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Blue Ridge Mountains

By Margaret HenselSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 13, 1981

Travelers familiar with the rugged power of the Swiss Alps or American Rockies will undoubtedly find the mountains of North Carolina tame stuff. Part of a broad ribbon of ridges from Vermont to Georgia that from the Appalachians, the mountains of North carolina have weathered into lush hills with a quiet beauty that can still leave visitors breathless, as I discovered on a recent trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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Weaving the serpentine two-lane highway, careening along the brink of deep gorges and cliffs, the road twisted with such frequency that south seemed north and vice versa. The resulting heady combination of dizziness and euphoria was all the more amazing, since the speed limit was a modest 45 m.p.h.

Mountain vistas of sheer drops spun into view on the east, the west, then east again, and just as suddenly the trees parted, revealing softly mounded hills extending 50 to 60 miles to the horizon. As one view fell behind another corner, I caught my breath just in time for the next sight, till the chorus of aahs and oohs sounded like a barefoot race across blazing hot beach sand.

The Blue Parkway is one of those marvelous outgrowths of the 1930s when public-works projects were frequently an exciting synthesis of creativity and practicality. For 469 miles the parkway winds, trails, twists, and tunnels from Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the southern tip of the Black Mountains and through the Craggies, Pisgahs, and Balsams, finally ending in the Great Smokies of North Carolina.

From May 1 to the end of October, lodging and camping sites are open along the parkway, as well as miles of self-guiding trails. For a camping and outdoor guide, write: Northe Carolina Travel and Tourism Bureau, Raleigh, N.C. 27611.

During my early summer trip, the ridges and valleys were lush green, the roadsides blooming with fire pinks and mountain laurel; strings of clouds threaded valleys and meadows of butterfly weed and daisies. Summer vistas along the parkway are heady stuff, the air a buoyant blend of pure mountain air and cool breezes, but one park ranger explained that after the first frosts the air becomes an elixir of vibrant, pure energy and the scenery, rampant waves of primary colors.

Beginning in late September with the brilliant reds of sourwood, black gum, and dogwood, in early October a crescendo of yellow-toned birch, buckeye, poplar , and beech begins. The whole extravaganza reaches its peak at mid-month. The gentle finale is the scarlet-umber tones of oaks.

All this is, of course, subject to the whims of nature. But on thing is assured: When the peak does arrive, word has gotten out. On weekens, visitors may find themselves in a serpentine procession of like-minded leaf peepers. Though the pace may seem egregiously slow for some, the vistas are still undisturbed to the sides.

However invigorating the high mountain air might be, there came a time in my cloud hopping along the Blue Ridge that a desire to plant my feet firmly on the ground led to a stop at Blowing Rock, roughly 80 miles (as the crow flies) from the Virginia border. But distances on the Blue Ridge Parkway can be deceptive because of the ins and outs of the road, so any mileage estimate is rough indeed. Once in Blowing Rock. I stayed at the Green Park Inn, a one-time rambling Victorian Inn, since updated and invested with a modern reinterpretation of its gracious past.

Blowing Rock is a unique little enclave that, fortunately for travelers hasn't been renovated and still retains the character of a turn-of-the-century resort town. It grew up around a singular rock outcropping with a pattern of wind currents and various tales of an Indian maid and her fickle love.

I must admit I didn't go out of my way to throw a hankie over the edge and have the wind blow it back into my outstreched hand where the maid or her lover (depending on which story you hear) was blown back into the other's arms.