Blue Ridge Parkway is an iconic 469-mile route that takes visitors from Virginia to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It is older than the trees.
“Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah RiverLife is old there, older than the treesYounger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze …”
Blue Tinged Mountains
Ahead loomed the blue tinged mountains dotted with fir trees. We were exiting off stress, to solace; away from the city’s clamor, towards mountain breezes.
Since it was a Monday, the typically busy BRP was not bumper-to-bumper with cars. I was traveling with my friends John and Nina, who are Washingtonians now living in Raleigh, North Carolina. We decided to meet up in the little town of Saluda, North Carolina (population: 692) to hike, drive the parkway and eat Southern cooking. I rented an adorable two-bedroom cabin in the shadow of Piney Mountain.
I decided to give up our plans to zip line in order to see a section of the BRP, which runs along the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains through North Carolina and Virginia. The Blue Ridge Parkway Association divides the parkway into four separate regions (each with unique attributes): Ridge (MP 0 to 106); Plateau (MP 106 to 217); Highlands (MP 217 to 340); and Pisgah (MP 340 to 469). Shenandoah National Park is the northern gateway to the BRP. Virginia’s Skyline Drive, which runs from Front Royal to Rockfish Gap, offers 105 miles of mountain-hugging road trip experiences.
Take Me Home
At 469 miles in length, BRP takes a minimum of 11 hours to drive non-stop. The speed limit is 45 mph. But the reality is that you want to stop at every overlook because the Blue Ridge mountain vistas drag you out of your car seat like a giant magnet. And yes I keep hearing those lyrics in my mind:
I hear John Denver’s lyrics playing like a well-grooved loop in my head, first memorized decades ago. “Country roads, take me home/To the place I belong . . .” But as the Suburu takes the curves and rounds the corners, I know that my heart feels home here—particularly as we all want to leave “coronaville” and resume our old lives in “normalville.”
Heart Stopping Views
The project to build a bucolic parkway running through western North Carolina and showcasing the heart-stopping views of the Appalachian Mountains dates back to the 1930s. But these mountain passes have been traveled since pioneers from Scotland, England and Ireland began immigrating to North Carolina to build homesteads in the late 1700s. According to the National Park Service, “it encompasses some of the oldest settlements of both pre-historic and early European settlements.”
It was a hard scrabble life but one that Scots would have felt mirrored their own experience back in the Old Country. I can’t claim any Scottish blood but I did feel like the fairies in the mountains put a spell on me.
My Heart’s In the Mountains
I had to get out of the car at the first overlook to marvel. Such a broad expense of blue sky, blue mountain and sprawling forest. To paraphrase Robert Burns’ poem below, my heart’s in the mountains, my heart finds home here.
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.—Robert Burns
It took more than 50 years to build the parkway. The “park-to-park” program was approved by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes in November 1933 as a public works project during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. “With a budget of $16 million, Ickes hired Stanley Abbott, a New York landscape architect, to oversee the project, and Abbott’s vision of a chain of parks and recreational areas with preserved viewsheds began to take shape,” according to the National Park Service.
The genius of Abbot’s design is it follows what naturally occurs in nature—peaks and valleys. One moment I am standing at an overlook (what Abbot called a “viewshed”) exclaiming over North Carolina’s “blue mountain majesties” and next I am hypnotized by the ribbon of road in front of me that dissects the dark forests of the Appalachian mountains.
As we head south in the final third section of the parkway, we passed through some of the most beloved sections. My favorite is Mount Pisgah (MP 408), which sits at 6,200 elevation. Formerly a hunting forest owned by George Washington Vanderbilt (who built the Biltmore Estate), it was purchased by the U.S. government and turned into protected public lands. It constituted America’s first parkland purchase.
We stopped first at Walnut Cove overlook (elevation 2,200) to take our first photographs. It will not be our last. The sky was painted a slate grey, with white billowing clouds. It was a striking contrast to the velvet blue green mountain ridge. It sprawled like a sleepy giant with his face pointed skyward. I switched to the panoramic view on my camera. But there was no way my iPhone could capture this big sky country that unrolled like a bolt of blue silk in front of me (and yes I know that I am stealing the state of Montana’s nickname).
We decided to hike up the rock staircase that leads guests to Mount Pisgah Lodge from the overlook. In a meadow, we saw a sign commemorating that this is the site of the former Buck Spring Lodge (once a mountain retreat for Vanderbilt’s family and friends). It was built in 1896.
Just miles away lies the renown Biltmore Estate, the baronial castle built outside Asheville, North Carolina. (I will write a future article on my visit to the Biltmore—the highlight seeing the “New Forest” created by revered landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.)
The names of the overlooks are poetry in motion—Bad Fork Valley, Buck Springs Gap, Funnel Top and Maggie Valley. And nearing the end of our journey,we passed Big Witch Gap and finally reached the Southern End (MP 469). It was just a mile ahead to the Great Smoky National Park and Cherokee, North Carolina.
“Drivin’ down the road, I get a feelin’That I should’ve been home yesterday, yesterday …”