There are more than 450 mileposts in the Milepost Guide of the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, which showcases the lovely Appalachian Mountains. It includes everything travelers look for: small towns, tunnels, overlooks, campgrounds, cabins, bed and breakfasts, hotels and motels, restaurants, visitor and other information centers, parking areas, parks, wineries, hiking trails, waterfalls, mountains, lakes, rivers, and other attractions.
This is why the parkway is the most visited single unit in the U.S. National Parks System. Driving straight through without stopping would take about ten to twelve hours, but three to seven days is needed to explore it well.
There are many visitor centers, but to plan our exploration, we went to the main Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center (MP 384) near the city of Asheville and our campground in Lenoir, North Carolina. We grouped visits to our chosen landmarks into five parts, and planned a day to see each grouping. We’ve ordered them chronologically, based on our itinerary, and I’ve provided milepost numbers for guidance.
Day 1: Blowing Rock
The town of Blowing Rock (MP 219.9) was only about 30 minutes away from our campground. Its population of 1,500 balloons to 10,000 during the tourist season in summer. It takes its name from an unusual rock formation named The Blowing Rock that juts over 1,500 feet above the Johns River Gorge. Wind currents from the gorge often blow vertically, causing light objects to float upward into the sky. Legend has it that a pair of lovers from warring tribes, the Cherokee and Catawba, separated by war, were reunited only when the woman prayed to the Great Spirit, who sent gusts of wind to blow him back up the cliff. And the winds stayed.
The other popular tourist attraction near Blowing Rock is The Tweetsie Railroad Theme Park, which is home to the only remaining fully-functional steam engine train in North Carolina. Visitors to Tweetsie can ride the train for three miles to enjoy the lovely Appalachian mountain scenery, which is especially gorgeous in fall. There are other park rides to enjoy, plus a deer park and shows, and the town has many little craft shops. too.
Day 2: Grandfather Mountain And Linn Cove Viaduct
Grandfather Mountain (MP 307.4) has been designated by the United Nations as an International Biosphere Reserve because of the seven environmental habitats it encompasses (one each for black bears, river otters, cougar, bald eagles, golden eagle, and white-tailed deer). Additionally, the flamboyant Catawba rhododendron blooms here at lower elevations by April. The huge purple blossoms progress to high peaks by late June when they become a real spectacle. The mountain is also famous for the Mile-High Swinging Bridge, which was built to give visitors a breath-taking 360-degree view -- especially during fall -- from Linville Peak. The 228-foot suspension bridge is more than one mile high and spans an 80-foot chasm.
Further down the parkway, there is a great view of the Linn Cove Viaduct (MP 304.4) from the Linn Cove Visitors’ Center (MP 304). The Viaduct, a 1,243-foot concrete segmental bridge which snakes around the slopes of Grandfather Mountain, is a sight to behold. It was completed in 1983 at a cost of $10 million and was the last section of the parkway to be finished.
Day 3: Asheville To Linville Falls
On day three, we headed to Asheville, where we took a peek at America’s great castle, the beautiful Biltmore, but we didn’t have the time to explore it. Instead, we trekked up the parkway to the Folk Art Center (MP 382), which exhibits quality products from North Carolina’s talented craftsmen. I especially liked the handwoven scarves, stoles, and purses I saw there, but they were a little expensive.
It would have been spectacular had the rhododendrons been in full bloom, but they were just starting when we went to our next stop: Craggy Gardens at MP 364.6. Here, the parkway is literally lined with walls of the plants that are sometimes as tall as trees. The best time to visit is late June to early August when the pinkish purple blooms are at their peak everywhere. But another good visit time is fall, when you can witness the deciduous trees’ majestic display of yellows, reds, and golds.
Next up: Mt. Mitchell at MP 349. This is the highest peak on the East Coast at 6,700 feet. Climbing up to the Mt. Mitchell Observation Tower, I was alarmed when my heart pounded so much. I began to think of nothing else except how to keep fit while RV cruising. But I got a great treat after reaching the top. It wasn’t only the panoramic view but also the wonderfully hot chili and dogs at the restaurant we found there.
It was already getting late, so we skipped the other stops so we could reach Linville Falls (MP 316.4) before nightfall. The beautiful waters cascade down from the 2,000-foot Linville Peak of Grandfather Mountain. It took a brisk hike to get to the falls and the walk back was done even more hurriedly. In fact, we got back to Lenoir past 8 p.m., just before the library closed, to take out a movie for the night.
Day 4: Meadows Of Dan To Roanoke, Virginia
Next we tackled the Virginia section of the parkway. The sounds of the banjo, fiddle, and guitar greeted us at the Blue Ridge Music Center (MP 213) just after the North Carolina border. But it was Puckett Cabin (MP 190) that held our interest for some time. Orelena Puckett was a famous midwife in the late 1800s. Legend has it that, traveling miles on foot when called, she assisted in giving birth to about a thousand babies in 50 years -- she lived to be 102 -- and was paid about a dollar for each childbirth. The sad irony is that although she gave birth to 24 children herself, none of them survived beyond infancy.
After Puckett Cabin, we headed for the main destination of the day. Mabry Mill (MP 176.1) is the most photographed (and painted) scene along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I tried to capture its magic in photos, but it is truly best seen in person. The Mabrys were jacks of all trades, so the property even had a blacksmith shop in addition to the centerpiece mill and pond. To this day, the serene paradise depicts the way subsistence farmers lived during those days, especially how water was managed.
We ended the day in the charming mountain city of Roanoke (MP 120.4) which has a population of 300,000. As we proceeded to our motel, we saw a big star shining from atop the mountains. The next day, I found out that it was the eternally lit Mill Mountain Star, the world's largest freestanding illuminated man-made star. Constructed in 1949 at the top of Mill Mountain, it stands 88.5 feet tall with 2,000 feet of neon tubing powered by 17,500 watts. It was red, white, and blue for six years after the Twin Towers attack and was switched back to all white after the Virginia Tech massacre. Now it turns red whenever there is a traffic fatality in the city.
Day 5: Beyond Roanoke And Toward The Northern Terminus
The following day was our last, as we’d almost reached the northern terminus at MP 0 near Shenandoah National Park. We started with a short drive from Roanoke to the Peaks of Otter (MP 86), which are called Sharp Top, Flat Top, and Harkening Hill. To hike up any one would have taken around three hours, so we opted to satisfy ourselves by taking lovely pictures from the lodge instead. Then we took a peek at Poplar Forest, the summer home of Thomas Jefferson, a short drive from the peaks.
Our next stop was the town of Glasgow. Fifteen miles from MP 61.4 is the Natural Bridge. For the last 500 million years, it has been a continuing work of art carved out by the waters of Cedar Rapids. Look for the letters GW that are inscribed on the rocks about 23 feet from the stream’s surface at the middle below the bridge; they’re said to have been carved by George Washington. All around the grounds are 1,600 year-old trees that have died and are in the process of becoming petrified. It was worth the hefty price we paid for entry, but it’s too bad that it’s been over-commercialized with a toy museum and wax factory, where we felt we wasted considerable time.
By the time we got out of the Natural Bridge area, we’d missed the open hours of the Stonewall Jackson House in Lexington (MP 46). They say that had he not been accidentally killed by one of his men, the Confederacy would have won the Civil War. The Virginia Military Institute, just a few miles away, is dubbed the West Point of the South and is responsible for managing the Stonewall House and museum.
After we’d packed up camp, we drove the parkway toward its southern terminus at MP 469. This section had so many tunnels, coming one after another and sometimes even back to back. It was an amazingly scenic drive that inspired our next adventure at Great Smoky Mountain National Park .
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