A Blue Ridge Drive Delivers
At dawn and dusk, the mountains surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway take on an azure aura.*
By Thomas R. and Deborah A. Fletcher
It could certainly be argued that the Blue Ridge Parkway is America’s most beautiful scenic parkway. At 469 miles, it is also the country’s longest such road. The sinuous two-lane highway offers one stunning view after another as it twists and turns along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Managed by the U.S. National Park Service, the parkway connects two of the country’s most popular national parks: Shenandoah National Park (540-999-3500 or www.nps.gov/shen, 3655 US Highway 211 East, Luray, VA, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park (865-436-1200 or www.nps.gov/grsm in Cherokee, NC.
Scenery That Wows
The Blue Ridge Parkway picks up at the southern terminus of Shenandoah National Park’s picturesque Skyline Drive. The parkway was originally conceived as a public works project. Work began on the roadway in 1935 but wasn’t completed until 1987.
Designed for the leisure traveler, the Blue Ridge Parkway isn’t intended for speedy journeys. In fact, the strictly enforced 45 mph maximum speed limit ensures a slow drive. In some places the speed limit is even lower.
The views are spectacular throughout the year, but in fall, the parkway is awash in color as the leaves turn shades of brilliant red, orange and yellow. It's also one of the busiest times on the parkway as visitors come to snap pictures of nature's spectacle.
Fall delivers a dream drive for photographers eager to photograph the brilliantly colored leaves.*
Vehicles may enter the parkway from any intersecting highway. Marked with mileposts as reference points, the Blue Ridge Parkway runs north to south, with clearly marked directional signs at each entry point.
Visitors are encouraged to stop at the many pull-off areas to enjoy the view or hike some of the 350 miles of hiking trails located along the parkway.
Sharp Mountain Peak provides a sweeping view, overlooking the Peaks of Otter and Abbott Lake.*
There are several areas within the park where visitors can stop and learn about the region and its history. One such location is Humpback Rocks Visitors Center at milepost 5.8.
The center has costumed interpreters that bring an 1890s working mountain farm to life. Visitors will see a log cabin, garden, animals and farm implements.
A Place of Rejuvenation
Travelers must exit the parkway for accommodations and other commercial enterprises. None are located directly on the parkway.
Located between milepost 13 and 14, the 11,000-acre Wintergreen Resort and Conference Center (800-926-3723 or 434-325-2200 or www.wintergreenresort.com) in Wintergreen has completed many renovations.
Among them? In 2006 the Virginia resort expanded its spa and fitness center. More than $4 million was spent to double the facility’s size from 6,000 to 12,000 square feet
Entrance to the new spa and fitness center at Wintergreen Resort.*
The spa is located on the highest point of the resort, measuring 3,850 feet in elevation. Guests enjoy 13 spa treatment rooms, all with windows featuring expansive views of the mountains and valley below.
Resort guests also may access a fitness center and full-service hair and nail salon. On-site programming includes personal fitness training, pre-natal massages and Nia, a fitness program that combines martial arts, yoga and dance.
Through March 31, resort rates for a studio range from $126 to $199 nightly. The resort also has a mix of accommodations including homes with multiple bedrooms. For example, a seven-bedroom home rents for $539-$849 night. Home rentals require a two-night minimum stay. Check with the resort for pricing beyond March 31.
Located at milepost 115, Virginia’s Explore Park (540-427-1800 or www.explorepark.org) in the Roanoke area, is the place to learn a bit of Roanoke Valley history. The park focuses on the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries — time periods important to development in the area. Costumed living history interpreters, re-creations and historic structures bring early Virginia history to life.
History isn’t all the park has to offer. Visitors also enjoy six miles of hiking trails and 12 miles of biking trails. Bike rentals are available at the Arthur Taubman Welcome Center. Canoeing and kayaking are also popular.
Explore Park will open two new galleries in June. The first is a 1,080-square-foot facility that will house a Blue Ridge Parkway exhibit. The display explains what makes the parkway special and contrasts it with other parkways.
The second gallery, a 2,864-square-foot facility, will house a Roanoke Region exhibit that focuses solely on the theme of regional transportation. The “Pathways to Railways” exhibit emphasizes the region’s significance as a transportation hub.
The southwestern Virginia city of Roanoke is the largest metropolitan area in Virginia’s Blue Ridge region. Roanoke’s location was once a fork in the Great Wagon Road. By 1775, that road stretched some 700 miles from Pennsylvania to South Carolina.
Thankfully you're not traveling by covered wagon today. So take a break. Drive off the parkway and take a short detour into Roanoke. Stop at the Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau (540-342-6025 or www.visitroanokeva.com) 101 Shenandoah Avenue NE, for a map and attraction information.
A Pastoral Place
Heading further south and crossing the Virginia-North Carolina border, you'll find the North Carolina Arboretum (828-665-2492 or www.ncarboretum.org) located near milepost 393 in Asheville, N.C.. This 434-acre attraction fields 65 acres of cultivated gardens. The facility is located within the Bent Creek Experimental Forest (www.srs.fs.usda.gov/bentcreek).
Gorgeous blooms will delight visitors at the North Carolina Arboretum.*
This spring, a new Exhibits Center will open. It will include a demonstration greenhouse, interpretive displays, a café, gift shop and an exhibits hall for traveling exhibits.
The Arboretum’s recently completed Heritage Garden offers demonstrations of heritage crafting and that tradition’s relationship to plants. The garden depicts southern Appalachian home sites and provides a showcase for many plants used by early settlers and Native Americans for medicinal and craft purposes. Plants displayed were used for making brooms, baskets and paper, as well as textile dyes.
From history to floral displays, from a relaxing spa to stunning vistas, the Blue Ridge Parkway and its surrounding towns offer a great drive for those who want to get off the beaten path, explore nature and don't want to go at Interstate speeds.
For More Information
Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher are travel writers concentrating on culture, cuisine, and adventure. A professional photographer as well, Thomas is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. The couple has contributed articles to AAA Going Places, BBC Wildlife, Caribbean Travel & Life, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Country Discoveries Magazine, Home & Away, Islands, Latitudes, the Roanoke Times, Sierra Magazine, Spa Magazine, Town & Country Travel and Travel & Leisure, to name just a few publications.
*Photos used in this article are owned, copyrighted or used with permission of the providers. All rights reserved. They are as follows: Blue Ridge Mountain Scene by National Scenic Byways Online; Blue Ridge and Roadway in Fall by Gary Johnson as provided by National Scenic Byways Online; Sharp Top Mountain Peak by Gary Johnson as provided by the National Scenic Byways Online; Wintergreen Resort spa entrance credited to Wintergreen Resort; and Flowers from the North Carolina Arboretum. Do not link to or copy these photographs.