A classic road trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway — "America's Favorite Drive" — winds through Virginia and North Carolina and offers scenic views, quirky small towns, bluegrass-music festivals and more. The 469-mile route celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.
The Associated Press
Blue Ridge Parkway
For details on visitor centers, recreation and ranger-led programs, see the National Park Service website, www.nps.gov/blri
75th anniversary celebration
Events include the Blue Ridge Parkway 75th Anniversary Festival Sept. 10-12. www.blueridgeparkway75.org
The offbeat Virginia town is near milepost 165. The FloydFest is July 22-25, www.floydfest.com Blue Ridge Music Center
Free admission to visitor center; weekend concert prices vary. Off milepost 213 near Galax, Va. www.blueridgemusiccenter.org
Museum of the Cherokee Indian
The museum is in Cherokee, N.C. www.cherokeemuseum.org
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The construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina began as a project to put people back to work during the Depression.
But 75 years later, the winding roadway has evolved into one of the United States' most-visited national park sites, drawing about 17 million people annually and bringing about $2 billion to surrounding areas.
This year the National Park Service is celebrating the parkway's 75th anniversary with a variety of events, including a weekend festival in September. That makes this summer and fall a good time to enjoy hiking and camping, local arts, and small-town life along "America's Favorite Drive."
Since its groundbreaking on Sept. 11, 1935, at Cumberland Knob, N.C., on the Virginia border, the parkway has become an integral part of the mountains and the Appalachian communities that lie along its 469-mile route, as well as a gateway to the region's culture and history.
With a top speed of 45 mph along its curving roads, the parkway also offers a chance for visitors to slow down and enjoy the scenery. Its 264 overlooks offer breathtaking views of the mountains and valleys, sunrises and sunsets, and on clear nights, the stars.
The 75th anniversary festival takes place Sept. 10-12 at venues around Cumberland Knob, featuring music, food, crafts and a vintage-camper display, and at the Blue Ridge Parkway Music Center, where bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley & His Clinch Mountain Boys will play on Sept. 11.
The parkway connects Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It starts at Rockfish Gap, Va., intersecting Skyline Drive, and winds southwest through Virginia into mountainous western North Carolina. Along the way, travelers will find campgrounds and hiking trails, glimpses of small-town Appalachian life in places like Floyd, Va., the small cities of Roanoke, Va., and Asheville, N.C., and many other treasures tucked away in the mountains.
A team led by landscape architect Stanley Abbott, a devotee of pioneering American parks designer Frederick Law Olmsted, conceived the parkway as a chain of recreational areas and scenic views that would integrate naturally with the mountainscape.
Road builders used stonework for tunnel portals, bridges and guard walls, for example, to retain a rustic architectural style. Planners laid out the parkway's curves to match the mountainsides' contours, rather than remove parts of the mountain to make way for the road.
Twenty-six tunnels — 25 of them in North Carolina — were cut into mountain ridges, rather than blasting the slopes away to conform, and bridges were built over land that was removed, instead of backfilling natural drainage areas.
Planners also created roadside vistas that motorists could experience while driving, along with places to get out of their cars to take in the views, said Gary Johnson, the parkway's chief landscape architect.
Floyd, where Virginia's Highway 8 and U.S. 221 intersect a few miles off parkway milepost 165, has become an outpost for artists and musicians, with an active barter economy and alternative culture.
Each Friday night musicians gather for impromptu sessions at the Floyd Country Store. Each July, thousands gather in a big field outside of town for FloydFest, an event that continues to grow each year. (This year it's July 22-25.)
Other Virginia highlights include Humpback Rocks, which features hiking trails and a working farm; the Peaks of Otter, which were regarded in President Jefferson's time as the western frontier's highest mountains with elevations nearing 4,000 feet; and the Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax, which showcases the region's traditional musical heritage with displays and performances.
North Carolina sites include the 5,900-foot-high Grandfather Mountain and its Mile High Swinging Bridge; Linville Falls and Linville Gorge, dubbed the state's "Grand Canyon;" and the popular resort city of Asheville, which includes the historic Biltmore Estate. At the parkway's southern end, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, in Cherokee, N.C., houses tribal artifacts such as weapons and tools, and the nearby Oconaluftee Indian Village replicates a 1750 settlement.
The tribe's eastern contingent occupied southeastern states in large numbers until the U.S. government forced them to move to Oklahoma in 1838. A handful of Cherokees, however, instead fled into the mountains and their descendants won back their land. Some later traded their parcels to the U.S. government so the parkway could be built.
Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe, 85, says the government took his late father's land in exchange for a plot closer to town, where Wolfe still lives. The parkway has been a welcome gateway into the Cherokee area, he said.
In its 75th year, the parkway also faces challenges, including federal budget cuts that affect staffing, landscaping and maintenance, and air pollution from Midwestern coal-fired plants that can cloud mountain views.
Park officials and preservation groups also are concerned about encroaching development on "America's Favorite Drive" as much of the land along the parkway is privately owned.