Life on the Road – May Part 4: The Blue Ridge Parkway

Posing with Ferris along the Blue Ridge Parkway (35mm film)

Leaving the sweltering heat of Georgia and the rest of the American South in our rearview, we headed North and inland towards the Appalachian Mountains. For the next few days we used Asheville, North Carolina as our home base, striking out for hiking and mountain biking in the surrounding forests and parklands. Asheville is a neat little town, with a micro-sized downtown core boasting restaurants and breweries aplenty, a decently sized university campus, and small spokes of suburb all cropped in by dense forest and mountain hills. Most pleasant of all, for us at least, was a very temperate mountain climate – temperatures dropped back below 20 degrees overnight! We spent an evening exploring the town, grabbing some tasty brews and some amazing pizza.

(1) The Appalachians on 35mm film, (2) & (3) Rhododendrons in the Craggy Gardens, (4) More mountains!

After a stock-up and reset in town, we made out towards Harmon Den, an area of forest that is home to a very popular spot called Max Patch. We had some loose info for camping that night, and really just set off for a little dirt road adventure. We ducked off the highway onto a very small, unsigned road that I had traced on sat imagery and read about online, and made it about 30 meters into the forest before coming up on a group of 4x4ers airing down their tires for the trail ahead… not the info I was working from, and not what we were prepared for. I strolled up to talk to them and ask about the road ahead, only to find out that they were just half of their party – the other half had missed the blind turn off – and soon we’d be sandwiched between 10 off road rigs on a one lane track. We made sure there was room for the rest of the rigs to turn off the highway then discussed the road. The leader of the group gave us a better idea of the terrain we’d hit if we pushed on along the route, and we agreed that it wasn’t a good spot to be taking a vehicle as bulky and heavy as us. We managed to find a spot wide enough to get the other 4x4s past us just a little farther along, and then had to reverse all the way back to just before the highway in order to turn around. After that little adventure we decided to go somewhere a little less off-the-beaten-path, and set off up the main industry roads in towards Max Patch. We found ourselves a little pull-off on a branch line and called it good enough.

Pre-dawn at Max Patch!

The sun coming over the horizon! (35mm film)

We got up at a hellish hour the next morning in order to hike up to Max Patch for sunrise. Max Patch is the summit of a minor peak that was previously cleared for agriculture use, leaving the summit bald. Though no longer used for farming, the bald is maintained and is a major landmark on the Appalachian Trail. Even arriving at the ungodly hour we did, the nearby parking was absolutely packed, and the bald resembled the campground at a music festival – there were people EVERYWHERE. Quite a diverse group, as well – from shaggy looking Appalachian Trail through-hikers in ultra-light shelters, to university kids in tennis shoes and track pants with massive group tents, and a large contingent of people like us – just walking up for a sunrise view. We took in the spectacle – and the sunrise!

More sunrise shots!

The following day was Alex’s birthday, and to celebrate the occasion we chose to hike to the Ramsey Cascades just across the Tennessee border in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The hike was beautiful, lush and green, and a quick dip in the pools at the base of the falls was a welcome reward for the effort to get there. We were glad to have started early; the trail was quite busy as we hiked back to the van. We wound up finishing the hike a lot faster than we had anticipated, and so made use of the extra time to get back to Asheville to grab a few last necessities and give us a head start on our next travel leg.

Living in a van, funemployed & swimming in a waterfall in underwear – what a way to ring in 27!

Hot weather, cold waterfall antics!

We left Asheville and struck North along the Blue Ridge Parkway, making a little detour to check out the Linville Gorge – The Grand Canyon of the East. The views were spectacular! The parkway itself was a treat, snaking along mountain ridges and providing expansive views at every turn. Our day ended just above the Virginia Border, camped right at the second highest point in the state. Again, the views! The mountains of the East are much older than peaks back home, so the elements have had a lot longer to work their destruction. The mountains are much lower, densely tree covered, and have age softened contours and rounded peaks. The mountain views aren’t as raw and intimidating as we’re used to out West, but they give a sense of the age of the land and astound with the expansive greenness all about them. We did a hike the next day in Grayson Highlands State Park, a beautiful, meandering walk through wild rhododendron thickets and over rolling plains dotted with wild ponies. The hike ended at the highest point in Virginia, but it’s little more than a survey point in amongst a stand of trees. The high point of the hike didn’t wind up being much of a high point after all. We’d highly recommend the hike, but the short bit after the fork to the summit is really only good for the extra exercise.

The “Grand Canyon of the East” aka the Linville Gorge

Hiking in Grayson Highlands State Park – complete with wild baby ponies!

After our hike we figured we go back to our campsite from the night before, but as we drove back angry black clouds rolled in, and the online weather report started calling for severe overnight storms in the region. We high-tailed it out and made for low ground further away from the epicenter of the storm. The storm blew over through the night, and the next day looked like it might even be nice, but as we drove through Shenandoah National Park another cell came through, flooding roads and flashing lightening, dashing our hopes of getting a hike in. We continued on through the park and made our way into Washington, DC, where they were calling for possible tornadoes, but also where we had a couple nights booked in a campground… The weather just wasn’t quite playing ball!

The Washington Monument & Cory found a fossil to match his tattoo in the Museum of Natural History!

Fortunately, no tornado hit DC while we were there, and the next day was actually sunny and hot. We went into DC proper to check out America’s capital. The Smithsonian Institute runs upwards of a dozen museums and art galleries around DC’s central mall, almost all of them free to enter. We devoted our day to the Museum of Aerospace and Aeronautics, a gallery of modern art, and the Museum of Natural History, we were in the museums right until closing and could have easily spent another day checking out more. After the museums closed, we went and caught a free jazz concert in one of the public gardens (complete with a pitcher of sangria!), then wandered around the mall to see some of the monuments, and finished our day with a walk by the White House. We said goodbye to DC and hopped on transit back to the campground. The next day we’d be putting in some major miles through the metro sprawl to get to Boston and visit some friends. The first familiar faces since we’d left home! That’s for next post.

Relaxing with Ferris at the 2nd highest point in Virginia!

Stats for May:
Kilometers Driven: 7,560 (14,375 Total to Date)
Kilometers Hiked: 92 (274 Total to Date)
Kilometers Biked: 57 (199 Total to Date)
Provinces/States Visited in May: New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, DC*, Maryland (13)
Total Provinces/States Visited: Washington, Oregon, Nevada, California, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, DC*, Maryland (19)
(* Including DC)

Ferris at White Top

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