Day 6 – North Carolina to Tennessee via Chimney Rock and the Blue Ridge Parkway
My aim for today had always been to take us within a reasonable driving distance of Morehead, KY, where we will visit with our friends, Cathy and Harry Gunn, on the weekend by way of the Blue Ridge Parkway. After some exploration in the planning stages that included considering stops in Boone NC of Kingsport TN, I had settled on Johnson City TN as our staging point. The direct driving route from Asheville to Johnson City up the major highway is just less than 100 km and would require no more than an hour. When I tweaked Google Maps to use the Blue Ridge Parkway the estimated driving time was between 3 and 4 hours for around 200 km. By our standards that would be a short day of driving so we had some time to fill. Although we had not heard of it before arriving in Asheville, Chimney Rock seemed to be a worthy side trip so we planned to tackle that first thing and then take to the Parkway.
We were up around 7:00 am, showered, ate the hotel breakfast, packed, and were on the road about 8:30 am. When we arrived in Asheville on Wednesday we had confronted an intersection with no left turn toward our hotel and had instead gone right and by chance found the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway with a sign to the visitor centre and other signage mentioning Chimney Rock. We figured we could find that point, get some information about the Parkway and then head for Chimney Rock in time to arrive before the opening time of 10:00 am advertised on the website. Somehow, in the process of trying to get the GPS online as a backup, I missed the turn and we saw more than we expected of the residential area around the nearby golf course. Eventually I managed to point the GPS to the Parkway visitor centre and we arrived there a few minutes before it opened at 9:00 am.
We collected a map of the parkway and directions to Chimney Rock and then set off in that direction, passing over the steep and winding Hickory Nut Pass and through Bat Cave on the way. Chimney Rock lived up to expectations. In deference to our age and limited time we bypassed the steps up to the rock and took the elevator which goes up the equivalent of 26 floors within the mountain. That was constructed in 1947. Building it required blasting a 60 m tunnel into the mountain at the base of the rock and drilling a 75 mm hole down from the top. A cable was dropped down that drill hole and men with jackhammers were winched up slowly, cutting a metre wide shaft on the way. That shaft was widened and the elevator mechanism installed. From the elevator we passed through the shop and out to the rock. We did climb the stairs up another 60 m or so to Exclamation Point via the Opera Box and Devil’s Head. That was sufficient climbing for us. By the time we came down and passed through the store to catch the elevator down we were in need of cold drinks.
From Chimney Rock we headed back to start on the parkway. We stopped to try some local cider since it seemed to be advertised on most of the stores along the way. That involved purchase of a 2 litre bottle which we decided not to open there and then but keep for later. We paused a few more times for photos of aspects of Bat Cave and of a retreat that Majella liked.
Shortly after we entered the Blue Ridge Parkway we came to the Folk Art Center and spent some time there to look at the quilts, weaving, wood carving and turning, glass work, jeweller, and other arts and crafts. It was a very impressive display of interesting and expertly executed pieces.
We (Majella) drove north along the parkway, pausing periodically to take advantage of the many overlooks almost all of which offered something of photographic interest. We stopped at Craggy Gardens picnic area (also known as Bearpen Gap) for scratch lunch – bagels with cream cheese, cherries, blueberries, and fresh cold cider – from the food we were carrying with us. At Mt Mitchell we took the byway all the way to the summit carpark (6578 feet) but chickened on walking the final 30 or 40 metres (height, actual distance indeterminate) to the summit (highest point east of the Mississippi) because the weather looked threatening and Majella did not want to be up there if it rolled in. We did stop at the restaurant (highest east of the Mississippi) for coffee that dod not match the height of the restaurant.
I took over driving at that point and we continued on our way, pausing for photographic opportunities as they presented. Eventually, around 4:00 pm, I decided that we had better begin to think about exiting the parkway and heading for Johnson City. I had in mind that Linville was the best point of departure but some time prior to that I pointed the GPS to our planned accommodation to see what ETA it might suggest. At that stage it was suggesting 5:45 pm and a quick departure from the parkway. We declined that advice and continued to Linville. There was a checkpoint there for roadworks that allowed us to turn left toward our destination but to go ahead the extra mile or so to the falls we would have had to wait and then we didn’t know how far the falls might be from the road.
We headed for Johnson City, crossing from North Carolina to Tennessee along the way and passing through a number of small settlements where the major crop appeared to be Christmas trees. The drive to Johnson City was pleasant enough, good road though narrow in parts and not a lot of traffic. We arrived around 5:15 pm and checked into our motel.
Majella had spotted an eatery, Harbor House, just around the corner from our motel. I checked Google Maps and found a few other possibilities within an easy walk. We decided to walk and went first to Harbour House, which offered steak, seafood and chicken but was crowded with a 10 to 15 minute wait time. Majella would have waited but I was not keen so we walked on for a bit and found Perkins Restaurant and Bakery which was far from full. After consulting the menu Majella decided it might be OK so we stayed. I had a burger with coke followed by chocolate cream pie. Majella had Ham steak with vegetables, apparently the broccoli was wonderful (assuming such a thing is possible), with sweet tea followed by peach pie. We both finished full and needed the walk home and more besides to wear it off.
Distance travelled today was 270 km. Our pace was much more sedate than usual. The Blue Ridge Parkway has a limit of 45 mph in deference to its status as a leisure route rather than one for rapid or heavy transport.