Adventures along the Blue Ridge Parkway

By Mary Burnham

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” John Muir, Our National Parks”, 1901.

In 1933, with America mired in economic depression, Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd suggested a roadway linking two national parks: Shenandoah in Virginia, and the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.

Ground was broken on Sept. 11, 1935, and 52 year later, workers finally finished the nation’s longest scenic parkway, a 470-mile bit of “slow-down therapy” we know better as the Blue Ridge Parkway.

With today’s interstates, 70 mph speed zones and oxymorons like “rush hour gridlock,” John Muir’s words anticipated our need for public lands set aside purely for recreation.

This gracefully curved road, devoid of commercial traffic, carries motorists along six mountain ranges of the Appalachian chain and a seasonal collage of color. In spring, it’s fresh, lime green; in summer, a deeper shade of the same. A blaze of reds, yellows and oranges announces fall, while winter’s white blanket of snow ushers in the parkway’s secret season, a time when miles of road close to all but human-powered cross-country skiers, hikers and snowshoers.

Designer Stanley Abbot envisioned a roadway that “lay easy on the land,” a route that winds around mountainsides, dips into gaps and gracefully regains the top of the Blue Ridge. Pull-offs link with more than 100 walking and hiking trails, from half-mile leg-stretchers, to the great Georgia-to-Maine Appalachian Trail. The scene through the car window ranges from rolling pastures dotted with grazing cattle to dramatic granite domes.

Nearby small towns hum with local trade and out-of-towners in search of a festival, Civil War battlefield, antiques or local art. Chain hotels are convenient to the interstate, but more cozy quarters can be had in fine period homes renovated into bed and breakfasts. Restaurants serve up tasty local dishes and show a flair for the haute cuisine.

Whether you have one day to spend or 10, Virginia’s Blue Ridge can only be experienced by exiting I-81 and getting on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

One of the three Peaks of Otter, Sharp Top (milepost 83) was long revered as the state's highest peak at 3,875 feet. Its stone was used in DC’s Washington Monument, which is inscribed: “From Otter’s summit, Virginia’s loftiest peak. To crown a monument to Virginia’s noblest son.”

When geologists later measured Mount Rogers in southwest Virginia, they declared that 5,729-foot peak tallest. But mere numbers do little to diminish inspiring views from atop Sharp Top (unrivalled even by Mount Rogers’, whose summit is tree-covered). A short, lung-busting climb ends at panoramic views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. Far below, dense forest is interrupted only by the Peaks of Otter Lodge on tranquil Abbott Lake, named for the Parkway’s designer.

Sharp Top is a monument in itself, memorializing the sweat and talent of immigrant stoneworkers who fashioned elaborate steps to its peak. Out-of-work masons were given the task during the Depression. Their beautiful arched bridges, tunnels, retaining walls and paths, all using native stone, can be seen throughout the park.

These artisan’s handiwork reaches a pinnacle in the triple-arched Linville River Bridge near Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. Since the bridge carries the Parkway, one has to hike down to the river and look up to actually see it. Notice the painstaking stonework covering every bit of the concrete structure – for whose eyes, one wonders.

North Carolina boasts the Parkway’s highest point: the 6,047-foot Richland Balsam Mountain in Jackson County, where the Blue Ridge and the Great Smoky Mountains (milepost 430) converge. The 1.5-mile loop trail passes through a spruce-fir forest. At milepost 422, the Devil’s Courthouse Trail lives up to its name with a sinister rock profile and a cave with an eerie Cherokee legend.

“Our club does this ride every fall, from Rockfish Gap to Cumberland Knob,” said the leather-clad biker. A dozen Harleys diagonally-parked neatly at the Great Valley Overlook to rest and admire the sunny autumn scene below. They were nearly halfway on the 217-mile trip spanning the Virginia portion of the Parkway.

Both types of cycles – motor and human-powered – are increasingly popular ways to experience the Parkway. In fact, motorcyclists have joined senior citizens as two of the largest groups among the Parkway’s 20 million annual visitors, according to Parkway Ranger Peter Givens.

Bicyclists can spend an hour a week cycling the Parkway, staying at campsites or lodges along the way. It’s no easy coast, however, with elevations ranging from 650 to more than 6,000. Be careful when entering any of the 27 tunnels – some are quite long and dark – so be sure to have a mounted light.

Many Parkway hikes are “top-down,” leading walkers down from the roadside and requiring a climb back up to the top. Rock Castle Gorge (milepost 169) epitomizes this transforming trip. Appropriate either as a day hike or overnight backpacking trip, it begins in quiet pastures and drops into the deep, quiet world of an Appalachian cove forest, a riot of trees, shrubs and groundcover.

On our last visit, we hiked down to a primitive campsite alongside Rock Castle Creek, a stream that powered six sawmills around 1910, when upwards of 70 families lived in this “holler.”

Back in 1935, Sam Weems was in charge of persuading families to sell their land to the new park. The Rocky Knob Recreation Area was to be 500 acres, but when he saw dramatic Rock Castle Gorge, he obtained permission for 4,000 acres of public playground. And he did it all without resorting to land condemnation.

“It took a lot of talking and petting of people’s dogs,” Weems is quoted as saying. *

The return from the bottom of Rock Castle Gorge is all uphill – and steep – requiring careful maneuvering of the knee-splitting quartzite rock formations that give the area its name. Leaving the forest’s colorful canopy drenched from a heavy rain, we entered a pasture and sensed being close to the Parkway. Fog blanketed the closely-cropped field, interspersed with scrub trees and berry bushes, an image straight out of Wuthering Heights. Large shapes materialized from the mist and proved to be grazing cows, a common sight all along the Parkway.

There’s intentionally a sense of “no boundaries” to the park, says Parkway Superintendent Dan Brown, with farmland instead of fences at the Parkway’s outskirts. Pastures are leased out to approximately 500 families who farm and maintain them.