Exploring The Blue Ridge Parkway

In this era of skyrocketing gas prices, road trips may have lost some of their appeal, but I could not resist taking a spin on one of America’s most revered scenic highways this summer: The Blue Ridge Parkway.

Facts & Figures
The Blue Ridge Parkway, originally known as the Appalachian Scenic Highway, began as a WPA and CCC project during the 1930s.

Entrance marker to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Today, it stretches nearly 500 miles, from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. The route includes two states and 29 counties. Some 350 miles of the total route follow the Blue Ridge section of the Appalachian Mountains, winding and curving through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Southeast. No fee is charged to travel on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Driving Experience
The route is neither primitive or dangerous, but the winding nature of the roadway and the changes in elevation demand caution. At its lowest point, the route dips to about 600 feet above sea level (at James River, Va.); its highest point is about 6,000 feet (near Mt. Pisgah, N.C.). This leads to wide changes in temperatures and scenery along the route. On the plus side, you can see many microclimates in a single day’s drive; on the minus side, you might encounter wildly varying weather including icy conditions on one section and strong winds on another.

The parkway speed limit is 45 mph or less throughout, and there are many tunnels.

Classic, layered, "blue" landscape.

Some sections of the parkway are true "ridgeline" driving — great, sweeping vistas drop away on either side of the road. Take advantage of opportunities to pull off, take photos, picnic, and just drink in the view. It’s legal and acceptable to pull over anywhere that you can safely get your vehicle entirely off the roadway. Layers of atmosphere and ridge after ridge of tree-covered mountains create a blue-green palette of receding hills.

Blue Ridge In Bloom
From the wild iris of spring to the asters and multi-hued foliage of fall, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a visual feast for plant, tree, and flower lovers. I was fortunate to catch an outstanding early-summer flush of mountain laurel, rhododendron, and azalea, but there is something in bloom from February through October. I suspect the earlier-spring dogwood and tulip poplar season is fabulous, and the blazing foliage from the many varieties of deciduous trees along the route would make stunning viewing in the fall.

Mountain laurel in bloom.

The Blue Ridge Parkway Association posts a "Bloom Schedule" on their website at http://www.blueridgeparkway.org/bloom.htm. Different things happen at different elevations, of course, but this compendium provides some timing and location information that can help you plan your trip.

Hiking Opportunities
For me, no road trip is complete without a few leg-stretching hikes. Both the Virginia and the North Carolina segments of the parkway afford many and varied opportunities to hike. Dozens of trails are nothing more than quick viewpoints or stretch breaks of less than a mile. Many more are in the 2- to 4-mile range — perfect for a trek to a picnic spot off the beaten path. And for those fortunate to be spending a few days along the Parkway, there are all-day adventures such as the 13.5-mile Tanawha Trail or 17-mile Shut-In Trail in North Carolina, or the strenuous Rock Castle Gorge trail in Virginia. Sections of the renowned Appalachian Trail can also be accessed from the Parkway in Virginia.

Trailheads beckon.

Other outdoor recreation is available along the Parkway as well. If you like freshwater fishing, don’t forget to pack your gear. With the appropriate Virginia or North Carolina fishing license, fishing is allowed in Parkway lakes and streams.

For more information on the Blue Ridge Parkway, point your Internet browser to http://www.blueridgeparkway.org/ or the National Park Service’s website at http://www.nps.gov/blri/.

Sally O’Neal is a freelance travel/outdoor writer and a native of the Pacific Northwest. She writes weekly for Sportsmansguide.com.

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