Monday, May 18, 2009

The Blue Ridge Parkway

Monday, May 18, 2009
Cherokee, NC.

We were both working for an early start this morning and the wheels were turning by a little after 9am. As usually happens when we're preparing to leave, everybody who walks by has to stop and talk, and that delays things a bit. But we enjoy talking with the varied and usually interesting people we meet in the places we camp. I almost always learn something new or get a good recommendation on a place to stay, things to see, good restaurants.

We drove north a few miles on I-26 to exit 37 where we slipped west a ways to NC-191, which we took north a few more miles to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The point at which we got on was mile post 393.6. The Parkway is marked in miles, starting at it's most northern point in Virginia and ending at mile post 469.1, it's southern terminus near Cherokee. All maps and guides use this mile post system to locate pull-offs, over-looks, picnic areas, trail heads, and other things of interest.

Our intention, my intention, was to drive all the way to Cherokee, despite those 3 low clearance tunnels near the end. The entrance ramp onto the Parkway was my first clue that this might a bit more challenging drive than I anticipated. The road is asphalt, two lanes, narrow-ish, and in good condition. But encroaching tree growth from both the side and the top made it necessary at times to use both lanes in order to dodge and weave around tree branches. There were some we just had to hit -- there was no way to not to. I don't know if it's due to budget constraints or this is just the way the parkway is maintained, but it poses a challenge for a large vehicle.

This is one incredible road. The section we were on today has most of the tunnels, the highest point (a bit over 6,000 ft.), and follows, more or less, the top of a series of high ridges. There are many tight turns and many places where most people would say a road could never be built. The speed limit is 45 mph, but most of the time I was at less than 35. The views are breathtaking. Clear skies and dry air made visibility almost unlimited. It was possible to see as far as there was anything to see -- and that was a long way.

Today, I successfully confronted my tunnel demons. In the first 10 miles on the Parkway there are 7 tunnels. Approaching the first one I gritted my teeth, held my breath, and focused on the centerline. In we went. My first impression was, "dang, it's dark in here"... and there was no sight of the other end as the tunnel curved and the end was 770 feet away... around the bend. The further in we went the darker it got. The headlights were on and illuminating the double yellow centerline. Focus... focus... and, in seconds, we were through. Subsequent tunnels became easier. Light traffic meant we rarely shared a tunnel with someone else. It just takes practice to get the mind to believe it's possible to fit this big ol' bus-house into half of that hole in the mountain up there.

From Blue Ridge Pkwy

We stopped for early lunch at Mt. Pisgah at mile post 408. Mt. Pisgah is one of the highest peaks in this neck-of-the-woods and was once part of the Biltmore Estate. The land surrounding the mountain was sold to the Federal Government by George Vanderbilt's wife after his death and became part of the Mt. Pisgah National Forest. There's an inn and restaurant here... actually a rather good restaurant in our experience. The food was reasonably priced too. Dar's BLT and my Swiss Cheeseburger, for lunch fare, were better than we expected. Our table was at the windows with a spectacular view from 5000 feet.

From Blue Ridge Pkwy

Between the continuing problem with bus-house/tree interference and a comment we heard while talking with a local about my planned alternate route around the low clearance tunnels near the end of the drive ("I wouldn't even take my car down that road!") we made the decision to exit the Parkway at US-74/23, mile post 443.1, and followed it toward Cherokee.

So we did about 50 miles on the Parkway. My thoughts on it are these: It's a road that everyone should experience... it's incredible. It's much tighter and close-feeling than the Natchez Trace Parkway that we did in the fall of 2007... as you'd expect considering where the road is -- on top of a mountain ridge. Since no commercial traffic is allowed, the tree-trimming effect of large truck traffic isn't happening. Instead, those few intrepid explorers who take their big RV's onto the Parkway are doing the tree-trimming job for everyone else. We saw only a few RV's along the way, and none as big as ours. The Parkway is more of a motorcyclist dream than an RV'ers. After our experience my recommendation is to drive the Parkway in a smaller vehicle... at least the section we did. While it's possible to do with a bus-house, you'll have more fun driving it by car or a smaller camper (or a motorcycle -- Oh yes!).

From Blue Ridge Pkwy

Driving through the town of Cherokee reminded me of the Wisconsin Dells. It's clear the main industry and focus of the town is separating tourists from their hard-earned money. There's supposed to be a casino here... I haven't seen it yet... and there are many tourist shops selling T-shirts, "souvenirs", curios, "art" and crafts. There are water parks and many Cherokee Indian related venues as the town is part of the Cherokee Reservation. We drove through town to Smokemont Campground about 5 miles up the road in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. We took a campsite for four nights... we'll leave on Friday, before the crush of the Memorial Day weekend crowd descends. Smokemont, like most campgrounds around here, is booked solid for the weekend.

It was one of those days I'd have preferred a smaller camper. Besides our experience on the Parkway, the roads to and through the campground were similarly untrimmed and tree branches slapped the bus-house around a bit. Current budget issues make tree trimming an item that can be deferred. And the basic design of some of these older Federal campgrounds make maneuvering a bus-house a challenge. Built in the 50's and 60's, they weren't designed with large RV's in mind. But we managed and we're settled in for a few days in a great spot.

T