Fall for the Blue Ridge Parkway
In autumn, the Blue Ridge Parkway explodes with color during one of the nation’s longest fall foliage seasons. Dogwoods, sourwoods and black gums darken to maroon, while birches turn yellow, sassafras trees brighten to orange and red maples blush scarlet. Fields bloom with goldenrod, bull thistle and asters in shades of purple and blue. It’s no wonder that millions of travelers flock to America’s longest linear park this time of year to enjoy the pastoral landscapes, spectacular overlooks and outdoor adventure along the Parkway’s 469 miles, most of which are in North Carolina.
“In recent years, there has been excellent color and they stay at the lower elevations almost till the first of November,” says Tom Hardy, executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Association, based in Asheville. “The color typically comes down from the highest elevation to the lowest, so if you come in that last half of October, in some places you are almost assured of seeing color.”
The creation of the Parkway was authorized by President Franklin Roosevelt as a way to generate jobs during the Depression and link the Shenandoah National Park to the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains. The “two-year” construction, starting at Cumberland Knob near the Virginia state line in 1935, took more than a half-century, partly due to the unique park-like atmosphere envisioned by landscape architect and lead designer Stanley Abbott.
Despite its majestic scenery, the Parkway itself is by no means the only draw for hikers, bikers and day-trippers. Picturesque towns just minutes off the main path offer plenty of options for eating, shopping and exploration. “You can get on and off at virtually all U.S. and state highways,” Hardy notes. “The Parkway was designed to link some of the smaller towns in Appalachia.”
To traverse the entire 250-mile North Carolina segment, start at Cumberland Knob near Mount Airy (Milepost 217.5), head south and stop at Doughton Park (MP 240), a series of open meadows that serve as habitat for white-tailed deer, raccoons, red and grey foxes, and bobcats. At Julian Price Memorial Park (MP 294-298), watch mountain craft demonstrations, explore historic carriage trails and sleep under the stars at the Parkway’s largest campground. The pristine Price Lake is the only one in the park where canoeing is allowed.
Linn Cove Viaduct (MP 304), the last segment of the Parkway to be completed, skirts the side of Grandfather Mountain. A visitor center allows access to the trail under the bridge, deemed an engineering marvel.
“It’s rather impressive,” Hardy says. “They built it out on pillars so that the mountain was not damaged or cut away.”
A few miles away, Linville Falls (MP 316) is considered the most dramatic series of waterfalls along the byway, with the Linville River cascading through steep slopes and a rugged gorge.
The tallest peak east of the Mississippi River at 6,684 feet, Mount Mitchell (MP 355) is a popular hub for backpackers, with trails that meander among Canadian spruce-fir forests and open gneiss outcrops, and dark mountains spreading in velvety folds as far as the eye can see. Another not-to-be-missed stop is Craggy Gardens (MP 364), known for its twisted, rocky “crags,” sensational floral displays (come back in June when the purple Catawba rhododendrons are in bloom) and, in the fall, mountain ash berries that cast a red glow. The trail here offers exceptional views without a lot of walking.
Back on the Parkway, drive through Grassy Knob Tunnel (MP 397), one of 25 concrete-lined passageways in the North Carolina stretch, to Mount Pisgah (MP 408), part of the 100,000-acre estate bought in the late 1800s by George Vanderbilt, now home to a popular inn and restaurant. Pause at Funnel Top overlook (MP 409) for a 180-degree view of the mountain ranges, then head to the Cradle of Forestry (MP 411), a Transylvania County historic site with exhibits highlighting the state’s forests and woodland conservation efforts. Cherokee (MP 469) marks the southern entrance to the park.
During peak color time in October, be prepared for slow going. A lot of other people want to see the leaves too.
“It’s kind of like the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby,” Hardy says, “all wrapped up in two weekends.”
Plan ahead. Be sure to gas up and book hotel reservations in nearby towns well in advance. There are no gas stations directly on the Parkway, but there are numerous exits for fill-ups during daylight hours.
Get hands-on. Stop at the LEED-certified Parkway Visitor Center near Asheville (MP 384) and interact with the I-Wall, a 22-foot-long multimedia map with information on what to see and do.
Take your time. The 45 mph speed limit encourages safe driving, easier stopping and better views!
– Nancy Henderson