Long and Winding Road Discover the joys of the journey on a classic American drive--the Blue Ridge Parkway.
(MONEY Magazine) – If you've read Lost in America with any regularity, you've probably figured out that I love road trips, especially if there are small towns, offbeat roadside attractions, undiscovered eateries and regional culture along the way. I've always subscribed to the notion that getting there is half the fun. But I recently embarked on a road trip that took things a bit further: Getting there was all the fun. I'm talking about America's most classically scenic drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Even if you don't share my enthusiasm for road trips, the Blue Ridge Parkway is something every American should experience at least once. It's a 469-mile road that runs atop the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are the eastern edge of the Appalachians. One of two long parkways administered by the National Park Service (the other is the Natchez Trace Parkway; for more on that drive and others, see the box on page 160), the BRP begins at the southern border of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, ends at the doorstep of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina and traverses a region brimming with interesting towns and attractions. As a whole, the parkway corridor offers an unrivaled string of spectacular Appalachian countryside, highlighted by beautifully forested mountains as far as the eye can see.
The BRP was specifically conceived as a scenic drive in the 1920s. Work began in 1935 and was largely completed by the mid-1960s, although the final section wasn't in place until 1987. From a superficial standpoint, it's a deceptively ordinary road: two-lane blacktop the whole way, no stop signs or traffic lights, a 45-mph speed limit, with numbered stone posts marking the miles along the roadside. But the roadway's winding, twisting path through the mountains is extraordinary, with up to a dozen individual mountain ridges often visible at one time from hundreds of scenic overlooks and turnouts. Scores of hiking trails extend from the roadside and into the forest, and there are also several historic exhibits explaining what pioneer life was like in the region a century ago, many of which feature log cabins and other preserved or restored buildings. The parkway is particularly beautiful during the spring wildflower and fall foliage seasons, and countless wildlife species provide a year-round nature show. Visitor centers, gas stations, lodging, food, campsites and picnic areas are judiciously interspersed along the way (for suggestions on where to stay and eat, see the box on page 162), and exits provide easy access to nearby attractions (and to the parallel I-81, if you need to make up some time). All in all, it's a remarkable road, and a genuine national treasure.
Although I have driven on the BRP on several occasions, I had never taken the time to drive its entire length until my girlfriend and I recently set out to do so. Our plan was to explore not just the parkway but also its surrounding environs, including Shenandoah and Great Smoky. We allocated a day for each of the National Parks and four days in between for the parkway itself. Here's how it went:
Day One: We start at the northern entrance to Shenandoah National Park (540-999-3500; www.nps.gov/shen; $10) and begin driving down its primary roadway, Skyline Drive. The place is a wildlife paradise, with birds swooping around us and deer bounding across the road as we motor past oak, spruce and pine trees. We stop to explore a few nature trails, one of which briefly connects with the fabled Appalachian Trail--we hike a few hundred yards of it, just so we can say that we did, and marvel at the thought that about 100 people traverse the entire 2,100-mile route on foot each year. Back in the car, we continue down Skyline Drive, where virtually every bend in the road seems to bring yet another breathtaking vista of the Shenandoah Valley. As we settle in for the night at one of the park's lodges, it occurs to us that if the rest of the trip is this consistently beautiful, our entire vocabulary may quickly be reduced to "Ooh!" and "Ah!"
Day Two: Significantly fewer oohs and ahs this morning, as the area is blanketed by a thick layer of fog. Undaunted, we push on, leaving Shenandoah as Skyline Drive becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway (828-298-0398; www.nps.gov /blri; free). The fog finally burns off by early afternoon, giving us a chance to take advantage of the scenic overlooks that appear every few miles. It's tempting to stop at all of them, but we soon realize we'll never get anywhere that way, so we pace ourselves, viewing a tree-topped mountain ridge here, a beautiful valley or hollow there. Things go slightly awry later on, when we go hiking in search of a waterfall and get lost in the woods after taking a wrong turn (you can all make your Lost in America jokes here). After eventually finding our way back to the car about 90 minutes later than we'd planned, we take the next parkway exit and hurry east to the nearby city of Lynchburg, where we're just in time to watch the local minor league baseball team, the Lynchburg Hillcats (City Stadium, 3180 Fort Ave., Lynchburg, Va.; 804-528-1144; www.lynchburg-hillcats.com; $4 to $6). Coming on the heels of the hiking misadventure, a hot dog and a beer never tasted so good.
Day Three: After spending the night in Lynchburg, we drive a half-hour east and spend the morning at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park (Rte. 24, Appomattox, Va.; 804-352-8987; www.nps.gov/apco; $2). It was here that the Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the Civil War. The exhibits are superb and the history palpable--a very moving place. Then we head back west and rejoin the parkway, stopping in Roanoke to visit the Virginia Museum of Transportation (303 Norfolk Ave., Roanoke, Va.; 540-342-5670; www.vmt.org; $5), which is housed in an old railway freight station and features a wonderful train yard filled with vintage locomotives, passenger cars and cabooses, most of them open for interior walk-throughs. After parking our own cabooses back in the car, we continue down the parkway and check out the Mabry Mill (parkway milepost 176.2), a beautifully restored early 1900s gristmill whose wheel is still driven by a local stream. Several jaw-dropping scenic mountain views later, we stop for a hike (managing not to get lost this time) and then decide to call it a day just shy of the Virginia-North Carolina border.
Day Four: We leave Virginia behind and enter the parkway's lower state, North Carolina. Our daily helping of scenic overlooks and hikes is nice, but the day ends up being defined by visits to three endearing tourist traps, all located just a few miles off the parkway: First is the Blowing Rock (U.S. Hwy. 321 South, Blowing Rock, Va.; 828-295-7111; www.blowingrock.org/therock.html; $4), a cliff where constant updrafts can cause objects tossed over the edge to fly up instead of fall down; next is Grandfather Mountain (U.S. Hwy. 221, Linville, N.C.; 800-468-7325; www.grandfathermountain.com; $10), the highest peak in the Blue Ridge, where a swinging footbridge suspended across a very high pass offers magnificent views but is definitely not recommended for agoraphobics; and finally Linville Caverns (U.S. Hwy. 221, Marion, N.C.; 800-419-0540; www.linvillecaverns.com; $5), an active limestone cave whose innumerable stalactites and stalagmites continue to drip their way to new formations. These commercial attractions have a certain hokiness that might ordinarily start to get on our nerves, but today they seem like the perfect complement to the BRP's nature and wildlife scene.
Day Five: No commercial stops today, as we focus on natural attractions, beginning with a hike through the Craggy Gardens (milepost 364.5), a unique mountaintop area where, for reasons that continue to confound scientists, grass and shrubs grow instead of trees. After days of seemingly nonstop oak and spruce trees, the hiking trail's rhododendrons and other wildflowers provide a nice counterpoint.
From there we briefly leave the parkway to visit Looking Glass Falls (U.S. Hwy. 276, outside Brevard, N.C., about 10 miles south of milepost 411), so named because of the glittery effect that sunlight has when it hits the falls. It's reputed to be one of the most photogenic waterfalls in the eastern U.S., and this turns out to be no exaggeration--the 60-foot falls are practically the definition of picturesque. Then it's back to the parkway and on to the Devil's Courthouse (milepost 422.4), a high, rocky outcropping where our arduous hike to the summit is rewarded with a spectacular panoramic mountain view that stretches--depending on which way we look--all the way to Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia. Having now nearly reached the parkway's southern terminus, we stop for the night and prepare for the final day of our trip.
Day Six: If the BRP has a failing, it's that it features almost no waterside stretches. That problem is addressed today, as the parkway ends in Cherokee, N.C. and deposits us at the eastern entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (865-436-1200; www.nps.gov/grsm; free), whose main thoroughfare, Newfound Gap Road, offers miles of beautiful riverside driving. Smaller streams and creeks branch off here and there, and we explore a few of them on the park's hiking trails (some of them are called "Quiet Walkways," which sounds so pretentiously New Age-y that we refuse to say it out loud).
After spending some time strolling along the rapids, we check out Cades Cove, a mountain village that dates back to the 1820s and has been preserved as a fascinating historical exhibit within the park's grounds, complete with log cabins, churches, farms and a working gristmill. Our 21st-century modern lives are pretty comfortable compared with such hardscrabble stuff, but spending nearly a week on the road has nonetheless left us pooped. Exhausted but happy, we exit the park and head for home, pleased to have completed the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway corridor, and humbled by the thought that we've sampled only a fraction of what it has to offer.
Paul Lukas will pay closer attention to the trail markers next time he goes hiking.