Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway
Posted on September 25, 2021
As seen in Currents, September 2021
Sometimes vacation is about the destination. Sometimes it’s about the journey. On the Blue Ridge Parkway, it’s both.
The 469-mile ribbon of asphalt that connects Afton, Virginia to Cherokee, North Carolina is more than a place to drive your roadster or ride your motorcycle. It could be a metaphor for life … a journey full of places to pause along the way and no reason to rush the finish line. As a reminder to take it easy, speed on this twisting-turning roadway is limited 35 to 45 MPH.
Ideally suited to a sports car or motorcycle the two best times to visit are spring when the wild rhododendrons bloom and fall when changing leaves light up the landscape. Gary and I chose August, though, for the heat of summer. At least that’s what we thought but not what we got.
For those unfamiliar with the parkway, its America’s longest linear park, running along the spine of the Appalachia’s Blue Ridge mountains. Begun in 1935, the stretch of pavement was a public works project during the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As it evolved it included restrictions about what can be built along the road – mostly scenic, agricultural properties. Rules prohibit commercial traffic. Drivers encounter no stop lights or stop signs until they leave the Parkway.
Home to some of the East’s most interesting views, the Parkway is meant to be enjoyed, not conquered. We gave ourselves a week to appreciate various overlooks, hikes, attractions, and photo opps. Certainly, the two-lane parkway could be driven in two days or less. But why? Another checkmark on the to-do list?
Our journey linked the north entrance in the Shenandoah National Park to the south entrance in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Alas, Tropical Storm Fred and his weather friends sent torrential rains and tornado-like conditions to the Carolinas. So, we bailed halfway through the trip and rode our 2013 Honda Goldwing home – through cool rain – about 450 miles on Interstate 77 from northern North Carolina to Northeast Ohio.
Abbreviating our trip was another life lesson. We were reminded that we’re not in control and we must sometimes pivot. (As if COVID hasn’t already made pivoting abundantly clear.) Still, half the Parkway is better than no Parkway.
A printed travel planner from the Blue Ridge Parkway Association (blueridgeparkway.org) helped. It lists attractions, hiking trails and rest stops at various mile markers as well as exits with gas stations, restaurants, and lodging. We carried the planner because internet and GPS access can be sketchy at Appalachian elevations and sometimes rendered our mobile devices useless.
When the trail started, I found myself dramatically inhaling in fear as hills dropped and valley views stretched for miles. The anxiety grew in areas lacking guardrails. Soon, though, stunning mountain views became the norm and I relaxed. The scenery included deer sightings and abundant wildflowers. A bear sighting could, possibly, happen (though not likely).
The first stop that beckons, Humpback Rocks, is only 5.8 miles into the trip. If you’ haven’t exercised lately, pace yourself for the mile or longer climb that registered as 75 flights of stairs on my Fitbit. We gave up on our first trip to the overlook five years ago. We conquered on our second visit and were rewarded with a fog-obscured vista from on high.
By late morning., day one, we were hungry and used the trip planner to find Olde Liberty Station Restaurant (oldelibertystation.com) in Bedford. Leaving at mile maker 86, the Honda zig-zagged into the valley to an 1881 repurposed train station. Lunch was generous salads and the ubiquitous Southern staple, fried green tomatoes.
It’s important to note that the parkway, with its elevation and shade is cooler than the small towns along the way. Temperatures rise nearly 10 degrees Fahrenheit when you get into the valley. Dressing in layers improves comfort options.
At 165 miles down the Parkway we stopped in Floyd, Va., just southwest of the parkway, where I had planned two nights at Hotel Floyd (hotelfloyd.com).
Built in 2007, Hotel Floyd is influenced by that artsy vibe and environmental consciousness. It was constructed with sustainable materials and furnishings, easy access to Wi-Fi, electric-car charging and includes a gallery of local art in the lobby.
Each of the 40 rooms are decorated in a theme to evoke a small local business. Ours, for example, was a tribute to Red Rooster coffee shop. Amenities are high-end, and the hotel is walking distance to shopping, dining, and music venues.
The small town – fewer than 500 residents –has a deep history and broad culture. Recently, as in the 1970s, the town and county around were “discovered” by back-to-the-landers looking for a rural escape. These new residents were artists/artisans, some say “hippies.” They shaped the town’s culture, filling it with fine art, handcrafts, and rich music traditions.
One of the best venues for music here is The Floyd Country Store (floydcountrystore.com). Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday afternoon a stage in the back show cases traditional Appalachian music. When music beckons, folks scramble to the dance floor to clog or two-step.
Friday during our visit, we saw six different acts within three blocks — one in the Country store, three busking streetside, a vocalist at Outer Space and a band inside Dogtown Roadhouse (dogtownroadhouse.com).
Saturday, we listened to musician Seph Custer play mandolin as part of a duo in the Country store. We enjoyed his music enough see him change instruments and style that evening at the Dogtown Roadhouse. There we claimed a table, ate wood-fired pizza, drank regional mead, and listened to Custer play lead guitar and sing. His three-hour bluesy rock set, accompanied by The Flatbreaks on bass and drums, included an eclectic mix of Jimmy Hendrix, The Doors, Cage the Elephant, Black Keys, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Stevie Wonder and more.
Between musical performances, I browsed a farm market as well as galleries and boutiques. Traveling by motorcycle meant I could bring home nothing but photos and memories. Oh, but the temptations!
Sunday, we twisted our way uphill to the Parkway and crossed into North Carolina. During a previous trip, we’d visited downtown Mount Airy, birthplace of Andy Griffith and the model for Mayberry in his television series. It’s worth a visit if you’re a fan.
This trip we visited three of the 48 wineries in North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley wine country. About 30 minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway, Interstate 77 also dumps into the valley. That proximity means Ohio snowbirds visit wineries en route to Florida in winter.
Just as people are skeptical of Ohio wine, I was circumspect about wine made in North Carolina. I was wrong. Some wines were great, others weren’t my preference. Gary didn’t taste because he was piloting the bike.
The wineries we visited ranged from charming boutique to expansive estate. They tend to specialize in dry and off-dry wines made from European vinifera and French-American hybrid grapes.
Shelton Vineyards (sheltonvineyards.com), which opened in 1999 has a grand presence with roughly 300 acres surrounding a facility that includes a six-station tasting room, market, restaurant, patios as well as an organic chef’s garden and 70-plus acres of European grapes. The winemaker produces about 20 different wines from traditional varietals — Sauvignon Blanc, Reisling, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Tannat — as well as Bordeaux blends. Next year sparkling Moscato and rose will join the list.
In addition to wine and dining, the winery hosts music on weekends and a monthly summer concert series. Visitors can relax with wine, wine slushies and wine cocktails. Interestingly, general manager Travis Dale is from Ashtabula and recently returned home to taste Grand River Valley wines.
Serre Vineyards (serrevineyards.com), a boutique winery with a small footprint and a handful of wines, just started pouring in 2020. Owners, married couple Melissa Hayes and Christian Krobisch, work with local growers to source varietal grapes for wines while their own vineyards mature. Their specialties are dry reds such as a bourbon-barrel Cabernet Sauvignon and two blends. Hayes grew up in Lakewood, Ohio.
Keeping with the Ohio influence, Round Peak Vineyards (roundpeak.com) winemaker Ken Gulaian grew up in Mayfield and earned a mechanical engineering degree from Case Western Reserve University. Following a successful career on both coasts, he and wife Kari Heerdt had a mid-life aspiration to shift from corporate life to entrepreneurial life. So, in 2008, they bought Round Peak and Gulaian studied enology and viticulture. As they got to know the breadth of their customers, they expanded to a second brand –Skull Camp (skullcampbrewing.com) – of sweeter, more playful wines as well as craft beer.
Currently, they grow 12 acres of grapes for a variety of 100 percent estate wines. These include European varietals like Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Tannat as well as French-American hybrid grapes like Vidal Blanc and Norton.
All three wineries offer lodging for overnight guests from a small cottage to a four-bedroom “cabin” to the only Hampton Inn & Suites in America with its own wine bar.
After the third winery, the rain hit us. With Tropical Storm Fred promising 95 percent chance of rain for three days we abandon the Yadkin Valley and the rest of the Parkway. We plan to resume the journey another time.