Blue Ridge beauty: Fall color sweeps gradually from mountaintops to valleys along the Appalachian crest

Fall color sweeps gradually from mountaintops to valleys along the Appalachian crest

By Ray Boren

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Oct. 26 2012 8:00 a.m. MDT

Shredded rain clouds, pierced by late-afternoon light, hang above Wilson Creek Valley, below an elevated overlook at 4,300 feet on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Ray Boren,

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — There are far faster ways to zoom from Virginia to western North Carolina, but none with more eye-pleasing autumn scenery — and a certain sense of leisurely escape from the everyday world — than America's Blue Ridge Parkway.

In fact, what might take one day along nearby Interstate 81 or tributary highways will require three, four, ideally even more days along the elegantly serpentine 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway.

Scenery ogling, wildlife- and bird-watching, picnicking, picture-taking, hiking, horseback-riding and simply taking in the variable weather conditions over such a distance all take time.

Plus, the parkway speed limit is definitely pokey by modern NASCAR/freeway standards: 45 mph or lower!

My fall drive rounding the curves and threading the many tunnels (of both the rock-piercing man-made and leafy-bowered tree varieties) followed a cross-country visit to see friends in Maryland. On one almost summer-like fall day, my buddy Warren and I drove about half of the 105-mile length of Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Drive, glorying in the day's warmth and the changing colors.

The next day, beginning a cross-country drive to my home in Utah, I returned to Shenandoah, vowing to complete the Skyline Drive and then head south, along the East's Appalachian backbone. My dream was to follow Skyline's even longer southern "extension," the Blue Ridge Parkway, which begins at Rockfish Gap, Va.

Sometimes rising dramatically with eagle-aerie views above farms, villages, valleys and the hilly Piedmont below, the Blue Ridge is a section of the central and southern Appalachian Mountains, a range that overall stretches from Georgia to Pennsylvania.

No less a figure than Thomas Jefferson posited that one set of Appalachian summits, The Peaks of Otter, might be "of greater height … than any others in our country, perhaps in North America."

Explorers' subsequent encounters with the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada range soon proved that hypothesis to be wrong, but the Appalachians' ancient stones and sudden rise from near sea level do make for truly impressive mountains and escarpments, even to a Westerner.

The parkway is an ideal vantage from which to take in the autumn splendor of slope after slope after slope, each densely carpeted with color, as fall tints mix with evergreen trees.

The intricate tapestry is woven with speckled rainbow tints, provided by such trees as the eastern hemlock, shagbark hickory, northern red oak, and struggling American chestnut sprouts (beleaguered by logging and a terrible blight), intermixed with red spruce, white pine and settler-introduced fruit trees, like the versatile apple.

The parkway itself — administered by the National Park Service — intentionally links two Eastern national parks: Shenandoah, on the north in Virginia, and Great Smoky Mountains, along the North Carolina-Tennessee border, near Asheville, N.C.

Initially designed and partially built during the Great Depression, the Blue Ridge Parkway was envisioned as a way to both promote tourism and put thousands of people to work — engineers, contractors, road and construction workers, and immigrant stonemasons. That history is told in old black-and-white photographs, wall text and interpretive films at visitor centers and various informational stops along the way.

One of the parkway's earliest planners was a landscape architect, Stanley Abbott — who was only 26 when hired. After exploring potential paths in the early 1930s, he was determined that the route become more than a mere roadway.

Writer and naturalist Rose Houk, in her excellent photo-illustrated parkway guide, says Abbott conceived a scenic route "possessing the qualities of variety, simplicity, informality, revelation, and preservation."