Length: 469 miles.
When to go: Popular year-round, but loveliest in spring and fall.
Words to the wise: Some sections of the parkway may be closed in winter due to snow and ice.
Nearby attractions: Biltmore Estate, Asheville, NC. Blue Ridge Music Center, Cumberland Knob, NC (to open summer, 2005).
Visitor centers: Humpback Rocks; James River; Peaks of Otter, Rocky Knob; Cumberland Knob; Moses H. Cone, Linn Cove Viaduct; Linville Falls; Craggy Gardens.
Further information: Blue Ridge Parkway, 199 Hemphill Knob, Asheville, NC 28803; tel. 828-298-0398, www.nps.gov/blri.
Born as a “make-work” road-building project in the hard times of the Great Depression, the Blue Ridge Parkway endures today as one of America’s most famous and beloved highways. Winding through Virginia and North Carolina, across some of the East’s highest peaks, the route is bookended by two national parks — Shenandoah to the north and Great Smoky Mountains to the south. In every season of the year, each of the parkway’s 469 miles abounds with scenic and cultural delights.
1. Humpback Rocks
In contrast to the bustle of I-64 at Rockfish Gap, where the drive begins, the Blue Ridge Parkway is nothing less than soothing. As welcoming as a rolled-out carpet, the drive ushers motorists into a lush, high-country forest of oaks and maples — a passageway to a different world. As you enter, you may well be greeted by a white-tailed deer or two pausing along the roadside before skittishly disappearing into the woods.
Just six miles from the parkway’s start lies Humpback Rocks, named for the humped shape of the nearby outcrops. Here a reconstructed farm museum depicts life as it was in the 1700s, when white settlers first came to these remote mountains. A number of pioneer structures have been imported to the farm from other places as examples of the local architecture. One cabin’s skillfully constructed stone fireplace and hand-split log floors testify to the varied skills needed by settlers, and a bear-proof pigpen is a reminder that wild animals once were serious competitors to survival on the American frontier.
Humpback Rocks is the first of a long and rewarding series of recreational areas operated by the National Park Service along the parkway. The public is also served by an inviting array of fine campgrounds, picnicking sites, visitor centers that debunk misconceptions about the culture of the region, and interpretive displays.
2. Whetstone Ridge
After climbing toward Bald Mountain to the west, the route traverses aptly named Whetstone Ridge; long ago hunters and homesteaders came here to quarry fine-grained sandstone they used to sharpen their knives and axes.
At least a few of those freshly honed axes may have been used to cut firewood for a business of a different sort: two miles farther along is a spring where moonshiners once brewed homemade corn whiskey, known to those whose pounding heads attested to overindulgence as white lightnin’.