We broke our pandemic travel fast by embarking upon a journey to travel the entire Blue Ridge Parkway and Virginia Skyline Drive in just over three weeks. The Blue Ridge Parkway, of course, is a scenic highway, built in the 1930s, that stretches from Cherokee, North Carolina (milepost 469.1) to Rockfish Gap, VA (milepost 0), at which point, the road continues as the Virginia Skyline Drive for another 105.5 miles, running the length of Shenandoah National Park. We learned that, in all but four years since it was built, the Blue Ridge Parkway has been the most visited unit of the National Park System. Since we began our trip at the southern terminus, we would drive the entire Parkway from highest to lowest milepost numbers.
Fishing, hiking, and dining in Bryson City, NC
We started our journey in Bryson City, just 10 miles from the BRP’s southern terminus, so that John could go fly fishing. The Bryson City area is known for its excellent trout fishing so he booked a trip with a local guiding company. I dropped him off with the guide and proceeded on to the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to hike Juney Whank falls, after which, I returned to town for a walk around. We had spent the month of August in Bryson City last summer at the height of the pandemic. At that time, many shops were closed, most restaurants were offering take-out only, and there was little foot traffic in town. By late May, all of this had changed. Bryson City is popular with motorcyclists who flock to the area to ride the nearby Dragon’s Tail highway, a drive that’s full of tight hairpin turns that thrill cyclists, and they were in town in full force.
In the evening, we booked a table at The Bistro at the Everett Hotel, a cozy local spot that is the most upscale eatery in Bryson City. The only seat we could reserve was at the bar. We hesitated at first, still wanting to keep some social distance, until we learned that the Bistro’s bar only seats two people. We actually enjoy sitting at a restaurant’s bar because it’s always fun to chat up the staff. The evening we were at the Bistro, the owner of the restaurant and the hotel happened to be behind the bar and we had a nice conversation with him. He was grateful that he had been able to keep hotel and restaurant open through the pandemic, with help from government PPP loans, but complained that he was now unable to hire adequate staff to accommodate growing demand post pandemic. This is something we were to hear again and again on our travels. The owner at Everett Street had reached the point that he had had to close his hotel two days a week due to short staffing. At times, he arranged for guests to stay at the hotel with the proviso that they were given an emergency phone number, but were aware that the place was unstaffed. Let’s hope that this does not become the new normal in the hotel business.
Mileposts 469.1 to 408.6
We drove onto the BRP on a Sunday morning, giddy with excitement to be starting the trip. The BRP has over 200 overlooks, about 50 of which fall in the 69 mile stretch between Cherokee and Mount Pisgah, our first day’s drive. We stopped for at least 40 of these, making what should have been a three-hour drive stretch to about six hours. It was entirely worth it, though, as the mountains in this part of the drive are incredibly beautiful, along with beautiful rhododendron, wild azaleas, and mountain laurel in bloom. We reached the Pisgah Inn, one of the only inns still remaining on the Parkway, by around 3:30. There we checked into our room, complete with a balcony from which we could see the iconic Looking Glass Rock, known for its granite face that reflects the sun and takes on a wonderful glow near sundown.
The Pisgah Inn is an excellent starting place for day trips. This area of North Carolina is famous for waterfalls. In our two days there, we visited Looking Glass Falls, Moore’s Cove Falls (a short, pleasant hike), and took the Pink Beds hike, so called for the summer blooms of Catawba Rhododendron. We ended the day with a stop at Sliding Rock which, just as it sounds, is a place where swimmers can slide down a rock into a pool of cold – 55 degree year ‘round – water. We were just spectators at Sliding Rock, but there were many sliders. On our second day we went to the lower falls at Graveyard Fields, a name which evokes a burial ground, but is so called because of a storm that felled spruce and fir trees, after which, their stumps grew over with moss, resembling graves. We also took the short hike down to Skinny Dip Falls where we saw a few brave souls swimming in the 55 degree water, but no skinny dippers. Our time at Mount Pisgah ended with a late day hike to Frying Pan Tower, a decommissioned water tower with beautiful 360 degree views.