with the backroads, Baratta recommends sticking to the Parkway.

Some of the more popular Virginia Blue Ridge stargazing spots include:

  • Cahas Knob Overlook: Located at milepost 139 south of Roanoke, this overlook can be accessed from the city. It is roughly 17-20 miles south, depending on where you enter the Parkway. The view is much wider than many of the pullouts in the area and the looming Cahas Mountain casts an impressive base to the night skies above.
  • Rocky Knob Recreation Area: The Rocky Knob Recreation Area is located at milepost 167 and has a visitors’ center and multiple scenic views. According to locals in the area, the Grassy Knoll and Saddle Overlook at Rocky Knob offer great views of the mountains on the horizon.
  • Devil’s Backbone:  Located at milepost 144, the Devil’s Backbone is located roughly 5 miles south of Cahas Knob and is a darker spot than Cahas, said Baratta. “It has a better overlook for observation and also has more room and more parking,” he said. “When stargazing out here, it’s amazing how much a little light can affect your experience.” The Devil’s Backbone is a little off the Parkway, so light intrusion is not a problem.
  • The Peaks of Otter: If heading north of Roanoke, the Peaks of Otter is located at milepost 85.6. This campground is a favorite and modern visitors can stay the night at historic Peaks of Otter Lodge. Baratta said the cool air and incredible views are worth the trip.
  • Sunset Field: Located at milepost 78, the Sunset Field offers views of the expansive horizon and is a fairly dark area for stargazing.

“No question about it, you can find pullouts and overlooks anywhere along the Parkway,” Baratta says. “If you’re coming from Roanoke, you want to be on the south side. If you look south, you’ll have more sky to enjoy.”

Blue Ridge Stargazing Tips from a Local Expert

Baratta has led countless stargazing trips in his 30-plus years with the Roanoke Parks and Recreation, so he shared tips on how to get the most out of the experience.

“We have a saying here. If it’s the summer, dress for the fall. If it’s fall, dress for the winter. Time of year matters. You don’t generate a lot of heat while stargazing, so dress warmer than you think you need to,” he said. “People don’t take into account that they are up in elevation, so it gets pretty chilly no matter what time of year it is. The cold will send you home.”

While the Virginia Blue Ridge stargazing is fantastic with simply the naked eye, Baratta said even binoculars or a small telescope can unveil the mysteries of the sky above. He suggested borrowing or using fellow stargazers’ equipment to try it out before investing in major equipment.

“One of the things I advise is to attend a star party with a local astronomy club or join in one of our stargazing events,” he said. “The public programs are pretty popular, so if you are coming to the region when there’s a celestial event like a meteor shower, it’s best to make reservations.”

For more information on the Roanoke Parks and Recreation’s stargazing events, visit: playroanoke.com

Where to Stay Near the Blue Ridge Mountains

Stargazing in the Blue Ridge - Accomodations

Hotel Options

If staying in Roanoke, you can find chain hotels like the Hampton Inn and Suites and the new Home2 Suites by Hilton. If you’re looking for a more historic place to lay your head, the Hotel Roanoke is a fully-restored Tudor-style hotel built in 1882. Hotel Roanoke is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a member of the International Association of Conference Centers.

Most hotels are in the $80-$150 per night range, but the Hotel Roanoke has almost 400 guest rooms, as well as the conference center, and is just a short walk from downtown Roanoke and all it has to offer.

Bed & Breakfasts

For those looking for a more unique and homey place to stay, Roanoke has dozens of bed and breakfast options in old Southern mansions, converted railcars, and cozy homes right downtown. For a little more adventure, check out The Applewood Inn in neighboring Lexington. The Applewood Inn is not only environmentally friendly, it offers llama trekking, fishing and mountain views too. Another great B&B outside town is the Inn at Riverbend in Pearisburg. A bed & breakfast reservation will typically cost more than a hotel, in the $200-$300 per night range.

Other Accommodations

Blue Ridge Mountains - AirbnbPhoto credit: Airbnb

Of course, Airbnb offers hundreds of options, including downtown homes, high-rise apartments, gardener’s cabins and Victorian cottages. A few options that are worth checking out include:

  • You can stargaze right from the porch at this Cozy Cottage in the Blue Ridge ($95 per night).
  • The ‘Cabin at Noon‘ has a fireplace and a fire pit where you can stay warm while stargazing ($79 per night).
  • The Blue Ridge Parkway Paradise is an architecture-lovers dream and sleeps up to 12 if you’re traveling with a big party ($199 per night).

Camping is a popular way to enjoy the area, but many of the local parks have limited camping space, so check ahead.

What to Do During the Day at Virginia’s Blue Ridge

Nature lovers won’t be able to do all the hundreds of outdoor adventures available in the area, but even those more interested in history and culture will have a list of activities to choose from.

Hiking

With the Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop, hiking trails are plentiful and range from easy to ultra-challenging. The Peaks of Otter has six different trails, ranging from the steep and strenuous Sharp Top Trail to the easy Abbott Lake Trail.

Virginia's Blue Ridge - Hiking at the Tinker Cliffs

For those wanting a taste of the Appalachian Trail, which travels through the area, a popular challenge is to hike “The Triple Crown.” The Triple Crown includes The Devil’s Backbone and The Tinker Cliffs, an out-and-back hike of over 7.5 miles. This ambitious hike features nearly 2,000 feet in elevation change to a ridgeline that reveals striking views south toward Roanoke Valley.

The last hike is to McAfee Knob, a strenuous hike to a trademark of the Appalachian Trail. It’s also one of the trail’s most photographed sites, featuring an overhang of rock and an almost 270-degree panorama of the valley.

Biking

Try out the trails at Corvin’s Cove Nature Reserve, the second largest municipal park in the nation. It holds a major water source within its 12,700 acres and overflowing recreational opportunities. These include hiking, biking, fishing, and boat rentals as well as more than 40 miles of multi-use trails.

Mill Mountain Park Mill offers challenging routes for intermediate and advanced bikers only, including the Wood Thrush, the longest trail on the mountain at 1.6 miles.

Sightseeing & Cultural Experiences

Roanoke Star - menifeedave via FlickrPhoto credit: menifeedave via Flickr

Here are a few other options you can add to your itinerary during the daylight hours:

  • Visit the Roanoke Star and Overlook – The Roanoke Star and Overlook is a historic landmark and is the world’s largest freestanding illuminated man-made star. Located on the top of Mill Mountain, the star was built in 1949, giving the city the nickname “Star City of the South.”
  • Drink in Craft Beer – Roanoke has no shortage of craft breweries to visit, including Ballast Point Brewing Company, which offers 128 beers on tap, a retail shop, and food. But don’t stop there. Check out smaller breweries the area, including Parkway Brewing Company in Salem and Flying Mouse Brewery in Botetourt County, which is focused on beer as part of an outdoor lifestyle.
  • Visit the Taubman Museum of Art – The Taubman Museum of Art is located in an architectural building that showcases design elements from the Roanoke Valley area. The museum has modern and contemporary art, American art, folk art and more.

Virginia's Blue Ridge - Smith Mountain Lake - Virginia State Parks via FlickrPhoto credit: Virginia State Parks via Flickr

  • Spend a day at Smith Mountain Lake – With 500 miles of shoreline, Smith Mountain Lake is a playground of watersports from kayaking, paddleboard, jet skiing and more. Check out Mexico Viejo Bar and Cantina in Moneta and The Franklin County Distillery for craft spirits to freshen up and fill your belly after a day of fun on the lake.
  • Learn at The Booker T. Washington National Monument – This national park commemorates the life of this famous educator, writer, orator and presidential advisor through exhibits, films, farm, tours and special events. The park examines the rise from the enslavement of Washington to how he became one of the most influential, but controversial, African Americans of his time.

Other FAQ About Stargazing in the Blue Ridge Mountains

When is the best time of year to go stargazing in Virginia’s Blue Ridge?

Virginia has relatively temperate weather, so you can comfortably go stargazing in the spring, summer, or fall. Plan for cooler nighttime temperatures no matter the season, and bundle up to stay warm while stargazing.

Can you see the Milky Way while stargazing in the Blue Ridge? What time of year?

The Milky Way is most visible in the northern hemisphere during the summer. If you want to see our galaxy during your trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains, a summer trip is an optimal time.

Are there any guided tours or night events in the area?

Roanoke Parks & Recreation hosts monthly stargazing events; the details for each can be found on their website. These are typically held at milepost 139, and reservations are recommended since locals and travelers alike tend to flock to these events.

What constellations can you see while stargazing in Virginia’s Blue Ridge?

That depends on the time of year. In the winter, look for Orion (the hunter), Gemini (the twins), and Taurus (the bull). In the Spring, look for Leo (the lion). During the summer, the Milky Way is at its most brilliant, and you can see the Perseids meteor shower each August. In the autumn, you can see the Great Square of Pegasus and on especially clear nights, the Andromeda galaxy is visible to the naked eye.

Featured photo credit: lawepw via Flickr