In the midst of last month's big freeze, crews were working to reopen a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway through Asheville, because it's a commuter route. It's amazing that people are using a national park for their daily commute in Asheville. Do we know how lucky we are?
The Blue Ridge Parkway runs 469 miles, from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. The most-visited national park "unit" in the U.S., the Parkway turns 75 this year. The big birthday comes on the heels of another celebration that has special significance for outdoors lovers: In 2009, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park marked its own 75th anniversary.
The scenic byway's first segment — on Cumberland Knob in Alleghany County, N.C. — was completed in 1939. But the Parkway remained a work in progress until 1987, when the Linn Cove Viaduct skirting Grandfather Mountain was finally opened. Contrary to popular mythology, the Parkway project wasn't started as a way to put men back to work during hard times. Rather, the effort was spearheaded by business people looking to attract tourists, and progress wasn't always easy.
The route sparked controversy, particularly between North Carolina and Tennessee. Conflicting proposals called for going directly from Virginia to Tennessee, or from Virginia to North Carolina, or Virginia to North Carolina and then, south of Blowing Rock, veering west into Tennessee, bypassing Asheville.
Politicians on both sides of the state line realized the tourist potential and wanted the road to go through their mountains. When Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior under President Franklin Roosevelt, finalized the route through North Carolina, he noted that Gatlinburg was already an established gateway to the Smoky Mountains. Ending the Parkway there would effectively make Gatlinburg the only entrance into the Smokies. North Carolina had a more scenic route, and in summer, tourists would appreciate going through higher elevations. The sections passing through Asheville weren't completed until the 1950s and '60s.
Blue Ridge Parkway 75, an independent nonprofit organization, was formed to celebrate the anniversary. Its board reflects various interests, including the National Park Service, academics, conservationists and people in the tourism industry. Along with assorted community partners, they've planned a host of events, from Old Fort Railroad Day to a Fiber Weekend at the Folk Art Center. "The real celebration will be in the communities," says Houck Medford, executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. More than 300 official Parkway-designated events are planned for the 29 counties bordering the scenic road, he notes. (For a list of all events, go to blueridgeparkway75.org.)
More than a road
The tag line for the 75th anniversary celebration is "More than a road." You can punctuate the driving with stops at various lookouts. That's a popular approach with tourists who have just one day to "do" the Parkway.
But Anne Whisnant, author of Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History, spotlights "Bulges along the Parkway — areas of outstanding scenery where larger amounts of land … offer Parkway travelers a wider array of facilities." These are pearls in the Parkway necklace. Here are a few that I plan to visit or revisit during this historic year:
• Waterrock Knob (milepost 451.2) The view from the parking lot is outstanding. But when you take the trail to the top (0.6 miles), you'll see the full breadth of Pisgah National Forest with no sign of human activity.
• Cradle of Forestry (milepost 411.9) Four miles south of the Parkway on U.S. 276, this is where scientific forestry in the U.S. began. With a film, exhibits and a reconstruction of the Biltmore Forest School on offer, you don't have to have a child along to enjoy the site.
• Pisgah Inn (milepost 408.6) The inn sits near the former site of Buck Spring Lodge, George Vanderbilt's extravagant hunting retreat (the springhouse still stands). I've walked past the hostelry dozens of times on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail; this year, I'm going to stop and have a meal.
• Craggy Gardens (milepost 367.7) In mid-June, the gardens explode with rhododendron, mountain laurel, and flame azalea — the triple crown of color. It's not easy to time it right, but the buds stay open for a couple of weeks.
• Linville Falls (milepost 316.4) Take the Linville Falls spur road; the easy trails show off the falls from every conceivable angle. You can also walk down to the Linville River, an easier way to get into Linville Gorge than through the designated wilderness area.
The Parkway "is accessible to so many people," noted Medford. "Some can walk to the Parkway from their backyard."
And when I complained that I might have to wait months for the road to reopen, Medford countered, "The Parkway is never closed. Go to your nearest gate and you'll see cars parked there. People are out, walking the Parkway and enjoying the resources."
For the most up-to-date news on Parkway closures, call the info line at (828) 298-0398.
Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein is the author of Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge Heritage. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.