Human and Natural History: Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Mountains, that first, hazy blue ripple of Appalachian summits encountered when motorists head west from more coastal areas, run from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. The Blue Ridge Parkway straddles that range for almost 500 miles. It also straddles a remarkable slice of human and natural history. Best of all, a batch of Blue Ridge Parkway visitor sites bring that story to life.

A Focus on the Terrain

Farther north, through Virginia, and into Pennsylvania, the Blue Ridge is at times a narrow serpentine spine of summits. The Blue Ridge in North Carolina contains many named sub-ranges as it broadens into a vast geographic jumble near the Great Smokies. Here rise many of Eastern North America’s highest peaks.

The broader Appalachian region starts west of the Blue Ridge with the Great Valley. This verdant patchwork of farms and winding rivers forms a dramatic backdrop for the Parkway in Virginia, especially north of Roanoke (and along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, a nice extension that adds another 100 miles to a Parkway vacation).

Geologic History


The Blue Ridge got its start during the Silurian Period 350 million years ago. The tectonic collision of Africa, Europe and North America about 320 million years ago bumped up the Blue Ridge to jagged heights.

Millennia of freezing and thawing, rain, snow, and wind have reduced these once loftiest mountains on earth. When the glacial sheets of the last Ice Age advanced south 25,000 years ago, the onslaught polished New England’s peaks, creating steep notches and glacial cirques. Though the glacially scoured peaks of New Hampshire are lower than the highest Blue Ridge peaks, the colder climate of New England creates an Appalachian timberline, similar to the Rockies, where nothing but alpine plants grow (above about 4,800 feet).

The Southern Appalachians soar to heights much higher than that (nearly 6,700 feet), but being beyond the reach of the ice, they rise in tree-covered roundness, albeit rocky and awesome nonetheless. The Ice Age climate was nevertheless much colder in the South, and the many northern species pushed ahead of the ice ultimately found a home on Blue Ridge summits. Today’s Southern Appalachian ecosystem still harbors flora typical of the northern United States.

Human History

Evidence suggests that humans lived in the vicinity of the Blue Ridge after the last Ice Age as early 11,000 years ago. The Cherokee Indians were the major Native American tribe of the Blue Ridge region, interacting at times with Piedmont, or foothill, tribes to the east, and other Iroquois tribes to the northwest. Permanent towns, sophisticated political decision-making, hunting and artfully integrated cultivation of beans, squash, and corn were typical of the Cherokee lifestyle.

Sporadic contact with Europeans started in the mid-1500s, and the Cherokee were known as early adaptors of what they considered to be the best non-native technology. During the French and Indian War, from 1754 to 1763, tribes in Eastern America split into those loyal to France (and their claims to the Midwest) and England (and their more coastal American colonies). Indian military power in the Appalachians played a key role in the eventual domination of Eastern America by Britain.

By the time of the American Revolution, major migrations of Scots-Irish, German and other immigrant groups were flowing down the Great Valley, depositing people east of the mountains into Piedmont North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. American colonists had also begun settling in, and crossing over the Blue Ridge, among them Daniel Boone.

Between the pressure of increasing settlement by outsiders and the impact of exotic diseases, the tribes of the Blue Ridge region were dramatically reduced. In 1838, Andrew Jackson forced 16,000 of the remaining Cherokees in North Carolina to walk to Oklahoma in the “Trail of Tears,” one of the most tragic instances of injustice in American history. A small band of Cherokee landowners were able to stay, and joined by others who hid or returned, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee was reborn. Today, the Cherokee’s Qualla Boundary Reservation is a major Parkway attraction.

By the Civil War, the highest mountains of the Blue Ridge region had a widely scattered assortment of small towns, hardscrabble farms, and an emerging culture based on self-sufficiency. That started to change when railroads began to penetrate the mountains by the 1880s, bringing paid jobs and logging operations. Timber cutting decimated the environment and led to the passage of the Weeks Act in 1911 and the establishment of the national forests, and eventually to Blue Ridge region national parks in Shenandoah (established in 1935) and Great Smokies (established in 1934).

Check out these Parkway sites where human and natural history come alive.

James River Watergap/ James River Face (Milepost 63.

Imagine the titanic forces needed for Virginia’s biggest river to flow placidly through this breach in the Appalachians. This water gap—a typical Appalachia formation—is sure to impress. Such gaps played a key role in westward expansion, and the one here was a corridor for an early turnpike, railroad, and canal. A major highway and rail line still course above the river. The canal is gone, but the James River Trail leads across a bridge from the visitor center to the opposite bank where a lock is still visible at this lowest point on the Parkway. The Trail of Trees (same starting point), one of the Parkway’s best interpretive trails, covers the geology of the water gap and the diversity of the floodplain forest. The cliffs and crags on the south side of the river comprise the James River Face Wilderness, an 8,900-acre federally designated wild area.

Cumberland Knob: Start of the Parkway (Milepost 217.5)


As the Parkway celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2010, Cumberland Knob plays an important role as the spot where construction on the high road started in 1935. There’s an historic marker at the state line and plaques by the information station focus on the role of landscape architects in the building of the road.

Stone Mountain (Milepost 229.7)


Not far inside North Carolina heading south, pull into the Stone Mountain Overlook to look down on the granite domes of this National Natural Landmark. A nearby state park (just 15 minutes off the Parkway from Roaring Gap, at Milepost 229.7, via US 21, then right on NC 1100) has easy trails that reach great views of the dramatic slabs popular with rock climbers. There’s also a campground, picnic area, and great trout fishing.

Grandfather Mountain International Biosphere Reserve (Milepost 305.1)

One of the most significant single mountains in the East, craggy Grandfather is the world’s only privately owned, UN-designated International Biosphere Reserve. It also has the distinction of being the namesake of it’s own geologic feature: the Grandfather Mountain Window. This granitic rock, among the oldest parts of the Appalachians, was once covered by younger rock that has eroded away. The many unique and endangered species on the mountain include Heller’s Blazing Star, Michaux Saxifrage, and Blue Ridge Goldenrod. The biggest part of the peak is a new North Carolina state park. A smaller part of the mountain is a popular travel attraction with a nature museum and a motor road to 5,300 feet where visitors cross the Mile-High Swinging Bridge

Linville Falls/ Linville Gorge Wilderness (Milepost 316.4)

Linville Falls is the Parkway’s most dramatic waterfall (by volume of water) and the cataract plummets into another noteworthy feature—the Linville Gorge, a more than12,000-acre federally designated wilderness known for rugged, little-marked trails suitable for the most experienced hikers. Luckily, easy trails on Parkway property provide great views of the falls and the Gorge. Linville Gorge is North Carolina’s “grand canyon,” a meandering cleft up to 2,800 feet deep, carved by the same river that leaps over the falls. William Linville and his son were scalped in the Gorge in 1766, hence the name.

Craggy Gardens: (Milepost 364.5)


Perhaps the most stunning bloom of rhododendron on the Parkway occurs on the high crests of the Craggy Mountains, just south of Mount Mitchell. The peaks are covered with grassy meadows (see Southern Balds) and low-growing heaths that permit great views from a variety of easy trails. There’s a small visitor center and a picnic area.

Cradle of Forestry (Milepost 411.8)

The 6,500-acre Cradle of Forestry National Historic Site, the nation’s first school of forestry, is a must-see stop for Parkway visitors. Nowhere is the amazing story of our nation’s national forests more stirringly told. To manage his lands, George Vanderbilt of Asheville’s Biltmore House, hired forester Gifford Pinchot in 1889, and then Dr. Carl Schenck, a German forester, who in 1898 started the United States’ first forestry school. A decade later, North Carolina supported the Weeks Act that created the national forests and the agency’s first chief was Pinchot, Vanderbilt’s first forester. And after Vanderbilt’s death, his lands were among the earliest parcels of the new national forests. Trails interpret the rustic campus. There’s an early sawmill, logging railroad engine, and state-of-the-art exhibits in the Forest Discovery Center. US 276 to the site is part of the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway.

The Parkway’s Cool Cabins


The Parkway preserves some atmospheric examples of America’s early log structures. Brinegar Cabin (Milepost 238.5) is one of the best and the only Parkway log cabin listed on the National Register of Historic Sites. This (and adjoining structures) is the real thing: an original cabin built circa 1880 by Martin Brinegar at a lofty 3,500 feet. In summer there’s a small garden behind the structure. Carolyn Brinegar’s original loom is inside and there are summer demonstrations. Other great cabins include Polly Woods’ Ordinary, an early hostelry at Peaks of Otter (Milepost 85.6). The Trail’s Cabin (Milepost 154.6) has a great view on the Smart View Trail amidst plentiful picnic tables. Puckett Cabin (Milepost 189.9) and Sheets Cabin (Milepost 252.4) sit beside the Parkway. And Caudill Cabin (Milepost 241) is visible far below a dramatic drop in Doughton Park’s Basin Cove backcountry. A visit to it is a great day-hike (see trails).

Cone Manor (Milepost 294)


Moses Cone (1857-1908) and his brother Cesar amassed a fortune in North Carolina's post-Civil War textile industry. Cone popularized blue denim cloth and became known as “The Denim King.” With the heart of a preservationist and the mind of a forester, Cone created a mountain estate and offered jobs in the new orchards and fields to the original landowners. His memorable Victorian mansion Flat Top Manor is one of the Parkway’s most historic structures. The downstairs is used as the Parkway Craft Center and tours are available of the upstairs living quarters. Cone and wife Bertha are buried on a breezy meadow-covered hilltop that’s a short hike from the mansion.

Linn Cove Viaduct (Milepost 304)


Not every historic site is old! This S-shaped, computer-designed span is an engineering wonder that leaps away from the cliffs to spare the fragile mountainside. The bridge was created by adding each new section to the last, often over midair. A handicapped-accessible trail explores under the bridge.

Mabry Mill (Milepost 176.2)


This scenic gristmill is so iconic that postcards in multiple states have claimed it. The mill, living history programs, and a wealth of outlying exhibits on the Mountain Industry Trail provide some of the Parkway’s most fascinating insights into how mountain residents lived. The mill was built in 1910 by Edwin Mabry, a miner, blacksmith, and chairmaker. He and his wife Mintoria Lizzie Mabry lived here until 1936 grinding corn for the Meadows of Dan community. There’s also an 1869 log cabin where you can see cloth being woven on an old loom in summer. Mountain musicians often perform on weekends.

Gillespie Gap (Milepost 330.9)


This high gap in the Blue Ridge was where a band of eastern Tennessee pioneers crossed into the Piedmont of North Carolina and defeated British commander, Major Patrick Ferguson, in the pivotal 1781 Revolutionary battle of King’s Mountain. Ferguson had threatened to "lay waste" their isolated mountain settlements “with fire and sword” if they continued to support independence, but before his loyalist Army could come get them, the roughneck band of mountaineers marched to meet them. Joining lowland Patriots, they killed Ferguson and destroyed the left wing of Cornwallis’ Army, setting the stage for a rapid succession of British disasters at Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse that sent the British to defeat at Yorktown. The Overmountain Victory Trail National Historic Trail crosses at this point ( HYPERLINK "http://www.nps.gov/ovvi/" www.nps.gov/ovvi/).