Vibrant reds and rich yellows hang from the forest ceiling. A few small leaves flutter slowly to the ground. A dream becomes reality. I am experiencing Fall for the first time.
A quick history lesson: On August 25th, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a law establishing the National Park Service. That means this year the agency is celebrating its Centennial. There are a total of 410 sites managed by the National Park Service. Last week, I chose to explore the most popular one of all. My husband and I drove the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
We started on Skyline Drive in Virginia and drove all the way to Cherokee, NC. That’s a total of 574 miles of winding, breezy, romantic, scenic roadway. And we chose to take the trip during the peak season of color, Autumn. We don’t have colorful seasonal changes in Florida, so I could only imagine what kind of brilliance I would be met with once we hit the road. The Blue Ridge Mountains did not disappoint.
Our journey started in Shenandoah National Park. Skyline Drive is every bit as beautiful as the Blue Ridge Parkway, but unlike its neighbor to the south Skyline is a backpacker’s paradise. Squiggly trails, including the famous AT, crisscross the highway several times and thru hikers trudge up and down the hills carrying heavy packs. The forest is thick and the leaves are mostly golden. The views from the road are breathtaking and its tempting to stop at every pullout.
Unfortunately, because of a six hour Amtrak delay, we had to rush through this part of our trip. We hiked one short trail in the southern end of Shenandoah Park before hurrying onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. 574 miles doesn’t seem that long until you start to drive it.
I started to get excited about fall leaves around the time we hit the North Carolina line. I thought the yellows and oranges we saw in Virginia would be the best of the trip, but by the time we reached Linville Falls we were in peak color. Crimson red and brilliant gold flanked the roadway with a backdrop of cool gray and blue layers of mountains.
My soul came alive. And for once all of my stress began to dissipate. Our original plan had us spending the night at a hotel in Asheville, but we decided to camp. I wanted to spend the night in the mountains and wake up to the crisp Autumn air. We stayed at the Linville Falls campground off the Blue Ridge Parkway. We arrived late, but fortunately they had a tents-only site available right next to the river. It was the perfect setting to begin a more relaxed second half of our vacation.
Linville turned out to be the prettiest part of our trip. We hiked to the falls the next morning before heading south to Asheville. We visited Mount Mitchell, Mount Pisgah, Craggy Gardens and the Asheville area of the Parkway on several previous trips so we mostly drove through that zone this time around. As we got closer to Asheville it became clear we are not the only people obsessed with fall color. Leaf peepers clogged the Parkway at every lookout point. At some points-of-interest were so congested that it was nearly impossible to enjoy the view. I didn’t mind the crowds because we saw plenty of fall color further north that was even more beautiful.
We took a break to re-adjust our schedules. A co-worker graciously agreed to work a shift for me so we could get an extra day of vacation. We spent two nights in Asheville as a result (more on that later.) On our final day of driving the BRP we visited the North Carolina Arboretum. In all of our trips to the Smokies, I can’t believe we never explored the facility before. The gardens are beautiful and the 3.5 mile nature trail allowed us to learn about the trees and insects in the area.
One of my favorite parts of the Parkway actually occurred by accident. We got to mile 0 and took a wrong turn. It turned out to be the best mistake ever because we saw a field full of elk!
All in all, a perfect ending to a very exciting adventure.