Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, Part 1, Virginia USA
Tulip Tree Flowers
Tulip Trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) are native to eastern North America, and in these Appalachian cove forests, they can grow to almost 180 ft (24 m). The trees don’t produce their unique tulip-like flowers until they are 8-9 years old.
You could spend weeks – or even years – exploring the scenic views, the mountain trails, the towns and villages, and the flora, fauna, music, culture and craft along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Meandering along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains in America’s Appalachians, the National Parkway starts at Rockfish Gap, Virginia, where it continues south from the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park (see: In the Virginia Woods), and runs 469 miles (755 km) to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina.
It was this time last year, late in an American spring, that my husband and I were driving south along this “National Scenic Byway”. The timing of our trip had been determined long before by family functions, not by the parkway’s peak blooming season. Shrubs and plants come into flower according to whim, location, and weather; but we got lucky: various ground-dwelling wildflowers were in bloom, and the flowers on the rhododendron and azalea bushes and the mountain laurel and tulip trees, were out in full glory.
We had only a little over three days – which sounds like a lot for the relatively short distance, but when you consider that the very maximum speed anywhere along the Parkway is 45 mph (72 kph), and when you factor in all the excuses to stop, we could have used more time. Still, we did manage lots of scenic breaks for flowers and views, explorations of historic and cultural sights, a few walks, and time out for wild berry pies and other Appalachian treats.
Join us for the first part of our journey.
Humpback Rocks Farm Visitor Center
We were not very far along the Parkway (Mile 6.1) when when we made our first stop at a Visitor Center. There is a walk to Humpback Rocks from here, …
Blue Ridge Instruments
… but we satisfied ourselves with a look at the static displays …
Outbuildings and Vegetable Patch
…and a walk around the old Appalachian farm buildings.
Wood Anemone (Anemone Nemorosa) in the Vegetable Patch
I always marvel at how hard early farmers had to work, and the ingenious solutions that they came up with for food preparation and storage, in the days before electricity and refrigeration.
Fence Posts and Ivy
Split rail fences were common in these heavily-wooded regions. (iPhone6)
Built from easy to split, rot-resistant wood, they last a long time – but not forever!
Afternoon Sun at Ravens Roost
By the time we made our next stop, at Ravens Roost (Mile 10.7), the afternoon sun was angling lower in the sky.
Ravens Roost Marker
From this overlook, sitting at a height of 3200ft (975 m), you can see north to the Shenandoah Mountains and south to the Great Smoky Mountains.
All along the roadway, rhododendron blooms lay where they have fallen.
View from a Parkway Overlook
Everywhere we pull over, the trees and mountains extend off into the distance.
Definitely a laurel, I think this is too pink to be the “mountain” variety, and I’m guessing it is Kalmia angustifolia, which is found all over eastern North America. Either way, the buds are lovely.
White Tailed Deer
Small, timid white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) feed on the verges as twilight drops over the road.
We were treated to and old-town sunset as we pulled off the parkway to find our bed for the night. (iPhone6)
Rhododendron on the Roadside
I never tire of wild rhododendron! We were not long in the park on our second day – after an overnight break in Bedford just north of Roanoke – when we stopped the car to explore the flowers.
This day fits us just that bit further south, and the blooms are plentiful. Short bushes with their huge flowers cling to inhospitable-looking granite boulders.
I was especially excited to find the endemic Appalachian flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) in full flower.
Another of my favourite plants native to the eastern United States, is the very pretty mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia).
Tulip Tree Flowers
I remember seeing a picture of tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) in a book when I was a child in Canada, and not believing that they could be real. I still think they are pretty amazing.
Smart View Loop Trail
Determined not to sit in the car all day, we stopped at Smart View (Mile 154.5) to walk the short (2.6m/4.2km) loop trail …
Smart View Loop Trail
… though the wet …
… and impossibly green …
… Virginia woods.
Fungus in the Shadows
The sheltered ground is home to fungi …
Frog in the Leaf Litter
… and tiny frogs are almost invisible in the leaf litter at our feet.
We finally reached the cabin that was home to the Trail family in the 1890s. We are meant to have a “right smart view” here, but the dogwood blooms are finished, and the clouds are coming in.
Rock Castle Gorge (Mile 170)
The rains are starting to roll our way again when we stop at the overlook near Rocky Knob.
The Parkway originated during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with work started late in 1935 and mostly finished by the end of 1966. The project required negotiation with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, whose lands were affected, and displaced many existing farm-holding residents and landowners.
Thank heavens for Roosevelt’s effort and foresight! Today, the Parkway is a priceless ecological and historical resource. “The parkway has been the most visited unit of the National Park System [almost] every year since 1946…”
These wonderful green spaces are so hard to recover once lost.
Until next time,
Enjoy the green spaces!