Running ’upstream’ on the Blue Ridge Parkway - Thursday, May 21
Last fall we drove south down the long range of the Blue Ridge Mountains, getting on in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park and driving the 105 mile Skyline Drive, then transferring to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Waynesboro, Virginia and continuing on to where it ends in Cherokee, North Carolina. The entire route from Front Royal, Virginia to Cherokee, North Carolina is 574 miles of some of the most beautiful scenery in the United States.
Our goal of completing this famous drive was frustrated, however, when we got to Asheville, North Carolina and found that the last 80 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed for the season. That required the use of an alternative route to get from Asheville to Cherokee, and we didn’t get to see a major portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Hence our return this year. We have some unfinished business to attend to, and we have the added goal of wanting to see these mountains dressed up for spring. We’ve seen the fall coloring, and it seems that nothing could be more beautiful than that, but now we want to see the green season and the profusion of wildflowers as they bloom. And therein lies a problem.
No matter who you ask, “When is the best time to see the spring flowers?” you will get a different answer. This is not because they are trying to trick you or evade the question. It is because the question is impossible to answer. Besides the variables of temperature and rainfall, you have the effects of elevation and the biological schedules of each separate species. This results in a bewildering array of answers that leave you as hopelessly confused as before.
If you want to see dogwood and azaleas you’d better come early, unless you’re going to the higher elevations of course, where they bloom later in the season. If you come early to see the dogwood and azaleas you’re going to miss the rhododendrons which bloom later, but you might see mountain laurel depending on where you go and when? To add to the confusion you have the effect of nearly 7 degrees of north latitude. Plants in the north tend to bloom later than those in the south, but plants at a high elevation in the south might bloom before the same plant at a low elevation in the north.
That means that a rhododendron at a low elevation in the south might bloom earlier than an azalea at a high elevation in the north. Elevation in these mountains can vary from less than 2,000 feet to over 6,000 feet. Do you get the picture? It’s a crap shoot. You can do hours of painstaking calculations and still be wrong. Maybe that’s why they’re called wildflowers!
So far we’ve been lucky. We missed a lot of the dogwood and azaleas in the south, but hopefully there will still be some in bloom farther north. It’s still too early for the wild rhododendrons, but there are plenty of domestic ones in bloom and they are the more colorful ones anyway. The mountain laurel is blooming everywhere in several shades of white and pink, and the other wildflowers that grow along the road are splashes of color no matter where you go.
Our plan is to enter the Blue Ridge Parkway at it’s southern terminus - at Mile Post 469 - and to first drive the 80 something miles we missed last fall. Then after a short stay in Asheville, North Carolina to avoid the Memorial Day traffic, we will drive on at least as far as the Blue Ridge Music Center in southern Virginia. By that time we will have seen about all the flowers we’re going to see, and at that point we plan to leave the parkway and head west along the ‘cooked road’ of blue grass music fame. From there on we’ll wing it.
We started today by getting on the parkway just where we’d planned, at it’s southern terminus in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is just off the Cherokee Reservation (Qualla Boundary) and it is where you will find Mile Post 469. Getting on the parkway was like reuniting with an old friend. We immediately felt at home. Our destination was Asheville, and the drive was to be a revealing one.
Getting on the parkway from the south you first cross the Oconaluftee River at 1,900 feet of elevation. Between the river and Asheville the road climbs to it’s highest parkway elevation 6,053 feet. In a climb of almost 4,200 feet the scenery changes dramatically, and one of the biggest changes is the colors. The predominate color at the bottom is green, and while there are an infinite number of shades of green the overall effect is green mountains against a blue sky. Very different from the warm colors of last fall, but still beautiful we agreed.
Our expectation was that the passing forest would remain green for the rest of the day, but we were in for a big surprise. You don’t have to get too far into the pictures above to see that soon the colors were remarkably varied. As we climbed higher the full foliage greens of the lower elevations gave way to the gold and reddish greens of trees in an earlier stage of leafing out. And as we climbed higher still the buds became redder and we started seeing trees that were still bare from winter.
Scattered through the woods we started to see many flowering trees, and as we neared the top the mountain laurel gave way to wild azaleas! In the lower elevation hardwood forests there are few if any pines, but at the higher elevations dark green pines started poking through. Adding to the beauty was the drama of an ever changing sky. From a robin’s egg blue at the beginning the sky changed to cobalt, and the white clouds of earlier in the day changed to the brooding gray of rain. There are many turnouts and overlooks on the parkway, and we must have stopped at half of them. Sometimes the scenery at one turnout would be pretty much like the scenery at the last turnout, but with scenery like this who cares?
In summary, we found this southernmost 80 miles of the parkway to be the most beautiful of all. This is where the Blue Ridge and the Smoky’s intersect, and no view of the Shenandoah, the Piedmont or the Allegheny's can compare with this magnificent terrain. We reached Asheville in early evening, and we camped in our old KOA from last year, but in a different site on one of their lakes. This is where we’ll hide out for Memorial Day weekend, then it’s back on the road next Monday for points north and west.