One big advantage of being retired is the ability to travel without worrying about taking leave or visiting places and being able to choose when to go to avoid the crowds.
For example, driving the Blue Ridge Parkway is an adventure. It is a beautiful drive with the primary intent of providing a unique driving experience amidst beautiful scenery and a slower pace than most Americans are used to practicing. The road is designed to take advantage of the scenery, the rolling hills and plateaus, and to allow a leisurely drive reminiscent of what an ideal drive in the country must have been like 50 years ago but choosing the timing for your trip is important.
The Parkway is not a National Park, but is a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road, and is the most visited unit in the U.S. National Park System. Land on either side of the road is maintained by the National Park Service and, in many places, the park is bordered by land protected by the Forest Service.
There were about 15.4 million visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2011. 50 years ago, there were 6.04 million visitors. The first year with more than a million visitors was 1946. With higher gas prices and a recession that has been on-going for several years, traffic to this park is actually down from a high of about 21.5 million in 2002.
The Blue Ridge Parkway connects two national parks, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Shenandoah National Park. It covers 469 miles and was started in the 1930’s as a “make work project” to provide jobs during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. It was not completed until 1987.
Critics may have been correct in their description but, without a doubt, taxpayers received a long-lasting return on the expenditure as the money was provided to those who needed a job but the money wasn’t given away. Uncle Sam paid people in return for their work on a public project. All of us can now enjoy the results of this effort.
Visitors traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway can make one stop to learn about the entire 469 miles and 73-year history of the Parkway at the Parkway Visitor Center at mileage marker 284. The Parkway Visitor Center opened in 2008. Check out the times for some of the facilities to be open before you leave though.
Having previously driven on small portions of the highway, my goal was to drive the entire length of the parkway. So, loading up a small two-seater convertible by cramming luggage into every available space, we took off to experience the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Starting from the southern end of the Parkway, the entrance is near Cherokee, North Carolina. But, feeling like a teenager with a new car and a desire to maximize the experience of curving, challenging roads, we started out on the Tail of the Dragon. It is not part of the Blue Ridge Parkway and more generally a more dangerous drive than the Parkway itself. This 11 mile stretch of road reportedly has 318 curves, too many motorcycles to count taking their chances on the curves. Much of the road is a border for the Smoky Mountains National park. It is a rural area in Tennessee and North Carolina and starts at Deals Gap, NC (pop. 6).
Motorcycle and sports car drivers sometimes take the 120-mile loop of the Tail of the Dragon. Our goal was to enter the Blue Ridge Parkway after driving through the Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Blue Ridge is a unique experience. Traffic varies widely, depending on the time of year, day of the week, the weather and the location. On a beautiful summer weekend, the road can be crowded. In any case, the terrain varies from steep mountain curves to a rural, paved road surrounded by forest, pastures with cows and horses and a variety of plants.
One of the biggest dangers is other drivers. There are always some who are not paying attention. Coming around a curve, even at a slow speed, when an an inattentive driver is veering into the wrong lane is a scary experience.
While the Parkway is well maintained and paved, the mountain roads are steep. Driving a large RV while towing a car or truck would not seem to be a good idea. That does not mean some people will give it a try. One disadvantage of a convertible is smelling the brakes burning as the driver of the RV tries to keep his vehicle under control going (very slowly) down a mountain. And, when that happens on a busy weekend day, the traffic will build up behind the slow-moving vehicle. Grin and be glad you are not the driver of the RV and hope he pulls off at one of the scenic overlooks to cool off his brakes and enjoy the view.
Driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) is not like driving on most highways. There are no billboards. There are places to stop and check out the scenery every few miles.
You will not be alone on your drive. It is common to see deer, bears, wild turkeys, and other critters standing or eating beside the road. Speeding can be dangerous, even in those areas where the road is straight. In one instance, a black bear emerged unexpectedly from the side of the road, oblivious to the car as it started to cross the two-lane road directly in front of our vehicle.
For those who enjoy plants, here are suggestions from one author about the best time to drive on the Blue Ridge:
- Flame azalea South of Roanoke to Rocky Knob Mid May
- Flame azalea West of Asheville Mid-June
- Mountain laurel Along Otter Creek Mid-May
- Mountain laurel Other parts of the Parkway First two weeks of June
- Catawba rhododendron North of Peaks of Otter to Onion Mountain and in Doughton Park First week of June
- Catawba rhododendron Craggy Gardens and in the Balsams After mid-June
- Wildflowers Anywhere on the Parkway April to autumn (fall)
For those who like to camp out, there are campgrounds and RV parks.
There are also numerous bed and breakfast locations along the way. Most of
these are not on the Parkway itself but a short drive into a town. If you are
going to try to stay on the Parkway, an advance reservation is often essential.
Most of the Parkway is through rural areas. And, during the summer months, a reservation along the way may be the difference in stopping early to enjoy a
good meal or continuing your drive while trying to find a vacancy.
Some drivers will be surprised at the rapid change in weather that can occur in the mountains. It can be sunny for a short time and then rainy and foggy a few miles later with wet roads, sharp curves, and limited visibility.
At the northern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, there is a quick connection to the Skyline Parkway. The entrance is seamless and, for those who live in the Washington, DC area and want to enjoy the experience of driving along a similar road, the Skyline Drive Parkway is an option.
The Southern entrance of the Skyline Drive is near Waynesboro, Virginia and it ends at Front Royal, Virginia near I-66. There are hotel accommodations along the drive but reservations in advance are advisable.
If you have the time, drive along the entire road at your leisure. Make a reservation at one of the lodges along the way or stay in one of the motels in the towns not too far from the parkway. Be sure to take the time to check out the scenes along the road including hiking trails, gift shops, and images from America’s past.
Above all, take your time, enjoy the drive and appreciate the results of this “make work project” that resulted from planning, using the money wisely and the work provided by those who needed a job to support themselves and their families when no jobs were available.