American Roads

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I recently took a trip along the Virginia section of the parkway and was overwhelmed by the view and attractions I saw. I now understand why the National Park  Service refers to it as " Experiencing America's Favorite Drive." Not only is it a Scenic Byway, it's one of only 31 of the 120 National Scenic Byways that is designated an All-American Roads. This means it offers features that do not exist elsewhere in the United States and are unique and important enough to be considered a tourist destinations in themselves. Let me take you for a short hop on the Virginia end of the Blue Ridge Parkway and you will see why that is so true.


Natural Bridge

Natural Bridge of Virginia (MP 61.6, 63.7)  There are lots of changes going on at Natural Bridge now. It has changed hands and is destined to become a state park in several years. Major renovations are due to be finished by March, 2015.

 There is so much more than the actual bridge. The entire resort is  about 1600 acres. It includes the inn, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and cottages, gift shop, and the natural attractions including the caverns, a Monican Indian exhibit, the play Drama of Creation and the highlight of it all, the Natural Bridge.  Some of the attractions that are currently there but do not reflect the image of the natural phenomena, such as the wax museum, will be removed. New trails and birding tours will be added

The Bridge was stunning to see for the first time. It's size and shape are awesome. It rises 215 feet above ground level and has a 90 foot span. Geologically Natural Bridge was formed by the action of Cedar Creek, a tributary of the James River, carving out a gorge in the limestone rock over millions of years.

Natural Bridge was first touted as a tourist attraction by Thomas Jefferson., Jefferson bought the bridge and 157 acres of land around it In 1774 for 20 shillings that would equate to about $160 today.  He called it "the most sublime of nature's works" and around the turn of the century he opened it to visitors for a .02 cents admission.

Victoria explains the customs of the Monican Indians

As we proceeded along the path to the gorge, there is a spot where you see a white outlined box with the initials "GW" carved in the limestone. Dean Ferguson, the resident historian, escorted us and explained why he doubts the veracity of the legend. He believes it was most likely conceived when the  property was put up for sale by Jefferson's estate in an effort to boost interest and bring a higher price.

In addition to the bridge, there is a Monican Indian village at the end of the path. The Monicans have their own beliefs about the origin of the bridge. They believe it miraculously opened to offer them an escape route during a battle with the Powhaten Tribe.

Dean's wife Victoria, who is a member of the tribe, showed us around. Native workers were busy going about everyday tasks such as cooking cornbread, sewing moccasins and other task that were a part of the Indians daily routine there are about 1600 Monicans in Virginia.

Deer grazing near Peaks of Otter

Peaks of Otter (MP 84, 87) Continuing along the Blue Ridge Parkway, we arrived at another scenic wonder. The Peaks of Otter is one of the most picturesque spots in the Blue Ridge. The peaks are Sharp Top, Flat Top and Harkening Hill with Manmade Abbott Lake in the valley between the peaks just behind the Peaks of Otter Lodge and Restaurant.

The lodge makes a great base to explore the peaks. We visited and ate in the dining room. Food was great and the lodge rooms while not luxurious looked so comfy. You have a great view of the lake from almost all the rooms and can step out your back door and wander down to the water.

Bus to the peaks of Otter
There is some debate about how they came to be named "otter." One thing for sure, they are not named for the little river animal. There are no otters around here. The most logical theory is that Charles and Robert Ewing, early colonists from Scotland, settled here in the early 1700s and named them "otter" which is very common in Scotland.

There is a lot to see and do around the Peaks. You will find a winery named for them. Peaks of Otter Winery and Orchard is a place to relax with a glass of The Mango Tango or PUFF. an apple wine with a touch of Dragon Fruit added. You can tour the winery or go into adjourning Johnson Orchard and pick you own apples.

There are great hiking trails but if you are a bit lazier like me, take the tour bus to within 1,500 feet of Sharp Top. I hiked up from that point and was rewarded with a view that is out of this world. You can detour off the parkway less than 10 miles and visit Bedford, home of the D Day National Memorial. (Click here for more )

Church at Explore Park
Explore Park (MP 115) Much more than a visitors center, Explore Park offers the traditional visitors Center services, information about Roanoke Valley. The park is 1100 acres and already has 15 miles of hiking and biking trails two miles of river frontage. It has eleven historical building on the site. Mountain Church dating back to the 1800s and is used for weddings.

The main function is education. Doug Blount, Director of Parks and Recreation for Roanoke County, envisions something more. He sees, " An outdoor adventure  park. We are working with venders to put in campgrounds and cabins as well as boats and horses. We want to continue that outdoor brand where when you come to the park instead of staying for the day you are staying for several because of all the outdoor activities here."

Roanoke's Star

Roanoke  (MP120) You can jump off the parkway and visit Roanoke. there is so much there to do it will have an entier article in a later issue but just as a teaser, here are a few fun things there: The Star and Overlook where you get a unique view of the city of Roanoke under the world's largest manmade star atop Mill Mountain. Just down the road a bit, you discover The Discovery Center and Roanoke Zoo. For all the neat thhgs to do downtown, you will just have to wait for the article on Roanoke so keep checking in to American Roads

Floyd  (MP165) The Blue Ridge Parkway follows the entire southern border of Floyd County so there are several access points you could take, either route 8 or Black Ridge Road. Floyd is the heart of Floyd county, a fiddling, artistic, rural  community filled with treasures. visual, audio and antique treasures. It's part of The Crooked Road: Virginia's Heritage Music Trail.

We visited the Floyd Country Store. don't let the name fool you. It's so much more than a store. It is a toe tapping, hand clapping. real live music venue each weekend and scene of a live radio broadcast.

Just a short distance from the heart of town is Chateau Morrisette Winery. We toured and ate lunch there and boy was it great. The wines were all good. The view and the restaurant merged to create a perfect dining experience.

Rock Castle Gorge overlook (MP 169) For one of the most scenic overlooks in the Blue Ridge, stop at Rock Castle Gorge. (see header image)If you are a hiker, you can hike to Rocky Knob Cabins, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and the only cabins for rent on the Blue Ridge Parkway. They were closed down but Lorri Knies, our interpreter at Mabry Mill said the park service is actively searching for a way to get them reopened..

The mill
Mabry Mill (MP176,1) One of the most impressive stops on the Parkway for me. Mabry Mill is a collection of historic buildings with living history interpreters. Lorrie, explained that, " The landscape designers fell in love with the mill. If you are thinking that this is such a pretty setting , that's why there was a designer involved. The mill is original. The blacksmith shop is sort of original and in the original site. Other building have been moved in. They brought in a cabin built in the mid 1860s right after the Civil War. The mill wheel is fully functional"

Lorri led us down to the mill which was originally build by Ed and Lizzie Mabry in 1899. Lorrri commented, "Lizzie was an amazing woman, she was the best miller around. Ed was the wheelwright."

An interesting event occurred while we were watching the weaver display her skill, a couple came in. The woman was carrying a bundle which she proudly unrolled to show the weaver and those of us gathered around. It was a beautifully patterned blanket she had woven. The old arts are not dead yet.

Mike Bryan, one of the rangers and an expert on the mill, told us about how the mill came into being. "Ed and Lizzie bought the property in 1899. Ed's goal in life form a very young age was to build thing. So he and Lizzie moved ot West Va and learned blacksmith and carpentty skills. He made good mony and sld the farm he had her and bought this land form the Thompsons and built the blacksmith shop and then the mill and then the woodworking shop… Lizzie did the grinding which she loved. Ed did the building which he loved."

Mike showed us the working of the mill and the sawmill. It was a true adventure in time. I hated to leave much as I hate to end the article but sometimes we do what we must. I suggest that you must take a trip to this magic place and see its wonders for yourself.

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