By Paris Wolfe
When Gary suggested a ride down the Blue Ridge Parkway, I was skeptical. I love riding a motorcycle, but 469.1 miles of twisty, turny country roads? At speed limits of 35 and 45 miles per hour? Would that get boring?
I sucked it up and started planning. Instead of one 12-hour-plus day of non-stop riding I sought parks, hiking trails, attractions and distractions along the way. And, I found too much adventure for seven days allocated to vacation. Many stops can take hours or even a full day. The city of Asheville, North Carolina, near the southern end, for example, could take several days.
My challenge was to match up miles and attractions while plugging in meals and lodging.
The Parkway, for the uninitiated, is a two-lane road that meanders through Virginia and North Carolina along crests of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It connects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Motorcyclists and sports car owners have a special affection for its wrinkles and curves. And, Northern Ohio drivers accustomed to straight, flat roads will get a little exercise.
Begun in 1935, the stretch of pavement was a public works project during the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It evolved to include restrictions about what can be built along the road – mostly agricultural properties. Rules prohibit commercial traffic. Thus, it retains high aesthetic values and little visual blight.
A north-south byway, it’s on the way to nowhere. And, for the escape-minded that’s a good thing. For several days, travelers simply observe and exist in a moment without roadside advertising and the noise of commerce. Drivers – motorcycle, sports car or coupe — encounter no stop lights or stop signs until they leave the Parkway. Still, they must stay aware to negotiate sharp switchbacks and steep drops.
We traveled in late June. Late May through early June may be better for peak rhododendron bloom or mid-October for fall colors.
We rode a rented 2016 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide – helmets are required and rain suits provided – sponsored by Harley-Davidson. The first day we logged almost 500 miles from Northeast Ohio to Amherst, Virginia. The last two days we tracked another 500-plus miles from Cherokee, North Carolina, to Lake County, Ohio.
While nine campgrounds are available along the way, roughing it wasn’t on the agenda. I reserved bed and breakfasts and small inns for all but one stop before we left home. Planning is essential for comfort in busy summer months. The night before the quest, we slept in the Virginia home of friends. After a hearty breakfast, we backtracked to Mile Post 1 in Rockfish Gap.
Just six miles into the journey at Humpback Rocks, which includes a pioneer life exhibit and spectacular views, beckoned. The moderate-to-steep climb plus our eagerness to carry on, nudged us back to the bike prematurely. With more than 200 pullouts and many more attractions we couldn’t stop to see everything.
At one of the restroom stops – these are frequently available — I learned the mountain dulcimer. A park volunteer shared her personal collection of the wooden instruments and allowed me to rest the shapely four-stringed box in my lap to learn the most basic strumming and picking techniques. The parkway is rich in interactive experiences like that, from mountain life demonstrations to hiking and observation.
Covering 165-plus miles, the first day was the longest on-Parkway. We passed Roanoke and didn’t stop until 5ish in Floyd, Virginia. Floyd is about 25 minutes from Mile Post 165. Serendipity would have it we stopped there in time to catch the free, weekly Sunday Bluegrass Jam at the Floyd Country Store. This was my second exposure to blue grass music which would continue at Blue Ridge Music Center museum and other stops along the way.
A former hippie community, Floyd is an artsy small town with a farmers market, artisan trail, small boutiques and galleries, independent restaurants and more. Art festival junkies can easily spent more time in the little local shops. We’d love to schedule a trip in 2017 for the musical FloydFest. But, that’s another story.
If you plan ahead, schedule acupuncture or massage at the Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine in rural Floyd County. And, I mean dirt-road rural. Morning put us back on the parkway headed for waterfalls, wildflowers and Mabry Mill at Mile Post 176.
Winding to Mile Post 199 we left the parkway in search of Mount Airy, North Carolina. Mount Airy is the birthplace and childhood home of the late actor Andy Griffith and served as a model for the quintessential television town of Mayberry. Attractions and museums in town honor its broadcast fame.
While the route was short, we filled the gas tank at least once while cruising the area. And, I didn’t even stop at the many antique stores along the route. We posed, feet on the desk, in Sherriff Andy Taylor’s office and in the town jail before taking a vintage squad car tour of Mount Airy. Then, we shook off the unfortunate rain and checked in at the quaint Mayberry Motor Inn, where the owner sometimes dresses as Aunt Bee to greet guests.
Dinner followed at The Loaded Goat, which is named after a 1963 episode of The Andy Griffith Show and was opened in 2015 by Craig Deas, a former Lake County Captains broadcaster. Deas was in Ohio visiting his son in late June, but we enjoyed his Cleveland sports paraphernalia hanging at the bar.
Locals insisted upon a visit to the 93-year-old The Snappy Lunch for the official state sandwich – a pork chop breaded in pancake batter served with cole slaw on a bun.
That same day we stumbled on Mayberry Spirits Distilling. Alas, they were closed. So I pressed my nose against the glass door for a peek at the retail room. Soon, a youngish man in a red flannel shirt turned on the lights, invited us in to sample three whiskies produced in the backroom still.
While we took in more hiking and lookout spots – including one where we met a couple riding from Ontario to New Orleans and back –time ran short for must-visits like Blowing Rock. Another time, perhaps.
The route continued over the Linn Cove Viaduct, a 1,243-foot bridge, which hangs from Grandfather Mountain. The cantilevered stretch of concrete would have frightened me, except I viewed oncoming traffic through the lens of my Samsung camera.
By late afternoon we rolled into Beech Mountain, about 30 minutes from Mile Post 305. A city of fewer than 350 people, Beech Mountain (elevation 5,506 feet) is the highest incorporated point east of the Mississippi. (Leadville, Colorado, at 10,335 feet is the highest city in the United States.)
Lunch at Grandfather Mountain (elevation 5,946 feet), one of the highest peaks in the Blue Ridge Mountain range, marked the trek back to the Parkway. The highest peak east of the Mississippi, Mount Mitchell (elevation 6,684 feet), is just 55 miles south.
A drive to the top of privately owned Grandfather Mountain traces steeps and switchbacks seen in the movie Forrest Gump. On the climb we stopped to tour the attraction’s zoo, museum and solar-powered fudge shop. Connecting two peaks at the top, the Mile High Swinging Bridge is a popular thrill.
By mid-afternoon we were on the road again, pausing to catch final hazy views of distant mountains and chat with others who were winding down the parkway roads. At Mile Post 376 we exited onto folded switchbacks descending eight miles into Weaverville, North Carolina. For this part of the trip, I hadn’t made lodging reservations so I consulted the Asheville Bed and Breakfast Association and found Dry Ridge Inn operated by Howard and Kristen Dusenbery.
The next morning the Harley was quiet until 8:30 a .m., because The Folk Art Center just six miles down the parkway didn’t open until 9 a.m. The Center houses three galleries filled by traditional and contemporary Appalachian artists. With pottery, jewelry, woodwork and more, it’s like an art show with a roof and an unlimited schedule.
We would have stopped in Asheville to tour the opulent Biltmore estate, but had done that in January. So, we rode the final 87 miles in peace, stopping one last time at Devil’s Courthouse Parking Area for a panoramic view.
The finale was anticlimactic. Just three miles after the last of 26 tunnels, the Parkway dumped into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee, North Carolina. We at least expected a marker worthy of a Facebook moment. But, the parkway ended with a whisper.
And so, began the return journey via freeway.