Hike the Tanawha Trail to the Linn Cove Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway, catching stunning views at Beacon Heights and exploring a rocky forest at Wilson Creek.
OFFICIAL MAP: Nat Geo 779 Trails Illustrated Map
Winding in an enormous, serpentine curve around the contours of the ruggedly beautiful Grandfather Mountain, the Blue Ridge Parkway seemingly takes flight. Twelve hundred feet of the Parkway suspend above the fragile, beautiful terrain below in this elevated stretch of pavement called the Linn Cove Viaduct. A drive on the viaduct is certainly beautiful. But nothing quite compares to exploring the beautiful high-elevation ecosystem below on foot. This hike on the Tanawha Trail scores exceptionally beautiful vistas, explores a ruggedly beautiful, rocky forest, and meanders beneath the viaduct’s gentle curves.
The viaduct was the last section of the Blue Ridge Parkway to be completed, and an enormous feat of engineering. The project’s goal was simple: to minimize the Parkway’s environmental impact at this particularly beautiful stretch of Grandfather Mountain. But the project itself was enormously complex, requiring eight years of construction. Today, the viaduct suspends many curved sections on a series of seven soaring footings.
This segment of the 13.5-mile Tanawha Trail is a testament to the project’s success. Nearly every step along the trail reveals the environmental beauty that the design team worked so hard to preserve. The adventure begins at the trail’s southern trailhead at Beacon Heights, scoring beautiful summit views early in the hike from a pair of enormous, broad rock outcrops. Venturing northbound, the hike follows the Tanawha Trail to a pillar-like rock formation at Stack Rock. It climbs through a lush fern-filled forest and winds underneath the towering viaduct. And it then scrambles through a rocky forest to a beautiful wooden bridge over Wilson Creek. At just over six miles, round trip, this hike packs in a ton of rugged beauty in a relatively short stretch. It’s one of our all-time favorites near the soaring majesty of Grandfather Mountain.
Linn Cove Viaduct on the Tanawha Trail: the hike
The adventure begins at a small, paved parking area at MP 305 on the Blue Ridge Parkway just south of Grandfather Mountain (view maps and driving directions). From the trailhead, the hike crosses a small road, hiking eastbound and reaching the trailhead of the Tanawha Trail. While the Tanawha will be the route for most of this hike, there are two exceptionally stunning, can’t-miss overlooks at the summit of Beacon Heights a short third of a mile away. The hike follows the Beacon Heights Trail to the summits, climbing through a dense, rocky forest filled with gnarly-branched rhododendron. The hike scores beautiful views of Linville Gorge, Table Rock Mountain, Mount Mitchell, and the nearby Calloway Peak at Grandfather Mountain from the pair of overlooks at the top.
Departing the overlooks, the hike backpacks to the trailhead for the Tanawha Trail. The hike begins following Tanawha’s white feather-shaped blazes roughly northbound. The trail weaves and winds through the forest and carefully crosses Highway 221 at .8 mile. The trail rolls elevation beside the Blue Ridge Parkway through a forest filled with rhododendron, beech, maple, and leafy, onion-scented galax.
The hike passes a spur trail to the left at 1.4 miles leading to the Parkway’s Stack Rock Overlook. This route continues following the Tanawha Trail, descending through a lush, dense, rocky forest covered in vibrant, green moss.
The trail begins a steady ascent at 1.5 miles, climbing a wooden staircase. The ascent wraps tightly around Stack Rock, an enormous rock formation of towering, stacked boulders. After crossing a wooden bridge over Stack Rock Creek, the trail makes a climb up a series of steep wood and stacked stone stairs. The hike passes through the Linn Cove Visitor Center at 2 miles, following a paved stretch of the trail at the northern end of the parking area. The trail dips beneath the enormous, soaring stretch of the viaduct.
Climbing from beneath the viaduct, the trail ascends through enormous rock, scrambling over small boulders and crossing a wooden ramp between massive outcrops. The hike crosses a wooden bridge spanning a creek at 2.4 miles. Continuing to climb, the trail ascends above the viaduct, catching through-the-tree views of the northernmost stretches of the enormous, floating structure.
The trail continues roughly northbound, following the winding contours of the Parkway. The hike rolls elevation through a beautiful, rugged forest, climbing through the rooty, rocky terrain. The trail dips, reaching the long wooden bridge over Wilson Creek’s rocky bed at just over three miles.
From the Wilson Creek Bridge, the Tanawha Trail continues its winding journey, climbing to the exceptional views from the lofty, jagged crags at Rough Ridge. This hike turns from the bridge, retracing its outbound steps in reverse, a nearly continuous descent to the trailhead. The views from Beacon Heights can be wonderfully different over a stretch of a few hours, so the hike makes a second climb to the rocky overlooks at Beacon before trekking back to the trailhead. After soaking in a few more sublime views, the hike descends to the trailhead, completing the adventure at just over 6.3 miles.
Always leave no trace, pack out everything you pack in, and if you see trash, pick it up and pack it out.
Stay on the marked trail, tell someone where you're going, pack safety and wayfinding essentials, and don't rely on a mobile phone to find your way. Please always practice good trail etiquette. And before you go, always check the trailhead kiosk, official maps, and the park or ranger office for notices of changed routes, trail closures, safety information, and restrictions.
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Free. (Before you go, check for trail updates and parkway closures on the official Blue Ridge Parkway website.)
36.084050, -81.829950 // N36 05.043 W81 49.797