Want to really see the Blue Ridge Mountains?

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Flame Azalea

Hike them!

After being tourists in Asheville for a couple of days, we were back to what delights us the most – submerging ourselves into nature through our hiking – this time in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  We were thrilled when we learned that our home base in Candler, Western NC was only 4.5 miles from the access road to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The RV park was really quaint, with only six sites and the added bonus of a creek running right through it!  We will miss the sounds of that water running by the back of the rig as we enjoyed our fires and at bedtime.  Steve’s review of Stony Fork Creek RV Park is here.

Stony Fork Creek RV Park, Candler, NC

Stony Fork Creek behind our site

On the image below, numbers 1 and 2 (clicking on the numbers takes you to the related post) mark the sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway we explored last year.  This time we explored the southern end of the parkway, marked number 3 below.  The Blue Ridge Parkway begins at Mile 0 in Shenandoah National Park, VA and goes all the way down to Mile 469 at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway

Driving out of our campsite toward our first trailhead, Steve noted an opportunity when we climbed the very curvy and steep grade up Highway 151 towards the Blue Ridge Parkway access.  He blurted out that it would really be fun to coast down this curvy road on his bike. Of course, I tried to shut down his excitement by telling him it’s too dangerous and that he’s getting too old for that kind of crap.  That didn’t go over very well, so I patiently reminded him that our medical coverage isn’t quite as “comprehensive” as it used to be.  He admitted that was a good point.

So, bright and early the next morning he had his bike on the car, and back up the hill we went anyway.  I dropped him off at the top and he waited while I located a nice sharp turn halfway down from which to witness the carnage.  Since I’m no action photographer,  the shot below is the best I could get as he whizzed by with a huge smile on his face.  In 10 minutes he had coasted down the 4.5 miles back to our campground, and I couldn’t even catch him in the car after snapping the picture!

Lowes RV Adventures

There’s the crazy biker…

With that bit of insanity out of the way, we headed back for our real workout, climbing mountains.  Beware, lots of mountain photos ahead.

Overlook signs and some plaques are placed along the Blue Ridge Parkway that point out and explain the interesting cultural history of that area, and ID the captivating mountain scenery.  Trailheads can also be seen alongside several of the overlooks, and that’s where we began each of our hikes.  During this stop, our hikes were all completed between Milepost 407 to 431 on the parkway.

Milepost 431 – Richland Balsam Hike

This is  a 1.5-mile loop hike that rises about 400 feet to the summit of Richard Mountain at 6,410 feet.  It is the highest peak on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  At the beginning of the trail was a box that should have contained laminated self-guided tour maps to tell us what the markers along the trail were describing.  But as usual it was empty, so we stopped at each marker and tried to guess what it represented.  Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Milepost 431 Blue Ridge Parkway

Richard Balsam mountain

Richard Balsam summit in the background

This was a pretty trail, and not overly strenuous.  It passed through a spruce-fir forest and over the summit of the 10th highest peak in the eastern United States.  The term “balsam” is commonly applied to Fraser Fir and Red Spruce trees, whose scents permeate the fresh air on the trail.  This was a refreshing hike, as there was little sunlight and the forest floor was cool and moist at the high elevation.

Richard Balsam Summit

No mountain view at the summit, but still a nice hike

We encountered just one cute little rabbit, who posed quite nicely for me.

Rabbit at Richard Balsam Mountain

The cutest rabbit I have ever seen with really bright clear eyes!  Steve said he was getting a hankerin’ for some stew…

After the hike, we drove north to the next overlook and found a young lady reading while enjoying this captivating vista of the Cowee mountains.  The sun was not blazing that day, nor were there any crowds.  So she had those mountains all to herself (well, until we showed up).

Cowee Mountains Overlook

Cowee Mountains Overlook

Milepost 422 – Devil’s Courthouse Hike

This hike was short, but a strenuous half-mile to the top with rewarding panoramic mountain views.  The trail started from the overlook parking area beside the mountain, and was mostly paved until we approached the peak which resides at 5,720 feet.  The bare-rock profile was so named because of its sinister appearance and legend, according to the sign at the overlook.

Devil's Courthouse

Devil’s Courthouse

There were a few Catawba Rhododendron blooming along the trail, and the bees were just all-a-buzz about it!

catawba rhododendron

Catawba Rhododendron buds

There was a nice overlook at the top, and supposedly from here we could see North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.  I don’t know about that, but we saw a lot!

Devils Courthouse Peak

A compass points out everything we could see from here

Devils Courthouse

Steve pointing to our car at the overlook parking

Devils Courthouse Peak

Somewhere behind us is South Carolina 🙂

The Devil’s Courthouse’s “devilish” look has apparently contributed to some superstitious folk tales, which is probably why someone left two plates of fresh fruits and a drink at the peak.

Devil's Courthouse

I had to stop Steve from eating the grapes on the offerings

Milepost 420 – Black Balsam Hike

This is a very popular trail and we learned why.  The Black Balsam area includes some of the most spectacular “mountain balds” in the Southern Appalachians.  A mountain bald is part of a mountain range rising along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina.  This one includes Black Balsam Knob, a knob being a projecting part of a mountain, usually round in shape – like a doorknob.  To reach the summit of Black Balsam Knob, we hiked about 1/2 mile through the forest to reach the open, grassy and rocky mountain meadows, then we took a section of the 30-mile Art Loeb Trail.  This memorial to Art Loeb, an activist from the Carolina Mountain Club, is a trail with a plaque that reads “he deeply loved these mountains.”

Black Balsam Trail

Steve hiking toward a grassy knob on the Art Loeb trail

From our vantage point at Balsam Mountain, it was obvious that the Blue Ridge Parkway lives up to its name.  The photo below shows a section that crests the  Blue Ridge Mountains.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Can you see the Blue Ridge Parkway?

This trail was almost entirely devoid of trees, and we were exposed to the UV rays for several hours.  The 6,214 foot Black Balsam Knob is the 23rd highest of the 40 mountains in North Carolina.  It is lush and green around its top, and I could just imagine how these mountains would look in fall foliage.  Hmm, it might not be a bad idea to swing back through here in October!

Art Loeb Trail

Art Loeb Memorial

 

Black Balsam Mountain

Going down the twisted metamorphic rocks

I can’t believe we did all of those hikes in one day – we were exhausted!

Milepost 408- Frying Pan Tower

On another day we wanted to hike to the Frying Pan Overlook Tower.  Instead of taking the easy way and walking up the 3/4-mile gravel road from the Frying Pan overlook, we began this hike from Mount Pisgah so we could have a longer trek of about six miles.  I’m glad we took the longer hike, for we passed many undisturbed blooming wildflowers.  We could tell this trail was less-traveled, seeing nobody else as we walked through plenty of spider webs, and noticing the overgrown vegetation had not been trampled for a while.  Perfect!

Frying Pan Tower Trail

Pam, I remembered your “tick alert” as we walked through here.

False Solomon

Clusters of False Solomon were blooming

Lowes RV Adventures

Even Steve was attracted to the bright orange Flame Azalea

Flame Azalea

Steve’s photo of a Flame Azalea – not bad for a rookie!

And just a few more pretty flowers we saw on the trail.  I can’t identify the one on the left – maybe one of you can help me?

Our destination for the Frying Pan Tower hike was the 70-foot tall tower built in 1941, which I learned later is on the National Register of Historic Places.  The steel tower atop the 5,340-foot Frying Pan Mountain was designed to provide extensive views to watch for fires until the early 1990s.  However, hikers like us are the only ones experiencing the beauty today, not to mention the howling winds at the top.

Frying Pan Tower

Chatting with fellow hikers and RV’ers near the tower

Although the tower platform was locked, we climbed five flights of stairs to just underneath it.  And wow, the view was just fantastic!

Looking Glass Mountain

Looking south toward Looking Glass Mountain

Blue Ridge Parkway

Looking northeast, Blue Ridge Parkway in the center

Frying Pan Tower

Looking west toward Cold Mountain, the wind blew my hat off!

I’m exhausted just re-living these hikes, and I didn’t want it to be such a long blog.  But I’m afraid there are more hikes with more beautiful scenery ahead!

 

Next up:  Our final hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains



 

Meandering along Skyline Drive – Northern VA

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Skyline Drive

Driving through the state of Virginia, we learned quickly that it is not only steeped with history but also rich in natural beauty.  This was very evident as we drove north along country roads to our next destination.  We were  graced with the green lushness of the countryside dotted with wildflowers, the beautiful farms and the small charming towns.  Our last stop in Virginia was at Luray in scenic Page County.

wpid13291-2013-06-22-VA-1000716.jpg

On our first day at Shenandoah National Park we headed south and were met with heavy fog at the higher elevations.  We drove slowly, but because we were unfamiliar with the curves of Skyline Drive we turned around as soon as we saw a safe place to do so.  We did not intend to leave the park empty-handed; instead we looked for a place where we could wait out the fog.  We learned later on that it was at Mile 35 near the Pinnacles Overlook where we made our u-turn.

Skyline Drive

Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles.  At its southern end it joins the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we were a few days ago.  Unlike the Blue Ridge Parkway where most of the scenic overlooks have overgrown trees blocking the view, Skyline Drive has beautiful and plentiful overlooks.

Shenandoah Valley

Shenandoah Valley viewed from Stony Man Overlook

Once we got back below the fog, we stumbled onto a gorgeous hiking trail, Buck Hollow.  This is the  3-mile portion of a longer trail, and it’s pretty much a constant descent and rather steep in several sections.  We were paralleling the Buck Hollow stream and at some points made a few rock-hops across the water.  The constant descent going in let us know we’d get a good workout on the way back.  Steve saw a black bear cub, but it smelled him quickly and ran away.  This is really bear and deer country.

We saw these colorful critters and some mushrooms or fungi.

The fog had lifted after our hike , so we continued on to the highest point of the park at the Skyland area.  We stopped first at the Stony Man overlook and took a picture of Stony mountain, where we could follow a trail that led to Stony Man Summit.

Stony Man Overlook

Stony Man Overlook, viewed from the summit…

Stony Man summit

…and Stony Man summit viewed from the overlook

The trail to the summit was an easy 1.6 mile hike, ending with excellent panoramic views.  Unfortunately, some patches of fog were still there and partially obscured our view on this day.

Stony Man Summit

We made it to the Stony Man Summit

The next day was sunny, and we wanted to make use of our 7-day, $15 entrance fee.  This time we headed north and pulled off at many of the over 75 scenic overlooks to see the views.  We went almost all the way to the north entrance and stopped at Mile 5, the Dicky Ridge Visitor Center.

On this drive we met some of the frequent visitors cruising along Skyline, motorcyclists of all shapes and kinds and colors.  It was wonderful to see the wildflowers blooming and wild animals running away from us as we cruised along.

Skyline Drive

Bikers of all colors, brands and sizes

Blooming Wildflowers

Blooming wildflowers along overlooks

There are over 500 hiking trails to explore in the park, and on this day we tackled the Compton Peak Trail, a steady elevation increase of about 835 feet to the summit of Compton Mountain.  There were some steep spots, but the 2.4 mile hike was fairly easy.  At the summit were two side trails, one leading to broad mountain views…

Compton Peak

A pose at Compton Peak

…and the other to an interesting rocky outcrop with columnar joints.

Columnar Joints at Compton Mountain

Looking up at the rocky columnar joints

And along the way we saw more interesting mushrooms or fungi.

There are many more hiking trails and miles for us to explore along the Skyline Drive, we’ll just have to come back to experience more of the Shenandoah National Park.

Finally during this stop, we took a quick side trip for a tour of the Route 11 brand potato chip factory.  We had never heard of the wheat and gluten-free Route 11 brand of chips until Steve stumbled on it while searching for an RV park in Luray.  The Mama Zumma’s flavor, packed with Habanero pepper seasoning, set our mouths on fire and had us grabbing for a cold beer.  Several flavors of these yummy chips are sold at Whole Foods and other stores.

Our base camp was at Outlanders River Camp and we chose it for its proximity to the Shenandoah National Park.  We loved it, for we were surrounded by beautiful greenery and all of the nearby mountains.  You can see Steve’s review here, if you’re interested.

Outlanders River Camp

Panoramic view of Outlanders River Camp

And when the sun came out we enjoyed it to the fullest, with a campfire – even on a hot and humid day.

Outlanders River Camp

Enjoying the sunset

And these lovely duckies were fun to watch!

Ducks

These guys were checking us out as we approached on our evening walk

Green Bee

Green bee – see the ant looking at him?

Next up:  Blackwater beauty, WV

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More of the Blue Ridge Parkway – onward through Virginia!

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Blue Ridge Parkway

We were happy that we made it to Meadows of Dan in Virginia just before the onslaught of pounding rain for the next couple of days.  Then, after just one sunny day as a reprieve, along came a severe weather warning.  Our park host knocked at the door to make sure we had heard the warning and gotten ourselves ready by 3PM for what was to come.  We were fortunate that the brunt of the storm passed to the north and we had only a short but strong storm blow through.  Roanoke and points north did not fare so well.

When the winds and the rain decided to give us a break we ventured out once more to the Blue Ridge Parkway on the Virginia end, marked “B” on the map below.  The “B” covers milepost 154 to milepost 213.  We covered the “A” section during our stay in North Carolina, covered in our previous post.  There are so many places to pause along the Parkway…and on this stop our base camp was at Meadows of Dan, a small mountain town.

Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway – Americas favorite scenic drive!

Driving along the Parkway is not just about the built-in distractions – mountains, clouds, flowers and the curves – but also about the wines, area music and the hiking trails.  And so much more!

The music.

At milepost 213 is the Blue Ridge Music Center, dedicated to continuing and keeping alive some of the richest traditions of mountain music and dance.  Inside is an interactive exhibit “The Roots of American Music” that tells the compelling story of the region’s rich musical heritage.

Blue Ride Music Center

Blue Ridge Music Center

We listened to some old time music, mountain music and bluegrass tunes at one of the hotspots along “The  Crooked Road” in Floyd, VA.  Here we witnessed young and old alike jamming along the streets, showcasing the area’s musical heritage passed down through generations.  We enjoyed watching and listening to unfamiliar but beautiful music, which is what the locals provide all along Main Street on Friday nights during the summer months.  It was a very cool way to spend the evening after a nice dinner at a local winery.

The wine and chocolates

We missed the wineries in NC, so we visited two along the Parkway and took the time to taste local Virginia wines.  The husband and wife team at Villa Appalaccia Winery and Vineyards specializes in “italian inspired” Virginia wines.  We liked their wines so much that Steve came out with a few bottles in a box (gee, that’s never happened before!).  Then after a strenuous afternoon of wine tasting we enjoyed a delicious dinner at Chateau Morrisette paired with their yummy Chardonnay.  This winery was a bit more commercialized, and we found their wines to be just okay.  But wow, what a restaurant!

Some of you may know that chocolate is one of my life’s pleasures.  When we stumbled upon Nancy Candy Co., a local candy factory in the small mountain town of Meadows of Dan, I got in and out with my own bundle of sweetness!  Wine and chocolate – what more can I say?

The hikes.

With the abundance of hiking trails along the Parkway, we made sure to hit a couple along our route.  While following the Black Ridge/Rock Castle Gorge Trail, we came atop rolling hills and meadows that just forced me to put on the hat of Maria and sing …”The hills are alive …”  Steve took cover, but managed to get the photo below as he ran away.

Rock Castle Gorge Trail

The hills are alive…

We also tackled the Smart View Loop, where Steve saw a young black bear.  Unfortunately, it took off like a bullet before we could even aim the camera.

Despite a forecast of rain and fog we still trekked onto the Flat Top Trail.  This trail makes a fairly steep and constant ascent, and even though it was only about 2 miles one-way, it was one of the most exhausting we have taken.  Coupled with fog and a driving rain that started on our way back to the car and soaked us completely, not one of our most comfortable hikes.

At the Fairy State Park we hit four moderate trails; the Beach trail, Little Mountain Falls trail, Oak Hickory Trail and Stuarts Knob trail that led us to Little Waterfall, a ridge overlook and a beach overlook and very green trail.

And of course, the beautiful scenery…

As you can see, we only explored a sliver of the 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  One can make the odyssey while experiencing many worthwhile attractions along the way, beginning at Mile 0 in Virginia and ending at mile 469 at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Mabry Mill

Mabry Mill

Blue Ridge Parkway

Farm along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway

Several styles of very old fencing meander along the Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway

Yet another farm along the Parkway

We really liked the Meadows of Dan Campground, for it was quiet and the meadows were sooo green.  Click here if you’d like to read Steve’s review.

Meadows of Dan, VA

Meadows of Dan Campground, almost all to ourselves!

And lastly, a gorgeous sunset over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Sunset at Blue Ridge Mountains

Gorgeous Sunset over the Blue Ridge Mountains

Next up:  A visit to Monticello!

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Back on the road – Blue Ridge Parkway

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Rhododendrons

After surviving my jet lag and cooling down from the sweltering heat of the Philippines, we’re rolling down the road again.  My first order of the day is burning off the poundage I gained from guzzling those delicious, greasy Filipino foods.  Fortunately, the Lake Norman Motorcoach Resort is only a few minutes away from Lake Norman State Park, where entrance and usage are all free.  That is one four-letter word we love.  We are so used to paying park fees that we felt a little guilty using their beautiful hiking trails on several occasions.

Lake Norman lake

View of Lake Norman from our rig

When we were in Alaska we met adventurous and great people from all over the states.  One couple was Joe and Judy, whom we first met during our 18-hour Arctic Circle Tour and consequently bumped into again several places in Alaska.  We eventually exchanged addresses and they promised to host us when we got into their neck of the woods in North Carolina.  Fast forward a year later, here we were knocking on their door.  The door of their brand new class-A motorhome that is, as they met us at the lovely Bandit’s Roost COE Campground for a few days.  We’re so glad we took them up on their offer, as they gave us a wonderful tour along part of the Blue Ridge Parkway and also provided us valuable input for our trek to the northeast this summer.  They even celebrated their 32nd wedding anniversary with us.  Congratulations, and thanks again Joe and Judy!

Bandits Roost Campground

Happy hour at Bandits Roost Campground

While driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway a ribbon of highway, we learned that the Blue Ridge Mountains are noted for their bluish color when seen from a distance.  The Blue Ridge Parkway is a great scenic mountain drive that extends 469 miles along the crests of the southern Appalachians and links two national parks – Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the north and the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina to the south.  There are nine campgrounds along the parkway, if you are so inclined.

Blue Ridge Mountains

Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina

Blue Ridge Parkway Stats

Blue Ridge Parkway Stats

Construction of the Parkway  began in 1935 as part of  FDR’s New Deal to stimulate the economy during the Great Depression era.  The Blue Ridge Parkway, also known as Americas Favorite Drive, was designed especially for leisurely enjoyment of the scenic wonders along the way which can be enjoyed from many overlooks.  There are several worthwhile attractions along the way, including short and long walking trails which give folks even more viewing opportunities.

The area of our drive between Mile 275 and Mile 316 is considered the High Country of NC.  It was tempered with fog, rain and overcast skies during the first part of our day, but things cleared up nicely later on.  For us, the crowning point of the Parkway was at Mile 304, the Linn Cove Viaduct.  It is a 1,243 foot long elevated roadway engineered to wrap around the mountains to minimize impact on the fragile environment.

Linn Cove Viaduct

Linn Cove Viaduct traverses Grandfather Mountain’s boulder fields

The S-shaped structure consists of 153 concrete segments, only one of which is straight.  Weighing 50 tons each and joined by epoxy and massive steel tendons, the segments form a deck nearly one-quarter mile long that is supported by seven piers.  This is an amazing achievement when you consider the technology at that time, and the effort required just to access this area for construction.

Linn Cove Viaduct

Underbelly of Linn Cove Viaduct that skirts around Grandfather Mountain

At Milepost 306 is Grandfather Mountain, best known for its “mile-high swinging bridge” that connects two of the mountain’s peaks.  Heavy fog shrouded the mountain that day, so we’ll save that stop for another visit.

Grandfather Mountain

If you believe me there is a Grandfather Mountain hidden by that thick fog.

Just off the parkway at Milepost 316.3 were trails that led to various overlooks for a wonderful view of Linville Falls, which can be seen roaring through a dramatic rugged gorge.

Linville Falls

Linville Falls

Linville Falls

Joe and Judy with the you-know-whos

There are plenty of stopping points, and everywhere you look there’s something else amazing to appreciate.  Each season provides an ever-changing appeal, and in our case we were just a little early for the blooming of the Rhododendrons that adorn the Parkway.  I captured a few early blooms along the way, but we will be driving other sections of the parkway during the next week and hope to see many more of these beautiful blooms.

During this stop we stayed at Bandits Roost Campground, a COE park at Wilkesboro, NC.  Click here for Steve’s campground review of Bandit’s Roost and the Lake Norman Motorcoach Resort.

Lastly, these Wood Thrushes were rustling on the leaves while Steve and Joe were busy planning.

Wood Thrush

Next up: More of the Blue Ridge Parkway on the Virginia side.

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