Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Longest Scenic Drive

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

19. Mt. Pisgah
After arcing to the east of Asheville, the drive (at milepost 399) threads through the quarter-mile Pine Mountain tunnel, the longest on the parkway. A total of 26 tunnels were blasted through hills and ridges during parkway construction; 25 are located in North Carolina, while the route through Virginia required only one.

Imposing Mt. Pisgah (named for the biblical peak from which Moses saw the Promised Land) boasts one of the parkway’s most popular recreation areas, featuring a lodge, campground, restaurant, hiking trails, and seasonal ranger programs. The area is popular not only with people but also with black bears, which from time to time wander onto the campground. While bears might be seen by motorists almost anywhere along the parkway, this thickly wooded upland is particularly noted for sightings of the shaggy, shambling mammals. In the 18th and 19th centuries and before, the black bears that lived here had a number of notable neighbors, including migrating elk and bison, beavers, wolves, and mountain lions.

Near milepost 417 the view to the east is dominated by Looking Glass Rock’s 600-foot-high granite cliff, rising from the luxuriant forest like a fortress of stone. The cliff got its name because water (and in winter, ice) on the sheer rock face sometimes reflects light as though the mountainside were one gigantic shining mirror.

20. Devils Courthouse
Cherokees and settlers alike believed that this rocky summit was haunted by demons. (Its outcrops conceal a cave where the devil himself was believed to hold court.) The only mystical force a modern traveler is likely to experience is a sense of awe when beholding the view from the top of the steep trail, where you can see as far as South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. Remember that alpine plants are fragile — stay on the marked trail.

21. Richland Balsam
The name of this stop is short for Richland Mountain of the Balsam Range. Because of its elevation — the highest point on the parkway at 6,047 feet — the spruce-fir forest here seems like a piece of Canada transported south. Birds associated with more northern regions are often found along the Richland Balsam nature trail, among them veeries, winter wrens, and dark-eyed juncos. Ravens tumble and soar overhead, voicing their characteristically hoarse, croaking call.

The dead Fraser firs in this forest, which stand out like ghostly sentinels, were killed by a tiny insect called the balsam woolly adelgid. Accidentally imported to the United States from Europe around 1908, the insect has destroyed an enormous number of the adult firs in places along the parkway. Scientists have been unable to develop a practical control method; the hope is that surviving trees will develop a natural resistance to the pest.

22. Waterrock Knob
Descending steadily as it nears its southern terminus, the parkway snakes past Waterrock Knob, a landmark valued since pioneer days for its mountainside spring. Six miles beyond, the drive enters the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Cherokees have lived in these highlands for untold generations, and their heritage is evident in the names of dozens of local places, including nearby Lake Junaluska, the Tuckaseigee River, and the Nantahala National Forest.

23. Heintooga Ridge Spur Road
Turning north off the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 458, this short spur road takes visitors on a side trip to famed Mile-High Overlook, which, true to its name, is perched at an elevation of 5,280 feet. Commanding the horizon are the tall peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains — most notably Clingmans Dome, Mt. LeConte, and Mt. Guyot. The spur road continues to Balsam Mountain Campground and Heintooga Overlook. Backtracking to the main parkway, the drive winds ever downward along wooded ridges, passing through five more tunnels before crossing the Oconaluftee River and reaching its end point near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The vast wilderness preserve, one of America’s loveliest showcases of natural beauty, serves as an apt climax to this long journey on the venerable — and memorable — Blue Ridge Parkway.