Exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway — Northern Section

March 08, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Blue Ridge Parkway Pink Azaleas

Exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway — Northern Section

Imagine a check mark, one that hooks at the lower left then runs on a diagonal to the upper right. The Blue Ridge Parkway does just that as it crawls inland, up the mountain chain that parallels the southeast coast of the United States. (Click here for maps and information: http://www.nps.gov/blri/planyourvisit/index.htm)

At 469 miles in length, this treasured "All American Road" reaches from its southern-most anchor in North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains National Park, northeast along the spine of the Blue Ridge range of the Appalachian Mountains, where it joins Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Drive at Rockfish Gap, Virginia. From there, the route continues to meander 105 miles to Front Royal, Virginia, situated 75 miles west of Washington, DC. 

As you motor or bike along this homage to nature and history, the road seems to turn somersaults at times. One may be heading due south, then suddenly turn northeast, then west, then south again, covering every point on the compass. Although its multi-directional personality teases a GPS compass, in spite of appearances the Parkway persists in reliably delivering travelers north to south, or vice versa. 

The road follows the contours of the land; about 2,000 feet at its lowest point; 6,054 feet at its highest. It drills through inconveniently placed mountains; tunnels of varying lengths dot the way. Turnouts and overlooks provide access to views of mountain vistas, hiking trails, campgrounds, historic sites and more. The traveler never lacks from a variety of diverse experiences. 

Wildflowers bloom in abundance late March through early October. Autumns are colorful and winters frequently white. The Parkway's changing seasonal appearance renders the trip always fresh. One will never cease to be surprised by its beauty. 

Usually shielded from travelers' views by thick walls of trees, "gateway" towns such as Roanoke, Boone, Asheville, or Cherokee, offer abundant restaurants and hotels, or bed and breakfasts, as well as evening activities such as theater or music performances. 

There is much to see and experience on and off the Blue Ridge Parkway. However, our focus here is photography. So, fanning out from Asheville, NC (exits roughly located between Mile Markers 380 and 400), we'll explore a few of my favorite photo-ops north of the city:

  • Heading up the Parkway, we come to Craggy Gardens, a popular area with several pull-offs including the Picnic Area (Mile Marker 367.6, with tables, grills, and bathrooms), the Visitor Center (Mile Marker 364.5), and the Craggy Dome Parking Overlook turnout with trail-head to the top of the mountain (Mile Marker 364). Craggy is well known for its not-to-be-missed late spring, early summer rhododendron blooms, which are just emerging now.
  • Continuing on to Mile Marker 355, Mt. Mitchell State Park at 6,684 feet above sea level, is the highest point on the Eastern Seaboard. There are a number of wonderful views from the top as well as a trail to a viewing tower. The road from the Parkway to the top is lined with rhododendron and other wildflowers. Sadly, dying hemlocks — casualties of the acid rain generated by pollution from Tennessee’s coal-burning plants to the west — dot the mountain. With systems weakened by the acid rain, the wooly adelgid infests and kills many.
  • From there, travel 16 miles north to Crabtree Falls at Mile Marker 339. Here you'll find a 2.5-mile loop trail to the waterfall (which is well worth the visit). The Park Service rates the trail as moderate/strenuous and recommends that you allow 2 1/2 hours for the hike. Be sure to figure in extra time for your photography!
  • After your hike, you may welcome a break for food and/drink. One of my favorite stops is the cafe in Little Switzerland, Rt. 226A, at about Mile Marker 335 just south of Spruce Pine. There are also a little general store and used bookshop, if you feel like browsing. 
  • Moving on, Linville Falls at roughly Mile Marker 316.5, provides two hiking trails to views of the falls. This is a popular stop for photography.

This is a mere sampling of what you'll find as you travel this extraordinary national treasure. We'll head south from Asheville next post to explore other areas awaiting you. 




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