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The Blue Ridge Parkway
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There’s little doubt that the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) is the most popular and famous scenic drive in the country. Its purpose is not to go anywhere, but just meander along the ridges, hills, and valleys of the eponymous mountains along which it travels. Covering 469 miles between North Carolina and Virginia the Parkway was built mostly for that purpose – as an exhibition to nature and of course to lure the motorist to these heights and explore the history, culture, geology, flora, and fauna of the mountains that front the rolling piedmont to the east. There is no fee to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway, when viewed from a map, is a long string with nodes, like an unstrung necklace with beads. Those ‘nodes’ are actually little parks that are part of the Parkway and preserve and interpret historical or natural areas, such as Doughton Park in North Carolina, or Peaks of Otter in Virginia. The Parkway is open year round but heavy snows at higher elevations area not uncommon and can bring temporary closures. There’s no fee to drive the Parkway and traffic can be a problem during holiday weekends.
Similar to many other parks of the National Park Service, the Blue Ridge Parkway was built at the height of the Depression. Construction for the “Appalachian Scenic Highway”, as it was called, started in 1935. The Parkway was finally completed in 1987 when the Linn Cove Viaduct was finished in North Carolina where the road takes a spectacular airy swerve around Grandfather Mountain (5964’) with a minimally invasive approach. The Linn Cove Viaduct is both an architectural marvel as well as an aesthetic wonder.
The beginning of Parkway starts at mile 0 at the northern end of the road at Rockfish Gap (elev. 1900’) near Waynesboro, Virginia. Driving southbound the first highlight you’ll reach is the Humpback Rocks (mile 5.8), which has a visitor and interpretive center. This outcropping of greenstone is one of a few you’ll encounter along the Parkway in Virginia and is part of the crystalline Appalachians, an area of older, harder, more weather resistant rock. Old pioneer homesteads are also on display here. Leaving this area the Parkway climbs up to 3334’ at Mile 23. In this area are good views of some of the tallest peaks along the Parkway in Virginia. The Priest (4063’), The Friar (3304’), and Three Ridges (3970’) can be easily spotted at the Twenty Minute Cliff Overlook at Mile 19. After passing Whetstone Ridge the Parkway drops down to its lowest point at the James River (649’) at about Mile 63. From this point put your car in first gear as the road climbs more than three thousand vertical feet over the next ten miles reaching its highest elevation in Virginia (3950’) just before the Mile 75 marker. This location is just under Apple Orchard Mountain (4225’) the highest summit of the Blue Ridge in Virginia. The summit of this mountain is home to a FAA radar. There is trail access to the summit via the Appalacian Trail, but the access road is off-limits, so it requires a hike. Shortly after passing the Fallingwater Cascades at Mile 82, the Parkway arrives at the Peaks of Otter, two pyramidal peaks (Sharp Top, 3862’ and Flat Top, 3994’) which stand isolated from the main ridge. Their conical symmetry has drawn visitors for centuries and by 1830 an inn was built, followed by a resort hotel in 1860. The Peaks of Otter are Precambrian granite and the last exclamatory geographical marker along the Parkway until you reach the North Carolina line – another 130 miles away. While the Parkway is scenic until then, most views of the mountains are distant. After passing through Rocky Knob the Parkway approaches North Carolina within 45 miles. Rocky Knob is one of these parks within the Parkway system and has good views of Rock Castle Gorge. Once in North Carolina the Parkway starts to gain elevation steadily as it winds to the southwest. Just before Doughton Park, the Parkway reaches 3729’ at Air Bellows Gap, just before Mile 240. Doughton Park is interesting for those who appreciate history and folk culture. Early mountain cabins are on display and it is famous for its quilt-making culture. After Doughton Park the Parkway maintains its elevation steadily above the 3000’ contour with good views of Mount Jefferson (4683’) to the west between Miles 255 and 260. Passing through another one of the Parkway’s parks, E.B.JeffressPark, the Parkway approaches the town of Blowing Rock after Mile 290. Here you’ll also come to the Moses H.Cone Memorial Park and VisitorCenter and the Julian Price Memorial Park, just before GrandfatherMountain (5964’). GrandfatherMountain is one of the highlights of the Parkway especially, as the Linn Cove Viaduct wraps itself around the mountain without seemingly touching the ground. It’s really an architectural marvel and the last portion of the Parkway to be completed. It complements the fragile mountain environment as well. The Parkway climbs to just under 4000’ at Mile 307 before dropping down to Linville Falls (Mile 316) another park within the Parkway. You can glimpse the falls from the overlook but the best views are from hiking trails that lead down into the gorge. Virgin stands of white pine and hemlock are also something worth noting at Linville Gorge, which is a wilderness area administered by the U.S. Forest Service. At Mile 320 the Parkway travels up to 4090’. Called ‘Chestos View’ this is the highest point thus far and the first point above 4000’ if you are traveling southbound. The Parkway will twist and turn and plummet down to 2780’ (Mile 326) and then rise again over the next thirty miles. After crossing Gooch Gap (3360’) the Parkway will come to Crabtree Meadows at Mile 340. This park has a beautiful waterfall, Crabtree Falls, which is short distance from the roadside. After passing Crabtree Meadows the Parkway climbs well past the 4000’ mark. The flora becomes similar to northern latitudes with more spruce and fir trees as it approaches the Black Mountains. Mile 355 has good views of Mount Mitchell (6684’) the highest point on the eastern seaboard. At Black Mountain Gap (5160’) a spur road NC 128 goes to Mount MitchellState Park and this road travels to right beneath the highest point east of the Mississippi River. This is worth a side trip and the scenery is similar to what you see in the Colorado Rockies. Shortly after leaving the NC 128 spur, at Mile 359, the Parkway reaches its highest point north of Asheville at 5677’ just before Craggy Gardens. The Craggy Gardens, which has a visitor center, takes its name from the Catawba rhododendron which blankets the area. The Parkway passes under the wooded summit of Craggy Dome (6105’) before dropping down to Asheville at Mile 385, which supports the Parkway’s headquarters. After passing the Biltmore estate only a mile to the west at Mile 389, the Parkway travels towards Mount Pisgah (5749’) at Mile 408. This mountain is famous for its concentrations of black bears and the pyramidal peak that towers over the surroundings. At Mile 416 the views of huge granite domes, such as Looking Glass Rock become visible. Sheer cliffs, devoid of vegetation, give these mountains their names and this part of North Carolina is famous for its granite mountains. The Parkway then travels to its loftiest heights passing by Richland Balsam (6410’) at an elevation of 6053’ at Mile 431. This is the Canadian forest zone and the abundance of balsam fir makes it clear. From here until the final mile the Parkway is characterized by jaw-dropping curves, deep valleys, and beautiful vistas. Within 15 miles the parkway will lose almost 3000’ feet by the time it reaches Balsam Gap (3370’). Then it gains back another 2500’ in less than five miles before it reaches Waterrock Knob pullout (5718’). Its more hair-raising turns from here although there is nothing lost from the views. Finally at Oconaluftee Visitor Center the Parkway meets its end at Mile 469.1. The end (or beginning) is hardly anti-climactic as it brings you to the front gates of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
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