In the Mountains: Traveling through time on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Learn more about the road that has been “America’s favorite drive” for nearly 90 years

In Southern Appalachia, winding through valleys and curling around mountains, runs the Blue Ridge Parkway, the longest single-unit road in the United States. The parkway spans nearly 500 miles from Cherokee, North Carolina to Afton, Virginia. Since construction began in 1935 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, this road has become nearly as iconic as the mountains themselves, and the access and educational opportunity the Blue Ridge Parkway has provided to this beautiful and historically rich area of the country has been invaluable.

Known as “America’s favorite drive,” the Blue Ridge Parkway was constructed with the goal of connecting Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, but also served as a means of revitalizing the Appalachian economy following the Great Depression. Not only did the project bring dozens of jobs to the region, but long term, the parkway would stimulate the tourism industry in the area.

The tourism effects of the parkway still benefit the Southern Appalachian economies surrounding it to this day. According to the National Park Service, “in 2021, 15.9 million park visitors spent an estimated $1.3 billion in local gateway regions while visiting the Blue Ridge Parkway. That spending supported 17,900 jobs in the local area and had a cumulative benefit to local economies of $1.7 billion.”

The construction of the parkway was placed under the jurisdiction of the National Parks Service and a young Stanley Abbott was appointed as the parkway’s lead designer. When he officially became the Resident Landscape Architect and Acting Superintendent of the project, Abbott was only 25 years old, but he brought a vibrant vision to the project of “an environmentally sensitive design that preserved the cultural history of the route,” according to the Park Service.

This map, which was drafted in 1934, depicts the initial proposal for the southern section of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s route. Asheville, North Carolina, now one of the largest cities along the parkway, was not noted on the map at the time.

The history along the parkway is rich and the route boasts a number of impressive attractions that seek to teach visitors about the history of the area and of the parkway itself. In addition to the sprawling mountain views, 91 buildings, two historical sites, and 133 other structures dot a path along the parkway. Many of these structures illustrate what life was like for the people of the mountains prior to the parkway’s construction. Humble log cabins and family homes were even moved by the planners to sit along the route to symbolize “pioneer Appalachia.” While the majority of the structures along the route preserve this idea of the Appalachian past as it was for ordinary people, some of the buildings are grander, such as the Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, an impressive estate in Blowing Rock, North Carolina that was constructed by one of the country’s leading industrialists, Moses Cone.

The Native American culture along the parkway is another important part of the area’s history. The Cherokee people of North Carolina, along with western Virginian tribes like the Monacan, Saponi, and Tutelo, were the first inhabitants of the area surrounding the parkway, and the echoes of their lives, societies, and cultures can still be seen along the route today. According to the National Park Service, much of the landscape itself was shaped by these peoples. “Many of the fields still visible at the base of the mountains date back centuries to ancient American Indian agricultural methods of burning and deadening the trees and underbrush to provide needed grazing and crop land.” In Cherokee, North Carolinathe southern point of the parkwayvisitors can learn about the history of the Cherokee people, the Qualla Boundary where they still live today, and much more.  

Abbott and the rest of the team that worked on the design of the parkway had many criterium for the completed project, one of the most important of which was variety. Abbott referred to this as “the spice” of the parkway, and he was heavily invested in creating and cultivating a variety of experiences along the route. This meant wide, sprawling landscapes, but also closer, more intimate views of trees and other natural phenomena. This philosophy created a drive that keeps visitors engaged as they wind throughout the mountains and means that the Blue Ridge Parkway has several noteworthy attractions along its length.

At milepost 355.4 you will find Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. Winding in tandem with the parkway is the New River, the oldest river in North America and the second oldest river in the world. Linville Gorge, formed by Jonas Ridge and Linville Mountain, is a popular stop for visitors during their drive for its impressive views, but this is also the deepest gorge east of the Grand Canyon. Whitewater Falls, which can be viewed from a number of impressive overlooks, plunges 411 feet, making it the highest waterfall east of the Rockies.

Although some sections of the parkway had already been in use, the project in its entirety was a massive undertaking, and the Blue Ridge Parkway was not officially dedicated until September 11, 1987. VirtualBlueRidge describes the extent of the construction work that was required to bring the parkway to its current glory, noting that “some twenty-six tunnels were blasted through the mountain ridge, with dozens of bridges needed to make rivers and creeks passable. More than 200 parking areas, overlooks, and developed areas were incorporated into the design so that motorists could enjoy a leisurely ride through the mountains.” The route was finally completed when the parkway’s “missing link” was placed right down the road near Grandfather Mountain.

Today, almost 90 years after construction began, the Blue Ridge Parkway is still one of the most visited National Park Service sites each year, and in 2022, it took the number-one spot with 15.71 million visits. Since its beginning, the parkway has hosted more than 600 million visitors who are eager to take in the beautiful panoramic views of these ancient mountains, and learn more about the history of the people, places, and things that make southern Appalachia so special.

This photo, which was originally published in The Charlotte Observer, shows the final stages of construction on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Linn Cove Viaduct, pictured here, wraps around the face of Grandfather Mountain, and was the last piece of the parkway to be placed more than 50 years after construction on the project initially began.

By Maya JarrellSeptember 07, 2023