ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Spanning 469 miles, the Blue Ridge Parkway runs like a backbone along the Appalachian Mountains.
Crossing three states, connecting six mountain ranges and providing employment for thousands, this scenic national parkway is operated by the National Parks Service.
Each year the parkway is traveled by more than 19 million visitors. By the end of this year, the road is expected to have seen more than 400 million visitors in its 51 years of existence.
Why is it so popular? The roads are toll-free, various forms of inexpensive accommodations are available and no billboards mar the scenery.
The Appalachian Mountain culture has been preserved in the museums, craft displays and farms along the parkway. Hundreds of summer festivals take place in towns along the road.
Hiking, Fishing, Flowers
Eighteen recreation areas offer hiking, fishing and other nature-oriented activities. Along the parkway are more varieties of wildflowers than grow in all of Europe, and it goes through the largest deciduous forest in the world.
The list could go on and on.
Only 55 years ago, the parkway was an idea being tossed around by the Roosevelt Administration. In the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was hard pressed to find a project for Appalachia that was constructive and in the national interest. A new national parkway, which would employ locals and bring in tourist dollars, seemed to answer both needs.
Today the attractions on and off the parkway vary greatly--from the splendid view from the Peaks of Otter in Virginia to the manicured gardens of the Biltmore Mansion in North Carolina.
The only things that remain the same all along the parkway are the regulations: speed limit 45 m.p.h., no littering, no open fires.
A Leisurely Trip
Driving at this leisurely pace, it would take about a week to go from one end to the other. About every 20 miles there is some sort of visitor center with food, gasoline, hiking trails and nature talks by rangers. Nine campgrounds and five lodges are right along the parkway.
The parkway's northern entrance is at Shenandoah National Park at Front Royal, Va. This park has by far the best tourist facilities on the Virginia side of the parkway, and could consume three or four days of touring.
Park headquarters are in Skyland, at an altitude of 3,680 feet and overlooking a fertile, rolling valley. Several types of accommodations are available, generally running $20 per person. The main lodge also houses a restaurant, tourist shop and bar. Motel-type rooms have all facilities except TV. Self-contained cottages have showers, kitchens and bunk beds. There are campgrounds, playgrounds, conference centers and service shelters.
Despite all this, the park service has managed to preserve the area's natural beauty. People come from all over the nation to hike the trails at Shenandoah Park. Monstrous waterfalls, long rocky ravines, pine forests and extensive caverns are all part of the park.
South of Shenandoah, at milepost 30, is the Humpback Rocks information center. A cabin has been restored and includes a springhouse, root cellar and pigpen, plus a museum where workers show visitors the old Appalachian ways of making ceramics and quilts and prese1920362862Appalachian Trail runs to the top of Humpback Mountain.
South again, at milepost 86, is Peaks of Otter Lodge. Below the Peaks of Otter, the lodge is beside a small lake. Open all year, it is one of four lodges along the parkway.
In nearby Staunton is the house where Woodrow Wilson was born. The University of Virginia, along with the house that one of its distinguished alums--Thomas Jefferson--built, is in Charlottesville. The house is highly recommended. There is Natural Bridge, though with its video arcade and indoor swimming pool it seems anything but natural.
The lovely town of Lexington has changed little since the days when it produced the two generals of the Confederacy, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. One of the few towns in Virginia that has made a conscious effort to hold on to the architecture of the last century, it is worth visiting. Each summer, Lexington hosts a series of nightly outdoor dramas.
The cabins at Rocky Knob have been renovated from their days as quarters for workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps. They are self-contained, with kitchen, bathroom and shower facilities.
At Mabry Mill, near the border of Virginia and North Carolina, is a one-man blacksmith and milling operation. The water-powered gristmill still churns out coarse flour, which is used in the nearby restaurant for buckwheat pancakes, cornmeal cakes and fried grits. This is one of the most frequently visited areas on the parkway.
Whereas Virginia relies mainly on its historic and natural attractions to bring in tourists, North Carolina has built a strong tourist industry.