I didn't know what to expect from my first Appalachian music festival. I imagined some big beer-swilling crowd hooting in a muddy field to the electrified twang of bluegrass or country.
But that image faded fast in the darkened auditorium of Glenville State College, West Virginia, where I first heard southern highlanders sing sorrowful tales, their richly accented voices underscored by dulcimers and fiddles. The craggy faces betrayed the bone structure of the Scotch-Irish who'd first settled the region. Poignant, discordant harmonies gave me goose bumps.
Symphonic, And Sophisticated
The music at the West Virginia State Folk Festival wasn't exactly Aaron Copland's classic symphony Appalachian Spring, but events like these, at this time of year, are the perfect way to celebrate nature's reawakening in one of the most scenic, and culturally distinctive parts of the US.
Mountain culture emerges starkly in the spring when residents gather to celebrate the season, traditional music, and food. Some are popular with travelers, others are more like family reunions, some are a bit of both. All welcome the beauty and bounty of spring.
The Appalachians arc from Alabama to Canada's Gaspe peninsula, but nowhere is spring as showy as in the verdant Southern Appalachians from Virginia and West Virginia, to North Carolina and Tennessee.
Rustic was the rule, but today, Appalachia's legendary hollows hide a growing national renown for gourmet fare, sophisticated lodging, and a wine industry fast becoming one of the country's most visited viticultural areas. The greening summits and waving wildflowers are music to the eyes for visitors in this global capital of biodiversity. Bud-burnished trees tint mountainsides with hues reminiscent of fall as they creep higher up the peaks with each passing week.
Whether you pause long enough to hear a mountain fiddler, the scenery alone is worth the trip. And there's no better avenue to that spectacle than the Blue Ridge Parkway, the nation's most popular unit of the National Park system, which is itself anchored by other national parks, Shenandoah, to the north, in Virginia, and Great Smoky, in more southerly North Carolina. Together, they're the perfect national parks sampler of spring.
Blue Ridge Parkway mileposts run south from Shenandoah, MP 0, to MP 469, in Cherokee, NC at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That's the route taken by the video that accompanies this article. But spring generally breaks from south to north'so we'll start at the Smokies.
Great Setting in the Smokies
By May, even the deepest snowdrifts are gone and the nearly 7,000-foot summits of the Great Smoky Mountains crest like a lime-green wave on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. There's no better place than The Swag to savor the spectacle. Named for a swale between summits, the inn's magical collection of lodges was built from the massive logs felled from Appalachian virgin forests for historic cabins (the oldest is from 1795).
Arriving guests pull up to a dog-trot breezeway amidst a breeze-filled, mile-high forest. Gaze one direction off the porch into cloud-filled valleys far below. In the other direction, and 30 feet away, a rustic, flower-bordered fence marks the boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The inn is easily accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway at Maggie Valley.
The Swag is all about nature. A huge tree trunk full of hiking staffs (with a wooden name medallion for each guest) sits by the breezeway inviting guests to grab one and stride through the gate into Great Smoky greenery. This and many lofty Southern Appalachian resorts bask in crisp high-elevation cool that sets them apart and above the ordinary world of the sultry South.
The earliest visitors entered the region to escape the South's summer heat'and they still do. Wildflower walks are everywhere on The Swag's 250-acre parcel. Wonderfully private little nooks called 'hideaways' beckon. Spring to fall, expert naturalists engage guests with interpretive programs and guided hikes.
The Swag is known for delectable post-hike fare and four-star amenities such as XM radio in rooms and an abbreviated morning version of The New York Times by fax. That's understandable. Owners Dan Matthews and wife Deener lived in New York City for years.
Dan, a native of nearby Waynesville, North Carolina, is Rector Emeritus of New York City's Trinity Church, the historic Wall Street church so close to the events of 9/11. Not surprisingly, husband and wife have come home to The Swag.
For a counterpoint to the fancy shallots of The Swag, drop in on the annual Ramp Festival Sunday May 6th down in Waynesville, a pristine and stereotypical mountain downtown easily reached from the Parkway.
Isolated mountain residents of the past were so tired of dried foods by spring that they'd eat anything that resembled fresh greens'including the wild leeks called ramps. This notoriously strong onion with a powerful hint of garlic is a traditional garnish that can get schoolchildren banished from class until the aroma subsides. Local volunteers prepare plentiful ramp-laced dishes at the American Legion hall (828-456-8691). Options include country ham and ramps, ramps and scrambled eggs, ramp meatloaf, and raw ramps are for sale. There's a raw ramp-eating contest'the winner gets 2 minutes to eat the most bags with about 18 ramps each (Sunday at 3:30 pm).
More Urban Appalachia
From the Smokies and Waynesville, follow the winding motor trail of the Blue Ridge Parkway north over the ridgetop jumble of the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests to trendy Asheville. Foremost among the city's wealth of festivals is the Biltmore Estate's April 7-May 20 Festival of Flowers. The estate's formal gardens are an inspiring explosion of allergens.
America's largest private home is the centerpiece, but the outdoor and conservatory gardens, and even vineyards, add up to a stellar spring experience. Thousands of acres of Frederick Law Olmstead-landscaped grounds and rich surrounding forests (home to the first forestry school in the Americas) abound with flowering shrubs and trees.
Stay on the grounds at the Inn on Biltmore Estate and it's easy to feel 'to the manor born.' Asheville may be the base for a memorable roam through the region but the estate will be difficult to leave.
Trails lace the idyllic setting with horseback riding, mountain biking, and hiking close at hand. The estate's outdoor center rents all the equipment and guides many trips, including raft rides on the French Broad River.
The Land Rover Driving School offers a thrilling introduction to off-road driving over the estate's rolling hills and valleys.
The Inn's patios, pool, and restaurants overlook the entire list of options, including the winery. Biltmore's restaurants feature estate-raised meats and produce in traditional regional dishes'and settings as diverse as a winery bistro and reinvented stable.
For a truly empowering vista, overlook the city's lush setting from the Grove Park Inn, a massive boulder-built lodge nearing its hundredth birthday but updated to first-rate resort status. From the patio steakhouse, just below historic rooms favored by F. Scot Fitzgerald, the view sweeps across the leafy city's art-deco landmarks to the surrounding Blue Ridge.
Immediately below, the sounds of a cascade lead your gaze to the Grove Park Spa, an enticing subterranean oasis of new age music and waterfall-filled grottoes that could convince you to hole up for your entire stay. Don't.
Downtown Asheville is a vibrant, reborn oasis of granola mountain culture. The art-festooned Urban Trail leads you through the city's architectural, literary, and musical history. Thomas Wolfe's Home is on the tour, as is Asheville's classic Grove Arcade, a recently reclaimed urban market like Seattle's Pike Place or Reading Terminal in Philly.
Asheville gave birth to the first traditional mountain music festival in 1925, and the summertime Shindig-on-the-Green is just one of many music and crafts fairs that carry on that tradition. Restaurants, nightlife, and regionally significant craft galleries, make Asheville a spring destination worth even a long flight.
Up to Higher Country
The Blue Ridge Parkway soars north out of Asheville and back even earlier into spring on the way past Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain in the East (6,684 feet). On the way stop at Craggy Gardens. Open meadows encircled with blooming rhododendron are a late June spectacle'a landmark spring destination. In northwestern North Carolina, near Boone, a college town and outdoor adventure travel destination named after the explorer, the Appalachian Trail leads through vast open vistas on the highlands of nearby Roan Mountain.
Like the Parkway's Craggy Gardens area, Roan's meadows are filled with rare species of flowers and covered with natural gardens of rhododendron. At Craggy Gardens and Roan Mountain, at around 6,000 feet, lethargic bumblebees careen through the chilly air, spurred into erratic action by acres of blossoms.
The Lodge and a cluster of structures from Linville's early days form the heart of a national historic district that preserves one of the nation's first planned resort communities.
This quaint summer colony is still sheltered by towering forests of white pine and rhododendron. Today's inn has twenty-four rooms flanking a beautiful chestnut-paneled hallway. The trees succumbed to the chestnut blight not long after the lodge was built with the golden wood.
A stay at Eseeola invites you to take a book, wander to where the trout stream courses beneath the inn's dining room, then pick a chair on the flower covered grounds. The lawns are worthy of a putting green. Eseeola's Donald Ross-designed golf course is still a classic, and being a guest is the only way the public can play.
Bring a jacket for the four-star dining (in a nod to informality'ties are no longer required). Breakfast and dinner are included in the room rate, and an indulgent Thursday night seafood buffet is considered the best in the High Country (you can attend even if you're not a guest).
In nearby Blowing Rock, a stereotypical small town on the Parkway fictionalized in the Mitford series by onetime resident and author Jan Karon, Crippen's Country Inn and Restaurant is known for some of the area's finest dining. They host the annual Fire on the Rock competition dining series, the High Country event in what's now a statewide series of events.
The Fire on the Rock series reaches its climax April 11th during Blowing Rock's blockbuster Blue Ridge Wine and Food Festival (April 11th-15th).
To really step back in time, the rambling, white clapboard Green Park Inn perches on the Eastern Continental Divide. The 130-plus year old grande dame monument to the appeal of the town's cool summer climate was among the first tourism traditions in these mountains.
A Musical Finale
Follow spring north, to southwestern Virginia, the Blue Ridge Parkway leads through a hotbed of traditional music. Near Galax, the Parkway's Blue Ridge Music Center is now in full swing after years being completed. The new museum's exhibits trace the region's pivotal and continuing role in music uniquely identified with the United States'country, bluegrass, gospel. The center refers visitors to a wealth of local musical venues and the center's stage hosts frequent warm-weather concerts.
The Parkway's northern terminus is at Shenandoah National Park'but from the Blue Ridge Music Center north, plan to pause at scenic Mabry Mill, in Roanoke for its vibrant dining and cultural scene, and at other landmarks, including the Peaks of Otter.
Near Shenandoah, Wintergreen Resort stages its Spring Wildflower Symposium from May 18 to 20, 2012. Even one of the South's best ski areas and fanciest mountain resorts has preserved most of its acreage as wilderness that explodes in springtime bloom.
Hikes on resort trails and workshops feature experts, authors, and diverse opportunities to learn about the outdoor Appalachians. Nearby, at the northernmost end of the Parkway, Humpback Rocks makes a great stop before Shenandoah National Park.
The Parkway, or Shenandoah's scenic Skyline Drive, may be choice, but any Appalachian byway can lead to inspiring spring scenery and contact with people glad to be alive in a beautiful and elemental part of the world. The sounds of fiddles and the footfalls of cloggers may not seem as sophisticated as Aaron Copland's well known ode to Appalachian spring, but the season itself is sure to spark the artist in anyone.
Randy Johnson is travel editor of National Parks Traveler and the author of the bestselling trail guides Best Easy Day Hikes Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway, Best Easy Day Hikes Blue Ridge Parkway, and Hiking North Carolina.