Blue Ridge Parkway road trip


We just returned from a quick get away to one of my favorite places in the southeast, Asheville NC. There is something about this area that always makes you glad that you visited. Certainly the good rates at the Best Western didn't hurt! We made the drive up in a day and stayed in Asheville 4 nights, then one night in Cherokee and the last in Pigeon Forge. Checking the weather forecasts, we knew that the weather would be fantastic for "normal" people - clear sunny skies, no clouds, with temps in the 60s and 70s. The previous week had rain and clouds which was just passing through. As we stopped at the NC state line we witnessed the best light of the whole trip as the setting sun broke through the dark clouds and lit up the trees. It was unbelievable! That was the last we were to see of anything close to a cloud the whole week.  

Day 2 we were up early and drove north on the Blue Ridge Parkway from the Tunnel Road entrance east of Asheville. The hotel is situated right on Tunnel Road which made everything super convenient. There was still some early morning fog and low clouds due to the moisture in the ground from the rain. This was the last fog we saw. The Parkway is great for stopping as there are numerous overview points and small pullouts along the way. Having no traffic to speak of also helped. It was clear that most of the leaves were gone. The Parkway runs along the ridge of the mountains (hence Blue Ridge) at the highest elevations. The foliage had peaked about two weeks ago, but there were still pockets of color, and also color in the valleys. As the sun rose rapidly in the blue clear sky, it blasted the landscape which made for tough shooting. It was definitely a challenge to find places on the hillsides or in the shadows to shoot. We stopped at the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center near milepost 370. I purchased a replacement National Parks Passport that I recently lost on my last trip to Acadia (that's another sad story that I'll tell another time). We made our way to Mount Mitchell State Park, which is the highest point east of the Mississippi (Clingman's Dome in the Smokies being the second highest). In some seasons the road up to the peak is shrouded in fog, but it was clear today. At the top the view is magnificent, but the light was awful. So enjoy the view and quit complaining!

A nice picnic lunch and we were on our way back, stopping at each overlook and saying over and over again, "this must have been beautiful when the leaves were peaking." I mean we kept saying it again and again. It was bare trees and brown leaves for most of the trip back. At one overlook a cyclist told us to take a short hike on a train called Rattlesnake Lodge. He mentioned that there may still be some color on the tress there. Hmmm. So we found the trailhead and started the "easy" hike. Carrying what felt like 30 lbs of gear and the tripod was just not what I was looking for. The trail was ok but fairly steep, and the fallen leaves covered all of the roots, rocks, and nice obstacles to trip you up. We found the foundations of an old lodge and just a bit of color after about a half mile in. Was it worth it? My knees said NO. Onwards to a few more overlooks and this fortunate after sunset shot at the Cowee Mountain overlook...classic Blue Ridge.

Day 3 we wanted to head south east towards  Mt. Pisgah but found that the Parkway was closed due to the chance of a rockslide. They had already closed I-40 at the NC border with TN due to all the rain they were getting. The detour took us south, then west, then up the famous SR 276 though the Pisgah National Forest near Looking Glass Falls and Sliding Rock. I think everyone who has visited up here goes to these sights, I know we took our kids here 15 years ago. The drive through Pisgah was very nice, again little traffic and plenty of pullouts. 276 connects with the Blue Ridge near milepost 415, and then we drove west and stopped at the Graveyard Fields for a hike. Of course our 1 mile loop around the creek turned into a 3.5 mile climb up to the ridge and back. Holy crap I am out of shape! Having your heart beat at 170 bpm is not conducive to contemplative photography. We finally made our way back to the car and a bite to eat. It was clear that we would be getting back after dark. The drive back through Pisgah was great and the light became manageable once it set behind the mountains.

 Day 4 was shopping for Dorian and a return to Pisgah for me. I was hoping to catch some early morning fog in the valley but no luck for me. At 27 degrees and no humidity, the fog was staying away. I did catch some excellent light and some clouds made a brief appearance until 9:30 when the sun returned in full force. I decided to just drive around and scout out some different locations for a return trip. From 276 I proceeded to the State Fish Hatchery and a gravel road, 475B which ran up the mountain looping back to 276. It was primarily a one lane deal, very steep but manageable. I ran into a few rock climbers who had set up a campsite. A more "intimate" view of the forest is experienced from this road as I was right on the edge of the mountain closed in by the trees. It was a great new perspective. I joined back with 276 and then at the Pink Beds picnic area made a right onto another gravel road, 1206 which I followed for about 11 miles.


I made it back to civilization and pavement. My "off-road" experience was great but I was somewhat disappointed that I did not have the chance to use the 4 wheel drive...maybe just as well. That night Dorian and I attended a showing of artist's handmade books at Bookworks in downtown Asheville. Saw some amazing stuff.

Day 5 was a sleep-in day, packing and moving on the Cherokee NC at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We first returned to downtown Asheville where we visited several studios in the River Arts District. I'll have another post on that experience. One more drive up 276 onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and then towards Cherokee. We pulled off at several overlooks but the light was dismal, bright sun and haze, so we pushed on. For some reason we didn't realize how far we still had to go until after sunset when we saw the sign: Cherokee 36 miles. Now that doesn't seem like a long way but driving in the mountains in the dark on a twisty road it can be a challenge. Dorian got us through and we settled into our Best Western. Even had dinner at the local Asian buffet.

Day 6 started with bright sun and I had a feeling it was just not going to be a good day for photography. We stopped at the Oconoluftee Visitor Center just to see what was going on. I asked the ranger if there were any areas in the park that may be foggy in the morning. He gave me this funny look and said I was the only one who asked for fog. I told him I was a photographer and I'm weird. It was obvious from the parking lot that driving in in the Smokies was not going to be like driving on the Blue Ridge. The stream of cars making their way on 441 was impressive. It was like real traffic! We pulled out and got into the stream. Kinda kills the whole wilderness experience sandwiched between the minivans and SUVs. We decided to visit Clingman's Dome first and then head over to Cade's Cove. The road up to Clingman's was not as busy. From the size of the massive parking lot it was clear that A LOT of people visit this site. The best place for a panoramic shot is at the east end of the lot (where you enter). There are no trees blocking your view. We arrived a bit late in the day for a decent exposure of the hills. Pre-sunrise is the time to be here. Not this time for me.

SmokyMtnD6_2009-1106_681Next stop was the Sugarlands Visitor Center where we watched the movie and enjoyed the nature museum. The place was packed. I thought kids were still in school! From here we proceeded to Cade's Cove. The traffic here picked up again. It seems that the cars bunch up behind a slower camper, so there were groups of 20 cars, then a gap, then another group. We pulled out several times for photos. Nothing like shooting on the side of the road with your face in the camera and your butt sticking out as groups of 20 cars race by you. Not good. I question just how much can you experience in the park riding in a car? The pullouts were empty, everyone was going somewhere. Well that somewhere was Cade's Cove. This is an 11 mile one way loop that goes through an old settlement and working farm. Very quaint and picturesque, if you can take out the continuous line of cars bumper to bumper for 11 miles! This was like being in Disney.

On the way back we stopped at a stream just to recollect ourslves. It was nice. To complete our experience for the day we drove to Pigeon Forge to find our Best Western. Those of you who have been to Gatlinburg know what I'm talking about. This is the ultimate in tackiness and commercial visual pollution. It's classic Americana, and probably worth some time photographing one day. How can a place so beautiful be adjacent to a place so vulgar? Only in America!

Day 7 and it's time to head home. Back through the park or try to catch I-40? We opted for I-40 even though we knew there may be a detour. Little did we know that the detour would take us 70 miles on a backroad! Lost 2 hours on that detour, but we made it to the interstate and back to Jacksonville safely. Now to go through my 1300 images to find some keepers.

Blue Ridge road trip gallery can be found here.