1 of 2
2 of 2
It was a gorgeous early spring day, oh so many years ago, when I decided to take a break while driving from eastern Virginia to West Virginia. I exited I-64 and drove southward on the Blue Ridge Parkway, feeling myself relax as the two-lane highway was a wonderfully quiet contrast to the high volume of traffic speeding along the four-lane.
Less than nine miles later, I pulled into a parking area with a view of the Shenandoah Valley. Wanting to stretch my legs, I strolled along the Greenstone Self-Guiding Trail, learning about the volcanic origins of the northern Blue Ridge mountains from information posted on placards beside the pathway.
I could have completed the .2-mile trail’s entire length in about 10 minutes, but even more than wanting to read the details on the signs, I found myself lingering, becoming engrossed in the splendor of the natural setting. A warm draft was rising from the valley below and wrapping around me to replace the coolness of the mountain air. Bright sunshine was filtering through the emerging leaves of the oak and hickory trees, creating small shadows that danced about on the rhododendron and mountain laurel undergrowth. A few wildflowers had braved the vagaries of early spring by pushing through the rock-strewn soil next to the trail, adding bits of color to the still winter-brown and -gray forest floor.
I started thinking about how, if I was able to find so much pleasure in just this short pathway, how much more could I find if I were to walk all of the parkway’s trails? It took a few seasons, but I did walk every one of the trails that come into contact with the scenic roadway (which resulted in one of my books, “Walking the Blue Ridge: A Guide to the Trails of the Blue Ridge Parkway”). While I enjoyed each, I found some of the ones I was most fond of were not the longer and more difficult routes, but those that could be classified as “leg stretchers,” easy walks of less than a mile, or 30 minutes in length.
Just 5.9 miles from the parkway’s northern terminus, the Mountain Farm Trail is the perfect point to begin an exploration of the parkway’s environs.
Going by the structures of a recreated 1890s farm, the .5-mile easy pathway is a great introduction to the lifestyles of the Blue Ridge mountains’ earlier inhabitants. The weasel-proof chicken house and farm tools on display are reminders of just how hard it was to provide for life’s necessities. During the warmer months (and depending on volunteer availability) docents in period dress demonstrate hearth cooking in the log cabin, weaving and quilting and apple cider, apple butter, basket and broom making. I’ve been lucky to be here during an interesting lap dulcimer duo performance.
Living history demonstrations and guided nature walks also take place at the Brinegar Cabin (milepost 238.5), built by Martin Brinegar in 1885 and occupied until construction of the parkway began in the 1930s. A walk of only a tenth of a mile brings you to the cabin with its spectacular view eastward. Inside, you may witness someone weaving clothing made of wool or flax, just as Martin’s wife, Caroline, made on the four-poster loom that had been given to her as a wedding gift. In addition to selling some of the crops they raised, Martin earned additional money as a cobbler.
The Big Spy Mountain Overlook Trail at milepost 26.3 is also exceptionally short, only .1-mile long, so be sure to get out of the car and ascend through clover to a grassy knob providing a nice view of the Shenandoah River and West River valleys. This is also a good spot to witness a sunset and hang around and watch the stars begin to dot the night sky.
The crossing of the James River, at 610 feet above sea level, is the parkway’s lowest point and the site of two of its most informative interpretive leg stretchers. When George Washington proposed the James River and Kanawha Canal, he hoped it would provide a navigable waterway from eastern Virginia to the Ohio River. The route was never completed that far, but information provided along the James River Self-Guiding Trail gives a glimpse into the days when the canal was used from 1851 to 1880 to transport goods through the Blue Ridge mountains to its western terminus in Buchanan. The still-existing Battery Creek Lock was used to raise and lower boats around a 13-foot drop in the river.
Also at the parkway’s river crossing is the .4-mile loop Trail of Trees, where exhibits and signs explain the life cycles and interrelationships of more than 40 identified trees and plants, as well as how the river was able to push through the Blue Ridge mountains from its origins far to the west in the Allegheny Mountains.
When I asked Elizabeth Hunter, columnist for Blue Ridge Country and author of “Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Journey,” what her favorite parkway leg stretcher is, she included the Trail of Trees.
“There are so many [hikes], all enjoyable, from the Trail of Trees at the James River to the loop trail up on Richland Balsam (milepost 431) – two totally different forest experiences!” While the former passes through a lower elevation forest, the latter winds its way through a spruce and fir forest at 6,292 feet above sea level.
“Closer to my home in northwestern North Carolina, I guess my favorite is the little loop trail at Chestoa View (milepost 320.8),” Elizabeth says. “It’s a very easy trail (.8 mile) with nice views of Table Rock as the trail follows the rim of the gorge, but in September, when I hiked it a few days after copious rain, I was equally delighted by the plethora of mushrooms that had sprouted along the trail: large ones to tiny, delicate ‘parasols.’ This trail is also good for wildflowers in spring. It’s a very easy trail to hike, and one of the best leg stretchers I know.
“I, just for the first time, did the Jumpinoff Rocks Trail (milepost 260.3) a few weeks ago because I was going to be early for a hiking rendezvous with someone at Doughton Park. For some reason, I’m usually passing that trailhead when I’m trying to get home after a long day of driving and don’t have time to stop, or the place is totally socked in, but the November day I hiked it, it was lovely. What a great bunch of short trails there are on the parkway – one of many reasons I’ve never tired of heading for it.”
Kurt Rheinheimer, editor of The Roanoker magazine and editor in chief of Leisure Publishing, Blue Ridge Country’s parent company, and his wife Gail enjoy the Fallingwater Cascades Trail, partly because it’s close to home. At 1.6 miles (loop), it is a tad bit longer than the other leg stretchers, but “we like to walk it clockwise, going straight when you come to the choice – it is most fun in off-leaf season, when you really can see the falls.
“Plus it gives a nice little taste of Virginia hiking: some views (to the west) as you start, a stretch of rocky trailbed, a stream to cross, a little climb and a finish in the woods.”
It is also “a great little warmup for going back across the parkway there at milepost 83.5 and heading up to the 4,001-foot summit of Flat Top Mountain with its 360-degree view.”
(You can follow Kurt and Gail’s weekly outings at Kurt’s Hikes on BlueRidgeCountry.com.)
Almost 200 miles to the south, the Cascades Trail (milepost 271.9) is a .9-mile loop taking visitors to one of the parkway’s most impressive waterfalls. Viewing platforms overlook the 60-foot cascades as Falls Creek rushes and tumbles down the Blue Ridge mountains’ escarpment. Added bonuses are wintertime views of the flatter lands of the piedmont rolling off to the east and signs supplying selected facts about the plant life, such as mountain laurel, blueberry and flame azalea, that populates the understory beside the pathway.
Unlike having to hike the 5.7 miles roundtrip to reach and return from the 360-degree view that Kurt Rheinheimer was talking about on Flat Top Mountain, it’s possible to obtain a full circle of vistas on the parkway’s southern section by walking the short (.9-mile roundtrip) pathway to Devil’s Courthouse at milepost 422.4. Native Americans believed an evil spirit dwelled within a cave deep inside the massive rock outcrop. You won’t have to face the giant devil to enjoy the far-ranging view, but do be aware that the pathway is somewhat steep. Of course, the huffing and puffing is a minor price of admission to be able to gaze across some of the loftiest peaks in four southern Appalachian mountain states – North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.
Less than 20 miles from the parkway’s southern terminus in Cherokee, N.C., the Waterrock Knob Trail (milepost 451.2; 1 mile roundtrip) rises to the pathway’s namesake, reaching an elevation of 6,400 feet, the highest spot on any of the scenic highway’s trails. The view from the parking area is spectacular, but the vistas become even more aweinspiring and expansive with each foot of elevation the trail gains. Hikers’ lungs may labor along the steepening route, but that’s okay, because it just means that they will be taking in more of the wonderful Frasier fir- and red sprucescented air with each breath. Viewed from the knob, the Cowee and Nantahala mountains are to the southeast and the Newfound Mountains are to the northeast, while the Great Balsalm Mountains form the foreground to the northwest with the Great Smokies rising up behind them.
This is only a sampling of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s many leg stretcher trails. There are more than two dozen others. What are you doing still reading this article? Go stretch your legs.