A Solo Voyage on the Blue Ridge Parkway
This is an account of my four-day drive of the famous Blue Ridge Parkway. I’ll be releasing a more concise itinerary in the coming days. As of July 2020, all campgrounds and visitor centers along the route are closed, but it’s still more than worth a drive!
Fearing that I was really going to lose it if I heard the phrase “uncertain times” once more, I knew I needed to get out of town.
A few weeks prior, I had taken an impromptu drive down the Ocoee Scenic Byway through Tennessee. I loved the mountains and the greenery and the way the two-lane roads naturally calmed traffic. No 80mph tailgaters and aggressive drivers there.
I wanted more of that. I was in the mood for scenic back roads, not the monotonous grey ribbon of interstate I had to take every day. I wanted a good long stretch of road to satisfy my wanderlust.
I knew there was only one route for me. I was going to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway.
"America's Favorite Drive"
The Blue Ridge Parkway, affectionately known as “America’s Favorite Drive,” winds 469 miles through the scenic mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. It connects Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south to Shenandoah National Park in the north. The entire roadway is considered one long linear park, and as such is the most visited in the United States.
It’s known far and wide as being a gorgeous drive, one that you could spend a week driving, exploring, and camping.
Unfortunately, due to everyone’s favorite pandemic, the campgrounds and visitor’s centers were all closed. Even so, I didn’t feel like waiting. I was ready to go, and so I went.
The Entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway
After about 4 hours of driving, backtracking to avoid a road closed due to a rockfall, and taking my new DJI Mavic Mini drone out, I eventually arrived in Cherokee, NC. Cherokee is the closest town to the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
It’s a small casino town in the misty mountains, squarely in the Cherokee Native American Reservation. Driving through this little settlement (overshadowed by a massive casino and hotel complex) I saw street signs written in both English and the Cherokee language.
Finding the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Cherokee took a little bit of patience, but after following the signs, I was able to find it.
And just like that, the adventure began!
The Great Smoky Mountains
The first quarter (or last, depending on which way you’re going) of the Parkway passes through the Great Smoky Mountains, which are part of both the Blue Ridge Mountains and the larger Appalachian Mountain Chain. Winding along the spine of the Great Smoky Mountains, it’s easy to see how they got that name: the mountaintops are shrouded in a smoke-like mist, giving them an incredible ethereal quality.
It was here, at the very first overlook I came across, that I saw one of the most incredible vistas I’d ever laid eyes on. It reminded me of being back at the Grand Canyon, only carpeted in vegetation.
It’s amazing how much a good view can do for your mental well-being. I’ve heard of doctors in Japan clinically prescribing shinrin-yoku (literally “forest bathing”) to their patients. These licensed doctors literally tell their stressed-out patients to go for a walk in the park to help their mental wellbeing. And it does help. Gazing out across this gorgeous view, I could feel the background stress of the pandemic fade away, mingling with the mountain mist. Just as the trees turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, my worries were converted into pure bliss.
The Road to Asheville
The road here is at high elevation, almost entirely over a mile above sea level. At one point I passed the Richland Balsam Overlook, with a large marker denoting the highest point in the Blue Ridge Parkway: 6,053 feet up.
While about half the height of the Rockies out west, the Appalachians were at one point, millions of years ago, as high or higher than the Rockies are now. Having formed much, much earlier than their western cousins, the Appalachians have become eroded and more heavily forested.
The drive was already pretty eerie (in a fun way!) because of the mist, and it only got eerier as night fell. Every few overlooks would have pickup trucks full of people chilling and enjoying the night sky. I even passed a woman biking the road in the darkness, with only a headlamp and the moon as her guide. Cool experience? Sure. Risky as hell? Absolutely.
I found this to be the perfect place to turn on some horror podcasts (No Sleep Podcast has some good stories) and enjoy the night ride.
Asheville is a small city nestled into the Blue Ridge Mountains, known for being a bastion of liberal politics and hippy sensibilities. My time walking around there certainly bore that out!
I checked in late to Bon Paul & Sharky’s Hostel in West Asheville. After a good night’s rest on some of the most comfortable mattresses I’ve ever encountered in a hostel, I got up the next morning ready for a day of exploring.
I started the day off with breakfast at Biscuit Head right down the street from the hostel. They serve “cat’s head” biscuits, so called because they are the size of a cat’s head. I’d say that description’s pretty accurate; these are big-ass biscuits. I had the Filthy Animal, served with fried chicken, bacon, and pimento cheese. I knew I wouldn’t be needing a lunch that day.
West Asheville is the more industrial, dare I say gritty part of Asheville. You will find bookstores and coffee shops shoulder-to-shoulder with auto mechanics and repurposed warehouses.
Walking through Asheville brought to mind my early memories of Austin. It’s got a quirky vibe going on. It’s what some might call “hipster,” and certainly progressive. I’d never seen so many tattooed people in my entire life. Having said that, I was happy to see much higher rates of people wearing masks than I witnessed back in Georgia.
Downtown Asheville is a neat, walkable urban center, with nice historic architecture and vibrant street art. The Blue Ridge Mountains provide a stunning background for this most hippy of hillside hollows.
I decided to acquaint myself with the city by walking the Asheville Urban Trail, a series of 30 plaques highlighting a historical aspect of the community. The “trail” meanders for 1.7 miles around downtown, and is not clearly delineated, which can make following it a challenge. But I did learn a lot about Asheville, and I enjoyed strolling through the artsy center of town. I was also introduced to a number of interesting characters…
Here in Downtown Asheville, I witnessed an incredibly dense concentration of interesting characters…
One such character was Jackson, who was casually strolling down the street with his boa constrictor, like you do. The snake’s name was Raskolnikov, after the character in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Jackson had a collections box for petting the snake, and even though I had no cash nor coin on hand, I still got to pet Raskolnikov.
Jackson claimed that the collections would go towards the Black Lives Matter movement. It just so happened that close by, at Pack Square, there was a BLM protest gaining momentum.
I was encouraged to see people still taking to the streets to fight the good fight, but I also felt a small amount of shame: I had attended a protest back in Atlanta at the end of May, and I thought the protests had ended since then. I was very happy to be proven wrong.
I took a seat on a bench in Pack Square, taking in the rhythmic chants of the protesters juxtaposed with the smooth jazz sung by a nearby street busker.
I had noticed an older woman circling the square in a minivan with the windows down. Every few minutes she would drive by, calling out civil rights anecdotes into a microphone. Except the microphone she was holding was one of those brightly colored plastic ones for kids.
Having had enough of the protest chants, smooth jazz, and barely amplified civil rights speeches, I got up and walked back to the car. Along the way, I realized that there was a fourth element to the cacophony: a seemingly constant stream of fire trucks, sirens on full blast. It was a cloudy day, and I could not believe that there would be so many fires on this of all days.
As if to read my mind, a homeless guy walking by said, to no one in particular: “The fire department’s going crazy today. Are there fires, or are they just horny?”
As if on cue, yet another firetruck fired up its siren close by.
“Nope, they’re just horny.”
Continuing on to the Virginia State Line
Leaving Asheville behind, I swung back onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. After battling a traffic backup, I was finally cruising along, another cat’s head-sized biscuit in my belly. But I wasn’t on the road long before I passed yet another overlook that seemed too cool to pass up.
This would become a pattern on this trip, and never have I been so happy to be distracted at every turn.
Coming upon an overlook for Glassmine Falls, I waited for a group of bikers to finish site-seeing at the top of a short hill. Spying a path into the foliage, I decided to do a little hiking to kill some time.
The trail was something straight out of a fairy tale, with branches and pushes pressing in and all side, a songbird serenading my little sojourn.
Walking back after a little while, I noticed some stone markers by the entrance, bearing the initials “MST.” This little trail was in fact just a minuscule portion of the Mountain-to-Sea Trail, an epic hiking path similar to the famous Appalachian Trail.
The hilltop overlook now mostly deserted except for me and another guy, I walked up to get a look at the waterfall. To our disappointment, the falls were not only over three-quarters of a mile away, they were also obscured by heavy, low-lying clouds.
Never fear, the Mavic Mini is here.
I fired up the drone and was able to fly it out past the clouds and get stunning, up-close footage of these waterfalls.
I got to talking with the other guy at the overlook, Robin, showing off the close-up view of the falls. Robin responded by saying that he used to work doing camera work for IMAX documentaries, and that he had been able to travel all over the world doing what he loved.
When he asked what my day job was, I told him the truth: that I was taking a job below my education level due to the pandemic and the already tight job market.
“I would love to take the blog to the next level, and do some professional travel writing for magazines,” I said. “But that’s difficult to do right now. I didn’t even realize that this was what I wanted to do until last year.”
“Well, there’s one thing my grandmother always told me,” he said, in between snapping camera pics of the view. “‘We never start coming up.’ It means we never stop growing and changing. Good luck to you.”
Encouraged, I thanked him and went on my way. It was only a matter of time.
Getting into Virginia starts out slowly. It’s at this point in the Blue Ridge Parkway that you’re at the lowest points, only about 2,000 feet above sea level. While there are still hills, they’re much smaller, and you start passing some of the first signs of development alongside the parkway itself, which are small farms.
It seemed almost…boring, at least compared to the scenic majesty I had spent the last day driving through.
All this changed as soon as I got to Pine Spur Overlook. It was here that the Virginia side of the Parkway really came alive. It’s a little different here: whereas in North Carolina virtually every overlook shows seemingly endless natural landscapes free of human interaction, Virginia’s vistas show farm plots here and there. Even so, they have their own brand of beauty that can wow anyone.
At another overlook, a red Mustang pulled in next to me. The older guy behind the wheel, who would introduce himself as Gary, had about three silver bracelets on each wrist and a gray beard. He leaned over and asked for directions to civilization, somewhere he could buy cigarettes.
“I really don’t know,” I said. “That’s the good thing and the bad thing about this drive, how secluded it is”
“I’m really trying to get some weed.” he said, his voice dipping to a whisper, even though there was no one else around. “Do you have any? You’ve tried it. Once in your life, you’ve tried it.”
“Sure, but I don’t have any,” I said, laughing. Making up some lie on the spot, I told him that I had a drug test for work coming up.
“Yeah, I hear that,” he replied. “I should quit too. I’m trying out for Survivor.”
I was taken aback. I didn’t know the show was still on, and I thought he might be more than a little over the hill to be a viable candidate. But I wished Gary good luck before he sped off. Who knows, maybe I’ll see him on that show some day.
Most Americans might recognize the name “Roanoke” as the early-17th century English colony that mysteriously vanished.
Expecting to see a historic Virginia city, I was greeted by a Days Inn that I would not have stayed in if you paid me. The derelict nature of the hotel and the aggressive screaming of some of the guests scared me, and I’ve lived in some sketchy areas.
RoaNOPE more like it.
Luckily, I had just driven to the wrong Days Inn, and changed course to the right place, where I got a good night’s rest. Tomorrow would be the last leg of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and I was already sad that it would be over so soon.
Waking up the next day, I only had time for one outing in Roanoke. I decided to use my time to check out Mill Mountain.
Mill Mountain is famous for its Mill Mountain Star, sitting 1,045 feet above the city of Roanoke. The star was built in 1949 as a massive Christmas decoration, but the community decided to keep it as a permanent landmark. At 88 feet high, it is the largest man-made star in the world, and can be viewed from 60 miles away. The observation deck also provides a nice vantage point of the small downtown area, if a little far away.
Sadly, I was running behind schedule, and it was time to say goodbye to Roanoke.
The Last Leg
The last quarter of the Parkway turned out to be every bit as beautiful as the first. Compared to North Carolina, the sun was shining with every ounce of its strength in Virginia.
I felt as though I was pulling over at every overlook I came across. I didn’t want the journey to end. Even though I had really only been driving for three days, it felt like I was a different person than when I began.
Well, not entirely different. At one overlook, I noticed a large herd of cows across the road. Hoping to get some close-up footage of the cows, I flew the ol’ drone over to pay them a visit.
As it turns out, cows don’t like loud, alien-looking flying things buzzing around them, and they began to run away. All of them. The chorus of moos and the sound of trampling hooves and snapping tree branches told me that I had effectively started a stampede of cattle. Not wanting to wait to see what the farmers thought of that, I packed up and got out of there quick.
Afton, VA: The End of the Road
Seeing the same “Welcome to the Blue Ridge Parkway” sign that I had seen three days earlier in Cherokee, North Carolina reminded me that every ending is also a beginning.
I can’t wait to make this drive again. Maybe I’ll go in the Fall, when the foliage was in full chromatic bloom. Hopefully, the pandemic will have died down by then, and it will be safe to camp there again.
For now, I had a room in Richmond waiting for me. I took one last look at the Blue Ridge Parkway, and drove off.
I hope you enjoyed this travelogue. If you have a fond Blue Ridge Parkway memory or advice for travelers, feel free to add it in the comments below. Please don’t forget to Like, Pin, and Tweet using the social media buttons!