December 2002: Blue Ridge Parkway

North Carolina/Virginia

Begun as a Depression-era public works project, the Blue Ridge Parkway was America's first rural parkway. When ultimately completed it was also the nation's longest - 469 miles of uninterrupted mountain roads linking Shenandoah National Park in the north to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in the south. Designed for leisurely motoring, the speed limit never exceeds 45 mph on the parkway and roadside parking is permitted on the shoulders the entire way. Much of the beautiful road is lined by low stone walls. Parks and recreation areas - several spanning thousands of acres - appear roughly every 30 miles, although most are located on the Blue Ridge Mountains, the 355 miles that comprise the northern part of the route. The lower 114 miles wind through th epowerful Black Mountains, named for the dark green spruce that cover the massive slopes. The Blue Ridge Parkway is far and away the most popular destination in the National Park System - more than 19 million recreation visits per year.

Dogs are allowed on the more than 100 varied trails throughout the Blue Ridge Parkway, ranging from easy valley strolls to demanding mountain summit hikes. From the north, an early highlight comes within the first ten miles at the Humpback Rocks where the Greenstone nature trail leads to the unusually shaped boulders. A strenuous climb accesses the Appalachian Trail in 2 miles. Canine hikers will look forward to the Peaks of Otter, in the vicinity of the highest mountains on the Virginia section of the Parkway, beginning around the 75-mile mark.

Three mountains - Sharp Top (3,875 feet), Flat Top (4,004 feet), and Harkening Hill (3,364 feet) comprise the Peaks of Otter, a popular hiking destination since Colonial days. The 4.4-mile trail to the Flat Top summit is graded most of the way until jumbled rocks provide athletic dogs a tail-wagging workout. Also in the Peaks of Otter are a quick loop hike threading through rhodedendron and mountain laurel on Onion Mountain and the 1.6-mile loop of the Fallingwater Cascades National Scenic Trail. Both offer splendid views in exchange for moderate effort.

At the 167-mile mark comes Rocky Knob, with 15 miles of trails across 4,800 acres. The marquee walk here is the rugged 10.8-mile Rock Castle Gorge National Recreation Trail. Just down the road is picturesque Mabry Mill with an easy, self-guiding trail spiced with interpretive exhibits and in-season demonstrations on rural Appalachian life. The first canine hiking in North Carolina comes on Cumberland Knob at the 217.5-mile mark. A quick 15-minute loop leads to the knob and a more challenging 2-mile loop that traces Gully Creek. Next up is 7,000-acre Doughton Park, the largest recreation area on the Blue Ridge Parkway. More than 30 miles of trail and a dog-friendly campground are the prime attractions here. All the 9 first come, first served campgrounds on the Parkway welcome dogs.

The Moses H. Cone Memorial Park is a popular stopping point for relaxing or exploring. Many miles of horse and carriage trails jump off from the Historic Cone Manor House and many more trails criss-cross neighboring Julian Price Memorial Park, which includes Price Lake, one of the few lakes along the Parkway. In another 10 miles you cross the Linn Cove Viaduct, an engineering marvel skirting the side of Grandfather Mountain. You and the dog can pick your way along an interpretive trail to close-up views of the viaduct.

A most-anticipatd highlight of the Blue Ridge Parkway will be the upcoming Linville Gorge, one of the most remote locations in the Appalachians. Unblazed trails lead deep into the wilderness but most canine hikers will stick to the two main hiking trails surrounding Linville Falls. ERwins View Trail is a sporty walk that takes in four distinct overlooks of the plunging waters in its .8-mile journey. More challenging is the hike on the opposite side of the water into the gorge that descends through a virgin hemlock forest to the water's edge.

South of Linville Falls the elevations climb and the canine hiking opportunities fade away. Craggy Pinnacle Trail at 364.4 miles is a narrow ridge trail that tunnels through purple rhodedendron to a hilltop opening in a veritable sea of trees. A second moderate trail here is the Craggy Gardens nature trail. Nearby, a spur road leads up Mount Mitchell. Your dog can make the final paved ascent to the 6684-foot summit and stand on the highest point of ground east of the Mississippi River.

The last major recreation area on the Parkway comes south of Asheville at Mount Pisgah, once part of the 125,000-acre Biltmore estate owned by George W. Vanderbilt. Valnderbilt directed trail building efforts across his vast property to provide access for hunting and horseback riding. It was the first large tract of managed forest land in America. The trail to summit views of Mt. Pisgah is a hardy 1.26-mile climb.

The final gasps for canine hiking on the Blue Ridge Parkway before entering Great Smoky Mountain National Park - where dogs are not allowed on the trails - occur at Milepost 431 where Richard Balsam's self-guiding trail wanders through the remnants of a spruce-fir forest on the highest point on the Parkway (6,047 feet) and at Waterrock Knob at Mile 451.2. Here a mountain trail leads to the knob and its panoramic, 4-state views of the Great Smokies. 

Ground was broken on the Blue Ridge Parkway on September 11, 1935 at Cumberland Knob on the North Carolina-Virginia border, near the mid-point of the proposed route. By 1967 all but seven and one-half of its 469 miles were complete. The final section, around the rocky slopes of Grandfather Mountain, one of the world's oldest mountains, would not be finished until 1987. To finish the Parkway without massive cuts and fills on the fragile mountainside would call for the most complicated concrete bridge ever built - the serpentine Linn Viaduct. The 12 bridges of the viaduct were constructed from the top down at an elevation of 4100 feet to eliminate the need for a pioneer road. In fact, the only trees cut down during the entire project were those directly beneath the roadbed. The only construction on the ground was the drilling of seven permanent piers upon which the Viaduct rests.Exposed rock was covered to present staining from the concrete epoxy binding the pre-cast sections. To further minimize the intrusion on the mountain, concrete mixes were tinted with iron oxide to blend with existing outcroppings. Trails lead to views underneath this engineering marvel and access the 13.5-mile Tanawha Trail from Beacon Heights to Julian Price Park.

TheBiltmore (Asheville). While it is not a prime destination for dog owners, you may want to make arrangements to visit the Biltmore Estate, America's largest private home.

Teh Blue Ridge Parkway can be accessed throughout western Virginia and North Carolina.