Side Trips Are Part Of The Fun Of Going Places In The Southern Hills

Today’s visitors on the parkway are welcome to share much of the same glorious scenery known only to native mountaineers born to it and men of wealth who bought into it. But in addition, as I travel over this route it strikes me that the parkway and its northern link in Virginia, the Skyline Drive, constitute more than a road, more than a recreation area in their own right, but also a gateway to such regions as the vast forested bowl spread out below Pisgah. 

Many opportunities for side trips present themselves. They furnish close-ups of mountain culture, scenery, history, and of mountain communities in a time of transition. A few well-chosen digressions are in order; they complement the drive and add extra qualities to it. 

For instance, the road down from Pisgah leads to the Cradle of Forestry, a 6,500-acre outdoor museum commemorating the site where forestry was first practiced and taught in America. The visitor center and restored mountain cabins – the “campus” – recount George Vanderbilt’s sponsorship of pioneer efforts in conservation. Along the trail, hands-on exhibits, crafters at work, an old logging locomotive and portable sawmill add to the picture of what life was like. 

Much of Pisgah National Forest in this vicinity is devoted to recreation and scenic enjoyment. Sliding Rock, a sixty-foot-long cascade, is at its best when it earns its name, sending swimmers splashing into a clear pool below. Just beyond, Looking Glass Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls of the southern mountains, whether to contemplate or photograph. At the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education and adjacent state fish hatchery, families can learn about the importance of mountain streams, where water and life begin, and how brown, brook and rainbow trout are spawned, raised, and stocked. 

At the outskirts of Asheville (parkway exit at French Broad River, Milepost 393.6), a major point of interest, the North Carolina Arboretum, includes 434 acres of gardens, greenhouse and educational displays, with miles of hiking and biking trails. The arboretum, “a natural cradle of plant cultivation,” was chosen as site of the World Botanic Gardens Congress in late June 2000. And another major facility alongside the parkway, the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, covers 1,500 acres with impressive buildings and landscaped grounds meant for spiritual retreat. 

East of Asheville lies Chimney Rock with its ancient monolith, 404-foot waterfall, hiking trails and awe-inspiring views overlooking the charming villages of Chimney Rock and Lake Lure. South of Chimney Rock lies Hendersonville with its beautiful village-like downtown and Brevard with its waterfalls and summer music series. Adjacent to both towns is the DuPont State Recreational Forest with miles of hiking and biking trails and multiple scenic, easily-accessible waterfalls. 

North of Asheville, the motorist explorer can take a five-mile side trip off the parkway to Mount Mitchell State Park, the highest mountain in eastern America, or stop at the resort community of Little Switzerland and visit the Museum of North Carolina Minerals. Towns like Black Mountain, Burnsville and Mars Hill are cradled by mountains and surrounded by gorgeous views. Country inns, bed and breakfasts, craft fairs and music festivals perpetuate tradition in a modern age. 

The parkway north of Little Switzerland welcomes vacationers to the North Carolina High Country, a four seasons playground. Appalachian Ski Mountain and Beech and Sugar mountains offer snow sports for the beginner to the afficionado. Several famous attractions nearby are worth a visit: Linville Caverns, The Blowing Rock, Tweetsie Railroad, Mystery Hill, the outdoor drama “Horn in the West,” and Grandfather Mountain with its Mile High Swinging Bridge. Two schools, Appalachian State University and Lees-McRae College, provide excellent cultural programs and concerts. The village of Blowing Rock is the only town physically located on the Parkway. 

by Michael Frome
Blue Ridge Parkway Association