Thursday, August 19, 2010

On The Blue Ridge Parkway

We decided to spend our summer vacation driving the Blue Ridge Parkway on its 75th year of operation. Starting our Parkway experience at its beginning in the Smokies would have been backtracking for us, so we entered the parkway at Asheville after spending a delightful week end in that city.

We skipped the Visitors Information Center, since I already had several guidebooks in hand. Best one was, Best Of The Blue Ridge Parkway by Nye Simmons.

Our first stop on the Parkway was the Crafts Center a few miles up the road. This is worth a stop and I highly recommend it, although if you are really intent on shopping for mountain inspired arts and crafts I've not found anything better than the galleries and shops in downtown Asheville, Biltmore Village, and my very favorite at Groveland in Grove Park above Asheville.

The Parkway was an eye opener in many ways. First of all the stunning vitas and scenery, with a pull over viewing area every so many miles. Very soon after beginning our drive we saw a Black bear ambling across the road and disappearing into the underbrush at the shoulder. Our first day we pulled over and got out to take pictures at most of the overlooks but that became very time consuming after awhile and we began to be more discriminating as the trip went on in order to make mileage.

The speed limit along the two lane winding Parkway is 45 miles an hour which is about as fast as anyone could reasonably travel on the road. Often we had to go much slower, not because of the traffic we expected in summer that was actually nonexistent, but because of road conditions. We were warned about fog and mist rolling quickly in and it did. Visibility became very limited much faster than you would imagine. There are guardrails along the drop off side of the road but they are only about a foot and a half high and are wooden and would not stop a vehicle the size of our Winnebago from plunging over the mountains. There are no wide shoulders to pull over onto aside from the planned overlooks in case of breakdowns so anyone coming around the corners would indeed plow right into you. Pretty scary thought.

Picture this: there you are, tooling along looking out over the tree tops into valleys several thousand feet below, knowing that one misstep can send you plunging over the precipice. Then the fog rolls in without warning. You can see about five feet ahead, that's it. And this happened on a pretty regular basis.

Also there are no gas stations and no restaurants along the 450 mile Parkway with only several exceptions. There are a few state campgrounds with limited facilities. So, you really do need to plan ahead.

And remember, when the guide books say that something or other is only 35 0r 40 miles out of your way that's mountain travel not as the crow flies, so it takes a lot longer to get there than you'd suppose it would. The only real option for camping or sleeping is to get off the Parkway and go into the numerous small towns near the roadway for accommodations. That's okay, since nearly every exit has something interesting to see. We opted for Linville, NC where we toured the Linville Caverns and Natural Bridge, Va where we toured the Natural Bridge and adjacent Indian Village. Both of which we really enjoyed. Other exit points of interest in NC might be Grandfather Mountain, Boone, Vale Crucis, and Mt Airy (the real Mayberry RFD).

Its impossible to see everything in a few days but we really enjoyed Mabry Mill, The Orchards at Altapass, The Peaks of Otter and the Johnson farm, the Linville Viaduct, and Mt Mitchell (highest peak east of the Mississippi). We decided to skip the last 5o miles or so due to time constraints and drove through the Shenendoah Valley to Charlottesville Virginia to see Monticello which turned out to be one of the very best days of the trip.

We had no trouble finding campgrounds to stay in but did have trouble finding real full service grocery stores. Even convenience stores were few and far between. When you get excited about finding a Food Lion, you know you've been traveling the Parkway too long! Another creepy thing was that the internet and cell phone service was all but non existent in the mountains. You really feel cut off. Staying as we do in an RV without a satellite dish, we didn't even have the option of TV for news.

If I have any disappointment to report on this trip it might be that pretty much everything closed at 5 pm. Living in Florida where everything is open until mid to late evening in summer, it was hard to get everything that we wanted to see in by five. Especially since we are not early risers by choice. We were disappointed in the Parkway stop at Moses Cone Park. The Crafts Center was mediocre compared to the others we toured and the house tours of the mansion were very limited in times. We skipped stopping at Grandfather Mountain for this and that was a mistake. Pretty much everything else was a definite thumbs up!

All for now.

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