More Than Just A Road
Having just celebrated its 75th birthday in 2010, the Blue Ridge Parkway, spanning 469 miles without so much as a single stop sign or distracting billboard while connecting Virginia's Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina, is more like a guardian than it is a stretch of asphalt.
The road, which is its own unit of the National Park System, protects miles and miles of mountain, park, waterfalls, forest, flora, fauna and meadows that span far beyond those two yellow lines. The route provides gateways into welcoming, bucolic towns, art galleries, nine campgrounds, festivals, museums, orchards, wineries, restaurants, campsites, hiking trails, scenic views, wildlife, changing colors—the possibilities are endless.
And even though the stretch is touted as "America's favorite drive," perhaps one of the National Park Services' most visited sites, "We're not talking traffic jams," says Peter Givens, Blue Ridge Parkway Interpretive Specialist. According to Givens, you'll be hard pressed to ever hit bumper-to-bumper traffic on this "ride-a-while-stop-a-while" road. In fact, the slow pace of rural life that is, as Given's describes, "so unlike any other experience people have in the world today," is really the draw of the parkway. It's the reason why he implores visitors to venture into small towns like Meadows of Dan with its mill, country stores, old-fashioned fudge shop and ice cream parlors, the similar Fancy Gap and Laurel Springs just as readily as they would mark Roanoke and Asheville on their must-see lists. In fact, Givens suggests scrapping your itinerary entirely. "It's in our nature to plan, but the best way to experience the parkway is to go with the flow and explore the natural beauty and local color of all the areas and communities."
Providing windows into the essence of the southern Appalachians was part of the parkway's original objective in its construction, after all. Originally designed in the 1930s to create jobs in a depressed era, the parkway didn't waste any time blossoming into the national gem it still is today. "It was always meant to reveal the cultural, historical life and farmland of the Blue Ridge Mountains that hasn't really changed much," Givens says.
And because the parkway was purposely built so tucked into the natural beauty of Southern Appalachia, the 100 trails that provide leg-stretching walks to long hikes, wooded campgrounds along creeks and parts of the Appalachian Trail, from low elevations near Virginia's James River to 5000 ft elevation campgrounds, are all so accessible to those itching to enjoy the outdoors. Most of the campgrounds were built for travelers of the '30s and '40s and still make for plain and simple camping; no frills, just you and nature, which seems to encompass what the Blue Ridge Parkway is all about.
Tip for travel: "Enjoy the view but watch the road," Givens recommends. Because the parkway twists and turns so closely through all the magnificent views and wildlife, hazards can sometimes prove to be unforgiving if you aren't careful. And to avoid crowds, travel on weekdays, take advantage of the beautiful peak of fall and try to stay off the road on Sundays.