Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Stone Mountain and the Blue Ridge Parkway

View from an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Years ago I read about the Blue Ridge Parkway and how gorgeous it is in the fall. Said to be one of the prettiest drives in the United States, it is actually part of the Park System. It stretches from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, south along much of the top of the Blue Ridge to the Smokey Mountains National Park. It’s over 400 miles long and if one does it right, takes at least three days. The speed limit is 45 most of the way, necking down to 35 along the more curvy sections. At various points, there are pullouts to look out over the vistas to the east or west, and in a few “saddle” spots, both directions offer up stunning views. The Park service has several visitor centers.

Beautiful little details.
I stopped at the Music center which had a wonderful presentation of the evolution of mountain folk music and instruments. The banjo is homegrown, based on an older gourd instrument that the African slaves knew how to make. From Irish tunes and African drumming, Appalachian music evolved, and from that, bluegrass, jazz, C&W, and rock’n’roll. True “roots” music. Outside in the breezeway a 6 piece band sang and played old country tunes with guitar, banjo, a base, and fiddles.

The National Park system owns as little as 10 feet on either side of the Parkway, or as much as half a mile in either direction. As a result, especially in Virginia, the road passes by many farms, small towns, and dairies. In places a second paved road parallels the Parkway, used by the locals to zoom along at higher speeds and for commercial vehicles that are prohibited on the parkway.

Stone Mountain
Stone Mountain, a North Carolina State Park is just east of the parkway.  Two full days, and two nights camping, were spent there. The first afternoon was a hike to the bottom of the falls, 340 steps down and back up…….I heard a couple of kids counting them! The falls are really a giant “slip-n-slide” down the rounded curve of the granite rock that makes up Stone Mountain.  Signs are numerous warning to stay out of the stream, it’s slippery and death can result.

The mountain is a granite intrusion from millions of years ago when the Appalachians were much taller. As the mountains eroded, this huge chunk of solid granite was exposed. In places it looks like a giant egg with trees growing out of the top and in occasional cracks and crevices. Dark stripes decorate the almost white granite, evidence of much rainfall streaming from the forest above.

Tree growing out
of solid granite.
At the base, on the south western side of the mountain, the Hutchinson family built a cabin, a multipurpose barn that was used to store cured pork during the winter and to cure and dry tobacco during the late summer, a blacksmith’s shop, animal pens, and of course an outhouse with a little moon carved into the door. (The outhouse is currently locked and boarded up, presumably to keep anyone from actually using it.) During the summer the buildings are open and I’m sure there are docents around to talk about life back in the 1800s. The farm took up the entire little valley between Stone Mountain, and another exposed section called Wolf Rock. A small stream runs down the valley, which was used to keep things cool in a “spring box” and for drinking water. There are two ways to get to the homestead: by road, reserved for people with handicap stickers on their cars, and a trail through the dense forest along the stream.

The second day, after a very cold night that left frost on the picnic table and all the dishes that had been left out to dry, I hiked to the very top of Stone Mountain, a three and a half mile round trip, with an elevation of about 900 feet.  It was beautiful up there. The granite could be very slippery when wet, but dry it has great traction. It curves down steeply in some places, but at the top a fairly large area of gently slopping rock is exposed. The views to the south and east are spectacular, even on a hazy day, you can see 45 or 50 miles. The mature hardwoods were at the height of their color change. The most colorful leaves are the maples. There aren’t many of those, so the few show up strikingly.

View from the top of Stone Mountain
West of the state park is the much taller Blue Ridge and an overlook up there looks down on Stone Mountain and Wolf Rock. From that vantage point it’s clear that the granite intrusion is quite large. Open areas of it show up like patches of snow in a golden forest several places to the south.

The road south of Roanoke, the only large city near the parkway, has many examples of private land ownership. The forests have been cleared, there are idyllic old farmsteads with weathered barns contrasted by trashed out single wide trailers surrounded by junk. In one area there were rows of identical white McMansions on tiny lots looking like marshmallows on a stick.

Village church along the Parkway.
But north of Roanoke, the parkway enters a national forest, and stays within it most of the way to Shenandoah. It’s rougher country. It becomes clear just how “ridgey” the Blue Ridge really is. Literally, the road travels along the spine of a very tall mountain range. In places the land drops away so sharply on both sides of the two-lane road that the only thing standing between the car and a plunge down the mountain are short rock walls built in the ‘30s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Several “gaps” have amazing views to the east and the west from the same vantage point. The road is extremely curvy. It’s much slower going, taking often ten to fifteen minutes to go seven miles. But the scenery changes with every turn, here a stand of oaks, there a maple or dogwood in red regalia, a sudden bright drop off with no trees whatsoever and views that go on for miles, then a regress into the darker forest, or the road steeply descends down the east or the west side of the ridge, later to rise back up and progress along the spine.

Looking up into those gorgeous trees
The Parkway is known for its abundance of animals. Several times deer could be seen grazing in a field in the late afternoon, or jumping over fences, their long white tails sticking straight up, giving the impression that a puppet master in the sky lifted them. Their only predators are pot bellied men who wear T-shirts emblazoned with  phrases such as: Buck Huntin’, Truck Drivin’, That’s how I Roll!! 

There were almost no dead animals on the road, and that was a surprise considering how long and curvy the Parkway is. A woodchuck sat so still a few feet off the pavement, that at first I thought it was an oddly shaped piece of wood, till it moved and headed back into the trees. Turkeys are fairly numerous, as are Turkey Vultures, ravens, and squirrels.

The Park Service operates several campgrounds along the parkway. I stayed one night at Rocky Nob, high on the ridge and windy. None of the campgrounds have water or electricity at the sites, nor do they have hot water or showers in the bathrooms. At least the toilets flush, a step up from the typical Forest Service campground! Short distances east and west of the Parkway, there are many privately owned RV parks. I decided to stay in Montebello only three miles east of the Parkway. The plunge from the ridge to the valley was the longest three miles I’ve ever driven, all of it in second gear. On the valley floor there’s a general store and a beautiful little stocked lake where one can buy a permit to fish and all fish caught must be taken home! Down a dark road is a large campground with electricity and water available at all the sites. It’s next to a lake with Canada geese and ducks. Paddle boats and kayaks can be rented. It would be a great place to spend the weekend, especially with kids in tow.

On Wednesday, I head back to civilization after 5 days in the woods. (No Internet, little cell phone service, no way to charge batteries, whine, whine!) Next stop will be Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Pumpkin patch in the rural but civilized section of southern Virginia.

Some of the lovely fall foliage

A trail into the woods.

One of many vistas from the occasional "gap" in the ridge.