Blue Ridge Parkway

I’ve been interested in driving the Blue Ridge Parkway ever since I learned about it during college. I saw bits of the parkway on hikes in college, but never traveled very far south from Charlottesville. The Parkway is most popular in October for the fall foliage, so we were a bit late (starting our drive in early November). On the plus side, this meant we nearly had the road to ourselves. It also meant some rest stops were closed (which is no problem when you carry your own bathroom) and some of the trees were a bit bare.

“The idea is to fit the Parkway into the mountains as if nature has put it there.”

-Stanley Abbott, Chief Landscape Architect for the Parkway

The history of the parkway is really interesting – you can read more about it here. President Roosevelt originally conceived the idea for the Parkway, after visiting Skyline Drive in Virginia. The Parkway was intended to connect Shenandoah National Park with Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Construction began in 1935 but the Parkway wasn’t completely finished until 1987 as a 7.7 mile stretch near Grandfather Mountain proved tricky due to ecological concerns. A short summary of the Parkway from the National Park Service website:

  • “It is the longest road planned as a single unit in the United States.
  • It is an elongated park, protecting significant mountain landscapes far beyond the shoulders of the road itself.
  • It is a series of parks providing the visitor access to high mountain passes, a continuous series of panoramic views, the boundaries of its limited right-of-way rarely apparent and miles of the adjacent countryside seemingly a part of the protected scene.
  • It is a “museum of the managed American countryside,” preserving the roughhewn log cabin of the mountain pioneer, the summer home of a textile magnate, and traces of early industries such as logging, railways, and an old canal.
  • It is the product of a series of major public works projects which provided a boost to the travel and tourism industry and helped the Appalachian region climb out the depths of the Great Depression.
  • Stretching almost 500 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains through North Carolina and Virginia, it encompasses some of the oldest settlements of both pre-historic and early European settlement.”

While we originally planned to cover every mile of the Parkway, returning to where we departed if we made any stops, that quickly proved tedious. The Parkway is far from the most efficient route – driving from the start to finish could be done in 379 miles and speeds much higher than the Parkway’s 45 mile per hour speed limit. I had a hard time giving up my mission to see all of the Parkway, as once I make a plan I like to stick to it. However, we also have a schedule to stick to and I don’t like to drive more than necessary. In the end I think we likely covered two-thirds of the Parkway, dropping off completely once we got to Asheville to take the most direct route to the Smoky Mountains.

Ridge Region

The Parkway is divided into four sections. The northern section, entirely in Virginia, is called the Ridge Region. It starts a bit west of Charlottesville and ends a bit south of Roanoke. It mostly goes through National Forests with tree-filled views and lots of rolling hills. Humpback Rock, which I hiked frequently throughout college, is located right on the Parkway. We also stopped at several scenic overlooks before arriving in Roanoke to spend the night. David took most of the pictures in this section, so they largely feature the van.

After spending the night in Roanoke, we deviated from the Parkway for a while to visit the Virginia Museum of Transportation (in Roanoke) and Duncan Imports & Classic Cars. The museum is very eclectic, and feels more like a hobby shop for old car, train, and plane enthusiasts. It was a fun stop, especially for David.

David had seen a commercial for Duncan Imports & Classic Cars when we were at Starr Hill and recognized it from used car listings he’d viewed online. Of course David has a pulse on used car collections all around the United States, even in small towns in Virginia. The place is hard to describe, half used car dealership and half car collection. From what I can tell online, it started as a hobby and grew into a business, now attracting attention from car enthusiasts across the country. David could have spent all day ogling the cars, but I kept us moving along. I can’t caption the photos below as I don’t know what vehicles they are, but for more photos and obscure car facts David is on hand.

Plateau Region

After our car stops, we rejoined the Parkway in the Plateau Region. This stretch of the Parkway is flatter and more focused on the rural landscape and culture of the region. We didn’t make many stops here, except to walk around an old mill, spend the night at Walmart, and make breakfast at a scenic stop.

Highlands Region

This section starts at the Virginia/North Carolina state line and winds through lots of natural areas and small towns to Crabtree Falls. This might have been my favorite section. We stopped for a few small hikes, scenic overlooks, and van photo shoots. We also walked around the town of Blowing Rock, which has a great art gallery and lots of cute shops. Just outside of Blowing Rock is the Moses Cone Manor, which the National Park Service is starting to fix up. The Cones developed a huge amount of trails around the house, which are available for use. We ended the night driving up a very exciting road to a back country camping spot in the Pisgah National Forest, a bit off the Parkway.

Pisgah Region

The final stretch of the Parkway was a special one as I drove the van for the first time (excluding moving it to a different parking space once)! My stretch of driving lasted nearly 20 miles and ended in an easy yet stressful parking challenge. The experience confirmed I’m much happier as a passenger and I haven’t driven again since. I realize I should learn to be comfortable driving the van but there is always some reason not to drive – wind, traffic, rain, narrow rides, sleepiness. I’ve committed that before our trip is up I’ll be a competent van driver and parker.

We stopped at Mount Mitchell, which is the tallest point east of the Mississippi and requires walking less than half a mile. The fact that you can nearly drive to the top made it not super exciting, but we did meet a nice van fan who asked to take our picture (making it our second photo session by a stranger). We also spent a night in Asheville, which is a lovely town with delicious food and beer. Our top recommendation, passed on from my parents, is Biscuit Head. David got what my mom termed “Biscuit Head” from his brunch. The prescribed fix is a nap and cup of coffee.

Smoky Mountains

We took the direct route from Asheville to Smoky Mountains to get in a day hike before meeting up with Jamie and Mike for a one-night backpacking trip. Jamie was wrapping up a work project in Knoxville and they’d already talked about the trip before realizing our plans would line up perfectly! We hiked to Mt. Crammerer the day before meeting up. Unfortunately, the mountain was in the clouds and the sun refused to break through. The snow and ice on the trees was so beautiful we weren’t too disappointed.

Jamie was one of my main backpacking partners in Portland before she moved to the east coast and I’ve probably spent more nights in the woods with her than anyone else (excluding David). It felt so good to be out with her again and reminisce about the best and worst trips we’ve taken. We rarely let rain or cold stop us, chalking the weather up as “so PNW.” This trip was a reminder of just how much I miss her and the adventures we shared together in our just out of college years. Since I didn’t quote Thomas Jefferson in my last post, I’ll end with one of my favorites of his about friendship.

“But friendship is precious, not only in the shade, but in the sunshine of life, and thanks to a benevolent arrangement the greater part of life is sunshine.”

– Thomas Jefferson

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