Road Trip: The Blue Ridge Parkway
You won’t find pre-fab America here. In its place, you’ll see natural beauty, bona fida Americana and simple, homespun tourist spots the kind your grandparents enjoyed.
By Jessica Blair Howell
The smoky waft of campfire plumes.
A vast expanse of velvety sky, punctuated with stars never seen in suburbia.
Piercing silence that’s as inspiring as it is humbling.
Growing up, these were the things set in memory for me in northern Michigan, where our family’s cottage served as a year-round escape from the congested highways of metro Detroit. And now, as an adult, these are the things that feed my soul.
I started to notice it after college, when six friends and I giddily squeezed into a Toyota RAV 4 for a post-grad road trip.. Antsy for adventure, we headed south toward Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, an Emerald City that promised open spaces and affordability. Our yellow, brick road turned out to be the Blue Ridge Parkway – the 469-mile winding thread of asphalt that begins, or ends, depending on how you look at it— at Shenandoah, stretching along the backbone of the Appalachian Mountains toward the Great Smokies in North Carolina.
Rugged, sometimes remote, and rampant with wildlife, this scenic stretch reaches skyward above 6,000 feet, offering up small towns, mountain resorts and plenty of roadside overlooks to put it in park. This is back country at its finest. So fuel up, follow the signs, and enjoy the gorgeous view.
WHERE BACKCOUNTRY BEGINS
With over 500 miles of hiking trails, Shenandoah is the stuff of REI cardholder dreams, and the perfect place to begin your trip. The national park, established in 1935, is a Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Offering easy access to the Shenandoah River, Valley and the Luray Caverns (more on that later), the park’s Skyland Resort makes an ideal home base.
Rent one of the lodge’s rustic cabins (rates begin at $109). You won’t find a phone or TV, but a stone fireplace is a romantic compensation. And lighting the fire, my friends, is all part of the experience. (So, don’t forget to pack some matches.) The resort’s Pollock Dining Room is also worth your time, and features a decadent menu—love the Pan Roasted Salmon and Steak Diane—that nearly feels out of place against the no-frills landscape.
DITCH THE WHEELS
In this area, you’ll score the most dramatic views by hiking on foot to Stony Man Summit, a 4,010-foot peak, once an ancient lava flow that’s since morphed into sleek greenstone, positioning you precariously above miles of rolling green earth. Or, on lengthier but more strenuous climbs like White Oak Canyon, you’ll traverse wooden bridges and steep, slippery rocks for uninterrupted views of one of the canyon’s six waterfalls.
Skyline Drive, the road that meanders through Shenandoah, is as equally intoxicating as Blue Ridge and every bit as fun. Alongside the roadway, I’ve spied two black bear cubs with their mama, gently poking at one another while soaking up the sun. (A mere 20 feet away! Mental note: whistle while you hike as bears are likely to scurry at the sound.)
Nine miles from Skyline Drive,you’ll find a classic, kitschy tourists stop. Luray Caverns is a beguiling byproduct of Mother Nature. Discovered in 1878, the caverns are home to millions of dripping stalactites and towering stalagmites that in some places, eerily fuse together underneath the crust of Shenandoah. During the one-mile underground tour, you’ll spy fiery splashes of coppery red, rust and high-shine white formations, about seven million years old, and in some spaces, ten stories high. No matter your age, this 70-step descent into Dante’s inferno is as wickedly perplexing as it is awe-inducing.
AN URBAN PIT STOP
While Virginia plays host to a good chunk the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina accounts for more than 250 miles of the sinewy stretch, including popular Doughton Park and Julian Price Memorial Park, 42,000 acres of developed space at the foot of Grandfather Mountain.
Near one of my favorite cities, Asheville, N.C., travelers find a respite from the rugged terrain. A few yards from mile post 393, Bent Creek Lodge, a bed-and-breakfast-style inn is a rustic log home (rooms start at $100). A short drive downtown, and you’ll find a vibrant and eclectic community where urban trails are less hike and more bike. If you’re feeling ragged from the rugged, this is just the fix before heading on toward the route’s close.
THE END OF THE ROAD
By staying on the Parkway, you’ll gain access to the most visited National Park in the U.S., the Great Smoky Mountains, without encountering the heavy traffic often associated with the park, which has no entrance fee. Here, map out your own auto tour, hitting regional highlights like Newfound Gap—the lowest drivable pass through the park—and Cades Cove, a valley prime for spotting white-tailed deer, bear, coyotes and turkeys.
From one gorgeous spot to the next, the Parkway is a true gem in the American highway system. Requiring a bit slower pace than the expressways we’re accustomed to, it serves as a wecome “pause” button in today’s society, where far too often we forget to stop and enjoy something as simple as a pine tree..
• Plan travel for spring, when mountain flowers bloom with fervor and high-altitude forests trap cool air, if you plan to do plenty of hiking. For those who’d rather soak up scenery from behind a windshield, fall offers the unmatched splendor of at-peak foliage.
• Open 365 days a year, the Blue Ridge Parkway can sometimes close due to inclement weather. (The roads are not plowed or salted in the winter.) When planning your trip, check on current road conditions by calling the 24-hour information line at 828.298.0398.
• For a list of gas stations and corresponding mile posts, click here.
• Visitor centers in both national parks sell a number of hiking guides outlining clusters of trails for a couple of dollars a pop. Invest in a few of these paperback leaflets. They contain valuable information you can’t find easily elsewhere and are well worth the money.