Sometimes there are places that just don’t grow old for us. To the outsider, it might appear that we’re in a rut, stuck in the same routine. I see it as more like a rejuvenation, a restoration of our spirit. Call it what you will, the Fall Season was upon us and here we were, for maybe the sixth or seventh time, back on the Blue Ridge Parkway, to make the most of this special time of the year. And that would be mid-October—when the days are crisp, the nights downright chilly, and the foliage aflame in brilliant colors. It is the Parkway’s showiest time of the year—IMHO.
We were doing things a little different this time around—a slight change of locations along the parkway. After hooking up with Airstream friends, Randy and Teresa Cook, we found ourselves near the college town of Boone, NC, a couple hours’ drive north of our usual North Carolina haunts. After our paths diverged from them, we were hoping to snag one of the unreserveable sites in the parkway’s largest campground. At this most popular time of the year, that might be expecting too much. We did have a fall-back plan, but we REALLY were hoping to kick back and hang out for a few days here, camping along the parkway.
Blessed with unseasonably warm days, bright bluebird skies and soft, gentle breezes, we were experiencing fall days at their best.
The locals were calling it a disappointing fall. Colors too faded, foliage too bare. Just before the leaves were to begin turning, the winds of two Florida hurricanes had blown through, taking down a considerable quantity of branches, stripping too many leaves from the trees, we were told. For a time, it necessitated closing segments of the parkway; the clean-up was such a big deal.
Yet, even under unusually dry conditions and that windy impact, I’ll readily stack the fall colors of this parkway up against any other area of our country notable for autumn color. Even under these less-than-desirable circumstances, the Blue Ridge Parkway in October can easily hold its own premier place. Just check out these photos to come—they will exhibit the unvarnished truth.
Julian Price Campground has more available campsites than any of the Parkway’s other seven campgrounds. Yet, just like the others, despite having nearly 300 sites, the campground was laid out decades ago when tent camping was the custom, and RVs weren’t nearly the size they are today. Having 78 designated RV sites, many of them are merely pull-offs along the camp road; back-ins aren’t generally deep and pull-throughs don’t exist. Nevertheless, most of the back-ins are double-wide and allow for a tow vehicle to park next to your trailer. In situations like this, Airstreams and other mid-size trailers have a huge edge. There were several sites that were adequate for us, and if push came to shove, without any slide-outs, we could have just as well taken one of the roadside sites.
But, we lucked out with a nice, totally acceptable non-reserveable site. Situated in a deep forest of hardwoods, the sunlight through fall foliage was like light through stained glass, while encircled with rhododendrons gave us a private, tucked-away and nestled-in-the-forest feel.
Just hanging out at our campsite might be the best part of this autumn interlude.
You could say that we were camped right in the thick of things. Location . . . location . . . location. With the quaint town of Blowing Rock a couple miles away and the college town of Boone only 20 or so miles, there’s plenty of sightseeing possibilities. Julian Price, with its 4,200 acres of rolling mountain land smack along the Parkway, is a destination in itself. With several trailheads to choose from, and many more just a handful of miles away, outdoor lovers won’t need to move far afield. Everything one could enjoy doing on beautiful fall days is right here literally at your doorstep.
The Green Knob Trail was our first hike. What it lacked in length it more than made up for in its elevation changes. Just down the road from our campground, we hiked through a diversity of environments, from old growth timber to open pastures. Our reward was standing on the top of Green Knob, giving distant views of Price Lake far below.
Moses Cone Memorial Park is another popular visitor attraction of the Parkway, and it too was just a couple miles away. If the high quality Craft Center located there isn’t enough of a draw for you (Chris was captivated by the featured craftsman, a woodcarver with his fine handiwork on display), then you’ll surely find some interest in the history of the place.
Moses Cone was a self-made man, making a fortune with his textile mills that produced high quality denim fabric. Fond of nature and plagued by poor health, he was drawn to the mountainous region around Blowing Rock. Buying up 3,500 acres, he subsequently designed and built Flat Top Manor, a gleaming white 20-room, 13,000 square foot mansion in the grand Colonial Revival style. Today, the first floor houses the Craft Center, while the second floor is open for touring on weekends. You will find it to be a very popular stop on the Parkway.
But that’s not all of the story! The Cones were “naturalists” before the term became popular, working to preserve and enrich their land. They planted acres of white pines and hemlocks and transported sugar maples directly from New England. He built several lakes, stocking them with bass and trout and planted 32,000 apple trees which produced prize-winning apples.
To help him appreciate the fruits of his labors and planning, Moses had 25 miles of carriage roads laid out through his property. Open for hiking and horseback riding, perhaps this is the feature that visitors find most appealing. Winding through pastoral settings, many of the pathways are lined with stonewalls or bushes of mountain laurel and rhododendrons. Spring and early summer here must be a glorious sight to see.
Although we have yet to travel all 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway, I’d say we have a more than average familiarity with the stretch from Asheville to its terminus at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Just a few months ago we spent some perfectly stunning days camped near Mt. Pisgah, catching the early summer bloom.
Two years ago I wrote an extensive post about our fall experience on the southern sections of the parkway where I provided more written information about the parkway than you really needed to know. When caught up in a captivating experience, I sometimes get overly zealous in my writings and pictorial essays.
It has been seven years since we ventured this far north along the parkway. Back then, we spent more than a few days along this stretch, covering more ground and taking in more sights than we would have time for on this occasion. Back then, I wasn’t posting these travel blogs, not even recording our experiences in writing. Only my photos taken at that time illustrate what we saw and did. But from those pictures I have come to see that we once again walked trails taken those years ago. A good trail, we came to discover, can be taken more than once or twice. And Rough Ridge Trail is more than a good trail . . . it is one of the parkway’s most outstanding.
When you first see the stepping stone rocks leading steeply up the mountainside at the trailhead you might be somewhat intimidated. If you’re not a veteran hiker, you might even have some doubts. But don’t be dissuaded—take your time and you’ll be fine. Trust me, in a short while the views open up and the boardwalk begins and there’s even benches to rest on. The panoramic scenery makes you forget all the effort expended. In any season, under any conditions, the views are amazing. And at this time of the year . . . it’ll take your breath away–if the hike hasn’t done that already.
Today, with the scenery unchanged, you see the famous Linn Cove Viaduct stretching around the flanks of Grandfather Mountain.
The only downside to this spectacular trail might be the Congo line of hikers. Yes, during leaf season you’re bound to share it with others. But take it from me, it’s worth it.
Another trail you shouldn’t miss is Beacon Heights, only a few more miles south of Rough Ridge. Another popular trail during the day, this is a sunrise or sunset destination, in my book. Sure, you’ll still find some intrepid souls up there late or early in the day . . . but no Congo line of hikers to contend with. As far as this segment of the Parkway goes, Beacon Heights is not to be missed.
Another uphill climb over rocks and roots leads to two large rocky shelves—one facing to the west, the other to the east—from which to look out over a pristine setting of the remnants of these ancient mountains. It’s a thought-provoking place you’ll feel privileged to have found.
I knew I had found my sunrise place. And so, early next morning saw me bundled up in layers, flashlight in hand and headlight illuminated, trudging back up that bouldered trail. My efforts were not in vain.
And the afterglow wasn’t too shabby either. Sunrises on mountaintops can be a wondrous experience.
During the leaf season, the Parkway oftentimes is nearly bumper-to-bumper traffic. But shortly after sunrise, you’ll feel you own the road. So it was as I was heading back, passing by the Rough Ridge pull-off. What??? No cars parked here??? Incredible! And definitely not to be ignored. What credible photographer could pass up this photo op? Certainly not me. With gear in hand, I made my second up mountain slog of the day.
Yes, I had the perfect spot all to myself. A panoramic shot was in order first.
Grandfather Mountain, an icon of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the focal point of this part of the Parkway, stands out prominently in my photo.
Composing a second shot, I was dismayed to see a young couple walk straight into my scene. On second thought, I saw a kismet moment as they added life and direction to my picture. And so, I took the shot.
Their names were Thomas and Ashley. He had his GoPro filming the moment, and as he came to retrieve it, I was able to offer my congratulations. They were both giddy and still caught up in the moment. Thomas admitted that he had never been so nervous and still was shaking, while Ashley said after six years of being together, this still came as the shock of her life! They asked me to take their picture, which of course I was honored to do. More than just one or two, rest assured. With hugs all around, I soon left them to bask in a private moment as I packed up and headed back down the trail.
With Grandfather Mountain lording over the landscape, the morning seemed to take on even more of a special glow. Our time here was closing down, but for Ashley and Thomas this golden morning would be their new beginning.
Chris had things all stowed away and was waiting to hitch up the truck (some things never change). After a quick breakfast, we were pulling out to make our way down to more familiar parts of the Parkway. Oh beautiful drive, how many different looks you have!
Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris