3. Buena Vista Overlook
The northern section of the Blue Ridge Parkway follows a narrow crest with views both east, to the Virginia Piedmont, and west, over the Shenandoah Valley toward the Allegheny Mountains. The Buena Vista Overlook (one of 275 along the drive) is well worth a pause to see its grand panorama of endless wooded ridges and hills — bringing to mind a waving green sea.
Take a moment here, too, to contemplate the geological processes that created these scenic marvels. Among the earth’s oldest mountains, the Appalachians once were as tall and sharply peaked as the far younger Alps and Rockies. Since their uplift hundreds of millions of years ago, erosion — that most patient and persistent of sculptors — has smoothed their shapes into the gently rounded contours you see today. The resulting profile may be less spectacular than those elsewhere, but like a venerable family patriarch, the ancient Appalachian Range is dignified by its worn and weathered countenance.
4. James River
In a looping descent, the parkway reaches its lowest elevation (649 feet) near the James River, a placid ribbon of blue flowing through a densely wooded gorge. In the mid-1800s a canal was dug along 200 miles of the James, the beginning of a proposed waterway intended to link the Ohio River with the Atlantic Ocean. (The original plan, some historians say, was conceived by none other than George Washington.) Modern travelers can see a restored portion of the project via a footbridge from the James River Visitor Center. Mules and draft horses laboriously pulled barges along the canal, pausing now and then while a lock raised or lowered the vessel (at this lock, for instance, the vertical distance is 13 feet). It’s no wonder that the freight-hauling efficiency of railroads eventually doomed the ambitious scheme to extend the canal.
5. Peaks of Otter
Climbing again, the road reaches an elevation of 3,950 feet at Apple Orchard Mountain, its highest point in Virginia. The “orchard” that gave the mountain its name is really a forest of low, gnarled oaks, stunted by bitter winter winds on these exposed heights (the dwarfed woodland reminded early settlers of an old, neglected apple orchard).
Ten miles south, the drive reaches the valley between Sharp Top and Flat Top — the twin Peaks of Otter that mark the headwaters of the Otter River. Since the days of the Indians, the valley has been a favored stopping place for travelers. They are drawn not just by the refreshing water of a nearby spring, but by the beauty and serenity of the entire scene. Wagonmasters camped here in Revolutionary War times, and an inn was established on the site as early as 1830. Today the Peaks of Otter Lodge is a favorite among parkway regulars for its hospitality and cuisine — and for the vista across Abbott Lake to Sharp Top, so named because its summit tapers to a rocky point.
Along the Elk Run Trail, a short loop behind the Peaks of Otter visitor center, the loudest sounds are likely to be the excited squeaks of chipmunks or the cackling “laugh” of a pileated woodpecker clinging to a tall tree. Nearby Fallingwater Cascades Trail is more strenuous, but its exquisite waterfall is an enticement to hikers. Along the trail in spring, legions of purplish-pink rhododendron blooms create a striking contrast with the dark foliage of the stately, towering hemlocks.