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Geo-Joint: Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway

Posted on October 16 2018

When the National Parks Service began to set aside America’s natural wonders, the first lands that were so honored were all out west. Of the initial ten parks, established between 1872 and 1916, the farthest east was in South Dakota. Understandably, the eastern half of the country wanted some of this action. Two of the earliest parks in that region were Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1933, lying across the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, and Shenandoah National Park in 1935, in northern Virginia. Following the preservation of those areas, President Franklin D. Roosevelt toured a mountain road at Shenandoah called Skyline Drive, a visually stunning route. He and others converged on the idea of linking that road to Great Smoky Mountains National Park by way of a long motorway through the scenic hills and mountains known as the Blue Ridge. This would be no perfunctory little connector road. A total of 469 miles of winding, vista-rich roadway including 26 tunnels would eventually be built, at a time when the country desperately needed construction projects to employ thousands of out-of-work people. As it happened, all this territory was part of the Appalachian Mountains, an area especially impacted by the Great Depression.

The general location of the Blue Ridge Parkway

A closer look at the bi-state route of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Blue Ridge National Parkway is just that–a linear park of great length, and much less width. The route was conceived with an artists’s eye. Plans were not blindly drafted on a map in some distant office, but rather grew organically as the first architect did long investigatory trips through the region to feel out the best route. As more became involved, the designers incorporated long views of lands that were outside the jurisdiction of the National Park System, but were “borrowed” for their scenic beauty. The route of the Parkway had a carefully orchestrated layout. The planners did not want to lead motorists to lookout after lookout, dazzling them constantly with rolling viewsheds. The road was laid out with careful attention to a balance between grand, showy views, and more intimate stretches along quiet mountain streams or scenic, rustic buildings and pastures. Bridge overpasses and tunnel entrances were faced with native stone to soften the man-made component of the view. The effort at every turn was to showcase the beauty of the American landscape for an increasingly mobile population.

Driving the Parkway in earlier days.

Obtaining the required land was not always easy; only a third of the parkway passed through government-owned national forest land. The rest had to be negotiated over with resident farmers and other landowners. Some of it was obtained through condemnation, which couldn’t have been a pleasant experience for the owners, some of whom had generations of history on their land. Besides the land directly under the roadbed, the Parkway includes a strip of land from 200 to 1,000 feet wide. It must truly be the longest, narrowest park in existence. Outside of its boundaries, maintaining the beauty that the road was meant to introduce was dependent on the actions of thousands of landowners whose plots covered many broad viewsheds. Much of this land has maintained its pastoral charm and montane grandeur through the years. But the road was undoubtedly a more breathtakingly natural vision back in the 1930s than it is today. The “blue” of the Blue Ridge Mountains, once soley attributable to the bluish haze caused by natural forest hydrocarbon production, is now unhealthfully compounded by auto and industrial emmisions. And as the decades have worn on, the wheels of progress have ground up some of the route’s visual beauty into housing tracts, industrial development, and a myriad of commericial enterprises on private land. The National Park Service only buys land from willing sellers nowadays, but they are limited by law to purchasing properties immediately contiguous to the Parkway’s borders. Various groups are dedicated to preserving as much of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s visual attraction as possible, and do so by arranging land sales to private parkland groups, or attaining conservation easements. In such arrangements, landowners receive tax benefits in exchange for agreeing to forgo the option of development on their land.

A parkway vista with the classic blue haze of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Broad mountain views alternate with quiet, rustic scenery.

The tunnels were artfully designed. Most of them are in North Carolina.

There are opportunities for long-range hikers or just to stretch your legs as you drive the route.

The Linn Cove Viaduct levitates around the side of Grandfather Mountain with minimal disturbance.

If the experience of driving the Blue Ridge Parkway is any less rewarding than in times past, you would not know it from visitation statistics. The Parkway annually garners a greater number of visitors than any other unit of the National Park System. Not being a full-on “National Park” in rank, its visitors aren’t tallied against the most popular of that group, Shenandoah, the park at the Parkway’s northern end. Still, in 2017, it beat out Shenandoah’s high numbers by a hefty margin—16 million vs. 11 million. Of course it’s an easy-access park, and every driver and passenger on the road counts as a visitor, with no fees charged. Campgrounds along the way incur a fee, but it’s just as easy to turn off the Parkway to hotels and motels (and all the attendant urban visual cacophany) in towns on or close to the route. Visitation is likely highest in summer when flowering trees are in full display, and also later in the year when fall colors light up many square miles of forest land. The driving is leisurely, given the 45-mph limit on the two-lane road, with frequent overlook pullouts—264 of them—for viewing and photography. And for those inclined to get closer to all that nature, the Parkway provides nearly 370 miles of hiking on 100 different trails winding away from the tarmac.

The Blue Ridge Parkway took a while to be completed. World War II caused the suspension of construction, and by the early 1950s, the roadway was only halfway done. The National Parks System threw renewed vigor into the project, and by 1966 it was finished with the exception of a problematic 7.5-mile stretch in a section known as Grandfather Mountain. Landowners there fought the route out of a concern over possible environmental damage. At length, a compromise route was agreed upon, as were construction techniques that took the utmost care in order not to affect the land more than absolutely necessary. This design included the Linn Cove Viaduct, an elevated roadway supported by concrete columns. Workers painstakingly constructed the curving, contouring pathway without the benefit of an initial graded route. The only footprint of the operation was piers themselves—no trees beyond those supports were cut, nor mountainside graded. Roadway sections were pre-cast and lowered into place with a crane, one 50-ton piece at a time. Aesthetic considerations such as colored concrete also kept visual disturbance to a minimum. Finally, in 1987, the entire route was complete, finishing off with this fittingly environmentally-sensitive section, reflecting the whole route’s efforts to give America a long, slow, motorized look at its own natural beauty.

Get your trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway started with a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park! See the mountain details of the park on this 1949-vintage wall map by the USGS, available from





caption: General location of the Blue Ridge Parkway
source: Wikimedia Commons: Eoghanacht (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)

caption: A closer look at the bi-state route of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Lia M. Dikigoropoulou (Public domain)

caption: Driving the Parkway in earlier days.
source: National Park Service: NPS (Public domain)

caption: A parkway vista with the classic blue haze of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
source: Flickr: Mary Ann Baker (CC by 2.0)

caption: Broad mountain views alternate with quiet, rustic scenery.
source: Flickr: Eli Christman (CC by 2.0)

caption: The tunnels were artfully designed. Most of them are in North Carolina.
source: Unknown (CC0 Public domain)

caption: There are opportunities for long-range hikers or just to stretch your legs as you drive the route.
source: Flickr: Smart Destinations (CC by SA 2.0)

caption: The Linn Cove Viaduct levitates around the side of Grandfather Mountain with minimal disturbance.
source: Wikimedia Commons: MBugbey (CC by SA 4.0 International)

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