Installment #6 - Blue Ridge Parkway
  Jul 15, 2007 04:42 PDT 

    Installment #6

The Blue Ridge Parkway is classified as a national park and includes over 81,000 acres of land. The Parkway is a two-lane, paved road that runs through a swath of the southern Appalachians. It starts at the southern end of Shenandoah NPís Skyline Drive in Virginia and ends at the Great Smoky Mountains NP in NC. Its total length is an impressive 469 miles. If one starts at the northern end of the Shenandoah NP and drives the 110 miles of the Skyline Drive followed by the 469 miles of Parkway, one traverses 579 miles of continuous mountain driving. So far as I know, in this respect, the combination of Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway has no equal. Of the two national parks, the Parkway far surpasses Shenandoah form just about any criteria you care to put forth, unless proximity to the nationís capital is considered an asset.

In my 4 years in the Pentagon, I spent many weekend in Shenandoah, but the Parkway has always been number one with me from the standpoint of scenery, vegetative diversity, culture, and overall ambience. The Parkway spans an elevation from 649 feet above sea level at the James River in Virginia to 6,053 feet near the summit of Richland Balsam in North Carolina. Consequently, the Parkway runs through changes of vegetation from Canadian at points in the Black and Balsam Mountains to lowland vegetation at several short sections. But for most of its length, the Parkway runs at elevations above 2,500 feet in Virginia and 4,000 feet in North Carolina. Its highest elevation in Virginia is near the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain at 3,950 feet and in North Carolina, the 6,053-foot elevation mentioned previously.

The southern Appalachians are often described by authors of books and articles as the gentle mountains. The southern Apps do have that appearance as they present wave after wave of dreamy blue ridges from vista after vista. The gentle curves of the superbly engineered Parkway add to the feeling that the southern Appalachians are friendly mountains. Compared to their cousins the glacier-carved northern Appalachians and the Adirondacks, I suppose the adjective gentle is appropriate. But cross-country, off trail treks in the southern Apps will give one a very different opinion of their ruggedness. Follow my friend Will Blozan for just one day in the Great Smokies and were you so inclined, you would likely never again think of those mountains as gentle.

Monicaís introduction to the Parkway was at Soco Gap, North Carolina. We intercepted the Parkway from U.S. Route 276 and the U.S. 19 through Maggie Valley. Soco Gap is the site of a battle between the Cherokee and invading Shawnee. The Cherokee killed all but one Shawnee and sent him back minus his ears as a warning about further invasion. If one continues on U.S. 19 instead of getting onto the Parkway, one enters the Quall Boundary Cherokee reservation. But Cherokee was not our destination. A detour into the Balsam Mountains and a stop at Mile High Overlook was to be Monicaís first great Parkway panorama. Haze rendered the main ridge of the Smokies, well, smoky, but the view was still grand. One sees much of the high ridgeline of the 70-mile long range. Clingmanís Dome, Mount Collins, Mount LeConte, Mount Kephart, several 6,000-foot tops around Tricorner Knob, Old Black, Mount Chapman, Mount Guyot, and Big Cataloochee Bald are all visible from Mile-High. Altogether there are 12 d
istinct peaks in the GSMNP over 6,000 feet. Old listings named 16 peaks, but 4 are not distinct. They are shoulders or subordinate summits of the main 12.

From its location in the Balsam area of the Smokies, Mile High Overlook provides an unforgettable panorama of the Smokies. The view is one of endless mountains -wave after wave. One also looks down into secluded Big Cove on the Cherokee Indian Reservation as a reminder of who once controlled the territory..

Leaving Mile-High, we continued eastward and northward along the Parkway crossing the Plott Balsams, a high range with at least 4 individual peaks at over 6,000 feet altitude. There are more summits over 6,000, but are The Plotts cut across the main line of the Great Balsams. Subordinate to the 4 main peaks. The high point of the Plott Balsams is Waterrock Knob at 6292 feet.

Bright orange flame azaleas and several color variations were our constant companions. Bowmanís root added delicate splashes of white along the banks of the Parkway. An occasional Catawba rhododendron in full bloom added a splash of purple. As we passed overlook after overlook at altitudes of 5,300 to 5,600 feet, following the Balsam crest, I reconnected with that gray ribbon in the sky as I had known it over many years of travel. We passed over the high point of the Parkway at 6,053 feet altitude near Richland Balsam. The mature frasier fir covering the summit succumbed to the Balsam Woolly Aphid years ago. Young firs manage to survive giving hope, but fall prey to the aphid as their bark become rougher. The Great Balsams add an additional 10 summits to the list of 6,000-footers in the southern Apps. BTW, the number of 6,000-footers listed by various sources for any of the ranges is variable. A separate e-mail will discuss the reasons for some many different counts.

Thinking about all these elevations, the Parkway provides an exceptionally easy way to reach the high country of the southern Appalachians. But the Parkway is not just about mountains and their elevations. The following Parkway description from the NPS highlights the diversity to be found along the 469 miles.

Taking advantage of this diversity are 14 major vegetation types, about 1,250 vascular plant species (50 threatened or endangered), and almost 100 species of non-native plants. Nearly 100 species of trees grow along the Parkway, about as many as are found in all of Europe. Added to that are estimates of almost 400 species of mosses and nearly 2000 species of fungi.

Not to be outdone by the plants, many species of animals make their homes along the Parkway. Fifty-four different mammals, more than 50 salamanders and 40 reptiles can be found on Parkway lands. One hundred fifty-nine species of birds are known to nest here with dozens of others passing through during fall and spring migrations.

Cruising the high altitudes of the Parkway in a vehicle seems like cheating. People coast comfortably along hardly realizing that the altitude stays over a mile above sea level for mile after mile. Heading east and north, eventually the Parkway swings off the Balsam ridge and and onto what is called the Pisgah Ledge. Views of smooth but precipitous Looking Glass Rock to the east reminds one of the many geological forms that comprise the southern Apps.

We reined it in at milepost 408 and spent a comfortable night at the Pisgah Inn. The Inn has a very nice restaurant, but it was packed on the night we stayed there, so we ate out of our cooler in our room and gazed at the long line of peaks to our east and south. They form the eastern-most reaches of the Blue Ridge. At an altitude of slightly over 4,800 feet, the nights are always cool in the vicinity of the Pisgah Inn. But the busy Inn, which stays full throughout the summer, dampens what would otherwise be a splendid mountain experience. Iíll have more on this topic in the next installment. But, Iíll call it quits at this point for #6.

RE: Installment #6   Matthew Hannum
  Jul 17, 2007 16:12 PDT 

Wonderful post, Bob!

The Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway are sights that all need to see
sometime in their life, and for us Ents, the sheer number of trees of
all shapes and sizes is a wonderful sight!

My brother and I returned from our trip to the Smokey Mountains back in
summer 2004 via the Blue Ridge Parkway. We hiked almost to the top of
Water Rock Knob before the approaching storm forced us back - being at
the top of the highest mountain in the area in a thunderstorm is a bad

But I will never forget the view from up there... Looking westward, the
setting sun tinged the sky with pale red and orange under the towering
grew clouds. Fog had begun to roll into the valleys, and the mountains
loomed like blue-hued shadows in the waning light. Thunder rolled and
echoed across the land, and rain could be seen in the distance falling
from the clouds. A stiff, cool breeze blew across the mountains, but
aside from the wind and thunder, there was no other sound. It was just
my brother and myself watching the sun set before the storm atop Water
Rock Knob.

I think, in a way, part of me will always lie with the Smokies after
having seen them, and I am sure others here feel the same way. To see
the mountains at a time other than a perfect sunny day can offer the
most power, for the rains early in the day had driven off all the hikers
aside from my brother and myself and an older couple who were watching
the storm from the parking lot at the base of the trail leading to Water
Rock Knob. Everyone else had left, leaving the mountains in charge.


RE: Installment #6
  Jul 18, 2007 11:00 PDT 

   Thanks and I'm with you. Some of the most exciting times I can remember have been watching storms roll in over the high peaks. I also love the seas of clouds that develop where part of a mountain rides above the clouds and part below. The southern Appalachians come close to the cloud buildups that I have enjoyed in the mountains of tropical climes.