Looking to get out on the open road this summer? How about one that cuts across the Appalachian Mountains and has provided drivers, motorcyclists, and cyclists with stunning views of mountains and rivers and waterfalls for 80 years?
The Blue Ridge Parkway was begun in 1935 as a Franklin D. Roosevelt New Deal project, built to give jobs to the Depression-era unemployed. It also provided tourism options to all those new automobile drivers. When the last piece - the Linn Cove Viaduct - was added in 1983, the 469-mile ribbon of road was completed, with end points in Shenandoah National Park at the juncture with Skyline Drive in Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the North Carolina-Tennessee border.
The drive takes you (at a maximum 45 m.p.h.) over three mountain ranges, through 26 tunnels, and past 910 scenic viewing areas and 91 historic buildings. It provides access to 369 miles of trails. For the most part, it is shaded and serene - and a challenge if you're driving a car with manual transmission, as I was when I visited in May. Though the parkway drops as low as 649 feet above sea level near the James River in Virginia, it rises as high as 6,047 feet in the neighborhood of North Carolina's Mount Pisgah.
Because of the high elevation of most of the parkway, conditions are much cooler than you'd expect of summer in the South, so be sure to pack long sleeves and long pants. Also, because of that elevation, long stretches of the parkway are closed in winter due to ice and snow. Trails still can be reached then, but if you're going to make the drive, spring, summer, or fall is the time to do it.
You can plan your stops according to mileposts, white pieces of stone sticking up from the roadside. (The numbers increase north to south.) A sampling of what you'll find:
Milepost 176.1: Mabry Mill. This is a very pretty - and working - mill. You can stop and take a picture, or if you're there on a Sunday, catch a living-history display and live old-time bluegrass music in the afternoons through October (it's free). This stop also has a full-service restaurant and small coffee shop with snacks.
Milepost 189.9: Puckett Cabin. This small cabin was once home to "Aunt" Orelena Puckett, a midwife in the late 1800s and early 1900s who, as the story goes, helped in the births of more than 1,000 babies - and never lost a mother or child through any fault of her own. She worked as a midwife until she died in 1939 at age 102.
Milepost 213: Blue Ridge Music Center. This new center features the Roots of American Music exhibit, but the real star is the live music, with local musicians playing every day the center is open from noon to 4 p.m. (free). Evening concerts also are held Saturdays through October (tickets range from $10 to $25. Buy at www.blueridgemusiccenter.org).
Milepost 259: Northwest Trading Post. Coffee! Yes, this stop has coffee, which is not common at stops along the parkway. Plus, there's hot food to eat on the go or at picnic tables. It's also a good spot to pick up an extra layer if you didn't pack for colder mountain conditions.
Milepost 304.4: Linn Cove Viaduct. This was the last section of the parkway to be completed: a 1,243-foot-long, 153-segment bridge that was built instead of a traditional road to prevent damage to Grandfather Mountain. Park here, and you can see portions of the bridge. There's also a visitor center, small museum with information about the building of the bridge, and bathrooms.
Milepost 339.5: Crabtree Falls. Most visitors rave about the Linville Falls, but Crabtree Falls, 23 miles to the south, is also stunning - with fewer crowds. One reason is the more strenuous hike to get there. The viewing area is a 480-foot hike down rocky terrain, some of it stairs made from those rocks. The falls are worth the trip. They're 70 feet high, and you can watch from a bench on a bridge not far from the falls' end.
Milepost 380: Folk Art Center. This popular stop is home to the Southern Highland Craft Guild, which showcases traditional and contemporary arts of the Southern Appalachians through a museum and gift shop, and the lobby is host to craft demonstrations in spring, summer, and fall. The gallery space also has a Blue Ridge Parkway souvenir shop. If you're interested in Asheville, N.C., known for its art and craft-beer scenes, the Folk Art Center is near an exit that leads to a short drive into town.
Milepost 407.7: Mount Pisgah. Another mountain, and at lower elevation, but it's a more challenging climb. The mile-long trail rises 762 feet, most of it in the second half of the hike, to top out at 5,721 feet. You're hiking up to an antenna, but also a wooden observation deck. The Pisgah Inn is not far away - at mile marker 408.6. If you want to stay overnight, book in advance (it's closed in the winter). If not, it has a full-service restaurant at the south end of the parking lot and a store with food at the lot's north end. Very popular stop for cyclists (there's even a sign showing where they should dismount from their bikes when approaching the restaurant).
Milepost 431.4: Richland Balsam Overlook. At 6,047 feet, the highest point on the parkway. There's a sign where you can snap a photo. Traveling solo? Don't worry. It's a popular spot to stop, especially for motorcyclists, and they'll be happy to take one for you.
Milepost 451.2: Waterrock Knob. At 6,292 feet, the top of Waterrock Knob is the highest point in the Plott Balsam Range and the 16th-highest mountain in the eastern United States. A half-mile hike takes you to the summit over sometimes rocky terrain, most difficult if you're coming from sea level. That's why there are benches and rest areas along the way. The panoramas from the top are stunning, but even if you can't climb, you can still get fantastic views from the large parking lot there. Waterrock Knob also has bathrooms and a visitor center.
Share the road: The parkway is popular with people on two wheels, both motorcyclists and bicyclists. The motorcyclists you can usually see - and hear - but the cyclists less so. Be careful going around curves, especially on weekends. Given the steep climbs, most cyclists who take on the challenge aren't novices and are used to sharing the road. Be mindful to share the road with them, too.
Obey speed limits: On the parkway, it's mostly 45 miles per hour, but it drops to 35 around popular entrances and exits. When you're on a curve and only feet from the edge of a mountain, you won't want to go faster than 45 anyway. The National Park Service takes its speed limits seriously, and suggests estimating a 30 m.p.h. driving speed if you're calculating the time it will take to get from one stop to the next. There are very few places to pass slower drivers. Parkway etiquette: If drivers want to pass you, pull over into the next scenic overlook and let them go on their way.
Camping: The parkway has nine campgrounds, open from May through October or early November. You'll find showers only at the one at Mount Pisgah. Advance registration for the campgrounds is encouraged at www.recreation.gov.
Restrooms: Every designated picnic area has a restroom. Most visitor centers do, too, but accessibility varies. Some are open when the visitor center is not (as at Craggy Gardens, Milepost 354.6). Some keep the same hours as the visitor center (as at Crabtree Falls, Milepost 339.5). Many are not open in winter.
Gas: The parkway has no gas stations, but they're not far off the road. A complete list is at www.blueridgeparkway.org/v.php?pg=50.
Mileposts: Not every mile is marked, so if there's something you really want to see - especially if it's a specific scenic overlook that you might pass before you see the name - make sure you keep track of where you are and use your car's odometer to know when you're getting close. (National Park Service maps, guidebooks, and hiking guides don't always agree on exact locations, though they're usually within a tenth of a mile of one another).
Detours: Currently, the Blue Ridge Parkway has detours at about Mileposts 241 and 276. Detour routes are long but clearly marked. For the up-to-date information on closures, go to www.nps.gov/blri/planyourvisit/roadclosures.htm.