Of all the national park units we have visited, none provide a more pleasant experience than driving the 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Vistas through North Carolina and Virginia aren’t as spectacular as those along Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road, Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road, or Yosemite National Park’s Tioga Road. However, for a pleasant drive that lasts several days rather than several hours, the Blue Ridge Parkway is without peer.
Lodging on the Parkway
During our initial drives, the Parkway was home to four lodges: Pisgah Inn, Rocky Knob Cabins, Bluffs Lodge, and Peaks of Otter Lodge. At the time we were the proud owners of a VW camper (we went through four of these trouble-prone jewels) and spent nights camping, although we would often spend time browsing through the lodges. It wasn’t until 1996 when we started writing our national park lodging guide, Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges, that we began staying in the lodges.
The lodges were each quite different, a feature that added to the enjoyment of a trip along the Parkway. They were also conveniently spread along the Parkway from Peaks of Otter Lodge at milepost 86 in the north to Pisgah Inn, located south of Asheville, North Carolina, at milepost 408. We typically drove north with stays at Pisgah Inn, either Rocky Knob Cabins or Bluffs Lodge, and finally at Peaks of Otter before driving on to Shenandoah National Park and visiting its three lodges.
Unfortunately, only Pisgah Inn and Peaks of Otter Lodge currently remain in operation. Rocky Knob cabins, with only seven rental units, was almost certainly a marginal operation from day one. With a six-month season and cabins renting for $65 per night during its last year of operation (with a discount for multiple nights), the entire complex could produce annual revenue of only $75,000 to $80,000 even if every cabin was filled every night of the season. The saving grace of Rocky Knob was the concessionaire’s ability to also operate nearby Mabry Mill that always seemed a viable business. Although Rocky Knob Cabins has been closed for several years, Mabry Mill has continued in operation.
Bluffs Lodge and Coffee Shop
But this story is about Bluffs Lodge, one of our favorite places to spend the night in a national park. Bluffs was just off the Parkway, but in an isolated location offering quiet and enjoyment in a scenic rural setting. Its guest rooms and furniture were retro, but the place was fun and the atmosphere blended perfectly with what attracted travelers to drive the parkway. With only 24 guest rooms (23 during years when the manager resided onsite) and little to do, guests visited with one another and enjoyed evening gatherings with a park ranger near a fireplace on the small patio that separated the lodge’s two buildings.
Bluffs didn’t have a game room, lobby, TV room (in fact, it didn’t have TVs, and if it had, they would have been old black and whites of the Ozzie and Harriet era), or an attached restaurant. In fact, it didn’t have any extras other than a couple of friendly employees, a place to really relax and read a good book, and the fellowship of its guests. The registration area was the size of a closet. The place was perfect.
Nearby, within walking distance, was Bluffs Coffee Shop offering a retro dining experience that served as an ideal companion to the lodge. We have dined at Yosemite’s Ahwahnee (now the oddly named Majestic Yosemite Hotel), Grand Canyon’s El Tovar, and Yellowstone’s Lake Hotel. Each serves excellent food with equally good service, but none provided a more enjoyable experience than dining at Bluffs Coffee Shop. No restaurant in America served better fried chicken, the coffee shop specialty. Regional specialties included pinto beans and cornbread, and biscuits and gravy. What delicious grub after a day on the Parkway. And where else could a person dine on barbecued pork with melted cheese served between two golden brown corn cakes, all topped with cole slaw? This was heaven on a budget!
Demise of a Parkway Icon
Unfortunately, the opportunity to experience a night at Bluffs Lodge along with a delicious and filling meal at the nearby coffee shop is an image in the mirror. Both are closed with a future that doesn’t look promising. With only 24 guest rooms to rent during a six-month season, it was apparently difficult to make the numbers work.
Long operated by concessionaire National Park Concessions (NPC) and later, Forever Resorts when it absorbed NPC, the lodge and coffee shop have sat vacant since the end of the 2010 season when Forever’s obligation was up and the company decided to pull out. Various attempts by the National Park Service were unsuccessful in attracting another concessionaire. The Park Service did install new roofs on the buildings, most likely at great expense, but the exteriors continue to deteriorate with evidence of mold and decay. Bluffs and the coffee shop have become a depressing sight for those of us who enjoyed many an evening there.
Is There Hope?
The National Park Service undertook a value analysis study of Bluffs and the coffee shop, along with the Crabtree Falls and Otter Creek restaurants, that was completed in 2014 but only recently released to the public. The study evaluated several alternatives for Bluffs, including resuming operation of the lodge and coffee shop by a concessionaire or under a lease arrangement.
According to the report, locating a willing concessionaire for Bluffs is likely to “encounter a major implementation issue” due to the significant investment required to remediate mold and rehabilitate the facilities prior to a concessionaire agreeing to an obligation for operating the facility. In other words, no concessionaire will be willing to absorb the costs necessary to put the facilities into operating condition. The copy of the report we received did not include the cost of remediation of either the lodge or coffee shop.
The study also considered the options of remediating mold in the coffee shop while demolishing the lodge, and of preserving the exteriors only so as to serve as exhibits without interior use. Fortunately, for the many fans of Bluffs, the evaluation team primarily recommended first determining interest in and the viability of returning the facilities to their traditional concessions operations. On the downside, the viability is a function of the condition of the buildings.
Some of you may know of or experienced a ride in one of the historic red buses utilized for tours of Glacier National Park. The so-called “Reds” are as iconic to Glacier as Old Faithful Geyser is to Yellowstone. Built by Cleveland’s White Motor Company, the buses were introduced into Glacier in the early 1900s with nearly three dozen additional buses being acquired in the mid-1930s. Glacier’s current concessionaire, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, continues to offer park tours in over 30 of these iconic buses thanks to the generosity of Ford Motor Company that partnered with the National Park Service to rehabilitate and refurbish the Reds to the tune of $6 million.
Wouldn’t it be grand if one or more corporations stepped up to offer financial and other assistance for Bluffs Lodge and the Bluffs Coffee Shop similar to that provided by Ford Motor Company for Glacier’s red buses? Because the lodge being in North Carolina, Lowes, a national corporation headquartered in Mooresville, North Carolina, would be a prime candidate for the donation of materials required for the renovation.
Reynolds American in Winston-Salem, and Bank of America in Charlotte, could both use some image improvement. BB&T is another large Winston-Salem company with substantial financial resources. Software firm Red Hat is headquartered in Raleigh. This is only a partial list of businesses that might be approached to assist such a worthy project that would likely provide loads of favorable publicity.
One of our stays at Bluffs was next to the room of a couple with their young daughter. Earlier in their trip the mother had purchased a harp that she played on the balcony outside their room. We spent a portion of the afternoon sitting in our chairs listening to the music and chatting with the couple. What a memorable late afternoon experience that helps recall the pleasures of staying at Bluffs.
So, who starts the ball rolling to help keep Bluffs from the scrap heap?