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The Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway takes up where Virginia's Skyline Drive leaves off at Rockfish Gap, between Charlottesville and Waynesboro. It then continues winding and twisting along the mountain crests for 469 miles, passing through most of western North Carolina before it reaches Great Smoky Mountains National Park near the Tennessee border.

The parkway links the southern end of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with the eastern entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. When it was begun 60 years ago, the parkway was a great engineering challenge. During the Roosevelt era, it was designed as a federal public-works project to relieve massive unemployment in the region. Its final segment, the Linn Cove Viaduct, was constructed in the 1980s.

The northern section of the parkway skims the crest of the towering Blue Ridge Mountains, with panoramic views of grand valleys on both sides of the road. But when the parkway twists and curls in the more rugged Pisgah and Black mountains to the south, the panoramas become even more dramatic.

Because the mountains are higher in the south -- and the temperatures are lower -- fall foliage is at its most brilliant here earlier in October than in the northern part. October, in fact, is the peak visiting month, as thousands of people come to see the incredible scarlet of sourwoods, orange sassafras, and golden poplars, to name only a few. Traffic moves at a snail's pace in October, and Saturday and Sunday are especially crowded on the parkway. Reservations for lodging and certain attractions in summer and especially in October are essential.

You can detour to Waynesville around the third week of October for the best apple festival in the region. On sale are crafts, cider, apple butter, and fresh and dried apples. Square dancers perform, and bluegrass bands entertain the crowds. Waynesville lies 7 miles from the parkway at milepost 443.1. For more information, contact the Haywood County Apple Harvest Festival, PO Box 600, Waynesville, NC 28786 (tel. 828/456-3021; www.haywood-nc.com).

Elevations range from 649 to 6,053 feet above sea level. The parkway has frequent exits to nearby towns but no tolls. There are 11 visitor contact stations, nine campgrounds (May-Oct only; some need reservations) with drinking water and comfort stations but no shower or utility hookups; restaurants and gas stations; and three lodges, plus one location featuring rustic cabins for overnight stays (reservations recommended). Opening and closing dates for campgrounds and cabins are flexible, so be sure to check in advance. Before you set out, write ahead for maps and detailed information. Contact Superintendent, Blue Ridge Parkway, 199 Hemphill Knob Rd., 1 Pack Sq., Asheville, NC 28803 (tel. 828/298-0398; www.nps.gov/blri).

At many overlooks, a sign is posted showing the symbol of a man with a hiking stick and the word TRAIL, which means that there are marked walking trails through the woods. Some trails take only 10 or 20 minutes and provide a leg-stretching break from the confines of the car; others are longer and steeper and may take an hour or more if you go the entire way.

A few simple rules have been laid down by the National Park Service, which administers the parkway: no commercial vehicles, no swimming in lakes and ponds, no hunting, no pets without a leash, and, above all, no fires except in campground or picnic-area fireplaces. Another good rule is to keep your gas tank half full at all times; this is no place to be stranded. The speed limit is strictly 45 miles an hour.

Don't plan to hurry down the Blue Ridge: Take time to amble and drink in the beauty. If you want to drive the entire length of the parkway, allow at least 2 or 3 days. On the first day, drive the Virginia half; then stop for the night at Boone, North Carolina, not far from the state border. The final two legs of the trip -- from Boone to Asheville and from there to Fontana Village -- can easily be accomplished in another day's drive.

Sights Near the Parkway -- You can veer off the parkway to see several attractions, including Linville Falls Visitor Center (tel. 828/765-1045), between Linville and Marion. Parking is available at milepost 316 on the parkway. This is a series of two falls, with an upper level of 12 feet and a lower level of 90 feet. The falls plunge into the 2,000-foot-deep Linville Gorge. A 1-mile round-trip hike takes you to the upper falls; other trails lead to more views. Some of the trails are quite challenging. Open April to November, the falls are free.

The 7,600-acre Linville Gorge Wilderness Area is a primitive natural environment, accessed by foot trails off N.C. 183. You need a permit to enter the area and can obtain one at the district ranger's office (signposted) in Marion.

Another major attraction, Linville Caverns, lies about 65 miles north of the Folk Art Center (milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Pkwy.), just off U.S. 221 between Linville and Marion (tel. 828/756-4171; www.linvillecaverns.com). The only caverns in North Carolina, these tunnels go 2,000 feet underground. The year-round temperature is 51°F (11°C). Admission is $6 for adults, $4.50 for seniors, and $4 for children 5 to 13. The caverns are open June 1 to Labor Day daily 9am to 6pm; April, May, September, October daily 9am to 5pm; November and March daily 9am to 4:30pm; and December, January, February weekends 9am to 4:30pm.

Shopping -- The best shopping for handmade mountain crafts is at Allanstand Craft Shop, Folk Art Center, Blue Ridge Parkway, milepost 382 (tel. 828/298-7928). Here you'll find beautifully made quilts, Granny style, along with pottery, wooden bowls, and even musical instruments. Works displayed were made by members of the Southern Highland Craft Guild.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.