Carolina: Cruising Past 70: Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway-Part 1

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway-Part 1

The Blue Ridge Parkway is an All-American Road that runs for 469 miles (755 km), mostly along the famous Blue Ridge, part of the Appalachian Mountains. Its southern end is on the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and travels all the way north to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. It is a very scenic drive and, although not a national park, has become the most visited single unit of the National Parks System. This year it celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Driving straight through would take about 10-12 hours. We covered the parkway from our Lenoir, North Carolina campground in six parts in this sequence: 1) Blowing Rock,  2) Grandfather Mountain and Linn Cove Viaduct, 3) Asheville to Linville Falls, 4) Meadows of Dan to Roanoke, 5) Roanoke to Humpback Rocks, and 6) Asheville to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. This post is about the first three. Part 2 will be about the rest.
The town of Blowing Rock is only about thirty minutes away from our campground. The normal population is 1,500 but during the tourist season in summer it balloons to about 10,000.  It takes its name from an unusual rock formation which juts over 1,500 feet (460 m) above the Johns River gorge. Due to the rock's shape and size, wind currents from the gorge often blow vertically, causing light objects to float upwards into the sky. In fact, in winter they say that snow falls upwards in Blowing Rock. 

According to legend, two lovers from the Cherokee and Catawba tribes were on the rocks when the man received a notice to go into battle. When his lover urged him to stay with her, he became so conflicted that he threw himself off the blowing rock. The woman prayed to the Great Spirit to return him.  He complied by sending a gust of wind which blew the man back up the cliff, landing him safely on the rock.

Another popular tourist attraction in Blowing Rock is the Tweetsie Railroad Theme Park, which is home to the only remaining fully-functional steam engine train in North Carolina. Visitors to Tweetsie can ride the train for three miles (5 km) and enjoy the mountain scenery and the other park rides. But the town itself has so many quaint little shops.  I found masterfully crafted paper-like gold earrings for my two teenage granddaughters  on a huge sale!

Grandfather Mountain, on the other hand, has been designated by the United Nations as an International Biosphere Reserve. It has seven environmental habitats for black bears ,river otters , cougars , bald eagles, golden eagles , and white-tailed deer.  The flamboyant Catawba rhododendron is blooming at the lower elevations! The huge purple blossoms will progress toward the high peaks by late June.  And it will be a spectacle!
But it is most famous for The Mile High Swinging Bridge which was built to give visitors easy access to the breath-taking view from Grandfather Mountain's Linville Peak. The 228-foot suspension bridge spans an 80-foot chasm at more than one mile in elevation. But it was so cold and windy I could not cross the bridge.  Sigh.  Another opportunity lost. On the way down, we met this old man with a banjo that was made in 1912, bearing the famous Earl Scrugg’s signature, selling jams and apple butter on the side of the road. 

Further down the Parkway at MP 304 is the Linn Cove Visitors’ Center where we found our shining blue stainless steel water bottle bearing the words, ‘I support the American National Parks System.’  You can view the Linn Cove Viaduct from the center.  The viaduct is a 1243-foot concrete segmental bridge which snakes around the slopes of Grandfather Mountain. It was completed in 1983 at a cost of $10 million and was the last section of the Parkway to be finished.
The next leg of our drive through the Parkway was from Asheville.  We trekked up the Parkway through the Folk Arts Center, a nice edifice exhibiting quality products from North Carolina’s most prized craftsmen. There, we met Lee Entrekin with his Dreamwind Flutes and Andrea Williams with her handwoven scarves, stoles, and purses. It was a very impressive collection of crafts, very expensive, however. And you know how frugal I am!
Next on the Parkway at MP 364 was Craggy Gardens. It would have been spectacular had the rhodies been in full bloom but they were just starting.  Blue Ridge Parkway is literally lined with walls of the plants that are as big as trees.  Thus the best time to visit is late June to early August to see pinkish purple everywhere or fall for the other deciduous trees’ yellows, reds, and golds.
Then Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak on the East Coast at 6,700 feet is at MP 355.  Climbing up the observation tower my heart pounded so much and I realized I was already out of breath.  This gave me a scare and I will write about ‘Keeping Fit while Cruising’ in my next thought piece. But I got a good treat after… wonderfully hot chili and dogs at the restaurant at the top!
Then we let Crabtree Meadows, Little Switzerland and the North Carolina Mining Museum whiz by because it was already getting late and it will take us more than an hour before we can get to our campground after the last stop at Linville Falls at MP 334. These waters cascade down from the Linville Peak of Grandfather Mountain, all of 2,000 feet.  After a brisk hike on the trail to the falls, we got back to Lenoir at about 8:15 PM, just in time for the library’s close to take out our movie for the night.

This covers the section of the Parkway with the highest concentration of attractions, from Asheville to Blowing Rock, North Carolina. There must have been nearly ten tunnels that dotted this portion.

Our next stops will be the mile 0, the southern end, and the Virginia section. The Blue Ridge Parkway is truly a great road to drive!