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."
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.
"Early in the 20th century, lumber companies built narrow gauge railroads far into the mountains," a Park Service historic sign notes. "This railroad, which was 50 miles long, carried more than 100 million board feet of logs to the mill. It was built in 1919-1920 and a section has been reconstructed here. Logging and fires destroyed most of the virgin forests of the Blue Ridge; the trees you see today are mostly second growth."
Museums, folk-art exhibits and more than a dozen visitor centers offer insights into Appalachian lifestyles and history. That history includes the pre-European settlements and agriculture of the Cherokee and other Indian tribes, as well as the earliest mountain homesteaders.
The Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center, adjacent to the park headquarters in Asheville; the nearby Folk Art Center; the Museum of North Carolina Minerals at Spruce Pine; and even The Peaks of Otter Lodge, near Roanoke, Va., are open all year. Other visitor centers and campgrounds are open only part of the year, basically from spring into late autumn, so visitors can experience the earliest blooming flowers and the latest colorful leaves.
The Blue Ridge Parkway's "Milepost 0" is near the south entrance to Shenandoah National Park, at Waynesboro, Va. "Milepost 469" is, of course, 469 miles to the southwest, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, near Cherokee, N.C.
Motoring the parkway itself is free. There are campground fees, however.
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Access is possible at highways and state and local roads all along the way. There are very few informational signs on the parkway itself, but services – food, gasoline, lodging – are available in many nearby communities, and there are larger cities near the route, such as Roanoke and Lynchburg, Va., and Boone and Asheville, N.C. And there are seasonal campgrounds and three lodges on the parkway (The Peaks of Otter Lodge, Rocky Knob Cabins and Pisgah Inn).
Besides being a notable motorway, the route offers access to more than a hundred trails, short to long – including the 2,000-mile-long Appalachian Trail, which intersects with the parkway at several points.
Blue Ridge Parkway, National Park Service — www.nps.gov/blriHeady goes here