As a Californian, I must admit that Appalachian fall foliage is to California fall foliage as a full orchestra is to two oboes, a bassoon and some guy banging on a rusty triangle.
For five days I drove all 105 miles of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, then all 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina. I could almost hear the swelling violins as I zoomed under leafy canopies of red, orange and gold; hiked along creeks, lakes and ridge lines; listened to plenty of bluegrass and blues; and gave thanks to the National Park Service for bringing together so much beauty and so much blacktop.
We don’t consider road-building a prime task of the park service these days. But the NPS, born just eight years after the Model T, spent its first decades building some of the most gorgeous drives in North America.
The Blue Ridge Parkway, authorized in 1936, has been all about the automobile from Day One.
The work took decades, but now the road’s shoulders are graced with overlooks, its straightaways unsullied by billboards, commercial trucks or service stations. (There are also plenty of hiking trails along the route, including the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail.)
To get gas or find most hotels, you exit the parkway and re-enter the real world. The parkway speed limit is 45 mph, which means that when red leaves drift in the breeze or a deer pauses in a meadow, you’re moving slowly enough to notice.
For most of the last 50 years, including 2015, the parkway has been the most-visited unit in the park system. Last year its rangers counted 15 million visitors, who spent an estimated $950 million.
The tourist tides seem to include more bicyclists every year, which is tricky on its narrow roads. October is as busy as the summer months, in some places busier. But if you’re lucky enough to be driving on weekdays, not weekends, the parkway is nice work.
Skyline Drive in Virginia was my prelude. Light traffic. A bounding stag at Hog Wallow Flats. A treed bear at Bootens Gap. At Lewis Mountain, I checked out cabins that until about 1950 were set aside for “colored” visitors.
By 5 p.m., I reached Rockfish Gap, Va., where Skyline Drive ends and the Blue Ridge Parkway begins.
The parkway rises, falls, bends and straightens, following the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains with no commercial buildings or truck traffic, cushioned by a buffer zone of landscaping that alternates between narrow and wide, semi-wild and manicured.
The scenes I glided through were not quite natural; they were more orderly than that. But they were unfailingly pretty. And the weekday traffic was light. (The Virginia part of the parkway has about half the traffic of the North Carolina part.)
At Milepost 86, soon after dark, I pulled off the parkway and checked in at the Peaks of Otter Lodge, at the edge of manmade Abbott Lake.
This 1964 hotel, full of modernist touches, is the only lodging on the parkway that’s owned by the NPS.
In the chilly early morning hours, I prowled the edge of Abbott Lake with my camera, hunting vivid leaves and reflections in the still water.
There are more than 100 species of trees along the parkway. Beech, birch, chestnut, dogwood, elm, fir, hickory, maple, oak, sassafras, walnut, and on and on.
At Tuggle Gap, about Milepost 165, I made a little detour — six miles west — because I had a hunch about the town of Floyd, Va. (population 425). Or, as one local sign would have it, the Republic of Floyd.
This was a good move.
Floyd is tiny but artsy and lively, with coffeehouses, art galleries, a farmers market and especially the Floyd Country Store (wood floor, tin ceiling), which offers home goods, sandwiches, books, music lessons, a pulse-quickening inventory of Appalachian CDs (“Flatt & Scruggs at Carnegie Hall”) and live acts on weekends. The store’s Friday Night Jamboree, a four-hour acoustic music session, costs just $5.
At Milepost 294, I browsed the Moses Cone Manor House, a.k.a. Parkway Craft Center, a 1901 textile baron’s 13,000-square-foot mansion now run as a regional art and craft gallery. It’s surrounded by 3,600 acres of parkland, but the parking lot is gridlocked on some October days.
At Milepost 304.4, I scrambled up a boulder to better appreciate the last piece of the Blue Ridge Parkway puzzle: the elegantly curving Linn Cove Viaduct, which was completed in 1987.
At Milepost 316, I hiked into a deep, rocky gorge and got my feet wet at Linville Falls.
Now I was heading into the busiest stretch of the parkway, the area around Asheville, N.C., where rangers counted 42,520 vehicles passing through in October, the month of my visit — almost three times the traffic tallied at the Peaks of Otter.
It was easy to see why. I happened to hit this stretch within a few days of peak color. In the hour before sunset, about Milepost 360, the scene turned surreal as the road carried me through tree tunnels of flowing orange and flaming red, then luminous yellow-green.
In Asheville itself, you may be overwhelmed with urban options, beginning with its prosperous downtown and burgeoning restaurant scene.
I had dinner at the Smoky Park Supper Club, a strikingly modern structure built from 19 shipping containers in a formerly grim, industrial part of the city at the edge of the river. While I sat there, two of the restaurant’s first kayak customers paddled up.
The city’s biggest tourist ticket is the Biltmore Estate, which you can tour for $55-$75 per adult, depending on how far ahead you book and the day of the week.
I was at the Biltmore Estate when it opened at 8:30 the next morning. Even before you get to the chateau-style mansion’s 250 rooms, the 8,000 acres of grounds may amaze you.
Notes for next time
If you want time to relax and improvise, a Blue Ridge drive needs at least seven days, not the four I gave it.
The greatest roadside peril may be in the parkway’s overlooks and turnouts, where drivers do a lot of improvising in close quarters. Navigate those ins and outs with great care.
Mid- to late October is prime time for Appalachian foliage. But there’s no point obsessing over when leaf-peeping will peak. The weather will vary. Different species of trees will turn at different times. And trees will turn first at highest altitudes (such as Mount Pisgah, N.C., 6,047 feet above sea level).
After a few billion leaves, they do begin to look alike. But don’t worry. Other things will stay with you.
WHEN LEAVES CHANGE
The best time to visit is usually mid-October for fall color, but it depends on the weather and your altitude. (Leaves change earlier at higher elevations.).
NPS spokeswoman Leesa Sutton Brandon in Asheville, N.C., said much of August was hot and dry — conditions that, if they persist, could dull fall colors. But she also said the parkway’s varied altitudes mean that throughout October, there’s almost always good leaf-peeping somewhere on the route.
IF YOU GO
Peaks of Otter Lodge, 85554 Blue Ridge Parkway, Bedford, Va.; 866-387-9905, www.peaksofotter.com. Rooms for two as low as $119 a night in summer, $159 in October. Weekends book up fast.
Smoky Park Supper Club, 350 Riverside Drive, Asheville, N.C.; 828-350-0315, www.smokypark.com. A hip restaurant made out of shipping containers. Main dishes $15-$28.
Biltmore Estate, Asheville, N.C.; 800-411-3812, www.biltmore.com. Adult admission $55-$75, depending on day and season, advance purchase.
More info: Blue Ridge Parkway, www.nps.gov/blri/index.htm
Seasonal Blue Ridge Parkway foliage and flower report: 828-298-0398, option 3.
Blue Ridge Parkway Association, www.blueridgeparkway.org