Traveler's Checklist: Doughton Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway
As I cross Basin Creek one more time on my way to Caudill Cabin, I carefully place my left foot and then my right between rocks and wonder where the drought is now that I could use it. It’s a warm mid-summer day and I’m in one of the most remote areas I’ve been in. Well, not that remote. The pavement of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the most-visited unit of the National Park System, is only a few miles above me, but here in the back of Doughton Park, there’s nobody. I pass the remains of a chimney, a grinding wheel, and rock foundations – this was a busy place before the 1916 flood wiped out the community.
When I get to the cabin surrounded by pastureland, my first reaction is, “These folks didn’t get out very much.” In this dark, one-room cabin without windows, two books are nailed to the wall. I pull out a flashlight to read the Caudill family genealogy and sign my name. The person who signed in before me came three weeks ago.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is more than a scenic road. It also connects several parks -- not national or state parks, but simply areas described as "parks" -- along the way, like jewels on a necklace. One such park, Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, was created from a large summer estate owned by a 19th century self-made man.
Doughton Park, located between Mileposts 238.5 and 244.7, almost half-way along the 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway, shows several examples of isolated mountain life. The park also offers 30 miles of well-marked, well-connected hiking trails. The park was first named The Bluffs for the cliffs that tower over Basin Cove, but was renamed for Robert Doughton, a congressman from Sparta, North Carolina, for 42 years (1911-1953). Rep. Doughton, nicknamed “Muley Bob,” the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, was influential in promoting the building of the Parkway.
**At Milepost 241, go to the Parkway Information and gift shop to get a map of Doughton Park. The coffee shop next door offers breakfast and lunch. Traveler's lodging experts, David and Kay Scott, have called it the best coffee shop in a national park.
**Visit the Brinegar Cabin, the home of Martin and Caroline Jones Brinegar, at Milepost 238.5. At the overlook, there’s a picture of the old couple, looking straight into the camera. Go down steps below to springhouse where you can still hear water bubbling. This tiny cabin was built by Martin Brinegar around 1880 and lived in until the 1930s when the homestead was purchased for the Parkway from his widow.
**To understand how isolated people were in this area, hike Basin Creek Trail (10.2 miles, 1,500-foot descent) to the Caudill Cabin. Basin Creek Cove was once home to more than 50 families. On this solitary walk, you’ll discover many artifacts but few people. The trail crosses Basin Creek at least 16 times -- without bridges -- passing elaborate rock formations, cascades, and several waterfalls. The trail leads you deep in the cove and ends at Caudill Cabin, the only remaining structure. Bring a small flashlight to peruse the books in the cabin. Even a few miles on this trail will give you a good sense of the remoteness of the community.
The Caudill were a prolific family, to say the least. In 1855, James Harrison Caudill was 16 years old when he settled in Basin Creek Cove about a mile down from the current cabin. With Mary, his first wife, he had six children. After Mary died in childbirth, he married her teenage sister and had 16 more children. Martin, one of the sons, built the cabin at the end of the cove and raised 14 children.
By 1916, more than 50 families lived in the cove. The community had a Baptist Church, schoolhouse, gristmill, and a blacksmith shop. Rich farmland produced a variety of grain including corn, rye, wheat, and barley. Honey, vegetables, and farm animals added variety to the diet. But no community is entirely self-sufficient. Farmers took their excess produce to markets in Mount Airy and Winston-Salem where they bought goods not available in the cove.
In July, 1916, a flood devastated the community and washed away almost everything. This flood affected every mountain community in western North Carolina. In the cove, chunks of earth just broke loose from the steep slopes. Huge trees were ripped from mountain sides, crashing into everything downstream. Cabin logs and furniture flowed down the cove. Somehow the Caudill Cabin survived.
The cabin was restored in 2001 by the National Park Service and a descendant of Mark Alfred Caudill. The cabin was then more than 100 years old. The restoration used traditional materials and original tools. The large extended Caudill family still holds regular reunions, though not at the cabin site.
**To get another perspective on Basin Cove, look down from Basin Cove Overlook on the Parkway Milepost 244.7. To see the cabin from above, go to Wildcat Rocks, which begins at the far end of Bluff Lodge at Milepost 241. From the left side of the overlook, you can see the cabin down in the clearing.
**Walk the Bluff Mountain Trail (7.9 miles, 1,050-foot ascent), part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Much of the trail parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway. It offers outstanding alpine views alternating with gentle, cool woods paths and a coffee shop on the way. Black-eye Susans, Turks-cap lilies and spiderworts line the trail in many places. You'll pass artifacts of current and historic farming with stiles, barbed wire and wooden posts.
Since the trail passes several overlooks, you can make this hike as short as you want. The hike ends at the Brinegar Cabin. Place a car at Brinegar Cabin Overlook at Milepost 238.5, the end of the hike. Drive to Basin Cove Overlook at Milepost 244.7 where the hike starts.
**Take a short walk to a rocky outcropping to Alligator Back Overlook at Milepost 242.4. The Alligator Back refers to the pinstripes formation on the rock you can only see close up. The pattern in the rock resembles the reptile’s scaly skin – not the shape of the mountains.
**Bring your binoculars and check out three recommended trails for bird-watching: Flat Rock Ridge Trail, Cedar Ridge Trail, and Grassy Gap Fire Road.
**Visit the nearby Northwest Trading Post at Milepost 258, featuring a variety of craft items and souvenirs.
**At Milepost 239, you'll find a campground with tent and trailer sites. At Milepost 241, enjoy the picnic areas and the Bluffs Coffee Shop.
**Stay at Bluffs Lodge. It has simple rooms, no phones or cell reception, no air conditioning but a big porch with long views. It's a quiet, friendly place.
Blue Ridge Parkway: http://www.nps.gov/blri
Doughton Park map on the web: http://www.nps.gov/blri/planyourvisit/upload/color%20DOUGHTON%20PARK.pdf
Bluffs Lodge details: http://foreverlodging.com/lodging.cfm?PropertyKey=74