When many people think of national parks in the United States, Western scenes come to mind. The Blue Ridge Parkway adds an Eastern aesthetic to equally global recognition as an icon of the American landscape.
Stretches of road elsewhere in the country are as spectacular, but nothing matches this manicured, uniquely uncommercialized, half-a-thousand-mile thoroughfare through the lofty heart of America's first frontier. The scenery is great, but equally memorable is the encounter with history and traditional Appalachian culture and music.
As far as national park experiences go, it's hard to beat a Parkway vacation'day-after-day of scenic new sights along the spine of the Southern Appalachians from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. Add Shenandoah's Skyline Drive and the Smokies to the trip and you have the quintessential experience of the Eastern mountains.
The winding, reduced-speed-limit road is a relaxed motor trail among the airy mountaintops of Eastern America's highest mountains. It's an Appalachian Trail for cars.
When everything bursts into shades of green and pink in the spring, one of the world's most diverse natural environments explodes into bloom. Summer days at the heights are cool for hiking, picnicking, and camping. And fall brings electric color and awe inspiring distant views.
There are campgrounds a day's drive apart, wallets-paring National Park Service lodges'and trails'miles and miles of trails that won't deter the less active visitor. There are long hikes, but the vast majority are easy 'leg-stretcher' trails designed to lead even families with children and older travelers to awesome views.
The recent completion of major new interpretive facilities'the Parkway Visitor Center in Asheville, North Carolina, and the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galax, Virginia'crown the route as a one-of-a-kind experience of America's most storied region, where our traditional music was born (and can still be heard) and handcrafted works of art tempt travelers.
Add the East's highest mountains, and the Blue Ridge Parkway may just be the ultimate road trip in a country long known for a love of the open road.
Sound enticing? Here are some tips from the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation on how to get the most out of your sojourn through the Southern sky.
Weather. This is the loftiest road in the East, so expect abrupt weather changes. Sweaters in the summer? Snow in the fall? Yep.
Cell Service. Expect limited cell service.
Wildlife. Protect the 'locals''drive slowly to avoid Parkway wildlife in morning and evening.
Don't Just Sit There! The Parkway is a road, but short, easy trails at many overlooks lead to spectacular sights'and are a perfect way to sample the natural side of a great American drive.
No gas is available on Parkway itself'hop off when needed.
Nearly 500 miles at the crest may involve closures'visit the Parkway site for the latest.
Get On for Off Season. When not closed by snow, many parts of the Parkway make great destinations in winter. Near Boone, NC, ski resorts are close to the Parkway and cross country skiing on Parkway trails is popular.
Pull Off in Memorable Towns. Roanoke, Boone and Asheville are memorable stops'the Parkway is bordered by great dining and lodging. Check out Asheville's great bed and breakfast inns in this article and video.
Coming Wednesday: The Glacier Fund: Supporting The Crown of the Continent
Coming Sunday on the Traveler: Glacier National Park and Insider tips from the Glacier Fund for exploring The Crown of the Continent