Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 21, 2012

A trip for your 'bucket list'


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---- — By Mike Terrell

Special to the Record-Eagle

If you like road trips and have a "bucket list," make sure the iconic Blue Ridge Parkway is at the top.

It's been on mine for years, so last fall I drove the parkway from just north of Roanoke, Va., to where it ends at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

It's the longest linear national park in the nation, stretching 469 miles from the Shenandoah Valley in central Virginia to Cherokee and the Smoky Mountains in the southwestern corner of North Carolina. Along the way, it passes Roanoke and Asheville and countless small mountain villages, which are just off the parkway. It's one of the USA's most famous roads.

The Blue Ridge Parkway hearkens back to older days when you traveled scenic byways to enjoy the views. Fast wasn't a consideration, and it isn't on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The top speed limit is 45 mph on the two-lane road.

It's a national park. Every bend seems to offer an enticing vista — a hawk's-eye view of a river valley, peaceful pastures with grazing cows and a tree-covered summit or rocky peak.

What you won't see are billboards, stop signs or a traffic light — just jaw-dropping views. Cruising along at 45 mph was like taking a step back in time, and I loved it.

The country's ultimate crooked road snakes along the spine of the Appalachians, crossing four major rivers, 100 gaps and six mountain ranges. It climbs to a little over 6,000 feet near Mount Pisgah in North Carolina, the highest point on the Blue Ridge, and dips to 650 feet above sea level crossing the James River in southwest Virginia.

There are numerous side trips to take off the parkway, and plenty of places to pull over for the plethora of pictures you'll want to take. If hiking is your thing, there are easy to difficult hikes all along the way. With the use of the milepost system — numbers increase as you drive south — it's easy to find points of interest as you go.

The National Park Service has added or restored cultural attractions like the Blue Ridge Music Center at the parkway's midpoint; Mabry Mill, a century-old gristmill near Roanoke; and Johnson Farm, a restored 1930s living history attraction. There's even a marker commemorating the valley where Tom Dooley, the man who took a life in the well-known Kingston Trio song, was hanged in the 1800s. I'm not sure the "tall oak tree" is still standing.

Most of the attractions and things to do along the parkway are free.

When I took my trip at the end of October and early November last year, most NPS lodging facilities had closed for the season. However, I had the parkway to myself much of the time and had no trouble finding places to stay. I found really nice lodging just off the parkway, about the midpoint, at Little Switzerland on a mountaintop with lovely views. It was not part of the NPS. I also spent a couple of nights in Roanoke and was able to explore that area.

Roanoke and the famous Roanoke Valley, just off the parkway, have a lot of history and many attractions. A couple of interesting places to stay are the Cambria Inn and the historic Hotel Roanoke. Both offer easy walking access to downtown and the historic Market District and Roanoke City Market.

A tour of the Roanoke Star and Overlook, offering a bird's-eye view of the city, is a must. Touted as the world's largest manmade star, it has been overlooking the city for nearly a half century, which is why it's nicknamed The Star City. It's just off the Blue Ridge Parkway as it passes the city.

If you go, don't miss dinner at Carlos Brazilian International Cuisine and Shula's 347 Grill, known for its outstanding steaks. The number represents the number of wins in Don Shula's NFL coaching career.

For railroad buffs, there's the Virginia Museum of Transportation, featuring the largest collection of diesel locomotives in the south, and the O. Winston Link Museum in the former Norfolk & Western Railway Passenger Station. It features a magnificent collection of striking black and white railroad photography and auditory works that is thought to be one of the best collections in the world.

On the web: www.visitroanokeva.com, http://www.blueridgeparkway.org.