A Macro-Driving Adventure in the Blue Ridge

Blue Ridge Parkway Outing, VA

Last week we found our selves with a few days to ourselves and some house guests to entertain. What better way to bring them west, to see the Mountains of NC?

Last year we went out to the mountains near Asheville, NC to show some guests things they hadn’t seen before…namely Appalachian Mountain Scenery. Seeing it with them was like seeing it all over for the first time…it was a fine experience.

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Photo taken last October. The colors were subdued, but seeing them with first time visitors to NC helped make them seem special.

This we are headed out west with Sled Dog Fitz Roy and our borrowed children, Emily and Sayuri. This is the first time we have had a party of five out to the mountains.

The weather looked unpromising around Asheville and even less promising around Boone. The forecast actually looked a little better further North, so Brian set a course for Roanoke, VA and the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Girls had never seen the Blue Ridge Parkway. Seeing that this was a weekday, and the peak season of summer has not quite started, we thought this a good time to show them the most heavily visited unit in the entire National Park System.

We piled into the Jeep, did our traditional breakfast stop at Chick-Fil-A, and headed west.

Though it is only three hours from our house to the closest approach of the Parkway outside Roanoke, it seemed to take half a day. Brian, the minister of transportation, was disgruntled. This would not be a microadventure, alas…it would be more of a macro-driving microadventure.

On the way, we paused for a side trip to “Stay Off” Waterfall, located next to the vending machines at the Alamance County pullout off I-40. With a vertical plunge of some 4 feet, Stay Off falls is one of the NCDOT‘s tallest waterfalls. It sure is a great viewing experience — provided of course you, you know, stay off.

It seemed the weather might shift on us, for thunder rang out as we gassed up near the town of Narrows, VA.

But the weather held itself just barely together. We picked up the parkway at one of its least interesting points – the area between Doughton Park, NC and Roanoke VA is one of the flattest and least interesting areas. However, the scenic road eventually turns back up onto the Blue Ridge and starts to pick up some scattered views. The first of these happened to be the great valley overlook. Interestingly, this same overlook was featured in a blog post of the same new we did several months back.

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The Great Valley Overlook, the BRP’s ode to the Second Amendment. Now…
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…And then. Keep your powder dry, boys.

Though the skies were cloudy, there were nonetheless very good views, and little or no haze in the air. One of the reasons we avoid the parkway in the summer is that the haze from polluting industry and power plants in the Ohio River Valley tends to blow eastward and really spoils the views.

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Another reason we avoid the park in high summer is thunderstorms. We were there a little before prime thunderstorm season gets going but still, one seemed to be threatening. We explored the rocks above the overlook but found little of interest apart from a hungry tick that attempted to hitch a ride with Brian. As we reached the car, raindrops began to fall.

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The Great Valley excites Fitz far less than crumbs of beef jerky dropped by sight-seers.

But they were short lived. The weather cleared, and further down the parkway we reached some nice viewpoints to the Northeast. From here, we could see an old friend…Sharp Top Mountain, where the number 10 hike on our Best Hikes in the Southern Appalachians is located.

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Shaaaaaahp Top, as we’d say in Boston, is the distinctly sharper peak on the right. To the left is its alter ego Flat Top, which looks absolutely nothing an aircraft carrier.

While on the Parkway, Brian makes it a point to drive the speed limit (45 MPH in most areas) or even slower than that. If he has a leadfooted motorist behind him, you can bet it will be slower. This is a scenic road, folks. The Indy 500 is over yonder. So if you’re one of those leadfooted motorists using the parkway as a cut-through between highways…that slow moving jerk in front of you might well be Brian.

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Fitz takes a stroll.
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Looking Southeast, back toward home.

We wound our way down to the Peaks of Otter recreation area, home of Sharp Top and its sister peak Flat Top. Hiking was not on the agenda today…instead, we indulged in something we seldom have had time for recently…a family picnic.

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Everyone enjoyed themselves, and particularly the sandwiches prepared by our resident gourmet sandwich chef.

More sprinkles of rain issued forth as the picnic wrapped up, so we headed off down the parkway to catch what views we could. Some fog intruded as we gained elevation heading up Thunder Ridge, and this caused us some concern because we have several times be on the BRP when conditions rapidly deteriorated and visibility fell to zero. But soon we crested the height of land and started down, and the mist vanished, just like…mist.

Just before the parkway crosses highway 501 and the James River, there is a series of overlooks to the west across the Great Valley to the distant ridges of the Allegheny Mountains, behind which lies the West Virginia border. These are some of the best viewpoints on the Virginia section of the BRP, in our opinion. We came a years ago to photograph the sunset.

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Sunset from the Thunder Ridge/Arnold Valley pullouts from last year.

At the Arnold Valley Viewpoint, we discovered something we’d not noticed before…a sort of big rock pulpit that provides an excellent viewing platform.

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The two bumps in the distance beyond the rock pulpit are House Mountain.

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Cloudy, but not hazy, views across the valley towards West Virginia.

Note that there are several online resources with detailed descriptions of the BRP milepost by mileposts. Not a single one of the descriptions of the parkway pullouts I can find online even mentions the pulpit. Perhaps the reason can be inferred by one of them, which compares it unfavorably with the Thunder Ridge lookout – but states that the downside of THAT view is you have to get out of your car to see it.

Well, we got out of the car. House Mountain, which was the subject of an interesting hike and another blog post of ours, could clearly be seen in the distance.

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The effort of getting head, wife, dog, view in the lens produced this rictus grin of joy from Brian.

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Here’s a nice panoramic with some of the mountains noted. Some of these are over 30 miles away in WV.

As we have started previously, often the views in the southern Appalachians are not all these could be, partly because of trees and partly because of the rolling nature of the terrain. However, rock outcroppings often provide notable exceptions to this rule. Sharp Top and House Mountain are two local examples of places were abrupt rock ledges and tall cliffs give excellent and dramatic views. Same with Old Rag Mountain, which lies a good fifty or so miles further up the road.

One of my pet peeves about the BRP is that fact that half the lookout points are fully or partially treed in…and even those that aren’t have a ‘border zone’ of high vegetation that takes away from the view. This is not a complaint, really…we don’t expect the national park to maintain an army of workers with chain saws to keep these lookouts open. It’s simply an observation…it’s a fact of the terrain in this region.

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The rocky pulpit at Arnold Valley View is one place were NOTHING gets in the way of the views. Just be careful, because there is a considerable and probably fatal drop on the other side of this thing.

Fitz was quick to hop on up and get into the action.

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After we tired of the photo session, it was back in the car, back on the parkway, and down to the James River, the Parkway’s lowest elevation. Here at Big Island, we exited and began the three-hour journey home to Raleigh. For once, the ride back was more fun than the ride out…at least until torrential thunderstorms overtook us in Hillsboro, NC.

All in all, a fine trip! Fitz certainly thought so. The girls were impressed too.

While we prefer hiking to driving and the wild to the touristy, we still like the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s a road that harkens back to a different time in America, a time when gas was cheap, walking was for hobos and communists, and the car was king. A road that required massive effort to build and serious feats of engineering to design. It’s a road that would never be built today for any number of reasons. Someday the mountains will reclaim it, and the asphalt will crack and crumble and the hills go quiet again, and no more will cars roll with impunity over the rugged Blue Ridge.

But that day is still far off, and for the time being we’ll take the Parkway rather than the highway every chance we get.

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