A Winter Hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Over the years, my husband and I have hiked many trails near the Blue Ridge Parkway – Graveyard Fields, Mt. Pisgah, Black Balsam Knob, Looking Glass Rock. This fall, we lucked into an opportunity to hike on the parkway itself.

We happened to be in Asheville after remnants of Hurricane Nicole passed through the mountains. By Sunday morning, there was snow at the higher elevations. It was 15 degrees on Mt. Mitchell. We decided to stick to the lower ridges. We drove north on the parkway, aiming to do a short, steep hike to Rattlesnake Lodge (Rattlesnake Lodge – Asheville Trails) and then venture out on the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) if it wasn’t too windy.

After passing the visitor center, we saw an ominous sign. Road Closure Ahead. Despite our concern, we pressed on toward our intended trailhead, but about a mile from our destination we were stopped at a locked gate.

We parked at the Tanbark Ridge Overlook and sat there in the warm car, poring over maps and discussing our options. Was there another viable trailhead nearby? Could we do the MST section first and make it all the way to Rattlesnake Lodge and back? We saw a few other people leave their vehicles and stride off past the locked gate. Should we join them? What if the parkway opened again at any moment? Would we get caught on narrow shoulders with cars zipping past? That sounded unpleasant, not to mention dangerous.

About this time, a park ranger drove up and started unlocking the gate. My husband sprinted over to ask her what was happening. She was on her way to assess the road conditions around Craggy Gardens, but she didn’t anticipate this section of the parkway opening anytime soon. It was noon and mostly cloudy and still only 26 degrees.

We decided to take a chance. Out of habit, I grabbed my walking stick, but we didn’t even bother to take our packs. We passed a few people, met a few others. We smiled, greeted, stopped and chatted. There was a young woman returning to her car after walking eight miles. There was Petrie, a Pomeranian with extravagant blonde fur, keeping his person warm as they sat on a wooden guardrail, contemplating a view of the deep and silent woods. There was a sense of camaraderie among us, as if we all shared the same secret. This spirit – the giddiness of getting away with something that typically isn’t allowed – reminded me of a much less crowded version of the Open Streets 704 events in Charlotte (Home – Open Streets 704).

The farther we went, the fewer people we saw. Walking on the asphalt was somehow liberating. On a remote and rocky trail, you might tell yourself you’re having a wilderness experience, but you often spend a lot of time staring down at your own two feet. The wide, graded road allowed me to focus on the landscape instead. There were tantalizing views of Mt. Mitchell wrapped in a blanket of white. The nearby hills recorded the precise elevation where rain had abruptly changed to snow. Far below, the picturesque Bull Creek Valley seemed frozen in time, a rural community of small farms and clapboard houses.

My ears became attuned to the quiet. A leaf scudded along the asphalt behind us. A creek splashed and gurgled its way down the mountain. White-breasted nuthatches and Carolina wrens jabbered nearby. The long, rattling cry of a pileated woodpecker carried upslope.

When we reached the Tanbark Ridge Tunnel, we could have headed off on our intended trail to Rattlesnake Lodge, but we could do that anytime. This might be our only chance to hike on the parkway. We plunged into the tunnel, realizing it would be the absolute worst place to meet an onslaught of traffic. It was a bit creepy, but I did appreciate how the sections of manmade reinforcements and blasted native rock attenuated the echo of our footsteps.

As we walked, my interest shifted from the distant landscape to the roadside plants. A few asters were still in bloom, but the goldenrod and mountain mint were spent. There were cheerful green patches of heuchera and Christmas fern. Fruits of Virginia creeper and poison ivy decorated the rock embankments from which the parkway was carved. Our pace also allowed me to see invasive species I might have missed at 35 miles per hour – mullein, miscanthus and oriental bittersweet. And of course I couldn’t miss the litter – soda bottles, beer cans, a box of baby wipes – and even a bit of graffiti.

When we returned to our car, a young couple was setting up a phone to take a selfie with the snow-capped hills in the background. Standard fare on a cold but photogenic day. Until, that is, the man ripped off his shirt, and the woman, clad entirely in black, scrambled up his bare back. He helped her onto his shoulders, set his hands under her feet then pressed her into the sky. I’ve seen some daring and risky poses at scenic overlooks, but never anything quite so wacky or joyous. It was a memorable end to our improbable hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

To check for road closures, visit Road and Facility Closures – Blue Ridge Parkway (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)

Photos by Ruth Ann Grissom