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

Length: 469 miles. When to go: Popular year-round, but loveliest in spring and fall. Words to the wise: Some sections

Eastern State Blue Ridge Parkway
Courtesy of NC Division of Tourism, Film, and Sports Development

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’.

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.

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.

10. Blue Ridge Music Center
Throughout the summer months, the warm air of the Blue Ridge Mountains echoes to the sounds of outdoor summer concerts featuring old-time and contemporary mountain music. A new music interpretive center is slated to open in summer 2005, and it will expand the already enjoyable offerings by sharing the history of mountain music in the region.

11. Cumberland Knob
The parkway crosses the Virginia-North Carolina state line just before milepost 217 in a rolling pastoral landscape of farms, fields, and forests. Among those who surveyed this boundary back in 1749 was Peter Jefferson, father of our third (and, Virginia is proud to claim, our most scholarly) president.

Just beyond the visitor center at the Cumberland Knob Recreation Area, you’ll find the intriguingly named overlook known as Fox Hunters Paradise. Here, accompanied by the doleful baying of hounds, hunters once galloped through the woods below in pursuit of the elusive red fox. This magnificent viewpoint looks out over steep tree-covered bluffs toward the gentler slopes of the Piedmont country to the east.

12. Doughton Park
South of Cumberland Knob the parkway curves gently through lovely meadows and passes into blustery (especially in winter) Air Bellows Gap. Farther ahead lies the serene and grassy Doughton Park area, where a restaurant, lodge, and campground welcome visitors. At dawn and dusk deer come to feed in these rolling fields, always alert and quick to bound back into the safety of the surrounding forest. Less shy are the tuneful juncos that hop and flit around the lodge.

13. Jumpinoff Rocks
Another of the drive’s whimsically named spots, Jumpinoff Rocks (dubbed by local folks) lies at the end of a half-mile path fringed with trailing arbutus and cinnamonbush. Once you get there, don’t jump off the rocks; just enjoy the lofty Blue Ridge Mountain panorama. Farther along the drive, past E. B. Jeffress Park and Deep Gap, the parkway crosses Daniel Boone’s Trace (near milepost 285), a path once scouted by the legendary frontiersman, mountain man, and farmer himself.

14. Moses H. Cone Memorial Park
Just before the turn of the century, Moses Cone, a textile magnate who was known as the Denim King, chose this site for his country estate he called Flat Top Manor. Building this mountaintop hideaway was not easy; materials had to be hauled up by oxcart. Once Cone was settled here, he planted several apple orchards and built 25 miles of carriage roads on his property; today, these shady lanes induce visitors to explore the nearby hills and lakes. Cone’s mansion, with its impressive columned entryway, is now a parkway crafts center and gift shop.

On the ancient slopes of Grandfather Mountain, a few miles farther along, the first signs of the spruce-fir forest of the North Carolina high country begin to appear as dark green swatches in the blanket of forest. Here, too, is the amazing Linn Cove Viaduct, bending gracefully around the eastern slope of the peak. Elevated on seven pillars to avoid environmental damage, the quarter-mile-long viaduct was formed of 153 individually designed segments. The bridge was dedicated in 1987 and marked the official completion of the Blue Ridge Parkway, 52 years after it was begun.

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.

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.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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