Last week we introduced our readers to the wonders of winter hiking. Not only is it exhilarating, but it can help keep off those winter pounds that seem to add up so quickly and also help cure that chronic case of cabin fever. Frozen waterfalls, animal tracks, and new vistas normally hidden by leaves are all highlights of the season. Due to cold temperatures and weather conditions which can change in a matter of minutes, we know there are some who would rather wait until springtime to resume outdoor activities. That doesn’t mean you have to sit at home though! There are hundreds of miles of scenic drives and parkways which wander their way through almost every corner of our Appalachians, from the Blue Ridge to the Smokies.
Of course, we can’t help but start off this list with everyone’s favorite. The Blue Ridge Parkway winds along the main crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 469 miles, connecting Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Shenandoah National Park in Virginias. The variety of landscapes include farming pastures along the Blue Ridge Plateau, rhododendron balds in the Great Craggy Mountains, and rare spruce-fir forests on the highest peaks of the Great Balsams. There are many miles of trails and multiple parks along the route which protect the very best examples of Appalachian environments.
Due to the parkway’s length, driving conditions can vary wildly from place to another. It’s best to check with the park service before leaving to get an updated list of closed segments. Normally, the higher elevations in North Carolina will be closed due to snow an ice. Areas around Cherokee, the Plott Balsams, Great Balsam Mountains, Mount Pisgah, Mount Mitchell, and Grandfather Mountain reach elevations of a mile or more, creating hazardous conditions. Consider driving the parkway’s lower segments, which include the areas around Asheville, and most of the route through Virginia. The National Park Service has a great website with a map which shows segment closures in real time. Check out www.nps.gov/blri. Usually it’s possible to circumvent a closed area by taking a low-elevation detour. While it may seem a hassle, the amazing winter scenery is definitely worth it!
East Tennessee’s own Foothills Parkway is another great place to drive in the winter. Currently only twenty-two miles are open of the intended seventy-two-mile route, but that is due to change this year with the opening of a new segment. This will connect Walland with the community of Wears Valley, adding sixteen more miles to the route. Paving of this segment has already begun, with a projected opening date of late 2018. No doubt this will be the best portion of the parkway, as it traverses steep mountainsides via a series of long bridges and even a curving viaduct, not similar to the far more famous one on Grandfather Mountain.
There is still plenty of opportunities to appreciate the sections that are currently open. The eastern portion climbs English Mountain near I-40 east and provides outstanding view of Cherokee National Forest, as well as the angular peak of Mt. Cammerer. The much-longer western portion winds along the ridge top of Chilhowee Mountain, with outstanding vistas overlooking the Great Tennessee Valley and the Smokies’ far western peaks. A lookout tower at Look Rock is reached via a short hiking trail and is one of our favorite places to take photos in winter. Low hanging clouds often envelop the higher peaks of Chilhowee and English Mountains, leaving a thick layer of rime ice covering the forest when it dissipates in the morning. This is one of the most beautiful sights we have witnessed in the forest.
We have covered the Cherohala Skyway before in a previous article, but the drive through Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests is so amazing we couldn’t help but mention it again. It begins in Tellico Plains, TN and climbs along the highest ridges of the Unicoi Mountains to connect with Robbinsville, NC. Dozens of overlooks and trails allow this National Scenic Byway to rival the Blue Ridge Parkway. Just remember that this road is not as highly-visited as the national parks, and therefore prepare in advance in case you hit hazardous conditions. Last year we were enjoying a nice drive along the highest portion when suddenly a snowstorm blew in out of nowhere. White-out conditions made it hard to see, and the snow piled up amazingly fast. Always call the visitor center ahead of time to get the current weather and road conditions at 423-253-8010.
There are many other drives in the surrounding area. Waterfall Scenic Byway in North Carolina is ninety-eight miles long and curves its way through the Nantahala National Forest. Numerous waterfalls, including the famous Bridalveil Falls, are visible from U.S. 64. Southwest Virginia’s Crooked Road begins in Rocky Mount and passes through the Grayson Highlands and Bristol on its way to Breaks Interstate Park. Nantahala Scenic Byway sits not too far from the Cherohala Skyway. It passes through the awe-inspiring Nantahala Gorge on its way from Whittier to Marble, NC. The Natchez Trace Parkway is another unit administered by the National Park Service and goes from Nashville to Mississippi along the original path followed by the Natchez Trace.