Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway in search of autumn colour

Follow Gillian Birch as she takes the scenic route down one of America's most scenic highways; Blue Ridge Parkway ...

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New England in the Fall is on many travellers’ bucket lists, but for me, driving the Blue Ridge Parkway in autumn is a far more dramatic experience. This peaceful route is lined with a showstopping blaze of fall colour and is definitely one of the most scenic drives in the world.

History of the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway runs for 469 miles from Roanoke in Virginia to Asheville, North Carolina in a southwesterly direction along the Blue Ridge, part of the Appalachian Mountains. Managed by the US National Park Service, the route was established in 1935 and building it was part of the Work Relief Program, creating jobs following the Great Depression. It was built in stages over 52 years, with the final seven-mile stretch including the Linn Cove viaduct around Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. Today the Blue Ridge Parkway provides a peaceful route enjoyed by drivers, motorcyclists, hikers, cyclists, campers and outdoor recreationalists of all ages.

In theory, the 469-mile drive could be completed in a day, but not so this glorious feat of engineering. The route dips and climbs from 600 to 6,000 feet above sea level with drops on either side of the ridge to farmland and tranquil valleys far below. It is a beautiful deserted area, filled with trees and more trees. The view ahead is only ever a few yards as the road twists and turns, rises and falls following the contours of the land. There is a 45mph maximum speed limit, but it is almost impossible to reach and actually enhances the sightseeing pleasure.

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Showstopping fall colour

On my trip in early October, the autumn sunshine delivered balmy temperatures of 19-24°C. The cobalt blue sky was the perfect backdrop for the vivid autumn leaves of maples, alders, oaks, semtocs and the ubiquitous Virginia creeper running through them. Forget New England, the colours here are magnificent scarlet, bronze, fiery orange and golden yellow which are truly breathtaking. We reversed to take photos so often that we probably covered nearer 900 miles than 469!

There are plenty of information centres along the way but sadly the route lacks any refreshments or drink stops at all. The only real town we passed through was Roanoke, where we detoured in search of refreshments and coffee. After that the land became more farmland than forest, but the green fields framed the colourful trees beautifully. As we looked across to other mountains in the distance it seemed they were studded with jewels; rubies and emeralds, garnets, amber and citrine glinting in the sunlight.

Some of the trees had enormous spiders’ web-like cocoons in them and I later found out these were made by tent caterpillars – hundreds of them in each massive sack, just waiting to drop. One day when we stopped for a walk a tiny snake wriggled across the road, reminding us not to walk on the trimmed grass along the roadside. Sure enough, a little further on we passed a massive black racer all coiled up on the verge with his head up and his forked tongue out. This can be a dangerous land at times.

After three days we arrived in Asheville, home of the fabulous Biltmore Mansion. Decorated for Christmas, this most visited home in America provided a fitting end to a stunning and memorable road trip. However, nothing could detract from nature’s glorious display of bright colour and the memories I will treasure of this stunning autumn road trip.

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