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

Her string of adjectives certainly fits what came to be.

Actual construction began on Sept. 11, 1935, and was done in sections. In fact, only about half of the route was completed in its earliest years. Progress paused during World War II. Most of the parkway was open to the driving public by the 1960s.

However, the last section, swooping around North Carolina's Grandfather Mountain (with an amazing, European-styled S-curve viaduct at Linn Cove) was not completed until 1987 — more than 50 years after the project began.

Today, the motorway and its amenities are part of the "most visited" unit of the national park system in the United States.

According to the National Park Service, the best time to witness autumn colors along the parkway is in mid- to late October — though various factors can influence when the seasonal changes will peak. These can include weather patterns, from precipitation to cold snaps, as well as the route's many variations in elevation and distances north to south, as well as the differences between east- and west-facing slopes.

Fall can be jaw-droppingly beautiful along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but it can also be unpredictable.

The route "varies in elevation from just under 650 feet (above sea level) at James River in Virginia to over 6,000 feet south of Mt. Pisgah in North Carolina," the Park Service notes in one online Q&A.

A few adjacent attractions top out even higher. North Carolina's Mount Mitchell State Park, accessed via the parkway, summits just above 6,500 feet — and was experiencing a snowfall when I visited. Parts of the highway near Asheville were temporarily closed due to snow.

"Many visitors have been frustrated trying to go to one spot in one day in October, hoping to find the leaves in full color," the Park Service notes. "A far better plan is to drive some distance on the parkway, changing elevations and north-south orientation.

"Anyone who does this around mid to late October will catch at least some of the pretty color that we're famous for."

Vista turnouts and waysides abound along the way. These offer interludes at historic sites, such as settlers' weathered cabins and out-buildings; notable "gaps" (ridgeline saddles and passes); "traces" (trails) and turnpikes; as well as "knobs," "hollows" and "runs."

Homesteader settlements, as at Humpback Rocks on the north, picturesque Mabry Mill in the parkway's mid-section, and the Folk Art Center outside Asheville, present wonderful strolling and photography opportunities, and insights and historic context for visitors.

"Re-settlements" might perhaps be a more accurate term for some of the parkway's antique building clusters. In several instances, structures of various kinds were purposefully brought together from various locations for their ambiance and instructional potential, as part of the route's landscaping and design.

As an example, Mabry Mill was built about 1910 by jack-of-all-trades Edwin B. Mabry. He and his wife Mintoria Lizzie Mabry, we're informed by a walkway placard, ground corn and sawed lumber at the mill for their Meadows of Dan neighbors until 1936, when the parkway was taking shape. The Park Service restored the mill in 1945 and added some of the complementary structures. Today the mill is considered the most-photographed site on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Park Service reports.

During my visit, a light rain sprinkled Mabry Mill. A wooden millrace, with a trickle of running water, was cluttered with falling autumn leaves. Cabins, outbuildings and other structures added to the yesteryear atmosphere.

By contrast and for variety, a wayside adjoining a small, leaf-littered creek in a northern section of the parkway records the impact of an old logging railroad, and other ventures, upon the Blue Ridge.