6. Roanoke Mountain
Theoretically, given the time and the stamina, you could hike more than 2,000 miles on the famed Appalachian Trail. Winding along mountain crests from Maine to Georgia, it is the world’s longest, continuous, marked hiking path. In some northern sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the trail nears the road frequently, making it easy for anyone to sample the solitary pleasures of the ancient path for a short-distance trek. One such opportunity is at Bearwallow Gap, near milepost 90; for the next 10 miles, the trail never strays far from the parkway, providing stretches where hikers can be alone with the chirps of birds and the soothing sound of the wind in the treetops. Near milepost 115, you’ll find Virginia’s Explore Park with interpretive exhibits and demonstrations, as well as access for biking along the Roanoke River.
Farther along, at milepost 120, the drive takes a short side trip to the summit of Roanoke Mountain. From the overlook the city of Roanoke, nestled amid forested hills, looks like a toy town taken from a model railroader’s layout.
7. Smart View
Among the parkway’s delights are the old-fashioned names a traveler encounters along the way. Devils Backbone, Air Bellows Gap, Headforemost Mountain, Rough Butt Bald, and Bee Tree Gap may sound quaintly funny to the modern ear. But they were perfectly apt and descriptive to the mountain folk who applied them generations ago. One example is the picnic ground near milepost 154, which offers a panorama that settlers dubbed “a right smart view” — understatement, indeed, for a dazzling vista that takes in miles of hills and valleys undulating to the hazy horizon. Be sure to walk to the one-room log cabin nearby. Occupied until 1925, the house may not have provided much in the way of material comforts, but even kings or millionaires couldn’t complain about its “picture window.”
In mid-May this section of the parkway blazes with the crimson-orange blooms of wild azaleas — the brightest of all the many flowers in these parts — which erupt in eye-popping displays along the roadside.
8. Mabry Mill
Although the story is probably exaggerated, folks who needed hardware, corn ground into meal, logs milled, or horses shod once went to see Ed Mabry. He ran a combination sawmill, gristmill, and blacksmith shop from 1910 to 1935. Today, local craftsmen honor his spirit with demonstrations of mountain skills, even as the smell of fresh apple butter wafts through the air. The old mill, one of the parkway’s most photographed sights, stands serenely on the bank of a small pond — oblivious, it seems, to the passage of time since Uncle Ed stood by the fire at his forge in a building separate from the store, pounding red-hot iron into equine footwear.
9. Groundhog Mountain
While you may spy a groundhog (or woodchuck) in the meadow here, the chubby little critter isn’t this spot’s main attraction. Rather, it’s an exhibit of three of the most popular types of split-rail fence, the rustic enclosure that once graced so many farmsteads in the Appalachians. Snake, buck, and post-and-rail fences border an observation tower that was built to resemble a tobacco barn; they’re part of more than 300 miles of wooden fences along the length of the parkway.
Just a mile down the road is the log cabin of Aunt Orelena Puckett, one of the legendary characters of the Blue Ridge. She bore 24 children, but tragically, none lived beyond the age of two. Later in life she devoted herself to helping others secure what she couldn’t have: she became a midwife and delivered more than 1,000 babies in the area around Groundhog Mountain, venturing out in all kinds of weather whenever the call for help came, and never charging more than six dollars. Her last “bornin’ ” was her own great-grandnephew in 1939 — the year she died, at an age of nearly 100 years. Continuing along the route, drive southwest from Groundhog Mountain a few more miles and you’ll come to the Blue Ridge Music Center.