“I beheld with rapture and astonishment
a sublimely awful scene of power and magnificence;
a world of mountains piled upon mountains.”
~William Bartram 1775
It is a ribbon of asphalt that follows the ridges of the southern Appalachian mountains between Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. Spanning 469 miles, the road navigates across high mountain crests, dips into river valleys, and passes through several national forests. It crosses four major rivers, more than 100 gaps and 6 mountain ranges. Encompassing a wide range of ecosystems, its elevation ranges between a low of 649 feet to a high of more than 6,000 feet near Mt. Pisgah in North Carolina. Providing vistas of rolling pastures and rural farmlands, dense hardwood and conifer forests, carpets of wildflowers, cascading waterfalls and rocky outcrops along its route, the blue-misted mountain ridges are a constant in every season. Rhododendrons border much of the pavement, in early summer their magenta and pink hues make a brilliant, eye-catching display. It is the Blue Ridge Parkway, and it exemplifies a magnificent achievement.
Ah, but it’s the fall season that trumps all of the parkway’s attractions. When summer’s greens begin to turn, you’ll see it first on the highest peaks. By late September the highest elevations begin to take on a warmer hue. Autumn moves down the slopes, slowing burnishing the tree-cloaked hillsides. If you are a fortunate traveler, you might catch the peak of fall color. Its timing is never for certain, varying with yearly climate and weather trends, its duration a matter of days, but one thing for certain when it happens, the effect is nothing less than spectacular.
Returning to the North Carolina mountains during the autumn season seems to have become a rite of passage for us. Despite how much we have traveled, how far we range from our home base, when October once again arrives we begin our preparations, packing up car and other paraphernalia. Some years, like this one, also involve bringing the Airstream along.
We arrived early, somewhat before the colors peaked. We watched the first changes begin on the peaks, a contrast to the still green coves below. The rolling ridges of succeeding mountains never cease to give us pause. Max Patch Mountain is the epitome of a mountain bald, a treeless summit that provides far-off views –the hallmark of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Our focus on the Parkway most often centers on its southern end. As the road follows the Great Balsam Range, it crosses over the highest elevations. Near the drive’s southern terminus at the Smoky Mountains, that’s where we’ll likely be found. One of the parkway’s most noted features, the appropriately named Shining Rock, is easy to spot.
In the heart of the Shining Rock Wilderness, protruding through a dense conifer and hardwood forest, a huge outcrop of snow quartz comprises the summit of Shining Rock. Making a popular subject matter for photographers, the trails leading up to it are equally appealing. Good information on these trails is linked here.
Attractions aside, the parkway itself has the starring role in this destination. Unless you are immune to the emotions elicited by spectacular scenery and incredible vistas, or happen to arrive on one of its foggy, socked-in-by-the-clouds day, the experience of driving this parkway easily ranks as one of our country’s Top Drives. Any time of the year. But trust me—in the Fall this is one glorious experience. My photos do not deceive.
Let the road be your guide . . . drawing you in and slowly revealing . . . one dramatic setting after another. Oooohs and aaaahs are suitably appropriate.
Lest you think these colors enhanced, let me say that even in person you often can’t believe your eyes. When seen at its peak, the foliage is truly this outstanding.
And when the sun is shining on one of those incredibly clear autumn days, the angle of light can illuminate the foliage to produce something beyond even Technicolor. To be a witness to that scene is to know you’re truly fortunate. It’s what brings the people here. And I’m referring to the masses.
But wait! There’s more–I haven’t mentioned those famous views. Those incredible, postcard photo vistas. The scenery that has made the Parkway famous. A rumpled landscape of peaks and valleys.
Views to make the heart sing—where forests drape the landscape as far as the eye can see.
And when the late afternoon sunlight strikes that autumn foliage, it’s as if the leaves are burning with the brilliancy of fire. And that is why the people come . . . to catch this magical sight.
Photographers flock to Western landscapes, where the scenery is bold and superbly magnificent. Eastern scenes are more subtle, their drama hidden in delicate touches. Except perhaps at times like this, when Eastern hardwood forests come alive in brazen color. Unmatched and unrivaled. Finally, these age-old mountains earn their just deserves.
Conceived and constructed at a time when the automobile was becoming affordable to the average family, the Parkway was part of the Makes Work Projects of the 1930s. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited the newly constructed Skyline Drive in Virginia in 1933, Senator Harry Byrd suggested that the road should be extended to connect with the recently established Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once authorized by Congress in 1936, it was placed under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Construction was accomplished by both private contractors as well as by various New Deal public works agencies, including both the WPA and the CCC.
Though not yet 30 years old, Stanley Abbott, a landscape architect who earned his degree from Cornell University and had worked on the Westchester and Bronx River parkways, was signed on to be the parkway’s first acting superintendent and resident landscape architect. Stanley Abbott was an admirer of Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of New York City’s Central Park) and an ardent practitioner of the “rustic” or “design with nature” philosophy of road construction. Abbott believed that a national park road – and especially a parkway – should “lie easily on the ground, blend harmoniously with the topography, and appear as if it had grown out of the soil.”
Along the two-lane road, there is not a single billboard, stop sign or traffic light. Utilities are buried. Signs are few. Only the mile markers are a constant. Entrances to the parkway are unobtrusive with no hint of civilization in sight. The parkway succeeds in fulfilling Abbott’s desire to eliminate the “parasitic and unsightly border development of the hot-dog stand, the gasoline shack, and the billboard” so that the natural scenery prevails.
Abbott referred to the parkway as a “managed museum of the American countryside” and sought to purchase right of ways that would preserve the vistas as well as capturing the local countryside. He believed that the road should function as an outdoor museum of rural life, telling the story of the mountain folk and their agricultural pursuits. The parkway would speak to the visitor about life and a way of living in the mountains. it would celebrate the blending of nature and culture.
If you plan a trip to this magnificent parkway, there are a couple of parkway centers you need to include, specifically in the North Carolina segment.
The Parkway Visitor Center in Asheville features a great introductory film, “The Blue Ridge Parkway—America’s Favorite Journey,” that is not to be missed. There are many informative displays that give background on the parkway’s features as well as the recreational possibilities. A well-stocked retail store sells plenty of souvenirs to entice you.
The Folk Art Center, also on the outskirts of Asheville, is located along the Parkway. Showcasing the finest examples of crafts done by residents in the Southern Appalachians, there is a permanent exhibition of artisan works as well as unique hand-crafted items for sale. Each time we have visited there has always been much to appreciate, and more often than not, we don’t walk away empty-handed.
From March through December there are daily craft demonstrations going on. A stone engraver and sculptor who works in granite and other natural materials captured Chris’ interest.
Our time along the Parkway wasn’t just about seeing beautiful scenery and snapping photos along the way. We did take time for some recreational pursuits—there are many foot trails radiating off the road, from easy strolls to strenuous backpacking overnighters. We managed a couple or more.
Mt. Pisgah, at an elevation of 5,721 feet, is one of the higher peaks along the Parkway. With a well-marked trail leading to its summit, it is a very popular hike. Several years had passed since we last took it—we both agreed it needed to be tackled again. A quick selfie to preserve the moment—the mountain rising prominently behind. The afternoon, while quite warm, was as perfect as they come. Several hundred feet later (give or take), we were standing on its peak.
The world spread out below us . . . it was a sight that needed no words to describe. With just enough elevation gain to work our muscles and get our blood flowing as nothing but a good climb can give. We earned the reward of an outstanding view. A fitting end to wrap up another outstanding day.
I had yet to see the sun rise over these mountains, except in plenty of postcard pictures capturing that special time. Requiring a perfect mixture of light, good weather and color, it’s often a hit-or-miss option (emphasis on the “miss”). With hope in my heart I set my alarm, and left camp in the blackness of predawn early morning.
I got my shot in the golden glow of a rising sun, with azure peaks floating on a sea of mist. Believe me when I say—it rarely works out to have a payoff like this!
As weather is apt to do in the high elevations, the conditions did a complete reversal from what I experienced at first light. By the time breakfast was over, the clouds moved in, shrouding the mountains in mist. The Blue Ridge was showing another side of itself—not that uncommon a scene. Sometimes the mist floats in the valleys, the peaks rising above. Other times clouds consume those peaks, fog softening edges, putting landscapes out of focus.
How boring life would be if days were all blue-sky clear and sunny! Today was ripe with new possibilities—I couldn’t wait to head back out.
Never put away your camera when weather conditions head south. Wet conditions in the landscape, especially one with colorful foliage, brings opportunities for rich hues and possibilities not feasible in the clear light of day. Moreover, you generally have prime locations all to yourself.
You never know . . .you wait it out . . .
and sometimes all facets come together.
You might get the picture you’ve been carrying in your head.
And that might be the one to tell the story.
The coming days didn’t offer better chances. Constant down pours and stiff breezes put an end to our Parkway time, as well as the peak of color. Not ready to pack up and leave, we found interesting and worthwhile times in nearby Asheville. A small town big in art, outdoor cafes and eclectic shopping, there was plenty to keep us occupied. We lasted out those stormy days, and when it cleared we were ready to move on.
With one last opportunity for a sunset over the Blue Ridge, I snagged a fitting farewell shot.
Don’t let the crowds of “leaf peepers” dissuade you—this Parkway is worth taking in!
You won’t regret your time spent here.
Savoring our times
on the Blue Ridge Parkway,
Melinda and Chris