Backroads: The Blue Ridge Parkway

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Love Gap at milepost 16. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

This year marks the 87th anniversary construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway; a ribbon of road that threads 469 miles through twenty-nine counties of Virginia and North Carolina.  It is named for the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are part of the Appalachian range.

In September of 1935, the solitude of the mountain people who inhabited the Blue Ridge came to a close. Isolated areas that were once cut off from the mainstream of modern society were laid open as a 1930s Depression make-work program was instituted. Most of the native people originally thought the rumors were a joke. They couldn’t imagine a paved roadway stretching nearly five hundred miles across the crest of Virginia’s Blue Ridge and connecting with the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.

Blue Ridge Parkway under construction with horse teams at Love, 1930s

One side of the argument was the mountain people did not want their land scissored in two, opening their farms up to outsider’s eyes. Up to this point their lives were extremely private and virtually free of unrelated visitors. Most were blood kin who had lived here for generations.

On the other side of the coin, the native men knew this was a golden opportunity to earn a better living for their families without having to leave the area. A secure government job was no farther than a step or two out their back door. There were a few “fence-sitters” who were unsure what to do. Some came willingly, eager for the chance to better their standard of living. Others were reluctant and fought bitterly to hold onto the rough but fertile land that had been handed down by their ancestors.

In the end, the project won out and over time, tracts of land were purchased by the government for the parkway’s completion. Careful restrictions were instituted, to ensure the future beauty and simplicity of the southern highlands and because of these rules, instead of destroying the rural authenticity and quiet peace the hills had to offer, it actually ensured the preservation of its pristine beauty for generations to come.

Parkway entrance at Rockfish Gap

Actual construction on the roadway began on September 11, 1935, on a twelve-and-a-half-mile section on the Virginia/North Carolina line. The men employed were largely made up of nearby residents, CCC workers and conscientious objectors who would rather build than tear down through war. Others necessary to the project were highway engineers, naturalists, landscape architects, blasting experts, and historians. There were also a number of European stonemasons brought in to teach others how to cut and lay rock for the walls and underpasses lining the parkway.

Much of the early construction was done painstakingly by hand. Chainsaws and earth- moving equipment came much later in the project. The men from Love who worked on construction said they cleared trees with crosscut saws and moved massive rocks with levers.  They all agreed the 10-mile stretch from Humpback Rock to Love was one of the hardest sections of the road they worked on. We have them to thank, along with the foresight of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Department of the Interior, and the states of Virginia and North Carolina for instituting the scenic roadway that winds through some of the most beautiful and unspoiled land this country has to offer.

Fog in the Tye River Valley, milepost 19

Construction of the parkway took over fifty-two years to complete, the last stretch of highway near the Linn Cove Viaduct being laid around Grandfather Mountain in 1987. There are twenty-six tunnels on the parkway and the road is carried across streams, railway ravines and cross roads by 168 bridges and six viaducts. The highest point is 6,053 feet on Richland Balsam Mountains at milepost 431. The Parkway crosses the Virginia/North Carolina state line at mile 216.9. The 1749 party that surveyed the boundary included Peter Jefferson, father of Thomas Jefferson.

The parkway runs from the southern terminus of Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive in Virginia at Rockfish Gap and runs to Route 441 at Oconaluftee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee, North Carolina. There is no fee for using the parkway, although commercial vehicles are prohibited without prior approval from the Park Service headquarters, near Asheville, North Carolina. The speed limit is never higher than 45 mph and, in some sections, lower.

Wildflowers abound in the spring, moving from the valley up to the mountains as cold weather retreats. Major trees include, oak, hickory and tulip poplar at lower elevations and buckeye and ash in the middle, turning into conifers such as spruce and fir at the highest elevations.

The slower speeds along the parkway allow a close-up view of many types of animals that inhabit the forestlands on either side of the roadway. Bears, fox, deer, racoons, turkeys, and bobcats have all been spotted by locals and tourists alike.

These are just a small sampling of natural highlights along the roadway and there are a number of worthwhile stopping off places along the way.  For a complete list, go on the internet to blueridgeparkway.com or contact your closest National Park office for more information.

We salute the great American treasure known as the Blue Ridge Parkway celebrating its 87th anniversary this September. May your beauty and character always stand firm in the future so many more generations can witness the hidden joys of rural mountain life that lie along each bend in your winding road from Rockfish Gap, Virginia, to the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.  

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