The construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway began as a project to put people back to work during the Depression.
But 75 years later, the winding roadway has evolved into one of the most-visited national park sites in the United States, drawing about 17 million people annually and bringing about $2 billion to surrounding areas.
The National Park Service is celebrating the parkway's 75th anniversary with a variety of events, including a weekend festival in September. That makes this summer and fall a good time to enjoy hiking and camping, local arts and small-town life along "America's Favorite Drive."
Since groundbreaking on Sept. 11, 1935, at Cumberland Knob, N.C., on the Virginia border, the parkway has become an integral part of the mountains and the Appalachian communities that lie along its 469-mile route, as well as a gateway to the region's culture and history.
With a 45 mph speed limit along its curving roads, the parkway offers a chance for visitors to slow down and enjoy the scenery. More than 250 overlooks offer breathtaking views of the mountains and valleys, sunrises and sunsets, and, on clear nights, the stars.
The 75th anniversary festival is Sept. 10-12 at venues around Cumberland Knob, featuring music, food, crafts and a vintage camper display, and at the Blue Ridge Parkway Music Center, where bluegrass legends Ralph Stanley & His Clinch Mountain Boys will play on Sept. 11.
The parkway connects Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It starts at Rockfish Gap, Va., intersecting Skyline Drive, and winds southwest through Virginia into mountainous western North Carolina. Along the way, travelers will find campgrounds and hiking trails, glimpses of small-town Appalachian life in places like Floyd, Va., the small cities of Roanoke, Va., and Asheville, N.C., and many other treasures tucked away in the mountains.
A team led by landscape architect Stanley Abbott, a devotee of pioneering American parks designer Frederick Law Olmsted, conceived the parkway as a chain of recreational areas and scenic views that would integrate naturally with the mountainscape. Road builders used stonework for tunnel portals, bridges and guard walls, for example, to retain a rustic architectural style. Planners laid out the parkway's curves to match the contours of the mountains, rather than remove parts to make way for the road.
Twenty-six tunnels — 25 of them in North Carolina — were cut into mountain ridges, rather than blasting the slopes away to conform, and bridges were built over land that was removed, instead of backfilling natural drainage areas.
Planners also considered roadside vistas that motorists would encounter while driving, and created areas where they could park and take in the views, said Gary Johnson, the parkway's chief landscape architect. Abbott also suggested using easements as a tool to preserve the Appalachian scenery, he said.
Floyd, where Virginia's State Road 8 and U.S. 221 intersect a few miles off the parkway near milepost 165, has become an outpost for artists and musicians, with an active barter economy and a bit of alternative culture, including a natural foods store, Harvest Moon, and a shop called Republic of Floyd. It also lies along the Crooked Road Music Trail, and each Friday night musicians gather for impromptu sessions at the Floyd Country Store. Each July, thousands gather in a big field outside of town for FloydFest, an event that continues to grow each year. (This year it's July 22-25.)
Other Virginia highlights include Humpback Rocks, which features hiking trails and a working farm; the Peaks of Otter, which were regarded in President Thomas Jefferson's time as the western frontier's highest mountains with elevations nearing 4,000 feet; and the Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax, which showcases the region's traditional musical heritage with displays and performances.
North Carolina sites include the 5,900-foot-high Grandfather Mountain and its Mile High Swinging Bridge; Linville Falls and Linville Gorge, dubbed the state's "Grand Canyon"; Little Switzerland, named for the mountain panoramas reminiscent of those in the Swiss Alps; the popular resort city of Asheville, which features the Biltmore Estate, the North Carolina Arboretum, the Folk Art Center and several galleries and shops.
At the parkway's southern end, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, in Cherokee, N.C., houses tribal artifacts, and the nearby Oconaluftee Indian Village replicates a 1750 settlement.
The tribe occupied southeastern states in large numbers until the government forced them to move to Oklahoma in 1838. A handful of Cherokees, however, fled into the mountains and their descendants won back their land. Some later traded their parcels to the government so the parkway could be built.
Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe, 85, says the government took his late father's land in exchange for a plot closer to town, where Wolfe still lives. The parkway has been a welcome gateway into the Cherokee area, he said.
"Tourists sightseeing and enjoying the beauty of the mountains draw people to the Cherokee museum," he said. "The tribe has seen economic benefits; it's our livelihood."
In its 75th year, the parkway also faces challenges, including federal budget cuts that affect staffing, landscaping and maintenance, and air pollution from Midwestern coal-fired plants that can cloud mountain views.
Park officials and preservation groups also are concerned about encroaching development on "America's Favorite Drive," as much of the land along the parkway is privately owned.
"You get a sense of what was once farmland now is commercial developments and subdivisions viewable from the parkway," Johnson said. "The whole sense of land use and quality of scenery has changed."
The National Park Service says the Conservation Trust for North Carolina is heading a coalition of land preservation groups seeking federal funds to purchase land or conservation easements along the parkway. Recent surveys show visitors would be less likely to return to the parkway if scenic views are compromised, so preserving the vistas has become a priority.