A drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway is a scenic delight any time of the year, but spring and early summer travel offers a bonus: blooming shrubs and wildflowers. Here are some tips for travelers on what to see and where to enjoy the show.
One of the plusses for Parkway visitors is the extended period of blooming along the roadway. The length of the drive (469 miles north to south) and range in altitude (649 feet at the James River in Virginia to 6,047 feet at Richland Balsam in North Carolina) means summer can be well underway in portions of the park while other locations are still enjoying spring.
Those elevation changes also lead to blooming patterns which seem to run counter to the usual logic: many plants bloom earlier in the northern portions of the Parkway in Virginia, where the altitude can be several thousand feet lower than southern areas in North Carolina.
If you aren’t familiar with the park, it’s helpful to know that landmarks are often referenced to mileposts (MP), beginning with "mile 0" at the northern terminus and ending with 469 where the parkway joins with Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can download a park map which includes key mile post numbers at this link, and you'll find the applicable mile number displayed on a post alongside the road.
What's Blooming When?
So, what are the best times and locations for blooms along the Parkway? Two resources can provide some answers.
The website for the Blue Ridge Parkway Association has a page listing typical dates for some commonly observed spring blooms, along with milepost locations where good examples of those specific plants have been seen in previous years.
For current updates on what’s in bloom, you can phone the park’s information line, which has a recorded wildflower report during spring and summer months. Call (828) 298-0398 and select option 7. The warmer-than-usual temperatures for much of the late winter and early spring are resulting in some earlier blooms than usual in some spots, so it’s a good idea to check for updates if enjoying the flowers is part of the reason for your trip.
The "Big Three" Blooms
There are too many species of flowering plants along the Parkway to mention, but a trio of shrubs are considered the "Big Three" for some spring bloom fans.
Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) attracts perhaps the most attention with its masses of blossoms, especially when the shrubs occur in dense stands. The flowers range from pink to violet to purple and contrast nicely with the dark green evergreen foliage. It’s easy to see why this is also a popular landscape plant throughout the region.
When observed from a moving vehicle during a "windshield tour," the dark green leaves of the mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) may appear similar to those of the Catawba rhododendron, but the flowers of the laurel are smaller, star-shaped and often lighter in color, although they can range from white to pink to red. The shrubs often grow to heights of over 20 feet and in some locations become small trees.
Hikers who get off the trail and attempt cross-country travel along much of the Blue Ridge, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other areas of the southern Appalachians, may not have as much appreciation for this plant. It often grows in such dense thickets that early settlers dubbed those areas "Laurel Slicks" or "Laurel Hells," an appropriate description of the difficulty in traveling through the almost impenetrable tangle of branches.
In comparison to the dense growth of the mountain laurel and Catawba rhododendron, the flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) has an almost delicate appearance. The beautiful flowers don’t offer any fragrance, but they make up for it in a wide ranger of colors, ranging from pale yellow and apricot to bright orange and scarlet red. The shrubs can reach a height of about ten feet; you’ll spot them at the margins of the forest as well as in the woods, where a flame azalea in bloom, spotlighted by a shaft of sunlight in the midst of shady forest, lives up to its name.
Current Blooming Highlights
I took a flower scouting expedition last weekend along sections of the Parkway within about an hour’s drive both north and south of Asheville, North Carolina. Here’s what I found for the "Big Three."
It’s a bit early for most of these blooms in the southern parts of the park, but plants are loaded with buds in the Craggy Gardens area (MP 364, north of Asheville.) A few individual plants are already showing nice color, but the best show is yet to come. The same situation prevails just down the road at the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area (a short spur off the Parkway at MP 367.6)
A few more individual shrubs and small clusters of all three plants are already in bloom south of Asheville. There are some very nice individual specimens of Catawba rhododendron and flame azalea in full bloom now around the parking area at the Pisgah Inn (MP 408.6).
The park information line listed above says blooms are more in evidence in much of the Virginia section of the Parkway, and southward into the Doughton Park (MP 240) and Linville Falls areas (MP 316) in North Carolina.
It’s a great season of the year for even a short drive on the Parkway. You’ll find additional information to help plan a visit on the park website.
Traveler footnote: Be sure to check out our Discriminating Explorer: Appalachian Spring, which delves into some great places to find yourself in along the Blue Ridge Parkway this spring. And if you can't make it out this spring, watch our video for a virtual tour!