Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway was an incredible ride. The Parkway runs for over 460 miles and, like the Natchez Trace, is a national park for its entire length. Both of these narrow, ribbon-like parks are beautifully managed by the National Park Service. The Blue Ridge Parkway begins at the Cherokee Indian Reservation on the eastern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and runs north and east to Roanoke.

Begun in 1935 under FDR, the parkway was originally called the Appalachian Scenic Highway. Construction was begun with private contractors but in 1936 Congress declared the highway part of the National Park Service. Construction was then undertaken by various New Deal agencies including the WPA and the CCC. Construction of the entire parkway took over 50 years to complete. It is one of the most visited destinations managed by the National Park Service.

 

Having so enjoyed the Natchez Trace, we were excited to sample this other famous drive. Our ride began just east of Asheville and we enjoyed 91 miles of amazing scenery before we had to continue in a different direction.

The first half of our ride was easily the most dramatic. We started at mile marker 382.6. The two lane highway wound around, up and over hills. We passed the spot where we had parked to hike the Craven Gap Trail. We continually gained altitude and the views just became more and more breathtaking.

The speed limit on the parkway is 45 mph. While I am sure sports cars and motorcyclists find that speed unnecessarily turtle-like and conservative, it was hard to travel that fast with trailer in tow. Curves could be tight and with only horizon beyond them, it seemed prudent to take our time and relish the experience.

Also breathtaking was the guard rail situation. Sometimes there were guard rails along the roadside before a sharp drop off. These were often rustic wooden affairs. It was hard not to wonder if they could possibly stop the forces of gravity and trajectory involved with a 28’ Airstream and Ram 2500 Laramie with Cummins diesel engine. More often there was simply no guardrail at all. The edge of the road gave way to an amazing vista and clean mountain air.

The highest point for us on our drive was Craggy Gardens at mile marker 364. As we approached the visitor center and parking lot, we were enveloped by clouds. We had gained over 3500 feet in elevation since joining the trail.

When shopping for our hike the day before, I had toyed with hiking the Craggy Pinnacle Trail, but discarded the idea due to the trail’s short length. Now I was kind of glad. One of the things which often gets hikers in trouble is failing to take into account the impact of elevation changes. The temperature must have dropped by 20 degrees. We would have frozen up here on the trail.

The parkway is dotted with scenic overlooks and pull-offs. It was difficult to pass any of them without stopping. Each vista was breathtaking and not-to-be-missed. It was as if the planners couldn’t help themselves and needed to provide a stop for each successive vista. We stopped at many of them.

Tunnels are also frequent along the parkway and added yet another element of excitement!

The second half of our Blue Ridge Parkway drive took us to lower elevations. The scenery was still glorious, but less terrifying. The mountains gave way to hills and finally to fields and signs of civilization. Local roads intersected the parkway and houses could be glimpsed through the trees.

Lunch was quite a visual affair. We stopped at yet another amazing pull off just below Grandfather Mountain. I made sandwiches and we sat munching away as we stared up at the impressive mountain. This was close to the end of our time on the Parkway. We exited at Blowing Rock at mile marker 291.9.

Highway 321 took us in to the town of Boone and onward through more lovely rolling hills and small towns. It was almost disorienting to be back in civilization after such an engrossing and eventful drive through breathtaking scenery. It was as if we had woken from a strange and beautiful dream.

 

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