A SPECTACULAR DRIVE—High on the Blue Ridge Parkway

It was too much to hope for .  .  .  but I just couldn’t help it.  It would be close, but the calendar was telling me it was just too soon.  It was one of those things where timing would make all the difference—in this case, the difference between early buds to full-blown blooms.  It was hope against hope that the latter would be true, but past experience said it needed a couple more weeks.  So, as we were approaching the parkway, I forced myself to sit back, take deep breaths, and repeat the mantra “What will be, will be.”

The Blue Ridge Parkway is an incredible drive in any season, but there are a couple times of the year when it really comes alive.  In the fall this is one of our country’s most outstanding roads for experiencing the change of foliage.  The eastern hardwood forests simply can’t be beat for the brilliant colors that cloak the mountainsides.  The road is a Technicolor tunnel, resplendent in dozens of shades of scarlet, rose, burgundy, orange, yellow and bronze.  And those that turn out for the show know it—the leaf peepers (as they’re known) can become glutted with the sensational color.  We should know—we were one of them just a couple years ago.

But there is another season on the Parkway that is fast catching on with the sight-seekers .  .  .  fortunately, not quite as well-known.  Yet.  Spring comes late to the high elevations, and while most of the country is feeling the first heat of summer weather, the days are still pleasantly cool in the mountains.  And the nights can be downright chilly.  The first delicate greens of the forest have begun to turn to their deeper emerald shades, but by May you’ll find showy blooms popping out in the landscape . . . all shades of pinks, magentas and oranges.  And that was what I was so hoping for.

Late April through June offers the best opportunity to see the most blooms appearing at one time.  One of the wonderful things about the Parkway is that the elevation varies by several thousand feet, constantly changing the blooms that you see.  In general (and counter intuitively), the farther south you drive on the Parkway, the earlier the season becomes.  The parkway gains altitude the farther south you go.  If you missed the azalea bloom in Virginia, just take a day trip towards Asheville to catch them just coming on.

So here it was—early June.  Not too early for blooms in the lower elevations, but that wasn’t where we’d be headed.  Coming from the east our route would take us through Sylva, North Carolina, accessing the Parkway just a few miles north of town.  With our destination near the Pisgah Inn, we’d find ourselves in the highest elevations of the road.  And hence my doubts as to catching the blooming shrubs this first week in June.

Flowers or not, the views were certainly arresting.  We couldn’t have selected a better day to take that high ridgeline road.  Sunny skies and clear conditions, the views were incredibly expansive.  It wasn’t long before I was asking Chris to pull off at the next overlook.  It would be the first of many.

A scenic drive doesn’t begin to describe what this parkway is like!

The first sighting of flowers almost escaped my attention, so caught up in the views we were.  (Actually, Chris was more caught up in the driving, maneuvering curves and defensively driving).  They didn’t begin with a bang, but more like a teaser.  A few blossoms here, a scattering there .  .  .  an isolated bush would show up ever so often.  But it was enough to open my eyes with anticipation.

Interestingly, the farther we drove and the higher we went, the more flowers seemed to be showing.  How’s that happening?  But forget about trying to figure it out, I just sat back and kept enjoying the show.

And miracles of miracles, it just kept getting better.  Welcome to Spring Bloom on the Blue Ridge Parkway!

A labyrinth of cross ranges and gentle peaks make up the Blue Ridge Mountains as they extend from Pennsylvania to Georgia.  As part of the Appalachian chain, the time-worn Blue Ridge is one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, having summits reaching in excess of 6,000 feet.  (Some geologists will say that eons ago the mountains in this range were higher than the Himalayas are today).

The Blue Ridge Parkway was the longest federally planned roadway in the United States when construction began in 1935, and today it is America’s longest linear park, running for 469 miles through 29 counties.  Traversing mostly along the spine of the Blue Ridge, it links Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  And this is a fact you don’t want to forget—this Parkway has been the most visited unit of our National Park System EVERY YEAR since 1946 (except for 1949 and 2013).  In 2016 the parkway had 15.2 million visitors.

The Parkway is featured on the 2015 America the Beautiful Commemorative quarters series for North Carolina .

Begun during FDR’s administration, construction began in the fall of 1935.  Most construction was done by private contactors under federal contracts.  In June of 1936, Congress formally authorized the project as the Blue Ridge Parkway and placed it under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.  Work was done by the WPA, the CCC and crews from the Emergency Relief Administration.  During WWII, conscientious objectors had a hand in its construction.  The parkway is built across streams, railway ravines and cross roads by 168 bridges and six viaducts.  There are 26 tunnels (1 in Virginia and 25 in North Carolina) boring through rock.

To travel on the Parkway is to know firsthand what a jewel of the NPS this masterpiece of construction truly is.  You can’t help but to be incredibly impressed.  We have visited segments of it many times, coming up to hike some rugged trails, to take in the popular locations, even to dine at the mountaintop Pisgah Inn.  We’ve been witness to its many looks and fickle moods.  It’s simply a place we have never become tired of seeing.

But we’ve never done an overnight stay for even one night, much less 3 or 4.  Until this trip, that is.  But here we were, Airstream and all, relatively speaking in the neighborhood.  And so we pulled into the Pisgah Campground, where we’d already reserved a site.

Mt. Pisgah Campground is ideally located along the parkway, situated in the high elevations of the Pisgah National Forest and within striking distance of some great mountaintop trails as well as the delicious fare of The Pisgah Inn.  Both RV and tent sites are available—52 for advanced reservation and 74 on a first-come, first-served basis.  For a national forest campground, this one is a notch above the average.  Paved roads and pads, many pull-thrus as well as back-ins, bathhouses with running water and tiled showers.  While RV sites are on the smallish size, some of the pull-thrus are quite long.  But it helps to arrive during the week, because this place is really hopping come the weekends.  Reserving a site or coming mid-week is the best advice I can give!

Our reserved site turned out to be way too short for our 40+feet total length.  Fortunately we pulled in early afternoon on a Wednesday and had plenty of non-reserveable sites to choose from.  After several attempts to get us level—my hubby epitomizes the patient albeit long-suffering male—we settled in to our fragrant, flower-lined site.  Everything we could ask for in a campsite and the liberal (8am-9pm) generator hours took the worry out of living off the grid.  Now if we only had a water hookup . . . .

 . . . oh well, this is the joy of back-to-nature camping!

We woke up in the clouds our first morning.  And I’m not talking just a mist or a little foggy.   I’m talking a full-blown, complete white-out.  No visibility more than a few dozen yards.  Coooool.  And probably pretty typical at this 4,000’ elevation.  No sunrise photo on this morning, but a great day to hunt down some wildflower photo ops.  Go with the flow and play the cards you’re dealt when you’re dealing with Mother Nature!

Flowering shrubs and wildflowers dominate the parkway this time of the year, bringing out the first high tide of tourists.  Redbuds and dogwoods begin the show as the tender greens of trees leaf out.  Wildflowers on the forest floor are the next harbingers of spring, and then comes the flowering shrubs.

Known as the “Big Three Bloom” in Blue Ridge Parkway jargon,  it refers to a trio of flowering shrubs, three of the showiest of parkway wildflowers. that bloom here in early summer and are the subject of many a photographer, be he an amateur or pro.  It’s a time to go searching for that ideal calendar-worthy composition.  Or try your hand at some close up, macro shots.

As it turned out, we were very, very fortunate in our timing.  To catch the Big Three Bloom is the hope of every flower-seeker fan.  An occurrence that doesn’t happen every year . . . Azaleas being the earliest bloomers in late April, followed by the Mountain Laurel in May, and then one of the Parkway’s icons, the wild magenta Catawba Rhododendrons coming along in mid-June cap off the three outstanding flowering shrubs.  AND I SCOOPED ALL THREE!!!  Oh happy day!

The Catawba rhododendron could also be known as the show-stopper of the Parkway.  With its masses of blossoms ranging in shades from pink to magenta, to violet and purple, it’s easy to see why people pull over to snap a few pictures, especially when found growing in masses.  Contrasting so vividly against their dark emerald evergreen foliage, it’s easy to see why this is also a popular landscape plant, especially in the South.

Also contrasting sharply within their own dark green foliage, at first the mountain laurel might be mistaken for the Catawba rhododendron, but closer scrutiny will show how different they are.  The flowers of the laurel are slightly smaller, made up of clusters of tiny, cup-shaped flowers, their color ranging from white to deep pink or peach.  Growing sometimes to heights of a small tree, they can form a nearly impenetrable thicket that even large animals have difficulty getting through, much less the cross-country hikers.

In comparison to the mountain laurel and rhododendrons, the flame azalea has a very delicate appearance.  What they lack in fragrance (as opposed to the two others), they make up for in a wider range of colors.  From palest yellows and apricot to brilliant oranges and scarlet reds, these shrubs can grow as tall as 10 feet.

Both flowers and waterfalls make ideal subjects for photographing on overcast days, and today certainly qualified as such.   I returned home with quite a collection of flower photos.  Only then did I come down from a day-long adrenaline high. The sun broke out the following morning, and even before breakfast we were headed down the parkway.  Fresh mountain air does wonders for stimulating appetites and tendrils of  early morning mist still draped the valleys and coves.  It’s as invigorating as it is scenic.

After our hearty and quite sufficient feast of a breakfast we were ready to hit the long trails.  Actually, one doesn’t even need to drive to a trailhead if camping here at Mt. Pisgah.  A trail map posted at the camp’s entry showed several choices we could make.  Pilot Rock Trail looked promising, so we headed out.

Sometimes you must earn those mountain views with a steep climb and some good hard sucking in of air.  Burning those calories off while we’re at it!






And yes, the effort was worth it.  You’ll find incomparable views on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

When you feel you’re deserving of a respite from the trails, then you can take a leisurely drive along the Parkway.  With plenty of overlooks and picture postcard views to offer, windshield touring has rewards of its own.

Rising to just over 6,000 feet, Cold Mountain (made famous by the movie of the same name) is one of the more noteworthy peaks you’ll see from the parkway.  Since it’s part of the Pisgah National Forest, the mountain is still (most fortunately) in its natural state.  There’s an extremely strenuous 10-mile trail to its summit (something Chris has added to his bucket list–but not Melinda).

Looking Glass Rock is another outstanding landmark along the Parkway.  Named for the way its granite face reflects the sunlight, it rises from the valley floor to an elevation of nearly 4,000 feet.  It is as popular of a photo op as it is a hiking trail.  Yes! A 6-mile round trip hike will climb 1,700’ to some pretty phenomenal views of the parkway and the iconic mountain ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountain.  Next trip (bodies willing) we’ll do it!

Speaking of hiking trails, we took a noteworthy one on our last day on the parkway; one that we didn’t even know about but certainly should have!  It was just dumb luck that the blooming rhodies made this a spectacular trail at this particular time of the year.  We headed out after another hearty breakfast, unsuspecting of what waited up the trail.

The Black Balsam area includes some of the most spectacular mountain balds in the Southern Appalachians, including Black Balsam Knob, Sam Knob and Tennent Mountain.  These treeless mountaintops offer sweeping views and provide an invigorating sense of accomplishment.  You have the option of just hiking up to Black Balsam Knob, or you can make a 5-mile circuit and bag all three of these mountain balds.  Once you get going, I’m betting you won’t be calling it quits at the first summit . . . it’s just too tempting not to continue on.  We sure did!

Once I saw the profusion of wild rhododendrons, there was no doubt that we’d continue.  A few detours were thrown in as I made my way off-trail in order to snag a few photo ops along the way.  What glorious flowers!

From a flower-strewn pathway the final bald, Sam Knob, lies up ahead.

But finally, all good things have an ending.  Chris was the first to head down .  .  .

. . . but when flowers are involved, I have a tendency to linger.

I suppose by now (if you’ve read through this post) you’ll know that our stay on the Parkway was fulfilling.  Whether camping or just day-tripping, any traveler should have this Parkway on his/her bucket list.  Whether choosing to drive its full 469-mile length or just a section at a time, you’ll find it to be a rewarding experience—I have no doubt!  And that is all you can hope for when you are seeking new places to go.

From the Southern Appalachians,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

–heading on to other peaks (after a brief interlude in Indiana).

Coming soon!


About AirstreamTravelers

A 2016 Pendleton Airstream suits our lifestyle perfectly. It's a commemorative edition celebrating the 100th anniversary of our national parks. In our efforts to see as many of those parks as we can, the two of us are now spending several months each year on the road. We hope our posts and accompanying photos give a vivid description of where we travel, illustrating to our followers what's out there, just over the next horizon.
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