There’s a billboard on I-77, north of Statesville, promoting North Carolina’s new “Nothing Compares” branding campaign. As shown in the header of this website, a pine tree encases the letters “NC” in colors of green and blue, mirroring the changes in landscape from mountains to coast as you move across the state. Despite some ridiculous critiques by people who probably spend more time arguing about fonts and colors than actually spending time outdoors in our state, I was captivated by the cleverness and authenticity of the simple new logo.
When my family decided to leave the expensive, crowded Washington DC area, we could have gone anywhere in the country. Like many other “transplants,” we chose North Carolina for many reasons. Like the representation of the pine tree in the new logo, we were drawn here because of the state’s storied history and strong roots, but also for its flourishing economic growth. Living in the Piedmont area, we are fortunate to be about 30 miles from Charlotte, with beautiful Lake Norman, literally in our backyard. Being so close to Lake Norman, we have access to natural habitats and wildlife, making everyday feel like a vacation. On days when we want a mini-getaway, we can be in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains in about an hour – and that’s just what we did last Sunday!
With the forecast in the high 60s, a sky as blue as UNC’s namesake color, and foliage nearing its peak, there was no better excuse to pack up the car and spend the day driving the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Dubbed “America’s Favorite Drive,” the Blue Ridge Parkway spans 469.1 miles through western North Carolina and central Virginia. Apart of the National Parks System, a meandering tour through the Appalachian Highlands offers breathtaking scenery around each turn. Bring your binoculars to take in the long-range vista views at the countless overlook points; experience nature up close and personal on a hiking trail or campsite, or visit one of the picturesque and unique towns along the route.
A slow drive along the Parkway is fun, but you don’t want to be wandering aimlessly. Before you head out, do a little research by downloading travel itineraries and maps. Blueridgeparkway.com offers a handy Parkway app allowing your to plan the trip from your phone.
Our adventure began by taking I-40 West to Route 181 through the town of Morganton. About 12 miles North of Morganton, we came to our first overlook at 2725 feet, Brown Mountain.
Continuing on Route 181, we made a quick pull-off at the Linville Land Harbor, a private golf and tennis club community just south of Linville. The small lake and picturesque waterfall right off the highway provided a scenic backdrop for a few photos.
After passing through Linville and turning north onto Route 221, we began our ascent towards Grandfather Moutain – the highest peak in the Blue Rige Mountains. While Grandfather Mountain is part of the Grandfather Mountain State Park and NC Park System, “Grandfather Mountain” is actually a registered trademark – a non-profit attraction that includes the famous mile-high swinging bridge, museums, a zoo, and gift shop.
In general, I’m all for skipping the tourist traps and with the “mile-high” line of traffic on this peak foliage weekend and $20/person admission fee, we were perfectly content taking the detour around the attraction’s entrance towards the Parkway. The beauty of living only 70 miles away is that we can come back to the park on a less crowded weekend.
With hardly any cars on the detour, we were able to stop at our leisure to capture some beautiful photos of Grandfather Moutain.
Safely leaving the lines of tourist traffic behind us, we entered the Parkway from Route 221 at mile marker 305. At this point, the Parkway twists and turns through Linn Cove Viaduct along the southern side of Grandfather Mountain’s steep, craggy slopes.
Called “The Missing Link,” the Linn Cove Viaduct is an engineering marvel. Completed in 1987, the viaduct is actually a 1,243 foot long set of 153 curved concrete segments that hug the terrain but do not use it for support. The viaduct is thought to be one of the most difficult bridges ever built. Civil engineers designed a structure at an elevation of 4,100 ft that did not disrupt the natural environment of the mountain but allowed for the completion of the last 7.5 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
This 7.5-mile section of road stretching between Beacon Heights and Julian Price Park consists of twelve bridges, a dozen overlooks, and the 13.5-mile Tanawha Trail. Each overlook point was bustling with people, eager to take selfies with the brilliant colors of Appalachia in the background.
Grandfather Mountain’s steep slopes, dramatic cliffs, and rugged rocks and crags (I never heard of a “crag” before researching Grandfather Moutain) support a diverse mix of wildlife and vegetation. Changes in terrain, soil, vegetation, wind, water, and sunlight create an environment where sixteen distinct natural communities thrive. It’s pretty amazing that one can take in all of these unique ecological environments in just a day’s hike on Grandfather Mountain. But be warned, the highest peaks and most wonderous views can only be seen after scaling the sheer rock facades by ladders and cables. Nate and I are planning our real life “Chutes and Ladders” hike as we speak!
As the elevation goes above 4,000 feet, the ecosystem transitions to a Northern Hardwood Forest, which is extremely unique compared to the rest of the state’s flat, mostly arid landscape. Below you can see fir and spruce trees at the transition point.
Our mountain descent ended at the 42,000-acre Julian Price Memorial Park. Julian Price Park is home to Price Lake, the Parkway’s largest campground, official craft center, and a 300-seat amphitheater.
Leaving the Parkway at mile 292, we headed into one of our favorite mountain towns, Blowing Rock. We’ve been to Blowing Rock several times now and are captivated by the storybook feel of this quaint village. Strolling down the picturesque main street, visitors can peruse boutique clothing shops, antique stores, and art galleries, visit the actual Blowing Rock, then stay in one of the hamlet’s numerous inns or bed and breakfasts, like The Inn at Ragged Gardens below. With Halloween looming and the earthy smell of foliage crunching underfoot, this foreboding 100-year old stone mansion looks like it was ripped from the pages of a gothic lit novel (or perhaps Jan Karon’s ‘Mitford?’).
And what Sunday drive would be complete without stopping for some locally-inspired food and drink. Despite its size, Blowing Rock is home to dozens of impressive fine dining establishments, including bistros, breweries, and taverns. After a little shopping, we stroll off of Main Street to The New Public House and Hotel on Sunset Drive.
After a long day of hiking or shopping, The New Public House’s expansive front porch is the perfect place to put up your feet and enjoy a local brew or house-made cocktail. We stopped shortly before the dinner rush and had the porch all to ourselves.
Just a couple of guys, sitting around, drinking some sodas…
For dinner, head inside the informal but stylish Restoration Hardware-esque dining room for a Southern take on German-Appalachia cuisine. Start off with the Pimento Cheese appetizer, then try the shrimp and grits with house-made sausage. The New Public House also features homemade hot dogs, bratwursts, and seasonal game offerings. If the weather is nice, you can also enjoy your meal al fresco on the porch or in the front lawn.
We took advantage of the glorious weather on this late Autumn afternoon and stayed outside for dinner. As you can see, our little man enjoyed his house-made dog.
The inviting atmosphere, superb service, and delicious food at The New Public House were the perfect ending to a perfect Sunday mountain drive. However, Mother Nature had one more treat in store for us. Heading out of Blowing Rock on Route 321 towards Lenior, we were greeted with the most spectacular sunset. As the sun slowly dipped behind the highlands, the late afternoon shadows bathed mountain grasses in glorious Autumnal hues of gold and green, perfectly illustrating the climate of this dry and unseasonably warm fall season.
Yes, the perfect ending to a perfect Sunday North Carolina mountain drive.