RVing the Blue Ridge Parkway
Rural quiet. The parkway runs past Glendale Springs, N.C. where the Glendale Springs Inn housed parkway engineers in the 1930s.
I recently tried RVing for the first time. My little tent is sure going to get lonely during future forays into the Blue Ridge Mountains. As a long-time tent camper and fan of Blue Ridge Parkway road trips, the idea of trying an RV for the first time on one of America's prettiest roads had some definite appeals. The ease of driving the parkway made maneuvering a big "rig" less daunting, while the conveniences of camping with a mobile bedroom, kitchen and other modern amenities seemed like an ideal way to enjoy all the parkway has to offer.
RVing is exploding in the United States and it's not just with the retired set. Last year, new RV shipments totaled an incredible 292,700, which was a 20-year record. "The industry is now benefiting from an influx of baby boomers into the RV ownership ranks," says David Humphreys, president of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA). "Like the previous generation of buyers, boomers are finding that RVs offer unique convenience, comfort, value and opportunities for family bonding."
Being a baby boomer myself, those figures were enough to convince me to give RVing a try (but on an easy stretch of road like the Blue Ridge Parkway). In researching how to try RVing, my first discovery was that renting is a convenient and ideal way to start.
Several national companies offer rental options, as do many local dealers. The nation's largest rental company, Cruise America, has more than 100 centers throughout the U.S. Another national rental chain, El Monte RV, has 23 outlets. Dozens of local dealers in the rental business carry fleets of five to 50 vehicles, while a growing number of campground operators now offer on-site rentals.
We opted for a Shasta Travelmaster mini motorhome. Their 28-foot version features a queen-sized bed in the rear and a double bed over the cab, as well as additional fold-down sleeping for larger families or groups. There's a full bathroom and separate shower, as well as standard features: a stereo; a dinette; a fully functional kitchen, with three-burner stove, refrigerator and microwave; a monitoring system that tells you everything you need to know about the RV's numerous functions; and an incredible amount of storage. The Travelmaster and other models are available in shorter and longer versions, but this was an ideal length for us to try.
Shasta is owned by Coachmen, one of the legendary names in RVing. Of course, Coachmen and other well-known companies like Winnebago feature a wide choice of offerings, ranging from "conversion vans" and folding camper trailers to giant buses that are complete homes on wheels. We learned about all of the options while visiting a local dealer, which is a great place to start.
This initial dealer visit and a few test drives led to our cruising up Afton Mountain to the start of the famed parkway. Within minutes on I-64, I became comfortable with driving this yacht on wheels. It handled just like a car, though it took a bit of time to get used to the length when changing lanes. A veteran Virginia-based RVer had recommended that we stop for gas and provisions before hitting the parkway, which saved us both time and money during the rest of our trip.
The powerful Ford Triton V10 engine had no trouble getting us up the mountain, which bode well for the climbs to come. Once on the parkway proper, it became obvious that this was the perfect place to try RVing in a non- threatening atmosphere. The lower speed limits (35 or 45 mph) and limited traffic made it easy to grow more comfortable with driving an RV and pulling off for the numerous overlooks and other attractions along the way.
Perhaps unlike any other road in the world, the Blue Ridge Parkway offers one of the ultimate road trips for RVers of all experience levels. It meets all of the prerequisites in resounding fashion: only two lanes of traffic, historical sites, friendly and interesting people, great scenery and many places to stop for the night.
Since its inception, the Blue Ridge Parkway has been called America's favorite drive. It was authorized in the 1930s as a Depression-era public works project, but was a half-century in the making. It was the nation's first (and ultimately the longest) rural parkway. It connects the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia (the Skyline Drive) with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. The total distance is 469 miles, making it an ideal three-or four-day trip in an RV (though campgrounds make it easy to take longer).
The Blue Ridge Parkway drive officially starts at Rockfish Gap, where you find the 0 Milepost marker. These markers become the welcome signs of your location on the drive and run progressively each mile southward along the parkway.
The first major stop is indicative of what the drive has to offer. The Humpback Rocks Visitor Center is often the first taste of the Blue Ridge Parkway for southbound drivers and it's a great place for an RVer to stop.
The visitor centers, camping facilities and concession system on the parkway are excellent, with services varying with the season. They offer great places to get maps, ask questions and learn about campfire talks, nature walks, slide programs and much more.
The Humpback Rocks area features an interesting self-guided tour through a reconstructed mountain farmstead. The short but steep hike up to Humpback Rocks (at Milepost 6.1) is well worth the heavy breathing for a breath-taking view of the area. It's only 3/4 of a mile to the top.
Back on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the views begin. One of the beauties of RVing is that the driver and passengers generally sit higher than they do in a car, thus providing much better views of the surrounding landscape.
If you stopped at every awe-inspiring view, you'd never make it to the end. There are pull-offs at most of the best overlooks, but you're also allowed to just pull over on the shoulder as long as your vehicle is completely off the road. The speed limit is 45 miles per hour or less, and most visitors tend to go slowly. Wooden guard rails subtly protect vehicles and people from the steep drop-offs.
Some possible stops along this stretch include: Ravens Roost, featuring vistas of the Shenandoah River and Torry Mountain; Sherando Lake, a recreational lake in the George Washington National Forest; Whetstone Ridge, which once provided mountain folks with fine-grained sharpening stone; and Yankee Horse Parking Area, where a hard-riding Union soldier's horse supposedly fell and had to be shot (there's now a reconstructed spur of an old logging railroad).
Between Mileposts 58 and 64, Otter Creek runs down the Blue Ridge, following the road to the James River. Otters don't play along the creek anymore, but lots of people do. This section of the drive features a year-round campground, a visitor center, a self-guided nature trail, a restored lock and canal system, a restaurant, a gift shop and the lowest elevation on the entire parkway (649 feet).
Otter Creek has the first of nine developed campgrounds along the parkway (if the one you select is closed or full, there are many more just off the road). All of the campgrounds have tent and RV sites (no water or electrical hookups, so first-timers quickly learn about using the generator). Later, we learned how simple it is to hook your RV up for water and electricity, which most commercial campgrounds provide. Otter Creek does have RV sewage stations and we learned how easy these were to use (trust me, it's not nearly as bad as you may think).
The campgrounds are generally open from early May to late October, depending on the weather. They don't take reservations and they're not usually needed (except on summer holiday weekends and fall foliage season, when first-time RVers should avoid the parkway anyway). When we drove the parkway in early spring we were often the only campers, except for the helpful campground hosts.
Peaks of Otter, Roanoke Mountain and Rocky Knob are the rest of the Virginia camping options, with the number of RV sites ranging from 24 to 62. In North Carolina, the first option is Doughton Park, followed by Julian Price Memorial Park, Linville Falls, Crabtree Meadows and Mt. Pisgah (the southernmost and highest elevation campground). Our favorite camping night was at Doughton Park, where the campground host told us about the "Honeymoon Suite" (isolated campsite T9, where the sunset was stupendous and we were alone with the parkway and our RV).
Once established in a campground for the night, we established a ritual of a short hike, followed by a fire (the campsites typically have fire rings) and some quality time outdoors. Then, we headed inside to our home (and kitchen) on wheels for a gourmet meal. One of the beauties of RVing is the ability to place provisions in the refrigerator, freezer and ample cabinet space. The stove, oven and microwave made virtually any meal a possibility.
Our next stop along the parkway was popular Peaks of Otter. Along with great camping, the Peaks of Otter area accommodates with some serious hiking to lose a few of the pounds gained cooking gourmet meals in your RV. Head to the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center for a detailed map and information from the very friendly staff (it must be the mountain air). Some good bets are Sharp Top Trail (1.6 steep miles for a 360-degree view), easy Elk Run Loop Trail, strenuous Harkening Hill Loop Trail, Johnson Farm Trail and Flat Top Trail back to Fallingwater Cascades.
The parkway continues south and the spectacular views roll by continuously. Look for the Appalachian Trail Overlook around Milepost 100. The famed Appalachian Trail is a 2,100-mile hiking "path" along the ridge of the Appalachian Mountains, stretching from Maine to Georgia. It runs through 14 states and the Virginia section (544 miles) is the longest stretch.
Roanoke is situated very close to the Blue Ridge Parkway and serves as an ideal stopover if you need a civilization fix. Other quaint stopover towns near the parkway include Waynesboro, Lexington, Lynchburg and Galax.
Mabry Mill is just down the road. This often-photographed waterpowered mill was operated by E.B. Mabry from 1910 to 1935. The self-guided walking tour includes his gristmill, sawmill, blacksmith shop and other outdoor exhibits. In the summer and fall, visitors will often find old-time skills being demonstrated.
Nearby, the Mabry Mill Coffee & Craft Shop offers refreshments and stoneground cornmeal. Just down the parkway, Meadows of Dan offers gas, food, lodging and shopping, country-style.
The rest of the Virginia portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway is steeped in views, gaps and history. For views, pull off at the Groundhog Mountain Parking Overlook, with an observation tower simulating an old tobacco barn. For gaps, head to the quaint town of Fancy Gap. For history, check out Puckett Cabin, the home of Orelena Hawks Puckett, a storied local midwife.
The views, gaps and history don't stop at the Virginia state line. North Carolina features some spectacular scenery and sightseeing of its own.
Some of the best views in the state include Fox Hunters Paradise, Doughton Park, The Lump, Linn Cove Viaduct, Linville Falls, the Mt. Pisgah area and Richland Balsam Overlook (which, at 6,053 feet, features views from the highest point on the parkway). Along with these pulloffs, North Carolina hiking options include the Tanawha Trail, the Craggy Gardens area, Graveyard Fields, Devil's Courthouse and Waterrock Knob.
History also abounds in this rugged area. The Cone Manor House and Moses H. Cone Memorial Park provide one of the most interesting stops on the parkway. This huge and historic estate features old carriage trails that are now ideal for hiking, as well as the well-run Parkway Craft Center, where you can buy crafts and watch occasional demonstrations. Other easy stops for RVers include the fascinating Museum of North Carolina Minerals and the Folk Art Center. As with most pulloffs along the parkway, there's typically easy parking for RVs.
South of Asheville, there are a ton of tunnels (heights are clearly marked, but even the tallest RVs make it through them) and some of the highest points and pulloffs on the parkway. After Richland Balsam, the drive haltingly descends to 2,020 feet and the end of the parkway. Just after the end, RVers can head to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on U.S. 441 for another great drive.
But for my money, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the perfect road for both virgin and veteran RVers. We loved our rental Shasta and hated to return it. But the experience made us hungry for other RV adventures in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Just look for us in another big rig at some campground in the mountains.
Fall Foliage RVing
An RV offers an ideal way to see fall foliage along the Blue Ridge Parkway and else-where. The generally higher vantage point and ease of maneuvering on the parkway and at pulloffs make it popular with both first-timers and veterans. We can't wait to rent another RV this fall (and we might even have bought one by then).
But because of this popularity with RVers and car drivers, the parkway can get crowded during peak leaf- peeping periods. RVers would do well to time their trips for weekdays, rather than weekends, when the parkway and camp-grounds are much less crowded. It's also generally less crowded during the end of prime viewing times, when the crowds have decreased but the colors are just as dramatic.