Friday, October 3, 2014

Smokin’ in the Smokys

Hiking on the Blue Ridge Parkway
One of the most unusual ‘National Parks’ is the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is a 469 mile road connecting the North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. All along the way are amazing views, gorgeous plants and wildlife and wonderful towns to explore. The parkway has been carefully sculpted to exclude most traces of modern development. You can get a sense of what the Appalachians were like in the preceding centuries discounting the asphalt surfaces.

You’d think it would be easy to find a road as famous at the Blue Ridge Parkway, and usually it is. However, it twists, turns and seemingly vanishes
down rutted lanes only to reappear again just where the map showed it would without that detour we chose to take. Perhaps this is why it’s such a popular ride for motorcyclists. We
Motorcyclists on the Parkway
met several groups of these riders during our trip, and not surprisingly, they were all of an age ~ retired. The overlooks give a feeling of sparse population since you don’t see large areas of urban sprawl. The mountains themselves tend to regulate the size of towns where only the largest valleys can accommodate large towns. The topography limits roads and railroads to restricted paths and the forested slopes hide the majority of dwellings and other man-made structures.

One can travel long distances without having the blight of
Mountains in clouds; Signage 
‘modern life’ thrust at you. Most of the Parkway is through trees with ample pullouts and overlook areas. Advertising is as rare as rain in Texas but there are informational signs making you aware of towns, gas stations, cultural opportunities and natural attractions. The speed limit is low so don’t think you’ll be zooming to your next destination. The parkway is also aging so you’ll find areas of reconstruction. Some natural attractions might not be open to the public due to ‘modernizing’. The scenery we saw was well worth the minor inconveniences and I wouldn’t be surprised if we returned soon.

Red berries, Smoky Mountains,
Monarch Butterfly
At one of our stops was a great hike along a tree shrouded path with moss-covered stones lining the way, then through thick stands of taller than head high rhododendrons. At this time of the year they aren’t in bloom. The ranger told us that during the spring there are cars lined up for miles waiting to park so that the visitors can stroll along this hike. Right now there flowers and shrubs have just about finished their summer blooming and the fall blossoms are beginning to open. Some shrubs are putting on masses of red berries and a few monarch butterflies are beginning to head for Mexico.

My personal highlight was the lunch we ate at the Ocoee Whitewater Center near Ducktown, Tennessee. This was the venue for whitewater kayaking
Waterfall, Whitewater, Kayaker
at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Getting there was driving miles down a winding road on a mountainside in perennial shade where the only habitation you saw looked straight off the back log from Deliverance. The view and the food at the stream-side restaurant was well worth the drive and the drive itself was a must do – especially on a motorcycle (Vonore Highway 360 to Tellico Planes, Highway 68; go west on 74 at Ducktown to Ocoee Whitewater Center).

From roadside lookouts the Smoky Mountains appear swathed in smoke, but as the day progresses these clouds burn off revealing deep green valleys. Afternoon balloonists cruise over the mountains and down onto flat areas in between. The views from those balloons must be spectacular.
Hot Air Balloons over the Smoky Mountains
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