On Blue Ridge Parkway, fall is for the reds
With over 100 tree species, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a great place for a fall getaway and leaf-gazing. The 469-mile route traverses six mountain ranges in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. Operated by the National Park Service, the boardwalk is a planned landscape unlike most national parks.
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a plan for a “park-to-park” highway to connect Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Construction began on September 11, 1935 and was completed in 1987.
The boardwalk’s 45 mph top speed limit allows visitors to slow down to take in the scenery. There are a plethora of opportunities to get out of the car and hike the boardwalk’s 369 miles of trails, as well as places to bike, camp, and explore cultural sites. Due to efforts to preserve historic structures, including log cabins and railroads, Scenic Drive is considered a museum of the American countryside.
Best time to visit
“We usually tell people to expect maximum leaf color in mid-October,” says Amy Ney, communications coordinator for the Blue Ridge Parkway Association, the promenade’s marketing partner. She adds that several factors can affect when the leaves change.
The elevation of the boardwalk, which ranges from 670 feet to 6,053 feet, is one of the main indicators. “The leaves start to turn first at higher elevations and on northern slopes,” says Ney. “So lower elevations and drier southern slopes experience a fall color change later. The amount of precipitation, daytime sunshine, and nighttime temperature also add to the equation, and fall storms can often blow leaves off trees. “
She recommends travelers visit a long section of the promenade with a variety of elevations: “Any trail or vantage point with a long-distance view will be perfect in the fall, as you can see the foliage at different elevations and have a plus. great opportunity to see fall. color at a certain level of progression.
Altitude can change drastically in just a few kilometers. From the lowermost portion of the James River Boardwalk in Virginia, the elevation increases by nearly 3,300 feet for a distance of 13 miles to Thunder Ridge.
How to avoid crowds
During the pandemic, the Blue Ridge Parkway was extremely popular, with 14 million visits in 2020, the highest number in the national park system. “Weekdays and the start of the day are two good options for avoiding crowds,” says Ney. “But I also recommend looking for less crowded places along the boardwalk, like Wigwam Falls” near Montebello, Virginia.
She also suggests starting a trail in an unusual location and downloading the Blue Ridge Parkway Association’s free trip planner app. The app works offline for Android and iOS devices and provides a detailed list of attractions and services.
Where to go
The boardwalk is divided into four regions, and all sites are labeled with numbered markers starting near Waynesboro, Va., And ending in Cherokee, NC, with limited entry and exit points.
To help with trip planning, the Blue Ridge Parkway Association’s website and free app offer a detailed guide to each of the four regions, with interactive maps, and include accommodation information for nearby communities. Along the promenade there are two lodges, Peaks of Otter Lodge and Pisgah Inn, and several campgrounds.
Two sections of the promenade are closed for construction near Roanoke and combined into one detour. The road is closed from kilometer post 112.2 to 115 and from mile post 121.4 to 135.9. A list of all road and facility closures is available at nps.gov/blri, along with regulations regarding masks and interior space occupancy limits.
Here are some of the most photogenic places for fall foliage:
Humpback rocks (mile post 5.8-9.3): In the 1840s, a rock formation landmark guided rail cars on the Howardville toll highway. This rock outcrop, known as the Humpback Rocks, is a popular hike and offers views of the Rockfish and Shenandoah valleys. To avoid the crowds, consider starting your Appalachian Trail hike from the Humpback Rocks Picnic Area (Station 8.5) rather than the busy Humpback Rocks Trailhead (Station 6). At kilometer 5.8 there is a visitor center and an open-air agricultural museum with a late 19th century log cabin and outbuildings.
Yankee Horse Ridge (milepost 34.4): One of the Ridge area’s lesser-known photographic sites is Yankee Horse Ridge, the site of the Irish Creek Railway, a logging railway that operated from 1916 to 1939. Part of the narrow gauge track was rebuilt near the lookout of a small stream. A 0.2 mile trail leads to Wigwam Falls, one of the easiest waterfalls between Waynesboro and Roanoke. Although the waterfall is small, it is nestled in a hemlock forest and is extremely photogenic. Picnic tables and ample parking make this an ideal stopover.
Rocky button (mile post 167-174): Rocky Knob is one of the more rugged areas on the boardwalk with four major hiking trails ranging in difficulty from the difficult 10.8 mile Rock Castle Gorge trail to an easy loop of a mile to the picnic area. The 4,800-acre area includes a campground and visitor center.
Mabry mill (milepost 176): One of the most photographed spots on the promenade is the Mabry Mill, built in 1908 by Ed Mabry, an entrepreneur who built and operated it for 25 years. The site overlooks a pond and includes a sawmill, wheelwright and blacksmith’s shop as well as a two-story house. The best time to photograph the mill with the reflection in the pond is about an hour before sunset.
Linn Cove Viaduct (mile post 304): The Linn Cove Viaduct – an elevated S-shaped road that runs along the side of Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina – was one of the last sections of the walk to be completed. The 1,243-foot-long viaduct was delayed for 20 years as authorities worked to build a road at 4,100 feet without damaging the environment. The structure is now designated as a National Monument of Civil Engineering. To reach the viaduct, which is best photographed in the morning, park in the parking lot at mile marker 303.9, then follow the path that runs along the outer edge of the guardrail to the start of the viaduct. For an elevated view, cross the road and climb the large boulder, where photographers will likely be gathered.
Linville Falls (mile post 316): The sources of the Linville River begin at Grandfather Mountain and form the Tiered Linville Falls, which plunge into the Linville Gorge, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Southern Appalachians.” The two main hiking trails pass through hemlock forest mixed with white pines, oaks, hickory and birch trees that cover the trails with a colorful blanket of leaves each October. There are 4 miles of trails; the best views of the falls are from Chimney View and Plunge Basin.
Craggy Gardens and Pinnacle Trail (mile positions 364.6 & 364.2): This high elevation portion of the walk has two short but beautiful trails located half a mile apart. Due to the harsh environment, both trails are lined with twisted, gnarled trees. The 0.7-mile Craggy Pinnacle Trail leads to a 5,892-foot scenic lookout, while the Craggy Gardens Trail leads through forest from the Visitor Center to a picnic area with a short spur trail which offers views of the nearby town of Montreat and the Black Mountain Range. Even though the weather is clear at lower elevations, fog and clouds can obstruct the view on both trails.
Mount Mitchell State Park (milepost 355.4): Rising to 6,684 feet, Mount Mitchell is the highest peak in North Carolina and the eastern United States. The mountain is located in an 1,855-acre North Carolina State Park and can only be accessed from the boardwalk via a state highway. Visitors can walk or drive to the observation deck for a 360-degree view. The expansive picnic area at the top is a wonderful social distancing lunch spot.