I WAS 14 WHEN BY DAD RUMBLED HOME with a Vietnam-era Army ambulance and a plan to take our annual summer road trip to a higher metaphysical level. He converted the rear of the rig into a camper and we headed westat a top speed of 52 miles per hourfrom New Jersey. My brother and I, mortified at first, came to take pride in the crowds that our conveyance, with big red crosses on each side, drew at every stopthe Badlands, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon. It was the most memorable vacation of my childhood. Now I have sons of my own: Sean, five, and Leo, three. While I'm not quite ready to buy a surplus military vehicle, I felt it was time to expose my boys to the beauty of the road trip. So, like Dad would have, I mapped out a five-day route along green-dotted scenic highways through the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains, and we set off by minivan on a 900-mile, four-state loop crisscrossing the Appalachian Trail.
Byway to heaven: a side road exploring Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains
Illustration by Zohar Lazar
Day 1Asheville, North Carolina-Damascus, Virginia
We get under way in the funky town of Asheville, driving north into Tennessee and cutting east into the dense pines and the undulating hills of Cherokee National Forest. Curvy two-lane Carter County 133 gives us a taste of the Southern back roads yet to come: horse farms, tobacco drying in the sun, tiny clapboard churches, antique shops, country cookin' joints, the occasional Confederate flag, and a bumper sticker proclaiming that "Charlton Heston Is My President."
Descending through a dark forest into Virginia, we pass through a tunnel cut into a craggy rock ridge. Damascus, known for its annual Appalachian Trail Days Festival, is sliced by the trail and sits beneath 5,729-foot Mount Rogers, Virginia's highest peak. My wife, Mary, and I rent bikes (with kiddie seats), and take a shuttle 14 miles up the Virginia Creeper Trail, an old railroad bed. The gentle grade rolls us past waterfalls and wildflowers, over trestles and bridges, and back down into town. On the main street we discover The Maples B&B, a century-old home converted to an inn with some of the only strong coffee in town.
Day 2DamascusÐSeebert, West Virginia
An early start puts us in Blacksburg, home of Virginia Tech and a hub for outdoor enthusiasts, by breakfast. I once worked in Blacksburg, and on Saturday afternoons loved tubing down the New River. Since our boys are too young for that, we drive 20 minutes west and stop for an easy 3.8-mile hike up the Cascades National Recreation Trail to see Little Stony Creek take a 66-foot plunge at one of the region's surfeit of waterfalls.
We cross into West Virginia late in the afternoon, and along swervy U.S. 219 the boys battle a little car sickness. That's quickly forgotten when we reach our wood-paneled cabin, one of three run by Greenbrier River Cabins that sit beside the 75-mile Greenbrier River Trail. I take a short solo bike ride before we crank up a fire in the wood stove and grill burgers on the back deck overlooking the wide and rocky river.
Day 3Seebert-Hot Springs, Virginia
It's up and down and up and down along U.S. 219 and other back roads to reach Seneca Rocks National Recreation Areaa spiky-topped mohawk of stone that's a rock-climbing delight. We hike two steep miles up to the base of the rocks to watch climbers dangle from the cliffs. Later, the boys watch them through binoculars while munching on pizza at Harper's Front Porch Restaurant.
After a quick walking tour of the eerie and luminous Seneca Caverns (West Virginia's largest and, at 165 feet, deepest caves), we head south into Virginia and descend into a valley that holds the town of Hot Springs and the massive 200-plus-year-old Homestead resort, where we're headed for a respite. That night, we chase each other through a hedge maze in the Spa Garden, where steam rises spookily from a pool of spring water.
Day 4Hot Springs-Roanoke
We linger at The Homestead, a genteel golf/tennis/spa club that is expanding into an outdoor sports center. First, we drop the boys off at KidsClub, a counselor-led activities program. We'll hear later all about their hike up to the horse stables and their failed efforts to snag trout in the kids' fishing pond. Meanwhile, Mary goes on a guided horseback ride up the mountain trails on the resort grounds while I tour the same well-groomed trails by mountain bike.
We regroup and take a dip in the spring-fed indoor pool. It's not till evening that we drive south to Roanoke, whose quirky skyline makes it a treat to enter at night. A huge neon coffeepot mounted above a downtown building and an 88-foot star posted atop Mill Mountain beckon visitors. We check into the restored Tudor-style Hotel Roanoke and walk the lively downtown square.
Day 5Roanoke-Lake Toxaway, North Carolina
We start at dawn, picking up orange juice, coffee, and bagels at Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea for a quick breakfast beneath the star. From there, we hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway and cruise nonstop back to Asheville. By late afternoon we're paddling a rented canoe down a short, calm stretch of the French Broad River, which bisects the city and passes behind the massive Biltmore Estate. We then head west into Pisgah National Forest, a craggier cousin of Cherokee National Forest, and reach Earthshine, a cedar-log lodge on a 70-acre farm. Lodging includes morning kid programs such as learning about pioneers by spinning wool and pressing cider, or going gem mining on Crystal Creek.
That night, I ask the boys what they thought of our road trip. We all agree the minivan was a bit tippy on those switchbacks. But then I get an endorsement that would make my father proud. The little one, Leo, says, "Cool, Daddy."
DAY ONE (Asheville, NC-Damascus, VA)
DRIVE TIME: 2.5 hours.
DIRECTIONS: North on U.S. 23; U.S. 321 east to Elizabethton, then Route 133 north into Damascus.
STOPS: Virginia Creeper Trail, with bike rental and shuttle from Blue Blaze: half-day, $20 (800-475-5095; www.blueblaze.naxs.com).
STAY AT: The Maples B&B: doubles, $40Ð-85 (866-701-2266; themaples.naxs.com).
DAY TWO (Damascus-Seebert, WV)
DRIVE TIME: 4.5 hours.
DIRECTIONS: Virginia 91 north to I-81 north, exit onto U.S. 460 west, then take U.S. 219 north to West Virginia 27 east into Seebert.
STOPS: Tubing on the New River (rentals and shuttle from New River Junction, 540-639-6633).
STAY AT: Greenbrier River Cabins: $125 per night for four people, two-night minimum stay (304-653-4646; www.greenbrierrivercabins.com).
DAY THREE (Seebert-Hot Springs, VA)
DRIVE TIME: 5 hours.
DIRECTIONS: U.S. 219 north to West Virginia 55 east to Seneca Rocks; West Virginia 33 south to U.S. 220 south to Hot Springs.
STOPS: Greenbrier River Trail (www.greenbrierrivertrail.com), Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area (304-567-2827), Seneca Caverns (800-239-7647; www.senecacaverns.com).
STAY AT: The Homestead, which has Family Vacation packages for $400-460 per night for two adults and two children (800-838-1766; www.thehomestead.com).
DAY FOUR (Hot Springs-Roanoke)
DRIVE TIME: 2 hours.
DIRECTIONS: U.S. 220 south to I-81 south; exit 143 onto I-581 south.
STOPS: Breakfast at Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea (112 Campbell Ave., 540-342-9404).
STAY AT: Hotel Roanoke: doubles, $74-$99 (800-222-8733; www.hotelroanoke.com).
DAY FIVE (Roanoke-Lake Toxaway, NC)
DRIVE TIME: 6.5 hours.
DIRECTIONS: Blue Ridge Parkway south to Asheville, North Carolina; I-26 west to North Carolina 280 west to Brevard; U.S. 64 west to Lake Toxaway.
STOPS: Canoe the French Broad River, with rentals from Southern Waterways (800-849-1970; www.paddlewithus.com).
STAY AT: Earthshine Mountain Lodge: $150 per adult per night, $50-$70 for kids (828-862-4207; www.earthshinemtnlodge.com).