ONE OF THE GREATEST GREAT AMERICAN ROAD TRIPS IS 75 YEARS OLD IN SEPTEMBER 2010.
The Blue Ridge Parkways 469 meandering miles of milepost (MP)-lined, billboard-free bliss got its start on September 11, 1935. After 52 years of construction, the parkway was completed, and it follows the spine of the Blue Ridge from Virginias Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.
Along the way, riveting scenery ranges from pastoral to pristine as the road rises and falls, swerves and curves through the rippled realm of eastern Americas highest mountains. At a sedate 45-mph speed limit, its a relaxing reprieve from almost any other drive you can imagine on a public road. Hundreds of overlooks invite you to pull off and gaze out over the region that was Americas first frontier, the first barrier to westward expansion.
Motoring the parkway is recommended by more than an anniversary and the commemorative events scheduled to take place in the fall of 2010. The parkway took a long time to build, but some of its pivotal visitor facilities have just opened. The roads major visitor center, a meadow-roofed green building in Asheville, North Carolina (MP 384), debuted in 2009, and the Blue Ridge Music Center (Galax, Virginia, MP 213), a toe-tapping place if there ever was one, is just reaching a crescendo of exhibits and music programming.
Theres something to see in every mile of the high road. Historic cabins, a grist mill, visitor centers, exhibits, and living history displays take visitors back in time to an era not so long ago when the region was isolated, impoverished, and misunderstood. Conditions in some hollows at the parkways heights were remarkably primitive as recently as when the road got under way. Many locals didnt think a modern road ever would penetrate their mountain empire. When it did, the Depression-era public works project not only brought much-needed tourism income to the highlands, but provided transportation options that boosted many a local economy. To this day, some mountain residents find that the fastest route between home and work is the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The parkway idea was born in the early 1900s when roads like New Yorks Westchester Parkway and the George Washington Memorial Parkway between Washington, D.C., and Mount Vernon (near Alexandria, Virginia) were built in an effort to merge speed and scenery. The critical development that sparked the parkway came in 1931, when construction began on the 100-mile Skyline Drive along the spine of the Blue Ridge in Shenandoah National Park.
Talk soon turned to linking the road with the Smokies. After a major political battle, North Carolina was chosen over Tennessee for the southern section of the route. The Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway are similar roads and often are paired in one experience. Taken together, the drive/parkway sojourn is nearly 600 miles of manicured road almost continuously at the crest of the electric-hued autumn wave of the Southern Appalachians.
The parkway is a perfect portal to the quintessential Appalachian experience – especially if youre the active, outdoors type. A whos who of major Appalachian summits line the route. The parkway is wrapped in hundreds of thousands of acres of surrounding national forests and other parks, so miles of rushing rivers, dozens of lofty lakes, and backcountry trails for bikes and hikes lie along almost any side road. Its not at all uncommon to see parkway motorists driving along with bikes, boats, and backpacks atop their vehicles.
The mountains are the magnet for parkway motorists, too, and this Appalachian Trail for cars presents ever-changing vistas right through the windshield. But at dozens of overlooks youll notice a parkway specialty – the leg-stretcher trail. Here and there along the route, easy-to-moderate trails lead away from parking areas. Some are a few miles long, but others are much less. The parkway is a scenic drive, after all, so these short hikes entice even sedentary motorists out of the car to outstanding overlooks and outdoor experiences.
If you dont want to get off the parkway, you almost dont have to (except to fill up on gas, and stations are an easy hop off at major junctions).
The parkway passes an astounding number of quaint mountain towns and genteel resort areas, many with century-long traditions as cool refuges for the wealthy from the Southern summer heat. Any parkway trip should include a few such side trips. Great restaurants, atmospheric inns, and even wineries lie all along the parkway.
NOT FAR FROM CITY LIFE
Two cities flank the parkway – Roanoke, Virginia, the largest, and Asheville, where more parkway visitors enter the parkway than at any other place. The parkway slides through each in a green corridor, but plan to pause. Both are vibrant small urban areas.
Downtown Roanoke has the states oldest continuous farmers market. The historic downtown district and City Market Building international food court are so close to the parkways Roanoke Mountain campground that you can be eating dinner 10 minutes from your tent! (Before you visit the City Market Building, check that renovations have been completed.) Great museums include the O. Winston Link Museums stunning collection of Links classic photos of the last days of railroad steam engines.
Ashevilles national reputation as a hip, artsy, outdoor destination was solidified last spring when President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama dropped in for a long weekend (which included a hike on the parkway). There are galleries and great folk and fine art galore in Asheville, home to one of the Souths greatest collections of art deco architecture (second only to Miamis South Beach). As you enter the city, stop at the parkways Folk Art Center (MP 382) to see astounding creations. Strolling the citys 1.7-mile, art-accentuated Urban Trail is a fine way to spend a city day sampling great food and galleries after a long drive through parkway forests. The massive Biltmore® House & Gardens, the countrys largest home, may be the parkways most worthwhile tourist attraction.
Between Blue Ridge Parkway MP 1 and MP 469, you experience how this long and winding road – the first rural national parkway – is more than a vacation venue. Its a fitting symbol for why America fell in love with the open road.
Randy Johnson is an editor, author, and authority on the parkway. He has helped design parkway paths and has written, among other books, the two best-selling trail guides to the parkway: Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway and Best Easy Day Hikes Blue Ridge Parkway. Visit his Web site www.randyjohnsonbooks.com for more information.
A PARKWAY MOTORING PRIMER
None. The parkway is free, unlike the entrance fee charged at Shenandoah National Park for Skyline Drive.
The speed limit is 45, with some areas of 35 mph, and 25 mph in congested pedestrian areas.
Not everyone feels confident driving curvy mountain roads – and the parkway is one of the curviest! Keep your eyes on the road – and pull into an overlook to gaze at the view.
Relax and enjoy the view. However, there are few passing zones on the parkway, and the road is the best route to work for many locals. Frequent overlooks make it easy to just pull off and let everyone get by.
Forest lines the parkway and animals frequently cross the road. Be extremely cautious near dawn and dusk when wildlife is active.
Turn on headlights in parkway tunnels and watch for bicycles. If youre driving an RV, consult the minimum height chart on the parkways tunnel page here to be sure your vehicle has sufficient clearance.
The parkway has dense fog. At high elevations, you could be driving in a cloud. Our best advice is to slow down or call it a day.
Dry pavement can suddenly be wet and slick in a shady curve – and that can mean glare ice in colder months.
Cell Phone Service
Many parts of the parkway are devoid of cell service.
For details on road closures and weather, camping, activities, bloom and foliage updates, referral to office numbers, to request brochures, and more, call (828) 298-0398 or visit www.nps.gov/blri/index.htm. In case of emergency, a call to (800) PARKWATCH ( 727-5928) will quickly summon help.
During your parkway trip, attend events keyed to the parkways 75th-anniversary celebration. For details visit www.blueridgeparkway75.org.
For information about resort areas adjacent to the parkway area, try these sites:
Charlottesville, Virginia – www.charlottesville.org
Roanoke, Virginia, area – www.visitroanokeva.com
North Carolina High Country – For more on the Boone and Blowing Rock area, including an extensive parkway guide, visit www.exploreboonearea.com.
Cherokee, North Carolina – Learn more about Cherokee at www.cherokee-nc.com.
LODGING AND DINING
Four parkway lodges are scattered along the length of the road at scenic spots. Peaks of Otter Lodge, north of Roanoke, Virginia, is the only accommodation open year-round. Dramatic Sharp Top, one of the roads most classically conical summits, rises just outside the rooms and restaurant. Farther south, nearer the North Carolina state line, rustic, atmospheric Rocky Knob cabins were handcrafted during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Doughton Park, not far south of the state line in North Carolina, is one of many places along the generally half-mile-wide parkway that bulge out to embrace larger tracts of land. Bluffs Lodge overlooks Doughton Parks high meadows, which surround deep and mysterious Basin Cove, once the site of an entire community that was wiped out in a 1916 flood. Only one deserted cabin remains, perched far below the lodge in a postage stamp-size meadow. South of Asheville, Pisgah Inn is almost a mile high, which is the perfect place to experience another forte of a parkway trip – cool weather. Each rooms porch and rocking chairs provide their occupants with awesome views above a dramatic drop.
The lodges have restaurants – Peaks of Otter Lodge and Pisgah Inn have the most sophisticated – but there are less-formal snack bars/restaurants at many other sites, including Mount Mitchell State Park in northwestern North Carolina. The state park, an easy side trip from the parkway at MP 355, includes the Easts highest mountain – 6,684 feet. In 2009, Mount Mitchell christened a new, more accessible, ramp-style view tower. In July, Grandfather Mountain, also located in the loftily named High Country area of northwest North Carolina near Boone, at MP 305, inaugurated wheelchair access to the famous Mile High Swinging Bridge that spans two peaks.
If no restaurant is nearby, picnicking is a must-have parkway experience. There are more than a dozen formal picnic areas, and a wealth of overlooks have picnic tables. Or you can just pull off along the roadside; you can park on the grass – pick a spot that will support your car and be well away from traffic.
Car camping is another favorite way to experience the parkway, and the roads nine campgrounds – an average of one every 43 miles – offer 712 tent sites and 332 RV slips. At Julian Price Memorial Park, near Boone, campground loop A lies beside the parkways largest lake. Its a golden pond setting to be sure.
There are commercial campgrounds just off the parkway, but nearby campgrounds run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service are enticing. Sherando Lake in Virginia, near the start of the parkway, has a beach on a spring-fed lake. Black Mountain, in North Carolina, lies below Mount Mitchell among whispering cool evergreens.
Cool can be the operative word for parkway campers. The first frost and snow have been known to dust high summits in October, so if you pull into lofty Mount Pisgah Campground or plan to pitch a tent at Mount Mitchell State Park – the Easts highest tent camping – come prepared for New England-like cool.
LOCATIONS AND CONTACT INFORMATION
This major Southern ski area and upscale, design-with-nature summit community has its own trail system, two golf courses, tennis courts, a spa, and a range of lodging options, from rooms and condos in the Mountain Inn to condos and private homes.
Peaks of Otter Lodge (MP 85.6)
This 60-room motel-style accommodation includes a full-service restaurant, lounge, and gift shop. Rooms have porches overlooking Abbott Lake with Sharp Top soaring beyond.
Rocky Knob Cabins (MP 174.1)
The cabins qualify as the parkways most historic parkitecture. They are cozy and comfortable (one is handicapped accessible).
Bluffs Lodge (MP 241.1)
Bluffs Lodges simple rooms adjoin a patio fireplace for cool evenings. Some rooms overlook meadows and gamboling deer. Bluffs Restaurant is walking distance.
Eseeola Lodge (MP 305.1)
This bark-shingled classic lodge is located in a National Historic District dedicated to one of the mountains earliest cool summer havens for the wealthy. Great Thursday night seafood buffet. Guests can play the Donald Ross-designed golf course.
Grove Park Inn (MP 382.5)
Ashevilles classic mountain hotel, with massive stone fireplace and Great Hall Bar, was a favorite of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It also has provided lodging for presidents, including President and Mrs. Obama last spring. Theres a popular spa, and The Sunset Terrace chophouse offers a summit-studded horizon. Grovewood Gallery, perhaps Ashevilles best, is adjacent to the inn.
Parkway campgrounds offer ranger programs, hiking trails, and a sanitary dump station (no RV hookups). Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis – except at Julian Price, Linville Falls, and Mount Pisgah, where you can reserve a site in advance ($19 versus the $16 usually charged). To reserve online, go to www.recreation.gov, or call toll-free  444-6777. Each campground has a handicapped-accessible site.
DINING ALONG THE WAY
Peaks of Otter Lodge (MP 85.6)
The parkways biggest lodge serves three meals a day, seven days a week at the Lake View restaurant from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. A full menu is amplified by a Friday night seafood buffet and a breakfast and later country buffet on Sunday. Wines from Virginia and elsewhere are available.
Chateau Morrisette®, Floyd (MP 171.5)
This picturesque vineyard is a reliable place for a gourmet meal, tours, and tastings.
Danl Boone Inn, Boone (MP 280.9)
A cant-miss, High Country tradition of hearty family-style breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for more than 70 years.
Early Girl Eatery, Asheville (MP 382.5)
An informal downtown eatery that exemplifies Ashevilles organic and homegrown approach to dining on locally sourced foods.
Pisgah Inn Dining Room (MP 408.6)
The Dining Room at Pisgah Inn serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week behind big picture windows overlooking lower mountains. The menu is diverse and includes modestly priced traditional evening meals like fried chicken and meatloaf along with fancier and more costly fare complemented by a wine list.
Joeys Pancake House, Maggie Valley (MP 455.7)
Joeys is one of western North Carolinas favorite breakfast spots. Service is fast and friendly, and the restaurant has an extensive menu plus daily specials like eggs Benedict.