the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.
RIDGE PARKWAY — Here’s how not to start a road trip.
at the Alamo rental car counter at Ronald Reagan
Washington National Airport just over the line from
Washington, D.C., discover that your driver’s license is
missing. Search and swear for two hours. Then find it in
your left shoe.
when the Holiday Inn clerk asks what brings you to town,
tell him you’re kicking off a big fall foliage road
trip: all 105 miles of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah
National Park in Virginia, then all 469 miles of the Blue
Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina.
and 70,000 other cars," the clerk will say. "It’s
get lost in Dismal Hollow.
how my Blue Ridge adventure began last October. Without
giving away too much, I can tell you I did escape Dismal
Hollow (outside Front Royal, Va.), and I didn’t have
as a Californian, I must admit that Appalachian fall
foliage is to California fall foliage as a full orchestra
is to two oboes, a bassoon and some guy banging on a rusty
five days I could almost hear the swelling violins as I
zoomed under leafy canopies of red, orange and gold; hiked
along creeks, lakes and ridge lines; listened to plenty of
bluegrass and blues; and gave thanks to the National Park
Service for bringing together so much beauty and so much
don’t consider road-building a prime task of the park
service these days. But the NPS, born just eight years
after the Model T, spent its first decades building some
of the most gorgeous drives in North America.
NPS parkways that carry the "national"
designation: George Washington Memorial Parkway (District
of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia); Natchez Trace
(Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee); and John D.
Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway (Wyoming).
Blue Ridge Parkway, authorized in 1936, has been all about
the automobile from Day One.
parkway and Shenandoah National Park were Depression
projects intended to create jobs in a desperately poor
region. For the parkway, the idea was to sculpt an epic
country road, a black ribbon that would unfurl seamlessly
amid the knobs, hollows, notches and gaps of Virginia and
work took decades, but now the road’s shoulders are
graced with overlooks, its straightaways unsullied by
billboards, commercial trucks or service stations. (There
are also plenty of hiking trails along the route,
including the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail.)
get gas or find most hotels, you exit the parkway and
re-enter the real world. The parkway speed limit is 45
mph, which means that when red leaves drift in the breeze
or a deer pauses in a meadow, you’re moving slowly
enough to notice.
most of the last 50 years, including 2015, the parkway has
been the most-visited unit in the park system. Last year
its rangers counted 15 million visitors, who spent an
estimated $950 million.
tourist tides seem to include more bicyclists every year,
which is tricky on its narrow roads. October is as busy as
the summer months, in some places busier.
if you visit from California and you’re lucky enough to
be driving on weekdays, not weekends, the parkway is nice
Drive was my prelude. Light traffic. A bounding stag at
Hog Wallow Flats. A treed bear at Bootens Gap. At Lewis
Mountain, I checked out cabins that until about 1950 were
set aside for "colored" visitors.
p.m., I reached Rockfish Gap, Va., where Skyline Drive
ends and the Blue Ridge Parkway begins.
parkway rises, falls, bends and straightens, following the
crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains with no commercial
buildings or truck traffic, cushioned by a buffer zone of
landscaping that alternates between narrow and wide,
semi-wild and manicured.
W. Abbott, the Blue Ridge Parkway’s first landscape
architect and first superintendent, was in his 20s when he
laid down the route details and guiding principles. He was
looking for variety, he said, and "evidences of a
simple homestead culture and a people whose way of life
grew out of the land around them."
scenes I glided through were not quite natural; they were
more orderly than that. But they were unfailingly pretty.
And the weekday traffic was light. (The Virginia part of
the parkway has about half the traffic of the North
Milepost 86, soon after dark, I pulled off the parkway and
checked in at the Peaks of Otter Lodge, at the edge of
manmade Abbott Lake.
1964 hotel, full of modernist touches, is where you might
film the very special "Waltons" episode in which
the "Mad Men" guys show up. (It’s also the
only lodging on the parkway that’s owned by the NPS and
managed by concessionaire Delaware North.)
of Don Draper and company, I encountered guitarist David
"Alabama" Frank and fiddler Nancy Reid, who
filled the Lake View Dining Room with rustic ballads and
next morning was even better. In the chilly early hours, I
prowled the edge of Abbott Lake with my camera, hunting
vivid leaves and reflections in the still water.
are more than 100 species of trees along the parkway.
Beech, birch, chestnut, dogwood, elm, fir, hickory, maple,
oak, sassafras, walnut, and on and on.
Tuggle Gap, about Milepost 165, I made a little detour —
six miles west — because I had a hunch about the town of
Floyd, Va. (population 425). Or, as one local sign would
have it, the Republic of Floyd.
was a good move.
is tiny but artsy and lively, with coffeehouses, art
galleries, a farmers market and especially the Floyd
Country Store (wood floor, tin ceiling), which offers home
goods, sandwiches, books, music lessons, a
pulse-quickening inventory of Appalachian CDs ("Flatt
& Scruggs at Carnegie Hall") and live acts on
weekends. The store’s Friday Night Jamboree, a four-hour
acoustic music session, costs just $5.
music "is probably what saved the town and kept it
alive through the hard times," Avis McCutchan, owner
of Notebooks, just downstairs from the Black Water Loft
coffeehouse, told me.
that’s just one measure of the music’s power. After a
quick stop at Mabry Mill, whose working waterwheel at
Milepost 176 might be the most photographed spot on the
parkway, I reached the Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax,
Va. There, at Milepost 213, I was just in time to catch
Bill and Maggie Anderson singing and picking
"Wildwood Flower" on Dobro and guitar.
the building next door, an NPS interpretive team had laid
out a series of exhibits to tell the story of Appalachia’s
musical heritage, including the long-ago arrival of
English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh and African influences
(the banjo, for example, was an African contribution) and
Bill Monroe’s creation of the bluegrass genre in the
Janet Bachmann told me how a music lover named Joe Wilson
(who died in 2015) crusaded for creation of the Music
Center and promoted the Crooked Road, a trail of
traditional music venues in Virginia that includes Floyd
can find a jam session "every night of the week"
within 20 miles, Bachmann told me.
Galax it’s about two hours to Blowing Rock, N.C., a
sophisticated tourist town at Milepost 292 that’s built
around a jutting rock atop a cliff where the wind blows
hard and often. Just so you know, people who live in
Blowing Rock are known as Blowing Rockers.
Rock is where I spent my second night on the parkway. And
it’s where, standing in the motel lobby, I had no choice
but to hear my host berating his mother over the miserable
behavior of her grandchildren (his kids).
expletives flew. First chance I got, so did I.
Milepost 294, I browsed the Moses Cone Manor House, a.k.a.
Parkway Craft Center, a 1901 textile baron’s
13,000-square-foot mansion now run as a regional art and
craft gallery. It’s surrounded by 3,600 acres of
parkland, but the parking lot is gridlocked on some
Milepost 304.4, I scrambled up a boulder to better
appreciate the last piece of the Blue Ridge Parkway
puzzle: the elegantly curving Linn Cove Viaduct, which was
completed in 1987.
Milepost 316, I hiked into a deep, rocky gorge and got my
feet wet at Linville Falls.
I was heading into the busiest stretch of the parkway, the
area around Asheville, N.C., where rangers counted 42,520
vehicles passing through in October, the month of my visit
— almost three times the traffic tallied at the Peaks of
was easy to see why. I happened to hit this stretch within
a few days of peak color. In the hour before sunset, about
Milepost 360, the scene turned surreal as the road carried
me through tree tunnels of flowing orange and flaming red,
then luminous yellow-green.
Milepost 382 (about five miles outside Asheville) is the
Southern Highland Folk Art Center, with more quality and
less quantity than the craft center at Milepost 294, I
Milepost 384, there’s a big Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor
Center, where volunteers gave me good itinerary advice.
Asheville itself, you may be overwhelmed with urban
options, beginning with its prosperous downtown and
burgeoning restaurant scene.
had dinner at the Smoky Park Supper Club, a strikingly
modern structure built from 19 shipping containers in a
formerly grim, industrial part of the city at the edge of
the river. While I sat there, two of the restaurant’s
first kayak customers paddled up.
city’s biggest tourist ticket is the Biltmore Estate,
which you can tour for $55-$75 per adult, depending on how
far ahead you book and the day of the week.
spent the night at the Asheville Holiday Inn and was at
the Biltmore Estate when it opened at 8:30 the next
morning. (It was 43 degrees, but who’s counting?) Even
before you get to the chateau-style mansion’s 250 rooms,
the 8,000 acres of grounds may amaze you.
was gorgeous, all right. And it was good to be reminded
that Frederick Law Olmsted was at the apex of his career
when he designed these grounds in the late 19th century,
having shaped the landscapes of Central Park and Stanford
University. All the more reason to appreciate Stanley
miles to go
you’re done with the Biltmore Estate, you’re just 87
miles from the end of the road.
here’s how not to end a road trip:
the last day, after covering 87 miles of parkway, push
yourself to cover 170 more miles to the Atlanta airport.
With a final sprint into the teeth of that city’s rush
hour, you might make your 6:35 p.m. flight. Or not. For
hours, the resolution was in doubt. Around noon I passed
Mount. Pisgah. About 1 p.m., I crossed the Oconaluftee
River, which signals the end of the parkway and the
beginning of Cherokee, N.C.
the roadside was alive with commerce — a mini-golf
course, factory outlets, boiled-peanuts-for-sale signs.
Then came four hours of untamed southwestern North
Carolina and northern Georgia, including a wrong turn or
two. I made the airport with 15 minutes to spare.
that white-knuckle day I realized several things:
you want time to relax and improvise, a Blue Ridge drive
needs at least seven days, not the four I gave it.
greatest roadside peril may be in the parkway’s
overlooks and turnouts, where drivers do a lot of
improvising in close quarters. Navigate those ins and outs
with great care.
have had fewer headaches if I had reversed my itinerary
and done most of the driving in the morning. Driving from
northeast to southwest in late afternoon, I found myself
squinting through overmatched sunglasses into the low,
to late October is prime time for Appalachian foliage. But
there’s no point obsessing over when leaf-peeping will
peak. The weather will vary. Different species of trees
will turn at different times. And trees will turn first at
highest altitudes (such as Mount Pisgah, N.C., 6,047 feet
above sea level).
a few billion leaves, they do begin to look alike. But don’t
worry. Other things will stay with you. My stop at
Milepost 323, for instance.
Bear Den Overlook, where I ran into Dan Vance, age 83,
wearing a white hat and a big grin. He stood by a low
wall, looking out over the valley. He lived a few miles
away, he said, and was on the way home with a tub of
Kentucky Fried Chicken in the car.
get no prettier than this," he said. "See the
white building right-cheer. They dance on weekends. And
told him I liked the sound of that, but it was time for me
your time," he told me. "Don’t be in no
to get there: Airports in Richmond, Charlottesville and
Roanoke, all in Virginia, are within 100 miles of the
parkway’s northeastern part. If you’d rather aim for
the southwestern portion of the parkway, North Carolina’s
Greensboro, Charlotte and Asheville airports are similarly
close. To make your road trip longer and more scenic, fly
into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in
Arlington, Va., 70 miles east of Front Royal, Va. Once at
Front Royal, drive the 105-mile Skyline Drive through
Shenandoah National Park, then drive the 469-mile Blue
Ridge Parkway. Driving the parkway is free no matter where
If you can get into a vehicle and look out the window, the
parkway will work for you.
to visit: You’ll probably need a rental car. I picked up
an Alamo car at Reagan airport, dropped it off five days
(and about 800 miles) later at the Atlanta airport and
paid about $520, with no drop-off fee.
Peaks of Otter Lodge, 85554 Blue Ridge Parkway, Bedford,
Va.; (866) 387-9905, www.peaksofotter.com. Rooms for two
as low as $119 a night in summer, $159 in October.
Weekends book up fast.
Smoky Park Supper Club, 350 Riverside Drive, Asheville,
N.C.; (828) 350-0315, www.smokypark.com. A hip restaurant
made out of shipping containers. Main dishes $15-$28.
Biltmore Estate, Asheville, N.C.; (800) 411-3812,
www.biltmore.com. Adult admission $55-$75, depending on
day and season, advance purchase.
info: Blue Ridge Parkway, www.nps.gov/blri/index.htm
Blue Ridge Parkway foliage and flower report: (828)
298-0398, option 3.
Ridge Parkway Association, www.blueridgeparkway.org