To say that we've been looking forward to this leg of the trip would be an egregious understatement. One of the defining moments in building both our itinerary and my anticipation for this trip, was a long conversation I had with Joe Jansen, my then-roommate's father. Joe and I scanned through a collection of photos he had taken during his own time on the road, and some of his most captivating shots were from Skyline Drive, which begins in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and the Blue Ridge Parkway, which continues the drive south into North Carolina. With some extra research, I discovered endless acclaim for this stretch of driving, and knew it was an endeavor we simply couldn't overlook.
We'd stumbled into town with a faulty recommendation from my campground book, which dropped us directly in the middle of nothing. Luckily we found a Budget Inn nearby, and rested up for an early departure the next morning.
Skyline Drive runs the entire length of Shenandoah National Park, carrying with it a $15 per car price tag, in return for the stewardship and maintenance of the National Park Service. We, however, found our way around this pesky price tag, thanks to our ultra-handy "America the Beautiful
" pass, which allows free entry for its holder (Joey) and three companions (Sarah and me, with room for one more). The fellow at the booth wished us happy driving, and the journey commenced.
I was literally giggling like a schoolgirl. This was the view from the first outlook point we encountered, not two miles from where we entered. And this was just one of more than 70 different outlooks on Skyline Drive. I pulled the car over, my camera came out of my pocket like it was on fire and a day-long marathon of photography soon ensued.
The magnificent scenery around us came courtesy of the Blue Ridge Mountains
, a section of the broader Appalachian Mountains
. We stopped at outlook after outlook to admire the colors and gaze into the distance, with layer upon layer of land in sight along the horizon. No houses or private land was present along the highway, only stretches of short stone walls along the highway in the more dangerous sections. The speed limit throughout the drive is a mere 35 m.p.h., due to some dangerous curves and stray wildlife here and there. All the more reason to slow down, open the windows and enjoy the scenery.
After three and a half or four hours of driving, we came to this sign. It was at this point that I realized that Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway were connected, but mutually exclusive. Skyline was not a section of the Blue Ridge, as I'd originally believed. Joey made sure to interject that he already knew that and that I was an idiot for thinking otherwise. It was about 1:30 and we were at mile 0 out of 469 on the Blue Ridge, so needless to say, our original estimate of spending just one day on this drive was way, way off.
Not that there was anything wrong with that. In this case especially, the photos will speak better than the words; here are some highlights from throughout the day.
We spent the bulk of the day either behind the wheel or stopping to snap pictures. But we did make a pit stop toward an attraction along the Parkway I'd seen photos of before - the Natural Bridge. Above the bridge was a welcome center, filled with absolute nonsense that ranged from $30 bottles of wine (preposterous to us, after seeing so many cheap, delicious wines on our Keuka Lake tour
) and "southern pride" items like a Confederate-themed coloring book.
There was also a ticket booth, selling all kinds of nonsensical services, among them, admission to the Natural Bridge. No way, we said - no way we're paying a combined total of about $50 to see a naturally formed geological structure. We walked to the bottom of the stairs and were asked for our tickets, at which point we told the guard we were only going as far as we could without paying, and we'd seemed to reach the end of that. So we turned around and left, slinging insults at this ridiculous money-making ploy. Notice I didn't even link to their website.
Always eager for some country flavor, we stopped off at this unusual place during a stop for gas. Inside we found a woman with the thickest southern accent we've heard yet, to whom Joey asked the question of what the sign outside that read "beer off" meant. She made a face as if she was about to say something clever, and replied, "Off the premises," in decidedly unclever fashion. We took some off the premises with us, including a can of Budweiser & Clamato Chelada
for Joey, which was a mix of Budweiser beer, tomato and clam juice. It tasted pretty much like it sounded.
As the sun sank on the horizon, we should have made camp at a somewhat earlier point than we did. But with so much more driving to do the next day (over 300 miles worth), we wanted to tackle as much as we could before we absolutely had to stop. We were treated to a sensational light show at sunset, as you can see here.
Our reward was a pitch-black camping setup, aided only by the use of the two working flashlights we had at the time. We were in a national park campground, so the fee was minimal and the grounds patrolled - but what a pain it was to set up in the dark. Lesson learned. We did manage to get a campfire going for a bite of dinner, which included Black Diamond steaks from Joey's mom and salads from Burger King we'd purchased earlier.
We used Joey's giant screen tent to save the trouble of setting up two different tents, but unfortunately, this thing comes without a floor. For someone like me, whose air mattress broke weeks ago and whose squeamishness around insects stems from deep, dark traumatic childhood experiences, sleeping on the bare ground was not an option. So I spent the least comfortable night of my life squrming around on top of an arrangements of unfoldable chairs and a table. I broke the table.
But oh man, those mountains made it all worth it.