Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway

High Mountain Wilderness Views in North Carolina - French Broad River to Mount Pisgah Picnic Area
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The southernmost stretch of the Parkway, between Asheville and the Great Smokies, boasts the highest peaks on the Parkway—Waterrock Knob and Richland Balsam. Here, the Parkway climbs to 6,047 feet, the highest point along the 469-mile motor road, and you will drive at elevations above 4,000 feet, with many miles above 5,000 feet. During the winter, because of the extreme cold at these high elevations, this part of the Parkway is closed more often than the rest of the Parkway.

The classic Parkway postcard scene—ridgeline after ridgeline shrouded with fog—stretches out from overlooks along this section. Many overlooks afford extensive views of the Great Smokies, though unfortunately, due to high elevations, the views are often lost in clouds.

This section is wild, traveling along portions of Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests for most of its length. Remote, with only a half-dozen road crossings in 75 miles and with towns usually 15 to 25 miles down the mountain, this part of the Parkway is also rugged, located high on a ledge and composed of many rocky cliff faces.

Leaving Asheville and heading south, the Parkway climbs from the French Broad River to traverse three ranges—the Pisgah Ledge, the Great Balsams, and the Plott Balsams. The last 10 miles run along ridges northwest of the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Reaching the Oconaluftee River, the motor road's southern terminus, the Parkway meets the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The long trails in this section, which are more isolated than other Parkway trails, include the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MTS) and the Shut-in Trail. Also, the Parkway provides access to trails in the Pisgah National Forest and in the Shining Rock Wilderness.

The Shut-in Trail, in George Vanderbilt's day, extended from the Biltmore House in Asheville to Buck Springs Hunting Lodge near Mount Pisgah. Because this National Recreation Trail, first built in the 1890s, was not preserved, volunteers rebuilt original sections and created new sections, bringing the Shut-in Trail back to life.

The trail, now part of the MTS, runs for 16.3 miles, crisscrossing the Parkway several times, from Bent Creek (milepost 393.6) to Buck Spring Gap Overlook (milepost 407.6). The elevation rises from 2,025 feet at the French Broad River to nearly 5,000 feet at Mount Pisgah. The trail is named for the limited, or shut-in, views along the footpath caused by the dense thickets of rhododendron.

French Broad River (393.5): This river was called the French Broad to distinguish it from North Carolina's other Broad River. The"French" came from the fact that the area the river drained into was held by the French and Native Americans at the time. The Cherokees had several names for this river, including Tah-kee-os-tee or "racing waters," as well as Poe-li-co, Agiqua, and Zillicoah. You can access the Mountains-to-Sea Trail here.

NC 191 (393.6): Nine miles to Asheville; 18 miles to Hendersonville. There is a three-sided wayside exhibit here about the Blue Ridge Parkway. Access here to the North Carolina Arboretum, or use the direct Parkway access road scheduled for completion in the spring of 1998.

The North Carolina Arboretum

The Arboretum is a member of the National Center for Plant Conservation, a network of 25 public gardens in the United States that participate in conserving rare or endangered plant species. Along with a visitor education center and green house, as well as formal and naturalized gardens, the grounds provide varied opportunities for hiking and biking, walking and running. The Arboretum is open daily and admission is free.

French Broad River(393.8): The French Broad originates near Rosman, North Carolina, where the north, west, middle, and east forks of the river join. The river flows north and west for 187 miles through North Carolina and into Tennessee to Douglas Lake. Fur traders named the river using the second word to depict its vast width and the first word to distinguish it from another waterway in English territory.

Walnut Cove (396.4): Here you will find a grove of walnut trees and a good view of the French Broad River Valley.

Sleepy Gap Parking Area (397.3): Grassy Knob Trail (0.9 mile, strenuous) descends to Bent Creek Experimental Forest, where the forest service studies trees and problems caused by fungi, insects, and diseases.

Chestnut Cove (398.3): The American chestnut not only once covered this hillside but flourished as the most dominant tree in the southern Appalachians. The nuts fed forest animals and fattened farmers' hogs. The wood produced a valuable, rot-resistant timber. Around the turn of the century, an Asian fungus called blight, which obstructs a tree's tissues and literally chokes it to death, was accidentally introduced in New York and destroyed every stand of chestnut along its range within a 40-year period. On occasion, you may see a sprout, or even a young tree, but it will eventually be killed by blight.

Pine Mountain Tunnel (399.1): Measuring 1,434 feet long, Pine Mountain Tunnel is the longest on the Parkway.

Bent Creek Gap (400.3): Exit here to reach Lake Powtahan, a forest service recreation area where you can swim, fish, picnic, and camp.

Ferrin Knob Tunnel #1 (400.9): Ferrin Knob Tunnel #1 is the first and longest of the triplet tunnels, named because of the profusion of ferns (once referred to locally as ferrins) growing on their backs. Tunnels #2 and #3 are located at mileposts 401.3 and 401.5.

Hominy Valley (404.2): This valley was named for southern breakfast fare&151;a small grain ground from a variety of corn. Pioneers soaked kernels in weak wood lye until the hulls floated to the top to make hominy.

Mills Valley Overlook (404.5): This is a good spot to watch the annual hawk migration.

Elk Pasture Gap—NC 151 (405.5): Fifteen miles to Candler. This road is not recommended for trailers and RVs.

Mount Pisgah (407.6): The first parking area on this spur road is Buck Spring Gap Overlook. The second is Mount Pisgah parking area.

Buck Spring Gap Overlook

Buck Spring Trail (0.1 mile, easy) includes a pedestrian overlook with two benches and the site of Buck Spring Lodge, George W. Vanderbilt's hunting retreat. Constructed around 1896, the lodge was built primarily from chestnut logs. The mountain complex, which included a kitchen and dining hall and several outbuildings, could sleep more than a dozen friends and family members. In 1959, North Carolina bought the lodge and surrounding land for construction of the Parkway. A series of stone walls marks the location of the lodge. Locate the lodge's springhouse in the rhododendron just to the right immediately after turning onto the spur road. You can walk inside and see Buck Spring.

Mount Pisgah Parking Area

While debate exists over who played Moses on this mountain, there is little doubt that the mountain's name came from a biblical reference. Someone drew a parallel between the land of milk and honey and the extensive view of the French Broad River Valley and what is now Shining Rock Wilderness Area. The name first appeared on record in 1808. Mount Pisgah Trail (1.5 miles, strenuous) gains 712 feet and travels through a northern red oak forest. An observation platform on the summit of Mount Pisgah affords a 360-degree view.

Mount Pisgah Picnic Area (407.8): Picnic Area Loop Trail (0.3-mile loop, easy) provides access to restrooms and picnic sites on a beautiful grassy knoll.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 20 Nov 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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