When the Mountains Call or two Weeks on the Road in Southern Appalachia
By Steve Kelman
A popular t-shirt found in the gift shop at western Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park advertises “the mountains are calling and I must go.”
So when the mountains, specifically the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia, called out to me in a manner of speaking earlier this year, I responded in a very big way.
My response was by way of a more than one thousand mile road trip to the mountains of these two as before mentioned states which form a large section of the southern Appalachian Mountains.
This journey encompassed a visit to the culturally rich and scenic city of Asheville, (North Carolina,) a drive with frequent stops for hikes and music along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and several days of hiking in Shenandoah National Park.
No trip to Asheville, with its mix of terrific restaurants and diverse and creative shops would be complete without a visit to the Biltmore Estate.
Here over a two day period we toured the 250-room mansion known as The Biltmore. You would really need a week to thoroughly explore the mansion, (there are four floors, 43 bathrooms, not to mention the roof!) as well as the five “pleasure” gardens, thirty miles of macadamized roadways, trails, shops and restaurants. Owned by George Vanderbilt and opened for his family and friends on Christmas Eve of 1895, the Biltmore is the largest privately owned home in the United States. Vanderbilt also originally acquired 125,000 acres of forest, as well as a dairy farm and 250 acre wooded park. A tour guide informed us that it took Vanderbilt two days on horseback to ride to the end of his property. Today the estate encompasses 8000 acres.
The Biltmore was also the location of the first school of forestry in the United States. Students at this school would later go on to form the United States Forest Service.
Next up was a visit to the picturesque town of Blowing Rock, North Carolina, home of that state’s oldest attraction, the Blowing Rock. The site is known for its mysterious winds along with breathtaking scenery of the southern Blue Ridge. Several mountains are visible from vantage points along a short scenic walk including Mt. Mitchell (at 6684 feet, the highest peak in Eastern North America), Grandfather Mountain, and Table Rock.
As for the town itself, think Cold Spring or New Hyde Park at more than 3,500 feet. There is a very attractive Main Street with scores of restaurants, interesting shops, an ice cream parlor and several brewpubs.
We enjoyed a delightful lunch at the Blowing Rock Ale House Restaurant where I feasted on their grilled Carolina Bison Burger which may very well be the best burger I’ve ever eaten anywhere.
Blowing Rock is in close proximity (within two miles of) to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we would be spending a considerable amount of time on this trip.
A unit of the National Park Service, the Blue Ridge Parkway extends 469 miles “along the crests of the southern Appalachians and links two eastern National Parks, Shenandoah and Great Smokey Mountains.”
Construction of the parkway began under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 with the last section (the Linn Cove Viaduct) completed in 1987.
My first excursion on the parkway was a 1.4 mile round-trip ramble alone at the Stack Rock Parking area (mile 304.8). The short climb took me to jaw dropping views of Grandfather Mountain (elev. 5938 feet) as well as the engineering marvel known as the Linn Cove Viaduct.
The Linn Cove Viaduct is a 1243 foot S-shaped concrete bridge, “situated in one of the most scenically beautiful regions of the United States,” this according to a PCI Journal, (‘Prestressed’ Concrete Institute) special report on the design and construction of the viaduct.
“The Linn Cove Viaduct is probably one of the most complex bridges ever built… the bridge was literally built on the side of a mountain which has to remain in its natural state,” again from the report.
At the Linn Cove Viaduct there is a visitor center and a short trail (.03 miles) that takes you directly underneath the structure.
Our final stop for the day was at mile 316 where we undertook a moderately strenuously hike first to the top and then the base of the 150 foot Linville Falls.
The falls pour through a “forested gorge.” Called the “Grand Canyon of the Southern Appalachians,” there are four dramatic viewpoints to view these dramatic cascades.
The big challenge is the combined half mile Plunge Basin Trail along with the .07 mile Gorge Trail that drops down to an area near the foot of the falls, making for an almost two and a half mile moderately strenuous but satisfying round trip hike.
The descent is steep and rocky yet the rewards at the bottom are great. Along with an awe inspiring view looking up at the cascading water and rock, we were able to enjoy several Swallow Tale Butterflies performing what was probably some kind of mating ritual on a sandy patch of land only a few feet in front of us along the Linville River.
The butterflies did not seem to mind the attention I was giving them with my camera.
After leaving Blowing Rock we decided to take the approximately 80 mile drive to the Virginia State Line, a trip of perhaps two hours, and chance to visit the Blue Ridge Music Center.
An entire article could easily be dedicated to this portion of the trip. The center, owned by the National Park Service, offers a museum with interactive exhibits that trace the history of the traditional Appalachian Mountain music, a forerunner to today’s bluegrass and country music.
There is an amphitheater for concerts, which are presented during the summer and fall. In a small outdoor area adjacent to the entrance, local musicians hold fort every day throughout the summer season providing music and stories from the region and beyond.
As we were driving towards the center, a bobcat crossed the road and I nearly missed hitting it.
A little farther north, and just before entering Shenandoah National Park, we were treated to a concert along the farm trail at the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center by a local three piece group called The Sunnyside.
With a zither, guitar and upright bass, the trio performed a blend of old time music such as the Carter Family’s ‘Wildwood Flower’ along with country classic’s like Patsy Kline’s, ‘Walking after Midnight.’
Along this trail, there is a collection of old Appalachian farm buildings as well as a working garden patch. The group performed on the porch of the main cabin house.
The next three days were spent hiking in Shenandoah National Park.
Shenandoah National Park is a linear park that has as its main feature the 105-mile long Skyline Drive.
The Appalachian Trail parallels the drive throughout most of the park. The park also features over 500 miles of hiking trails and 75 scenic overlooks.
Some of those hikes go to waterfalls of which we did two, Rose River and White Oak Canyon.
We also took relatively easy excursions to the top of the parks two highest mountains, Hawksbill (elev 4051) and Stony Man (elev 4011).
On these hikes we listened to Golden Eagles fly over us, saw, from a comfortable distance a mother bear and a cub, heard the screeching calls of ravens and observed a spotted newt, a member of the salamander family.
Evenings were spent in The Big Meadows Tap Room where we sipped drinks and listened to local musicians perform bluegrass, country and folk music.
All in all we drove over 1000 miles in two weeks time. And the weather for the most part cooperated with rain mostly confined to the day we departed and again on our last day as we returned to civilization as we know it.