48,722 Feet of Climbing on the Blue Ridge Parkway… The 10,000-Mile Bike Trek

Every turn in the road on the Blue Ridge Parkway brings gorgeous views. Some are in distant vistas but many are up close and personal, like these two trees.

Every turn in the road on the Blue Ridge Parkway brings gorgeous views into sight. Some are in distant vistas but many are up close and personal, like these two trees.

There are two primary directions on the Blue Ridge Parkway: up and down. It’s a good thing I had gotten used to this idea while crossing the Cumberland Plateau and the Smokies because as soon as I passed the entrance sign to the Parkway, I started climbing. I quickly got used to the idea that I would be granny-gear-crawling my way up a mountain for 3-4 hours followed by a glorious 30-minute downhill run, followed by another 3-4 hours of climbing. If it wasn’t always like that, it certainly felt like it.

I took this graphic from the book by Elizabeth and Charlie Skinner featured below.

I took this graph from the book by Elizabeth and Charlie Skinner featured below. It represents about half of my first day of cycling the Parkway, starting at the Southern Terminus on the right. I thought it did a good job of summarizing my perspective on the climb.

The elevation change reflected by these ups and downs is impressive. In one week I would climb 48,722 feet and drop a similar amount, having an elevation gain and loss of over 97,000 feet! (I was amused by the Parkway’s specific claim of elevation gain right down to 22 feet. It definitely represents a biker or hiker’s perspective. Those 22 feet are important.)

It could have been worse.  Remember, in my last post, I mentioned that the Appalachians were much higher in their youth. Think 40,000 feet tall (12,192 Meters), 10,000 feet higher than Mt. Everest. The air would have been a bit thin up on top for cycling but can you imagine the downhill run! Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!

Other than the ups and downs, or maybe because of them (grin), the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the premier destinations for bicyclists in the US. Like the Natchez Trace, there is great beauty and no commercial traffic. An added plus for the Blue Ridge is that the speed limit for vehicles is even lower than the Trace, 45 MPH (72.4 K) as compared to 55 MPH (88.5 K).

The number of T-shirts, scarves, patches, bumper strips and other memorabilia you can buy that feature bicycling on the Parkway speaks to its popularity today. There are also detailed brochures, maps and books to help you plan your trip, not to mention the Internet. It wasn’t always so. In 1989, the National Park Service gave me a mimeographed sheet. I didn’t see another bicycle tourist until I was close to the end of my 469-mile trip in Virginia.

The mimeographed sheet on bicycling the Blue Ridge Highway that the National Park Service handed out to me in 1989

The mimeographed sheet on bicycling the Blue Ridge Highway that the National Park Service handed out to me in 1989.

This information packed book by Elizabeth and Charlie Skinner is the type of information you can find today on cycling the Parkway.

This information packed book by Elizabeth and Charlie Skinner is the type of information you can find today on cycling the Parkway.

The final segment of the Parkway was finished in 1987, only two years earlier than my trip. Its inception dates back to the 1930s, however, when a number of people including Franklin Roosevelt and Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia decided that a parkway connecting Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina was a good idea. (Byrd, BTW, served in the US Senate from 1933 to 1965. His son succeeded him in his seat and held the position until 1982, giving the Byrds 50 continuous years in the Senate.)

My next four posts will cover my journey over the Blue Ridge Highway and be more in the nature of photographic essays. Photos will be from the trip Peggy and I took this spring. Today, I am covering the section between Cherokee and Ashville, North Carolina. Next Blog: A creature comes to visit me in the night.

When biking the Blue Ridge Parkway, you can start in the north, in the south, or at several points along the way. Wherever, you will be greeted by this sign.

When biking the Blue Ridge Parkway, you can start in the north, in the south, or at several points along the way. Wherever, you will be greeted by this sign.

The Blue Ridge Mountains provide numerous opportunities to pull off the road and admire the scenery. Plot was an early pioneer who became famous for breeding bear hunting dogs. Once, according to legend, his dogs cornered a bear in a small cave. Lott went in after the bear with his knife. He won the encounter but the bear clawed him extensively. It was the last time Lott went after a bear with his knife.

The Blue Ridge Mountains provide numerous opportunities to pull off the road and admire the scenery. Plott was an early pioneer who became famous for breeding bear hunting dogs. Once, according to legend, his dogs cornered a bear in a small cave. Lott went in after the bear with his knife. He won the encounter but learned that chasing after bears with a knife is not a good idea.

On the higer parts of the Parkway, flowers were just starting to come out.

On the higher parts of the Parkway, flowers were just starting to bloom.

This photo reflects how the Blue Ridge Mountains obtained their name.

I like this photo because it reflects for me how blue ridge after blue ridge after blue ridge gave the Blue Ridge Mountains their name.

A tunnel of trees along the Blue Ridge Parkway leafing out in early spring green.

A tunnel of trees along the Blue Ridge Parkway leafing out in early spring green. Dogwood is blooming along the left side.

Some of the canyons along the Parkway were filled with blooming dogwood.

Some of the canyons along the Parkway were filled with blooming dogwood.

And highway tunnels. There are 26 along the Blue Ridge Parkway ranging in length from 150 feet to 1434 feet.

Twin highway tunnels. There are 26 tunnels along the Blue Ridge Parkway ranging in length from 150 feet to 1434 feet. Bicycling through them can be a bit scary, especially the longer tunnels. Going through the 1434 feet Pine Mountain Tunnel, my light chose to die, leaving me in the pitch dark. I immediately climbed off my bike, blindly found the right side of the tunnel, and walked the bike until I could see again. As you can see, there is no shoulder. Fortunately no cars came along.

The lights from our van lit up the tunnel. Imagine your perspective from a bicycle. This was one time when I was ever so glad to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The lights from our van lit up the tunnel. Imagine your perspective from a bicycle. Pushing my bike with no lights at all, I was ever so glad to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I climbed to the highest elevation along the Parkway on my first day out. I celebrated by thinking 'well, that's behind me.'

I climbed to the highest elevation along the Parkway on my first day out. I celebrated by thinking ‘well, that’s behind me.’

More fun going down than up!

More fun going down than up!

They call this outcrop the Devils Courthouse but I was hardput to see much that was devilish about it. Maybe on a foggy day...

They call this outcrop the Devils Courthouse but I was hard put to see much that was devilish about it. Maybe on a foggy day…

Looking Glass Rock was once a giant pluton of molten volcano rock located far under the surface. Early morning light reflects off of the rock, giving it the name.

Looking Glass Rock on the right was once a giant pluton of molten volcano rock located far under the surface. Light reflects off of the rock, giving it the name. This time, the sun chose to light up the trees in the foreground instead.

I'll conclude today's section of the Blue Ridge Parkway with this impressive road cut.

I’ll conclude today’s section of the Blue Ridge Parkway with this impressive road cut.

 

 

 

36 comments on “48,722 Feet of Climbing on the Blue Ridge Parkway… The 10,000-Mile Bike Trek

  1. One can just imagine the work cutting through those mountains and the tunnelling. None of those giant cutting machines were available then. Now they tunnel through mountains sitting behind a giant machine that bores the tunnel using a circular disc in front that chuck the rocks behind for trucks to pick up. Amazing.
    Perhaps prisoners were used in earlier days?

    • Actually, Gerard much of the work went to people who unemployed by the Great Depression, including both local people and member of Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. A lot of the fancy rock work was overseen by European craftspeople brought in. –Curt

    • I was very lucky on the cars. I admit to walking fast and climbing back on my bike as soon as I saw the light at the end! 🙂 Beauty, yes, almost anywhere I looked at almost any time, Alison. –Curt

    • Yes and no. By that time in the trip, bicycling was automatic and my body had conditioned to the point where most climbs, while still tough, weren’t so difficult that I couldn’t look around and enjoy the scenery. At 5 or so MPH, there was plenty of time. Next post is being written. 🙂 –Curt

  2. Elizabeth & Charlie Skinner couldn’t possibly have anything over on your step-by-step (or is that pedal-by-pedal) blow of the trip. You’ve given us such a detailed account of not just the scenery but the towns and the people!

    • Thanks, G, I appreciate that. Redriving the route was critical for the detail. By this point, my journal entries weren’t as detailed as I made them in the beginning. Fortunately, I also have a number of letters I wrote home. –Curt

  3. This bike ride of yours never ceases to amaze me! Such beautiful places. I remember seeing cyclists up in those mountains and thinking how brave they were; shoulders, if present, weren’t always very wide, and turns & bends weren’t always well marked. So we were very impressed!

    • Shoulders were few and far between. The road was designed for automobile traffic and hasn’t changed much. The vehicle speed limit of 45 MPH and no commercial traffic makes a huge difference in both safety and enjoyment, however. I felt relatively safe on the Parkway. Thanks. –Curt

  4. Oh, I so love that highway! I went to camp, as did my kids years later, in that area, and we love driving different sections of that scenic road. I cannot imagine doing it on a bike!

    • However you tackle it, it’s a special place, Lex. Glad you were able to take you kids. I’ve driven it three times as well as bicycled it. It is quite beautiful in the fall as well. –Curt

  5. You’re a hearty soul Curt, no doubt. We lived in Virginia as well as Asheville, NC, so I know the Parkway pretty well. And as a cyclist, I know that those grueling granny-gear climbs sometimes outweigh the screaming downhills. But the camping is dandy. I suspect that if I did a few of those climbs, I’d be making lots of “scenic view” stops. Nice post. ~James

    • Thanks, James. I sometimes wonder if there is somewhere you and Teri haven’t lived. 🙂 There were times when those stops were almost necessities. Not to mention the beauty. The only problem I have discovered over the years in biking and hiking up mountains is that if you stop, you have to start up again… Sometimes it’s easier to just keep going. –Curt

  6. I’ve heard so much about this part of the country, and it’s certainly easy to see why people love it, and return to it. I had no idea that dogwood bloomed that profusely — here, we’re lucky if we see a few understory trees, and even that requires being farther east. I love seeing ridge after ridge, too. I remember the Smoky Mountains from childhood trips, and it seems as though these have that same delightful haze.

    I laughed to read the word “mimeographed.” Suddenly, I smelled those chemicals, and saw the purple ink. Then, of course, I remembered carbon paper. Lo and behold, they still make and sell the stuff. I wonder who uses it?

    That last road cut’s amazing. It certainly looks different than the cuts through Texas limestone.

    • It is gorgeous, Linda. I’ve been over it three times, including once in the fall when it is a whole different world. More dogwood on today’s blog. We have it around here up in the nearby mountains. One of my favorite plants.
      I was pleased I’d hung on to the mimeographed sheet. I’ll bet the majority of millennials wouldn’t have a clue as to what it was or how you went about setting it up. 🙂
      I passed through lots of limestone cuts in Tennessee. This one probably had a volcanic origin.
      Off to my 55th high school Reunion today. Hard to imagine. 🙂 –Curt

  7. Love this post on the Blue Ridge Parkway since it’s one of our favorite drives, and it’s virtually at our back door. Your “blue” picture does it justice! I don’t know how you managed all those ups and downs, but your knees could probably tell you a thing or two. Thanks for coming to “God’s country” as we know it around here!

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