469 Miles of Grandeur Without a Single Stop Sign
Over the years, we’ve logged many miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway – from rainy spring afternoons to brisk autumn mornings – though we’ve never come close to driving the full 469 miles of the parkway. But on this trip, we decided to rectify that problem. So, we set aside two full days to wind our way from the end of the Parkway near Cherokee, NC to its nexus in Rockfish Gap, VA. We may have had some hiccups along the way…
Our goal was to divide the trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway’s continuously uninterrupted ribbon of scenic byway into two days – with about a week in-between to visit family living along the I-81 corridor in western Virginia. This meant covering roughly 235 miles each day, which, at the posted speed limit of 45mph, could conceivably be done in 7 hours. Now, I knew it would take longer than this with stops to explore the various attractions on the Parkway, but what we didn’t account for was the superb, though demanding, junior ranger program offered by the Park Service. When we stopped at the southernmost visitor center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Waterrock Knob, the helpful ranger gave our kids the starter packet with an alluring incentive – if they finished all 10 worksheets which they could collect at the visitor centers along the parkway, they would receive a special metal junior ranger pin. And, with that, the race against the clock was on!
Our stomachs sank as we realized that while we might have enough time in the day to cover the distance we had hoped, we would need to reach the last visitor center of the day before it closed at 5PM. Apart from blasting up the Blue Ridge Parkway and resisting every temptation to stop and actually enjoy the park, we knew this was going to be impossible. So, we set that goal aside for the time being and took at least a moderate amount of time to enjoy key spots along the way.
Especially in North Carolina, there are stunning views around almost every corner of the Blue Ridge. The terrain is rugged and all but one of the 26 tunnels dotting the parkway can be found in the last (or in our case, the first) 140 miles. Just 40 miles into our drive, we crested the high point of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the second highest road east of the Mississippi. The Richland Balsam overlook rises 6,053 feet above sea level and marked the high point for our Down East Road Trip – less than half of our maximum height of 12,183 feet on our 2018 Out West National Parks adventure.
As the 5pm closing time for the Blue Ridge Parkway visitor centers approached, we pulled into Linville Falls at mile marker 316. Knowing that we wouldn’t have time to make it to the next visitor center, we spent some extra time here, hiking to the falls and enjoying the sound of roaring water under the warm summer sun. As I was finishing up photographing the upper falls, I noticed some odd structures in the water that looked quite like the rock stanchions holding up the railings above me. Thankfully, there was a ranger near by, and I asked him what these were. Sure enough, earlier this year, they were part of the wall, but in the midst of three substantial floods that spring, they had been uprooted from their foundations and washed into the basin.
Realizing that we wouldn’t be able to complete the junior ranger program without some more time, we invited the family we were visiting to join us on a short road trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway to visit Moses Cone Manor – a sprawling estate purchased by the Cone family at the turn of the century. The mansion was built in 1901, overlooking Bass Lake and before long the cascading hills that led to the lake would be covered in orchards. The home is often open for tours, its interior frozen in time, giving the onlooker a sense of luxury life before electric lighting, television, or the widespread adoption of the automobile.
After a week of refreshment with family and that little day trip to Moses Cone Manor catch up, we were back on track and headed out to explore the remaining 230 or so miles of the parkway. In the morning, we first visited the late 19th century Brinegar Cabin, followed by the Blue Ridge Music Center, and Mabry Mill. Ever since we stumbled on the old grist mill back in 2007, it’s been a favorite place to visit. This summer, the mill was undergoing some needed restoration, which wasn’t great for photos, but is needed to keep the 150-year-old mill in good working order.
Of course, we were still on a schedule, so we couldn’t linger anywhere too long. But we did make an exception for a doe and her two curious fawns who crossed the road into an overlook just in front of us. Thankfully, our penultimate stop of the day had both the final worksheets we needed to complete the full junior ranger packet, and with mere minutes to spare, we crossed the James River and arrived at the visitor center. The kids were sworn in, received their pins, and we set out back across the James River on the suspended walking path to explore the ruins of the James River and Kanawha Canal, part of which dates back to 1785, just two years after the end of the Revolutionary War.
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