We shared recently about our amazing two week journey exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway in our Travato van conversion, so in this post we’re going to share some general tips for RVing this scenic and historic mountain drive.
First, our video version of these tips:
Tip 1: Ideal RV Size
The Blue Ridge Parkway was designed for non-commercial traffic, and primarily for automobiles.
With its twisty roads, sharp turns, steep inclines, no shoulders and 26 tunnels (one with a maximum height of 13′ 1″) – it’s simply not designed or intended for larger vehicles.
RVs are completely welcomed however, but in our personal experience the Parkway is best done in smaller units.
We were completely comfortable in our 21′ van, and we’ve done parts of the Parkway in our former 17′ trailer pulled by a truck.
And on both trips, we saw many RVs in the 25-30′ range successfully having fun navigating the Parkway.
But much larger than that? You’re likely going to be white knuckling it, holding up traffic and just generally not having as fun of an experience.
If you’re super comfortable driving your rig, backing into tight campsites and mountain driving, you may do just fine if you plan your entry and exits well, and avoid the low clearance tunnels.
While we also have a 35′ vintage bus and are super comfortable driving it, we likely wouldn’t attempt the Parkway in it. Especially not towing a car behind as well. While the photos would be iconic, it just wouldn’t be a fun experience.
That said, we did see some 35-40′ Class-As and 5th Wheels attempting parts of the Parkway. But we would imagine many were staying in campgrounds off the Parkway, as the number of sites suitable for such RVs are very limited. We even saw a large 5th Wheel pulled by a large truck attempt one of the campgrounds, and end up finding an alternate stay after unsuccessfully trying to fit into the largest of the sites.
Tip 2: Official National Park Campgrounds
There are eight official National Park Campgrounds along the Parkway. We stayed at all but one of them on this trip.
All of the eight official campgrounds are $20/night and are dry camping with no hook-ups. All of the RV/Trailer loops have generator hours of 8a – 9p. Each campground however does offer a dump station, potable water and restrooms with flush toilets. Two of the campgrounds (Mount Pisgah and Julian Price) also offer showers.
The campgrounds are nicely spread out along the 469 miles of the Parkway making driving between just a couple hours at most, although some are closer together than others.
All of the campgrounds offer both reservable sites online at Recreation.gov and ample first come first serve sites you can snag when you arrive. Reservable sites that aren’t reserved are fair game as well upon arrive on a night-by-night basis (as the online reservation system cuts off reservations 48-hours in advance, so you can sometimes snag them for a couple nights.)
We highly recommend the first come first serve route.
First, this will give you ample opportunity to adjust your pace as you go. At each stop, there are generally a combination of hikes, tours, visitor’s centers, dinning and more. And sometimes it just feels good to listen to your body and take a day or two off of active exploring.
But more importantly, the suitability of each campsite varies so much. Most of the sites are pretty small, designed for smaller RVs or a car/tent setup. Very few sites, even if long enough, are suitable for larger RVs. Some are even angled the wrong way for an RV to back into or have the ‘yard’ to the rear of the spot.
And these are older mountain campgrounds where the word ‘level’ is a subjective term. If you have a single axle trailer, you of course have more flexibility to make an unlevel site work – but otherwise, you’ll probably want to choose your site when you arrive.
And the privacy of cell signal of the sites is highly variable within a campground.
To find the right site for you, it’s best to just drive through the loops and select what works for you and your setup. These campgrounds are intentionally setup to be flexible for those without reservations.
At all of the campgrounds, you arrive to a small ranger or camp-host staffed check-in station. If you don’t have a reservation, you’re instructed to go find a site – either one marked as first come first serve, or reservable site without a tag. And then you return to register. It’s very flexible, and we encountered no issues snagging sites without reservations – especially by arriving early in the afternoon.
With short driving days between campgrounds, we generally planned to leave our campground late morning before check-out time (11am), drive an hour or two to the next, and then arriving early afternoon – which meant the campground was pretty open. During peak times, arriving later in the day you might encounter more issues.
Tip 3: Vans – RVs or Tent Sites?
We were really surprised at the variability of how our van was considered in each campground.
Even some campgrounds with signs pointing to the ‘Tent / Van’ loop – we would be directed to the RV / Trailer loop instead because a 21′ van was considered too large for the “van” loop. And in some campgrounds, we were proactively invited to select sites in the tent loop, as long as we promised not to use a generator.
The advantage of the tent loop (to us) is that no generators are allowed. We don’t have one in our Travato, and our lithium batteries charge up on each drive. In the RV/trailer loop we ran the risk of having a generator dependent neighbor, which can ruin the tranquility of our stay and our ability to get filming done.
So if that’s important to you too, and you have a smaller RV – definitely do ask if your RV is allowed in the no-generator tent loops.
Tip 4: Mobile Internet Connectivity
Keeping connected along the Blue Ridge Parkway is a challenge, you are traveling in mountainous terrain where cellular signal can easily be blocked – despite what coverage maps might say.
At most of the 200+ overlooks, you can usually find enough of a whiff of signal to check e-mail while you take in the scenery. And we kept generally online most of the time while driving with few extended breaks from signal.
But the campgrounds are usually lower in elevation and more tucked in than the overlooks, and staying connected can definitely be challenging. If you need to keep connected, having some redundant options to try definitely helps.
In general, we found AT&T to have the best overall signal and connection, but occasionally Verizon was the winner. T-Mobile/Sprint were only slightly useful in this area.
In some locations, our dual modem setup with ability to bond was extremely useful. Sometimes our external antenna was all we needed, and in one location we actually broke out our weBoost Drive Reach booster and got online with Verizon (Otter Creek). In others, just our phones picked up enough signal and we actually clocked nearly 300 Mbps without any enhancing gear on AT&T in Doughton Park. And in others, nothing we did helped (Linville Falls and Julian Price are pretty much guaranteed dead zones).
You can view our personal Mobile Internet Setup if you want to learn more about how we stay connected.
If you’re one of our premium members over at the Mobile Internet Resource Center (our day job), we turned the trip into a case study – documenting what we tried at each stop. Find it in our Testing In Progress Forum.
Tip 5: Driving
The Blue Ridge Parkway is made for driving, and each inch is scenic art. We recommend maximizing the experience by minimizing the stress.
The speed limit is 45 mph, but in many areas you simply won’t be able to go that fast as you’re navigating curves and inclines. Go at the speed that feels comfortable to you.
If you find vehicles are piling up behind you, it’s a lot less stressful for you and them if you find the next overlook to pull over and let them pass. We personally most enjoyed the drive by having no vehicles visible behind or in front of us.
There are over 200 overlooks, so there’s sure to be one really soon – use them. Most are easy on/off with ample parking. Get out, enjoy the view, stretch and enjoy. Some even have short hikes, which is a great way to take a break.
Also, you will find many bikers (the pedaling and motorized kind) enjoying the parkway. The pedaling kind of bikers are inspiring out there climbing those hills. Give them lots of space and exercise extreme patience, there are usually no shoulders for them to pull over for you to pass. You may find you simply have to go slow behind them until you can find enough of an open stretch with clear line of site to safely pass them. Don’t attempt to pass on a curve, as you just can’t see oncoming traffic.
Tip 6: Helping Fund the BRP
You’ll notice that there are no entrance fees to enjoy this national treasure, the only fees charged are for the campgrounds themselves.
As part of the terms of the land purchases for the Parkway, the government agreed to not charge tolls. Which means, there’s limited funding to upkeep this park. Amazingly, the roads are in great shape in most locations and some sections are periodically shut down for maintenance.
We were inspired by Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, the official National Parks Service non-profit partner to improve and preserve the parkway – and made a donation.
We hope you enjoyed a taste of the Blue Ridge Parkway through our experience – and you’re inspired to include this adventure in your journey. If you’ve RVed the Blue Ridge Parkway, feel free to leave some tips of your own in the comments below to help others!