15. Linville Falls
The earliest settlers who stepped ashore in eastern North America found a magnificent forest stretching across half the continent. In those days, it’s been said, a squirrel could travel treetop-to-treetop from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi River and never have to touch the ground. Thanks to landowners who refused to harvest timber here, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who bought the land and donated it to the public, Linville Gorge is among the few places left to still resemble America’s vanished virgin woodland. In this pristine valley, massive white pines tower skyward beside lacy hemlocks, ruler-straight tulip trees, and exotic-looking Fraser magnolias with leaves up to a foot long.
Jewels worthy of this gorgeous setting, Upper and Lower Linville Falls cascade into the deep gorge like shimmering silver curtains. The broad trails that lead to the canyon overlooks here are among the most picturesque anywhere on the drive. In fact, if parkway travelers were allowed to visit only one stop along the route, most would mention wild and lovely Linville Gorge as their first choice.
16. Crabtree Meadows
Farther south lies McKinney Gap, most memorable for the lifestyle of its namesake — an 1800s homesteader who lived with four women and sired 42 children. The family traded produce for such items as shoes, which were bought by the wagonload to people more accustomed to buying shoes from itinerant peddlers, country stores, and their mail-order catalogues.
At Crabtree Meadows, the spring flowers — from wild irises and columbines to lilies and mountain laurels — are especially bountiful, but the main attraction here is the famed Crabtree Falls, a steep but breezy hike downhill from the campground. The lacy veil of water cascading down the ledges of a high rock wall creates one of the parkway’s most memorable scenes.
17. Mt. Mitchell State Park
Near milepost 354 the parkway leaves the Blue Ridge Range and loops past the southern end of the Black Mountains. Named for the dark hues of their spruce and fir forests, the Blacks are the highest peaks east of the Mississippi River, reaching their zenith at 6,684-foot Mt. Mitchell. Be sure to take the short side road to the state park at Mitchell’s summit, a delightfully cool retreat even in midsummer. In winter, however, only the hardiest visit this harshly arctic site: temperatures can reach 25°F below zero, with the winds exceeding 100 miles per hour.
18. Craggy Gardens
Of all the parkway’s glorious displays of color, none can match the blossoming of Catawba rhododendrons at Craggy Gardens in June. These elegant shrubs (members of the heath family, as are mountain laurels and azaleas) prefer lots of sunlight, unlike their relatives, rosebay rhododendrons, which prefer shade. The shrubs blanket the windy ridge like a vast, verdant overcoat, and in late spring clumps of their pale purple blossoms seem to float atop the green slopes.
Treeless highlands like Craggy Gardens are traditionally called balds because of their smooth appearance (resembling bald spots) when observed from a distance; the shiny leaves of shrubs such as rhododendron and laurel also led to the name heath slick. But early travelers who had to push their way on foot through the dense, tangled vegetation came up with a much more graphic epithet: laurel hell.