Manassas Journal Messenger | Blue Ridge: for the mind and body

SLIDESHOW Scenes from the Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway can soothe your soul, and it can kick your behind.

If you’re in riding in a car, the parkway can be an escape route from high-speed traffic and city noise, a fragile ribbon of road along the crest of mountains and through quiet hollows.

If you’re pulling it on a bike, its punishing grades make it a monster. It can chill you with its cold breath or smother you with heat and humidity.

The road, born 70 years ago during the depths of the Great Depression, has matured into the National Park Service’s biggest attraction. Around 20 million people visit each year to drive, ride, hike or just sit and enjoy the views.

Some drive the length of the parkway, which stretches 469.1 miles from Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro, Va., to the Oconaluftee River near Cherokee, N.C. Others sample a short stretch.

The parkway snakes across the crest of mountains four times the age of the Alps. Once, those mountains stood as high as the Himalayas. Time and the forces of nature have worn them down, but the mountain roads still present formidable challenges — both for those on bicycles and those with weak stomachs. People who get carsick should be mindful and bring motion-sickness medicine.

Hank Raines of Greenville, S.C., a bicyclist who set out to ride its length, came to the parkway recently loaded with supplies – a tent, clothes, food, water, a camera, a plastic carrier for his two Jack Russell terriers, and a cell phone.

“The cell phone doesn’t work,” he said. “That’s another challenge.”

At the northern end of the parkway, views of green meadows and blue peaks stretch into the distance. On the roadside, a groundhog stood at attention one recent day. A hawk swooped low over a car. Glossy poison ivy dotted the ground and twined up trees, and foamy blossoms of mountain laurel showed pink.

Though known for its mountain ridges, the road slopes down near the James River, the biggest in Virginia. Thick stands of ferns and meadows alive with butterflies line the road as the parkway drops to its lowest elevation, 649 feet.

No billboards or signs mar the views, and no trucks rumble along the road. The parkway is closed to commercial traffic.

The James flows from the mountains to the coast, passing through Lynchburg and Richmond. Along the river, visitors can see a canal lock and walk the trail of trees. Markers point out such specimens as the Royal Paulownia or princess tree, which came from China and Japan, and the fringe tree, a tree that grows on river bottoms and wears drooping, fringe-like blossoms in spring.

A pedestrian walkway beneath the bridge crosses the river. There, visitors can watch swallows skim the river’s surface, Canadian geese paddle in formation and leaves drift past in the placid water.

As the parkway begins to climb again, signs warn of falling rocks. Fractures in the rock cliffs reveal their vulnerability. It’s easy to drive for long stretches without seeing traffic. Sometimes, the only sound is birds deep in conversation.

Water provides the soundtrack at Fallingwater Cascades Trail, where a 1.6-mile loop takes visitors to a stream that rambles across moss-covered rocks and tumbles down steep grades. The big, flat rocks tempt visitors to sit and dangle their toes in the cool water or jump from rock to rock. But beware – a slip of the foot and the creek can claim you.

Peaks of Otter, where Sharp Top and Flat Top mountains rise above the Mons Valley and a glassy green lake, offers indoor accommodations, which are in short supply on the parkway. Inns have operated here almost continuously since 1834.

Exhibits at the visitors’ center reveal some of the Blue Ridge’s inhabitants, including bobcats, foxes, weasels, red-tailed hawks and great horned owls. The mountains also support 1,400 species of wildflower, 34 kinds of salamanders and nine kinds of bats.

The parkway crosses into North Carolina near Cumberland’s Knob, where construction began.

Farther south at Linville Falls, one of the most spectacular sites on the parkway, a trail edged by enormous hemlocks 300 to 500 years old and mountain laurel two stories high leads to two viewing spots near the falls. The waterfall spills into small pools, disappears behind a wall of rock, emerges into a seething pool and thunders down farther.

Chimney View gives a nearby look at the falls. Erwins View, an uphill walk of another 800 feet, reveals rock walls, the flowing river, mountains in the distance – and the previous viewing spot. A low rock wall gives panting hikers a place to rest.

At milepost 317, just past Linville Falls, visitors must leave the parkway to get around a closed eight-mile section damaged by last fall’s tropical storms. Another damaged section, just past the Museum of North Carolina Minerals, reopened July 1.

The parkway stands tallest and provides some of its most stunning views between Asheville and Cherokee. In late June, flame azaleas still bloomed fiery orange, and rhododendron showed hot pink blossoms. Visitors can see Looking-Glass Rock, with its bare rock faces, and Cold Mountain, elevation 6,030 feet.

At the parkway’s highest point, 6,047 feet, different varieties of trees show dark and bright green on the mountain slopes. Dead trees, tall, spiky toothpicks, stood silver against the green. Fraser firs have been under attack by the balsam wooly adelgid (an aphid-like pest) for more than 30 years, and the forest is dying. Scientists are working to reverse the devastation.

The drive, with frequent stops, can take three full days. The speed limit on the parkway is 45 mph, but many spots are too curvy and must be taken at slower speeds.

If you want to drive the parkway nonstop, it should take about 16 hours.

But why would you?

Janice Gaston is a staff writer for the Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina.

Similar Posts