Blue Ridge Parkway
Oct 31, 2008
|An Appalachian version of the Natchez Trace - Friday, October 31
Since Monticello and Montpelier are both down on the Piedmont we spent the last two nights in the rolling foothill country east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Our plan for today is to return to the mountains and continue our journey on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which picks up where Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive leaves off and goes on another 469 miles down into North Carolina and Tennessee.
To get to the place where we left off we have to backtrack some, so instead of going back the way we came we decided to go straight west and take a road over one of the passes to the Shenandoah Valley on the other side. Then we can see the valley close up for twenty miles or so before we climb back up into the mountains. That is what we did, and it was a great drive. Note: Here in the east they call mountain passes ‘gaps’.
We picked up the Blue Ridge Parkway at Waynesboro, Virginia and started southwest on a road that is an extension of Skyline Drive only better. The north end of the Blue Ridge range runs through Shenandoah National Park, and it is a narrow range, usually only one mountain deep. From Skyline Drive on the ridge you look out at the Shenandoah River Valley if you look west, and out over the Piedmont if you look east. The only time you see only mountains and no developed lowland is when the overlook faces south down the range. Then you see a jumble of peaks receding into the distance and it is quite beautiful.
But from Waynesboro south the Blue Ridge range gets wider and deeper, and much of the time the turnouts look out at more undeveloped mountains to both the east and the west. Occasionally you get a glimpse of the valleys on the other side, but most of the time you are looking out at wilderness with an occasional farmhouse down in the bottom of the valleys. The feeling is much more primitive and compelling.
The trees are still dressed in yellows, reds and gold, with stands of green pine running through them for contrast. For two years now we’ve followed the fall color south through September, October and part of November and you’d think it would get old - but it never does. Around every turn is a scene that dazzles and knocks your eyes out, and you never get used to it.
The north end of the Blue Ridge Parkway at Waynesboro is mile post 0, and when you stop at the first Visitor Center a few miles in the National Park Service gives you a good map that has all the attractions along the parkway located and described, and it has the distances marked in every ten mileposts. The Visitor Center is at a place called Humpback Rocks, and it is located on a tract of land that was once a subsistence mountain farm. The original farm buildings are gone, but they have replaced them with authentic buildings moved in from other farms so you can see how one of these farms would have looked.
In season there are people working at the farmhouse who will describe the life and answer questions, but all the park services close in three days so the staff has mostly gone home by now. Still, the buildings are marked with interpretive signs and the self guided tour is a good walk and an intriguing glimpse into another world that while hard seems to have been a good one.
From Humpback Rocks at mile post 7 we continued south, following the winding parkway road through the George Washington National Forest. To say the drive is beautiful is to understate the obvious by a magnitude of 10. We agree that we want to come back in the spring and see it again when the azaleas and rhododendrons and dogwood are in bloom. Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway are a national treasure.
The powerful James River has it’s source in the mountains west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway on it’s way to Chesapeake Bay at mile post 65. At an elevation of 649 feet this is the lowest point on the parkway, and it’s a ’must do’ on the list of places to stop. There is another Visitor Center here and there are two nice walks you can take, one to see a preserved lock from the old 19th century canal system, and the other that takes you along the riverbank and through a lovely hardwood forest where the trees and shrubs are identified and described.
We did both walks, and we found the canal and lock to be very similar to the Shubenacadie Canal in Nova Scotia. Both canals were built about the same time, and both died out when railroads and good roads made it impossible for them to compete. Fortunately the park systems in both countries are preserving some of the locks so we can see what life was like for our tough and enterprising ancestors.
From the lowest point on the 469 mile parkway to the highest point of the parkway in Virginia is a distance of only nine miles. The climb out of the James River Valley is a gentle one, however, and before you know it you are passing the summit at 3,950 feet. From there it’s a ten mile drive to the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center and campground, where we found a nice primitive campsite and stopped for the night.
The weather has warmed up considerably, and the temperature only dropped to 46 during the night.