One of the best times to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway is in September, after the summer tourists are gone, and before the leafers start coming out. A little frost on the mountain ridges in the late summer puts just a little color in the roadside flora, and often the weather is spectacularly beautiful. Gone are the minivans full of bored kids, the September crowd is mostly retired folk driving their Buick Park Avenues and riding their Goldwings and Harley-Davidson Electraglydes. In fact, I would venture to say that I saw almost as many motorcycles up on the Parkway as cars. Many of the motorcyclists on the parkway were of the same age bracket as the Park Avenue set. I was tempted to turn my Honda Accord around and fetch my V-30 Magna, but I feared, (perhaps rightly so), that it probably would not make the distance from Front Royal, Virginia to Cherokee, North Carolina and back again without breaking down. Despite my decision to retain my safer and more conventional form of conveyance, it was a lot of fun, and I hope to repeat the trip on two wheels instead of four someday. One neat thing I saw the first day were dozens of antique British Cars of the make Alvis, being driven by ladies and gentlemen in full traditional British Driving Costumes. It was a blast, and I got to talk to one of the drivers and take some pictures of the cars at an overlook. An extension of the BRP, known as Skyline Drive runs from the northern terminus of the Parkway at US 33 near Harrisonburg, Virginia to Front Royal, an additional distance of 105 miles.
During the week in September you can often drive as fast as you dare, but with sharp curves, no guardrails, and steep thousand foot dropoffs on both sides just beyond the road's edge, one should think twice about pushing things too hard. The speed limit is 45 miles an hour, and in many places this is pushing it unless you have a death wish. Hazards aside, the scenery along the Parkway between Harrisonburg and Roanoke, Virginia is absolutely spectacular, and rolling along through the mountain wilderness can be quite enchanting, especially when the weather starts to close in on the mountain, and the road bumps up against the clouds. There was an unusual weather pattern the first day of my trip, a hurricane was loitering off Cape Hatteras, making everything east of the Blue Ridge Mountains cloudy, but everything to the west was clear. My first day's travels ended at a 62 dollar a night motel run by a major chain along I-81 near Salem, Virginia.
After making a detour to visit my alma mater, Virginia Tech the next morning, I got back on the Parkway at Virginia Route 8, some 20 miles south of Christiansburg, Virginia. Here, the Parkway is a little more mellow, it leaves behind the sharp and rugged ridges of Shenadoah National Forest, and instead goes through the gentler foothills east of the backbone ridges of the Appalachians. Here the country is more rounded, alternating between mountain meadows and forest, with a few rural homesteads dotting the roadside. There is often a parallel road to the Parkway for the locals to use, seperated from the Parkway by a narrow buffer of trees. As the Parkway exits out of Virginia and into North Carolina, it climbs back into the real mountains again, and there are quite a few roadside formations to check out, such as Blowing Rock.
A bit further in to North Carolina I detoured off the Parkway again, this time for road construction, and followed a Goldwing back on to the Parkway, about 20 miles further down. When I got back on the Parkway again, I got kind of a wierd feeling, a little dizzy and lightheaded. It was the altitude. I was up over 4,000 feet, and my body was having to adjust. In a few minutes I felt better, and got off the Parkway for the day in Boone, North Carolina, home of Appalachian State University. My digs that night were half the price they were in Salem, a clean but independently owned motel carved into the hillside that looked like it was built in the early 1960's. The owners were friendly, and they recommended the little diner at the bottom of the motel drive. The eats were plentiful and good, and the check for the whole meal plus dessert and tip came to less than ten bucks. I went back there for breakfast the next morning.
Day three on the Parkway started crisp and clear and I looked forward to seeing Mount Mitchell, the highest point in North America east of the Mississippii River. South of Boone, the road climbed back past 4000, then 5,000 feet and stayed there. A sign pointed down a gravel road to Mount Mitchell. I hoped to try for some long distance 2 meter ham radio contacts from the summit, but I was only able to raise a ham working his way across I-40, about 50 miles away. The weather on the mountaintop was clear but chilly and breezy, and there were several of the ever present Goldwings parked there. Over half of Goldwings were actually trikes, using an automotive rear end hooked to the powerplant and steering of a motorcycle. A neat hack, but how do you lean into turns?
As the road moved south, the mountaintops became shrouded in clouds, and the road climbed closer and closer to them, in a scene reminiscent of Lord of the Rings. The road reached its highest point of over 6,000 feet above sea level at the Richard Balsam Overlook, but all you could see was fog, and maybe 150 feet of road in front of you. From then on it was all downhill, literally, until the Parkway ended at Cherokee, North Carolina. At the time I drove it, much of that last downhill run from the Richard Balsam Overlook was under construction but open, and traffic was reduced to picking its way along a gravel roadbed at 15 or 20 miles per hour.
After stopping in Cherokee for a soda and a candy bar I went back up into the mountains one more time, to see Smoky Mountains National Park, and bedded down for the night in that somewhat famous white trash mecca, Pigeon Forge, Tennesee, home of Dollywood.