Blue Ridge Parkway’s distracting diversity
Hike to waterfalls, stop for flowers enroute
The Fallingwater Cascades Trail on this day could aptly have been named the Falling Timber Trail. There were, after all, signs of a tough winter all around. Fallen trees — and parts of trees — were lying everywhere. Most, now in late April, had been cleared from the trail, though some still remained to be clambered over and ducked under.
Then there was the matter of the bridge. One of the crossings over Fallingwater Creek was altogether gone, leaving hikers to carefully step across its icy water on stones.
Still, every step of the 1.5 mile loop trail — which drops almost 400 feet from the crest of the Blue Ridge Parkway — was worth the effort, especially after a prolonged bout of cabin fever that had built up during the long, harsh winter that had felled so many trees along the trail.
To cure the symptoms, we had settled on a long weekend trip to the Peaks of Otter area of the parkway, not far from Lynchburg, VA. Trees along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a part of the National Park system, were budding in all shades of green, intermixed with the bright pinks of redbuds, white dogwood flowers and other blossoming trees. Yet enough sun still reached the forest floor to maintain a vibrant mix of wildflowers.
Indeed, just a short stroll into our hike revealed a carpet of wildflowers — trillium, bloodroot, violets and many more. Soon, we were descending, sometimes down steps toward the cascades, often through dense thickets of rhododendron. Before long, we heard the ever-growing sound of rushing water, and soon we were atop the falling water — a long series of impressive cascades pouring over ancient Appalachian rocks on its way to James River, miles downstream.
Sadly, the hemlocks that had been described in the hiking guide were missing altogether — apparently victims of the invasive hemlock wooly adelgid that has been obliterating hemlocks from the region’s forest, and has nearly completed its work in Virginia.
The trail offered many views of different sections of cascades — the cascades themselves extended far enough that there wasn’t a single place where you could see them in their entirety. Fallen trees and branches sometimes presented obstacles that had to be worked around to catch the views. But it was well worth it — after a long winter that had seen parts of the Chesapeake Bay turn to ice, here was tangible proof that even here in the mountains, the spring thaw had finally arrived.
Spring was, though, only beginning to be felt in many places nearby.
We were only a few miles from the Apple Orchard Mountain overlook which, at 3,485 feet was the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. Along some of the highest, most exposed ridges, stunted trees showed no evidence of their first springtime bud.
The elevation gains can be dramatic along the drive. Just a few miles up the road, the parkway hits its low point, 650 feet, where it crosses the James River. Here, the forest leaf-out was near complete. After a chilly morning in higher elevations, we strolled in mid-afternoon heat through the half-mile Trail of Trees, where small signs identified several dozen local species, and we could examine the leaves of nearly every variety.
Across the river, we visited the Canal Lock Trail which took us to the restored Battery Creek Lock, one of nearly 100 locks that once helped boats move up and down the James River and Kanawha Canal in the decades prior to the Civil War, making the river a major transportation corridor connecting mountain communities with the tidewater.
That’s what is special about the Blue Ridge Parkway, which some have dubbed “America’s favorite road trip.” It is a 469-mile blend of nature, history and culture that connects Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina-Tennessee border.
Like Skyline Drive, it is a two-lane, limited access road. It winds intermittently through large national forests and narrow strips of public land, telling the rich story of the landscape as well as the history and culture of the people who shaped it.
Every few miles there are pull-offs to scenic overlooks, picnic areas, historic sites, museums and trails that range from leg stretchers to exhilarating — and exhausting — mountain climbs.
I first encountered the parkway as a teen, thinking it would be a pleasant way to get from Shenandoah to the Smokies on the way to Florida. With a speed limit of 45 miles per hour, that’s something you could do in a day, right? Two days later, I completed the drive, but only because I was pitching my tent in the dark after long days filled with short stops, short hikes — and lots of regret about the things I was zipping by. A few years later, my wife and I retraced the trip, this time allowing closer to four days, and it still was not enough.
We were more practical on our last couple of visits — picking a single location to stay for a few days to soak in the local experience (it still hasn’t been enough). We also visited the northernmost section of the parkway in the spring, where the rapid changes between high and low elevations allow you to observe a different phase of the season — a
different mix or leaf-out and wildflowers — seemingly around every bend of the road. At higher elevations, fiddleheads were just emerging from the ground, but in lower areas, they had already turned into vast fields of ferns.
The spring colors easily matched those seen by fall’s leaf-peepers. The full-charging white waters of springtime streams cascaded through the moss-covered rocks, wildflowers sprinkled the land, and trees were budding overhead. Even better, it is a sign that the mountain forests are reawakening for summer; not hunkering down for winter.
On the final day of our most recent trip, we again descended from the Blue Ridge to another waterfall. Rain the previous day had cooled the temperatures, and the top of the ridge was shrouded in dense fog. As we descended the trail, fresh rain joined with seeps from the ground to form dozens of rivulets that merged to form a growing rush of water flowing down the side of the mountain. The tumbling white water of the streams were like strings of white lace through the fog, bordered on either side by dense growth of green moss here, or meadows of mayflowers and dutchman’s breeches there. The growing sound of rushing water grew ever louder as it cascaded over rocks for a mile and a half until we reached the Apple Orchard Falls — actually a series of waterfalls that went on for another half mile.
As we climbed back up the trail that afternoon, the temperature warmed and the sun burned off the last of the fog. It would not be long before the slumbering trees along the ridge line produced their leaves, collecting the sun’s energy for another summer.
Make your travel plans for the Blue Ridge Parkway
- The National Park Service website offers an overview of the parkway and its attractions at nps.gov/blri/index.htm.
- The nonprofit Blue Ridge Parkway Association website offers trip-planning tools including interactive maps, information about lodging on and near the parkway, upcoming events, a mile-by-mile guide to hiking trails along the parkway and other information at blueridgeparkway.org.
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