Between them, Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway cover 572 miles (106 miles of Skyline Drive and 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway), mostly at or near the top of the Blue Ridge, from northern Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina. You can, of course, get on it and go somewhere, but this is not a highway, and if all you want to do is get there you are better off on I-81, which runs through the Great Valley that separates the Blue Ridge from the main range of the Allegheny Mountains.
The Blue Ridge offers stunning views, and many people come for that. But it offers more. In a world that is always in a hurry, always counting pennies, always trying to sell you something, the Blue Ridge offers peace, a slower pace, and older values. Driving it feels like gliding through another world, all your cares and pressures behind you. For much of the trip you are disconnected from the office, the cloud, the cellular network. For a few hours you live in the present.
The two roads are physically one system, joined at Rockfish Gap, above Waynesboro, VA. The entire area is controlled by the National Park Service and is managed to preserve as much wilderness as possible while providing access for the public.
The parkways were created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as public works projects in the 1930s, although construction was not finished until the completion of the Linn Cove Viaduct around Grandfather Mountain, NC, an engineering marvel, in 1987. It was built looking back at an earlier time.
While they are connected, the two roads have distinct characters. Skyline Drive is much shorter and 10 mph slower. In part this is because it is more twisty and has more views, turnoffs and trails per mile. Cars are constantly pulling in and out of the parking areas, and drivers are often distracted by the views, so obey the speed limit and be prepared for sudden stops. Do not tailgate. It is dangerous and impolite.
Although Skyline is only 106 miles, you should plan to take a full day to drive it from one end to the other, allowing for both the 35 mph speed limit and the views that demand that you stop. Like most National Parks, it also charges a fee for entry, although if you are a U.S. citizen over 62 you can get a lifetime pass good for all National Parks, definitely something every qualified citizen needs. Skyline also is less of a road to anywhere. It’s main attractions are its views, hiking, trails and campgrounds, which are full every weekend in summer.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is four times the length and reaches to Great Smoky National Park. Its many stopping points are more spread out, and the speed limit is 45 for most of its length. Entry is free. Besides pullovers at viewing spots it has multiple larger sites that are parks of their own, including the James River, Mabry Mill, Peaks of Otter and the Blue Ridge Music Center in Virginia and Doughton Park, the Moses H. Cone Park, Grandfather Mountain, and Julian Price Memorial Park in North Carolina. All of these and many others are worth seeing, and I will cover them all in future blogs.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is also less busy and more mystical. You drive through long stretches of forest where you can feel the ancient spirit of wilderness that is the heart of the world and that is lost in the modern environment that humans have constructed for themselves. With few landmarks for these long stretches, you lose the sense of going somewhere and just are.
This blog chronicles my personal experiences driving and hiking on the Blue Ridge, through the Shenandoah River Valley, and adjacent areas, with occasional side trips to other areas from western Maryland and West Virginia to the Outer Banks. I am a professional journalist and photojournalist, and I hope through my writing and photography to impart some of the experience of being there. In the process I will provide detailed information that may be of some value to readers, for instance of the condition of trails or road conditions after storms. Several excellent Web sites and guide books already provide the bare bones information – how long each hike is and its difficulty, where each pull-over is by mile post, etc. I list some at the bottom of this introductory entry. I am focusing on the details and the experience, which they do not give you.
I hope you will enjoy sharing my adventures with me. However, just as a recording of a concert is only a reminder of the experience of being there, so this blog can at best only remind you of your own memories. If you live close enough to visit the Blue Ridge on weekends, it will let you know what you might expect on particular trails and sites and help you plan your trips. If not, I hope it inspires you to get out into whatever parks, public lands, or wilderness areas are available to you. It is always an experience of renewal.
Some Web sites for basic information:
The official National Park Service Skyline Drive Web site. http://visitskylinedrive.org/Home.aspx
The official Blue Ridge Parkway Web site http://www.blueridgeparkway.org/index.php
The National Park Service site for the Shenandoah region (check the “Alerts” page for road conditions and other important information): Www.Nps.gov/shen