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Is NPS Getting Ready To Toss Bluffs Lodge On The Scrap Heap?

Shuttered Bluffs Lodge on the Blue Ridge Parkway/David and Kay Scott

Without a concessionaire, Bluffs Lodge is fading into deterioration/David and Kay Scott

Of all the national park units we have visited, none provide a more pleasant experience than driving the 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Vistas through North Carolina and Virginia aren’t as spectacular as those along Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road, Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road, or Yosemite National Park’s Tioga Road. However, for a pleasant drive that lasts several days rather than several hours, the Blue Ridge Parkway is without peer.

Lodging on the Parkway

During our initial drives, the Parkway was home to four lodges: Pisgah Inn, Rocky Knob Cabins, Bluffs Lodge, and Peaks of Otter Lodge. At the time we were the proud owners of a VW camper (we went through four of these trouble-prone jewels) and spent nights camping, although we would often spend time browsing through the lodges. It wasn’t until 1996 when we started writing our national park lodging guide, Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges, that we began staying in the lodges.

The lodges were each quite different, a feature that added to the enjoyment of a trip along the Parkway. They were also conveniently spread along the Parkway from Peaks of Otter Lodge at milepost 86 in the north to Pisgah Inn, located south of Asheville, North Carolina, at milepost 408. We typically drove north with stays at Pisgah Inn, either Rocky Knob Cabins or Bluffs Lodge, and finally at Peaks of Otter before driving on to Shenandoah National Park and visiting its three lodges.

Unfortunately, only Pisgah Inn and Peaks of Otter Lodge currently remain in operation. Rocky Knob cabins, with only seven rental units, was almost certainly a marginal operation from day one. With a six-month season and cabins renting for $65 per night during its last year of operation (with a discount for multiple nights), the entire complex could produce annual revenue of only $75,000 to $80,000 even if every cabin was filled every night of the season. The saving grace of Rocky Knob was the concessionaire’s ability to also operate nearby Mabry Mill that always seemed a viable business. Although Rocky Knob Cabins has been closed for several years, Mabry Mill has continued in operation.

Bluffs Lodge and Coffee Shop

But this story is about Bluffs Lodge, one of our favorite places to spend the night in a national park. Bluffs was just off the Parkway, but in an isolated location offering quiet and enjoyment in a scenic rural setting. Its guest rooms and furniture were retro, but the place was fun and the atmosphere blended perfectly with what attracted travelers to drive the parkway. With only 24 guest rooms (23 during years when the manager resided onsite) and little to do, guests visited with one another and enjoyed evening gatherings with a park ranger near a fireplace on the small patio that separated the lodge’s two buildings.

Bluffs didn’t have a game room, lobby, TV room (in fact, it didn’t have TVs, and if it had, they would have been old black and whites of the Ozzie and Harriet era), or an attached restaurant. In fact, it didn’t have any extras other than a couple of friendly employees, a place to really relax and read a good book, and the fellowship of its guests. The registration area was the size of a closet. The place was perfect.

Shuttered Bluffs Lodge on the Blue Ridge Parkway/David and Kay Scott

Guests no longer stay at the shuttered Bluffs Lodge, and the facility's future looks bleak without a white knight rushing in/David and Kay Scott

Nearby, within walking distance, was Bluffs Coffee Shop offering a retro dining experience that served as an ideal companion to the lodge. We have dined at Yosemite’s Ahwahnee (now the oddly named Majestic Yosemite Hotel), Grand Canyon’s El Tovar, and Yellowstone’s Lake Hotel. Each serves excellent food with equally good service, but none provided a more enjoyable experience than dining at Bluffs Coffee Shop. No restaurant in America served better fried chicken, the coffee shop specialty. Regional specialties included pinto beans and cornbread, and biscuits and gravy. What delicious grub after a day on the Parkway. And where else could a person dine on barbecued pork with melted cheese served between two golden brown corn cakes, all topped with cole slaw? This was heaven on a budget!

Demise of a Parkway Icon

Unfortunately, the opportunity to experience a night at Bluffs Lodge along with a delicious and filling meal at the nearby coffee shop is an image in the mirror. Both are closed with a future that doesn’t look promising. With only 24 guest rooms to rent during a six-month season, it was apparently difficult to make the numbers work.

Long operated by concessionaire National Park Concessions (NPC) and later, Forever Resorts when it absorbed NPC, the lodge and coffee shop have sat vacant since the end of the 2010 season when Forever’s obligation was up and the company decided to pull out. Various attempts by the National Park Service were unsuccessful in attracting another concessionaire. The Park Service did install new roofs on the buildings, most likely at great expense, but the exteriors continue to deteriorate with evidence of mold and decay. Bluffs and the coffee shop have become a depressing sight for those of us who enjoyed many an evening there.

Is There Hope?

The National Park Service undertook a value analysis study of Bluffs and the coffee shop, along with the Crabtree Falls and Otter Creek restaurants, that was completed in 2014 but only recently released to the public. The study evaluated several alternatives for Bluffs, including resuming operation of the lodge and coffee shop by a concessionaire or under a lease arrangement.

According to the report, locating a willing concessionaire for Bluffs is likely to “encounter a major implementation issue” due to the significant investment required to remediate mold and rehabilitate the facilities prior to a concessionaire agreeing to an obligation for operating the facility. In other words, no concessionaire will be willing to absorb the costs necessary to put the facilities into operating condition. The copy of the report we received did not include the cost of remediation of either the lodge or coffee shop.

The study also considered the options of remediating mold in the coffee shop while demolishing the lodge, and of preserving the exteriors only so as to serve as exhibits without interior use. Fortunately, for the many fans of Bluffs, the evaluation team primarily recommended first determining interest in and the viability of returning the facilities to their traditional concessions operations. On the downside, the viability is a function of the condition of the buildings.

Another Avenue?

Some of you may know of or experienced a ride in one of the historic red buses utilized for tours of Glacier National Park. The so-called “Reds” are as iconic to Glacier as Old Faithful Geyser is to Yellowstone. Built by Cleveland’s White Motor Company, the buses were introduced into Glacier in the early 1900s with nearly three dozen additional buses being acquired in the mid-1930s. Glacier’s current concessionaire, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, continues to offer park tours in over 30 of these iconic buses thanks to the generosity of Ford Motor Company that partnered with the National Park Service to rehabilitate and refurbish the Reds to the tune of $6 million.

Wouldn’t it be grand if one or more corporations stepped up to offer financial and other assistance for Bluffs Lodge and the Bluffs Coffee Shop similar to that provided by Ford Motor Company for Glacier’s red buses? Because the lodge being in North Carolina, Lowes, a national corporation headquartered in Mooresville, North Carolina, would be a prime candidate for the donation of materials required for the renovation.

Reynolds American in Winston-Salem, and Bank of America in Charlotte, could both use some image improvement. BB&T is another large Winston-Salem company with substantial financial resources. Software firm Red Hat is headquartered in Raleigh. This is only a partial list of businesses that might be approached to assist such a worthy project that would likely provide loads of favorable publicity.

One of our stays at Bluffs was next to the room of a couple with their young daughter. Earlier in their trip the mother had purchased a harp that she played on the balcony outside their room. We spent a portion of the afternoon sitting in our chairs listening to the music and chatting with the couple. What a memorable late afternoon experience that helps recall the pleasures of staying at Bluffs.

So, who starts the ball rolling to help keep Bluffs from the scrap heap?

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As the former General Manager of Bluffs Lodge and Bluffs Coffee Shop Restaurant, I would dearly love to see the place make a come back!  So many memories were made by guests and our employees alike, as they enjoyed a meal or created life long friendships in front of the fireplace at the Lodge.  Average guests at both operations didn't visit just once; they returned year after year; generation after generation plus being a popular destination for locals as well. Interestingly, many of the 50 former employees continue to stay in touch; each and every one of them continue to whole heartedly encourage finding a way to make it all happen again.    

I started as a desk clerk for Bluffs Lodge being promoted to office manager after just one season. I still have a love and passion for this place that I simply cannot describe. Each nook and cranny holds a magic for me that cannot be recreated. How I dream of the days that I gave tours of the property and had the joy of being nestled in my quaint office full of rustic charm Or chose to spend time with my beloved guests on the patio near the fire after my shift ended. It was truly my favorite place to be in this world. No greater peace is found anywhere for me. As Bill mentioned we were not just coworkers. We were family. We do all still keep in touch. And I also keep in touch with many of our faithful guests whom I consider family as well. Going back to my sun shiny days with just the perfect breeze coming through my open office window while I softly played 50's and 60's music and greeted guests and learned so many of their histories, laughed, and even cried with them is still a calming and cherished memory in my heart. I would love to see this place restored, loved, and back in the business of memory making and good old human interaction with a step back in time. 

i am Carolyn Ward, CEO of the Blue RIdge Parkway Foundation. We are the non-profit partner of the Blue Ridge Parkway helping to raise needed funds to support projects and programs that the Parkway could not otherwise accomplish. 

As you might imagine, the needs of the Parkway are many and meeting those needs is often a difficult challenge. Bluffs is one of those special places along the 469 miles of the Parkway that needs help and is a most worthy of saving. 

We are committed to helping bring this historic icon back to life. There are many needs and challenges to restoring this treasured spot where so many memories were made, But together we can make a difference. 

Theae are our national parks, our memories and our legacy...and our responsibility. In this 100th year of our National Parks we should remember that it was when a dedicated and thoughtful group of people came together that the parks were born... And it is when we come together that their future will be preserved. 

The memories and the stories of this special place should be made by our children. 

thanks for this touching and wonderful story of the meaning and memory you have for Bluffs. 

Carolyn Ward




David and Kay,

Thank you for keeping Bluff Lodge on the Radar.  I have been following the struggles the Park Service has been going through and know there are no quick and easy solutions.  My wife and I have been watching the issues behind the Lodge and Coffee shop, since the closure.  No one will ever take away the memories we have of the landmarks and my hope is future visitors will have the same opportunities to experiences the landmarks. Our company looks at possibilities of running the Lodge and Coffee Shop, being a Native of North Carolina and wishing to return.  Yes it would be a tough undertaken, but it seems to stay on my mind. Carolyn Ward of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Mark Woods, and others have working hard to save the landmarks. No matter the energy of Park Professionals and their supporters, park lands and landmarks are taken for granted by most Americans. Bluff Lodge and the Coffee Shop may very well disappear,  but it will not be because the professionals did not care. It may well be because most citizens believe that it will alway be there.  I know I have not done enough and may be just as much to blame.  Thank you for the article. 

Thank you Mark and Carolyn for your continued work in protecting our Nature Resources.

While it wouldn't be ideal, what about marketing the Lodge to a specific demographic? As an avid motorcyclist (Canadian) who has ridden the BRP over a dozen times, a place like this would be magic after a long ride.

My wife and I discovered the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1981 as we were on our way to visit our niece and her new husband in High Point N.C.  After that, when our son was born in 1982, we went back about every other year to visit.  We always stayed at Pisgah or Bluffs Lodge, and love all the craft shops and visitors center in between.  One of our favorite foods at the Coffee Shop at Bluffs was the corn cakes & barbecue.  The Bluffs were so relaxing and quiet.  We took long hikes into the fields and woods behing the lodge.  We have numerous pics of the old still, the camping area, etc.  When our son was a teen, he fell in love with the area, as we had done before.  We have been back at least twice since the Bluffs closed, and had to spend time at Pisgah, Linville Falls, Little Switzerland, and Big Lynn Lodge.  We are now in our seventies and would love to see the Bluffs open again.  Not able to start a campaign to help, but would certainly contribute greatly to such a move.  Maybe there are others like us who have fond memories of this beautiful area. 

We moved to Sparta, NC is large part because of Doughton Park and the lodge/coffee shop. It's closing has been a tremendous loss to us. We still hike there and spend time on the stone patio dreaming of what could still be a grand beauty. What can we do as average citizens to show our support for the renovation of this property? If we had a way to voice our support to those who are in power to make decisions we would gladly do so. Thank you for your article. It's not too late to save this wonderful property!

I suppose we could start passing the hat (or maybe start a Kickstarter campaign), Julie, though not sure NPS would go along....

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