Most of us travel on the Interstate Highway System, established by President Eisenhower in the 1950’s. These highways are clearly a product of the modern era, designed to transport the military, civilians, and products at maximum speed and efficiency. Interstates are characterized by tense, high speed driving with huge tractor-trailer trucks rolling at 70 miles per hour and cars often hitting 90.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is from an earlier age, the product of the vision of Franklin Roosevelt looking back to a time that was already fading from living memory when it was built only 20 years earlier. Parkways were designed to combine the practicality of driving and the beauty of being in nature.
The Parkway operates at 45 mph, and even this is fast for some of the tighter turns. Trucks are banned, and for much of the year traffic is very light. Rather than transporting people efficiently from place to place, it squirms across the geography, following the often-twisted ridgeline rather than any direct route from destination to destination. It only incidentally passes near smaller cities like Roanoke, Virginia, and Boone, North Carolina. For much of its length it has no cell service, and WiFi is only available at the larger facilities. Pullovers are sited to provide pleasant, sometimes spectacular views or parking for hikers rather than highway rest stops. Rest areas are only provided sporadically, with some long drives between them.
For visitors, it can be a refuge from the demands of the always-on, high speed 21st Century world. It is a drive to nowhere, but rather to another when, where your car becomes a time machine. Even when it does pass through an urban area, such as the outskirts of Roanoke, the feeling is of being deep in the woods rather than in a city. Encounters with deer, bear, turkeys, and other wildlife are not uncommon, particularly in early morning before traffic picks up, and the signs of humanity that you do see along the road are often leftovers from earlier times – the remains of a stone church, a general store, a preserved mountain cabin from the times before the road was built.
Because of the geography, most of it is out of cellular range, so before you go, warn your business contacts that you will be hard to reach. Because you are not really going anywhere, you have no need to speed. Drive the speed limit and you have time to watch the roadsides for wildflowers and critters. Stop from time to time to enjoy one of the many views, that become more spectacular as you go south. If you need to get somewhere in a hurry, the Interstates are always available.
Practical things to be aware of include the locations of public bathrooms, restaurants, and lodging. Check the parkway map, available for free at the visitor stations, and be aware that in some sections the rest areas can be an hour or more apart. The only parkway restaurants are at Mabry Mill and Peaks of Otter in Virginia. However, private restaurants can be found in the towns along the parkway. Of you can pack your lunch and stop at one of the many picnic areas. Lodging includes eight park campgrounds, several private campgrounds just outside park boundaries, the motel at Peaks of Otter, and private cabins along the parkway. Modern motels are, of course, available further off the parkway along the Interstates that run through the valleys to the east and west.
The Parkway offers hiking trails, historical sites, and several fishing areas such as Otter Creek, along its length. I will write separate blogs on some of those. The road, itself, is an engineering feat, in many places running along shelves cut into the bedrock along the side of mountains and in others finding ways along the top of the ridge. Driving a road for more than 400 miles along the top of a mountain range must have sounded crazy when President Roosevelt proposed it as a WPA project in the early 1930s. It is very possible that in places it follows trails once walked by Daniel Boone and before him by the Aboriginal Americans. It is easy to imagine how the parkway became a haven for the men who worked on it in the very difficult times of the Great Depression. They were isolated from home, living in camps, had no personal worries about where their next meal would come from, and had steady paying work at a time when many did not.
Although most of the road was built by 1940, it was not completed until 1987, with the opening of the Linville Viaduct, which takes it around the east side of Grandfather Mountain, near milepost 300. This is the single most spectacular piece of engineering in the park and has won several awards. In the late 1970s, when Figg and Müller Engineers, Inc., took on the project, many, including other engineers, considered it impossible. The problem was that normal methods – either blasting a cut into the solid rock of the mountain or driving a tunnel through its heart, would have damaged the unique ecosystem of this wild place, and both proposals were rejected by the Park Service. It is still an engineering marvel. By the way, the best place to get a photo, barring a helicopter or drone, is at a small, unofficial pullover at its the north end.
Today the Parkway remains a refuge from the modern world, a place where you can relax and drift along in your vehicle. It is a very popular road for both motorcyclists and distance bicyclists. So, turn off your smartphone, set your cruise control for 45 mph, relax, and enjoy the experience.