Blue Ridge Parkway offers plethora of peaks and preserved southern culture
By Christina Rollyson
For the second installment of our new travel feature, Traveler's Tales, WV Travel Team member Christina Rollyson takes us for a scenic drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway from Charleston. Christina is the district office supervisor of the Charleston branch of AAA Travel, which she describes as "a one-stop travel shop" for everything from international trips, cruises and airline tickets to passport photos and foreign currency.
"My favorite travel spot is the Grand Canyon. I love to stand at the edge and feel its vastness and nature around me," she said.
"One of my favorite trips was a scenic drive around Arizona that included the West Rim of the Grand Canyon. We stayed in a cabin on the Hualapai Indian Reservation and woke to a view of the sun rising over the canyon."
Clearly no stranger to adventurous travel, Christina details some riveting stops along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
How to get there:
Parkway Drive Time: 5 hours
Drive Time One Way from Charleston: 7 hours, 46 mins
Round Trip Coming back to Charleston via Interstate: 12 hours, 13 mins
Drive times calculated from AAA's Trip Tik Travel Planner
While many travelers weary of the seemingly endless artic blasts are packing up for spring breaks in warm climates, those of us looking for an extended weekend retreat a little closer to home may consider the mystique of a scenic drive in our own backyard through the Blue Ridge Parkway. One of America's favorite drives, the parkway begins at the southern point of the Shenandoah National Park through Virginia and North Carolina ending at the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. Travelers in the Charleston area seeking to drive the southern portion of the parkway would need to head 2 hours and 30 minutes south on I77 to Fancy Gap, Virginia. The Fancy Gap exit is a great place to stop before entering the Parkway as it hosts a visitor's center, restaurants, gas, and even arts and crafts. Once on the parkway, the pace slows down on a winding mountainous road with speed limits ranging from 25 to 45 miles per hour. If planning to travel in the fall through the early spring, then check the road conditions prior to departing. Road conditions and the bloom schedules are posted on blueridgeparkway.org.
The first stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway is at milepost 213 where Blue Ridge musicians perform and preserve their unique style of artistry. With instruments such as the fiddle and banjo, they entertain their audiences at an outdoor amphitheater giving the true sense of southern style. Event and season schedules are posted at blueridgemusiccenter.org. When back on the road, be sure to notice Pilot Mountain on the east horizon at mile 216.9. Those eager to explore the natural beauty of the parkway can stop just after at milepost 217.5 which is Cumberland Knob. In addition to its history as the first point of construction for the parkway project in 1935, it is a recreation area for those seeking a leisurely nature walk or those who prefer a vigorous hike. A picture perfect overlook waits at milepost 232 where Stone Mountain emerges and lures the adventure of rock climbers seeking the thrill of a granite faced rock.
Natural beauty and culture collide at mile 259 where "Sally Mae's on the Parkway" formally known as the "Northwest Trading Post" is located. Travelers can relax from their drive with locally made crafts and baked goods. The next stretch of road from Mount Jefferson to Deep Gap was only known by the Cherokee Indians until Daniel Boone courageously developed a path from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Kentucky. Be sure to notice the signs that indicate "Boone's Trace" at mile 285 which was name after the pioneer himself. Venture off the parkway a few miles to enter the town of Boone that pulls even some of our local artists to their art supply stores, galleries, specialty boutiques, and antique shops.
Next along the parkway is the town of Blowing Rock where the Pisgah National Forest emerges. Blowing Rock is a geological marvel that projects 1500 above the John's River Gorge. The unusual shape of the rock causes the wind to blow vertically. This the reason it is known as the only place in the world where it snows upward. Locomotives, adventure, the Wild West are the themes at Blowing Rock's Tweetsie Railroad. The theme park operates two steam engine trains. Guests can also enjoy live shows, rides, the Deer Park Habitat, and gold panning. Visit the manor of Moses H. Cone where the Julian Price Memorial Park is conveniently adjacent to peak into the past. Art and history museums are abundant in the town.
A must see attraction is a little further south, and it one of the oldest mountains in the world with quartzite estimated to be over a billion years old. A fitting name, Grandfather Mountain, is home to a mile high swinging bridge. Not for the faint of heart, the view is a breathtaking 360 degree panoramic view. It is also completely wheelchair accessible with an elevator at the entrance of the bridge. Be sure to pack in layers as the mountain is typically 20 degrees cooler. If that's not enough to conjure a thrill, behold the "Grand Canyon of the South Appalachians" at mile 316.5 when Spur Road snakes along to Linville River to Linville Falls. The walls are 2000 feet tall which are the deepest east of the Grand Canyon. Tourists should check ahead to make sure they choose the hiking path that fits their desired level of difficulty.
Travelers may think they have traveled into another time and place when they reach Little Switzerland at mile 330. Visit the General Store or eat at the Switzerland Café in a town 103 years old named for its similarity of mountainous views to those found in the foothills of the Swiss Alps. The Switzerland Inn opened in 1911, and the resort has not lost its old world charm. Try a fine dining experience at the Chalet Restaurant for a tantalizing treat for both the eyes and mouth. Imagine a splendid end to the day sipping a glass of wine on the terrace while taking in breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountain landscape. Other local attractions include the Museum of North Carolina Minerals which has 57 different types of minerals and Black Mountain named for the black-green Fraser fir and red spruce that cast a dark canopy over the mountain.
Over the next hour, you will pass Crabtree Meadows Recreation Area at mile 339.5 and then drive away from the Blue Ridge Range to merge with many stunning ranges. This is where Mount Mtichell, the highest mountain in the east rises from the skyline. Be on the lookout for many more scenic views such as Glassmine Falls, Graybeard Mountain, and Craggy Dome which is drenched with rhododendron in early summer.
Though the parkway continues, our scenic road trip for this journey concludes with the Grandeur of the Golden Age at the largest home in America, the Biltmore Estates. Located in Asheville, North Carolina, this 250 room French inspired mountain chateau situated on an 8,000 acre estate is bucket list must. The home to George and Edith Vanderbilt, construction for the house began in 1889. It is an absolute display of elegance with 65 fireplaces, artwork of Pierre-Auguste Renior, an indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley, and a two-story library to name just a few of the extravagances. The gardens were designed by Frederick Law Omsted who designed notable American landscapes such as Central Park. Enjoy an assortment of eateries both fine and casual, bakeries, and shopping. The Antler Hill Village and Winery offers wine tasting which is included with an admission ticket. AAA members can purchase their tickets at their local office for a discounted rate, and they often offer free admission to children. To fully appreciate the beauty and history, audio and guided tours are a worthy added purchase. For a truly encompassing experience, stay overnight at the Inn at the Biltmore which is a four diamond AAA property.
Whether during an outdoor Blue Ridge concert, viewing folk art, appreciating history and natural beauty, or entering for a glimpse into golden age, an enchanted frame of mind will surely ensue while journeying down the Blue Ridge Parkway.
For More Information and free maps and guides of the Blue Ridge Parkway, contact AAA Travel at 304-925-6681 option 3 or email Christina at firstname.lastname@example.org.