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Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway

Author : Randy Johnson
Published : 2010-03-23

It's more than appropriate that this year, the 75th anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway, that when you visit the parkway you get out and take a hike. And Randy Johnson is ready to tell you where to go.

Mr. Johnson, a prolific writer based in Banner Elk, North Carolina, knows a little about the parkway and its hiking opportunities. Earlier this summer he came out with the second edition of Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Ultimate Travel Guide to America's Most Popular Scenic Roadway.

Through its 334 pages, the author spins loop hikes, long-distance treks, and waypoints that will make your visit to the parkway more interesting.

Organized in a north to south fashion, the book recommended by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation lists trailheads by milepost and packages them in bunches (the North-Central Blue Ridge, the Blue Ridge Plateau, the High Country, and the Southern Appalachians). After all, winding for nearly 470 miles between Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the ridges and valleys of the Appalachians, the parkway is not a short day trip. So whether you can only squeeze in a day or two, or are lingering on a week-long or more car-camping journey, you can quickly find a hike in your area.

Near the end of the book Mr. Johnson provides you with the Blue Ridge Parkway Mileage Log a milepost-by-milepost master reference of the facilities and trails you'll find along the highway. Appendix A delves into the wildflowers along the Parkway, listing not just species but the months they're in bloom and suggested spots along the Parkway where you can see them, while Appendix B provides contact details for campgrounds, national forests, state parks, travel bureaus, etc.

But it's in the guts of the book where the value of this guide lies. Supporting his text with easy-to-read maps and black-and-white photos, the author shares the trail knowledge he's amassed over a lengthy career that included roles with the Virginia Wilderness Committee, development of the Parkway's Tanawah Trail, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and the Central Blue Ridge Task Force. He also proposed and implemented the trail management program at Grandfather Mountain and worked toward the mountain's designation as a United Nations Biosphere Reserve. With that background, he's certainly "got the chops" to deliver the goods.

Mr. Johnson attacks his task by pointing to specific areas along the Parkway and then giving you a number of options for a hike. And these are not options for readers with attention deficit disorder. For instance, Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina offers trails between mileposts 299.9 and 305.1. But before you get to them, the author provides some history into the mountain -- who homesteaded parts of it, conservation and tourism history, and how the mountain became the country's only "privately owned Biosphere Reserve, one of 311 outstanding natural areas designated in eighty-one countries by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization."

In the ensuing 12 pages Mr. Johnson then offers you three options: the Tanawha Trail and Daniel Boone Scout Trail to Calloway Peak, the Grandfather Trail, and the Profile Trail. Each option is prefaced by bullets of information such as the milepost where you can find the trailhead, the hiking distance, how difficult it is, elevation gain, helpful maps, and how to find the trailhead. And there's also a quick overview to whet your appetite.

One of the South's most rugged, spectacular, and storied trails traverses Grandfather Mountain's summit ridge, he writes of the Grandfather Trail. The route ascends peaks and scales ladders over cliffs to reach Calloway Peak, the highest summit in the Blue Ridge.

The body of each hike description overflows with details. Here, for example, is a section from the Grandfather Trail entry.

Descend along cables intended for use when the trail is a river of ice, and ascend over a crag. The spur trail from the Black Rock Trail Parking Area comes in on the right at 0.4 mile. You'll enter a larger meadow with a junction just below the peak at 0.5 mile. The yellow-blazed Underwood Trail goes left to the gap beyond MacRae Peak, avoiding the climb over the summit. This is a nice route that creates a great loop of the Grandfather Ridge. After crossing MacRae Peak, take a left on the Underwood Trail and return to this point and the visitor center for one of the truly spectacular short hikes in the region, 2.0 miles round-trip.

Turn right on the Grandfather Trail toward MacRae Peak and climb a steep section with the aid of cables. Ascending left, the trail then veers right into a fissure, where you'll encounter the first ladder. Not far above it, an opening on the left reveals a cliff that funnels a breeze in summer and a bitter wind in winter. Scramble up a few more rocks; the steepest ladders reach to the clifftops above. An experienced climber could scramble up the rocks around the ladders, but to the inexperienced, this is a truly adventurous section of trail. Consider pausing on the large ledge before the last ladder. The visitor center is now far below.

This book is a rich resource for anyone -- visitors merely passing through or long-time residents -- who feel the pull to take a hike in the woods along the Parkway. If there's a disappointment, it's that the only color photos are on the covers. Alas, today's publishing economics just don't often allow full-color photography from cover to cover.

Traveler extra: If you are stricken with a need to get the nitty-gritty ASAP, Mr. Johnson deals with that, too, with Best Easy Day Hikes, Blue Ridge Parkway, a pocket-sized edition that is a condensed version of the book above.


this is a great review! Randy's books are the best guides I've found for hiking the BRP trails. He also has one called Best Easy Day Hikes, its great for family hikes. I got my copies at the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation's online store, part of the proceeds go to support the Parkway!

Thanks Diana for suggesting that people buy my Parkway guides at the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation's online store. I actually link to that store from my Web site so folks can buy there with one click. In both books I pointedly suggest that people help the Parkway by supporting the Foundation or the other organization Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I appreciate Mr. Repanshek's thorough recommendation—I have indeed set out to offer readers the very best guides to the Parkway outdoors. Thanks again!

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