Begun as a Depression-era public works project, the Blue Ridge Parkway was
America’s first rural parkway. When ultimately completed it was also the nation’s
longest – 469 miles of uninterrupted mountain roads linking Shenandoah National
Park in the north to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in the south. The
Blue Ridge Parkway is far and away the most popular destination in the National
Park System – more than 19 million recreation visits per year. One of the
explanations for its enduring popularity could be that the Blue Ridge is also one of
America’s most dog-friendly destinations.
Designed for leisurely motoring, the speed limit never exceeds 45 mph on the
Parkway and roadside parking is permitted on the shoulders the entire way. Much of
the beautiful road is lined by low stone walls. At times the route shrinks to scarcely
25 yards in width. You will never see a billboard and scarcely any development.
Parks and recreation areas – several spanning thousands of acres – appear roughly
every 30 miles, although most are located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the 355
miles that comprise the northern part of the route. The lower 114 miles wind
through the powerful Black Mountains, named for the dark green spruce that cover
the massive slopes, and they offer more limited leg-stretching opportunities.
There is no reason for you and the dog to enjoy the Blue Ridge solely through
your car windows. Dogs are allowed on the more than 100 varied trails throughout
the Blue Ridge Parkway, ranging from easy valley strolls to demanding mountain
summit hikes. Travelers and canine hikers can spend a week motoring on the
Parkway and barely sample all its treasures. And it is no trouble to slow down and
take as much time as you like on the trails – all the nine first come, first served
campgrounds on the Parkway welcome dogs. You will find many of the inns and
restaurants in the small towns that flank the Parkway to be dog-friendly as well.
Tracing the route from the north, an early highlight comes within the first ten
miles at the Humpback Rocks where the Greenstone nature trail leads to the
unusually shaped boulders. A strenuous climb accesses the Appalachian Trail in
another two miles. Canine hikers will look forward to the Peaks of Otter, in the
vicinity of the highest mountains on the Virginia section of the Parkway, beginning
around the 75-mile mark. Three mountains – Sharp Top (3,875 feet), Flat Top
(4,004 feet), and Harkening Hill (3,364 feet) comprise the Peaks of Otter, a popular
hiking destination since Colonial days when Thomas Jefferson was an enthusiastic
visitor. The 4.4-mile trail to the Flat Top summit is graded most of the way until
jumbled rocks provide athletic dogs a tail-wagging workout.
Also in the Peaks of Otter are a quick loop hike threading through
rhododendron and mountain laurel on Onion Mountain and the 1.6-mile loop of the
Fallingwater Cascades National Scenic Trail. Both offer splendid views in exchange
for moderate effort. At the 167-mile mark comes Rocky Knob, with 15 miles of
trails across 4,800 acres. The marquee walk here is the rugged 10.8-mile Rock
Castle Gorge National Recreation Trail. Just down the road is picturesque Mabry Mill
with an easy, self-guiding trail spiced with interpretive exhibits and in-season
demonstrations on rural Appalachian life. Water-powered Mabry Mill is the most
photographed landmark on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The first canine hiking after the Parkway crosses the Virginia state line into
North Carolina comes on Cumberland Knob at the 217.5-mile mark. A quick 15-
minute loop here leads to the knob and a more challenging 2-mile loop that traces
Gully Creek. Next up is 7,000-acre Doughton Park, the largest recreation area on
the Blue Ridge Parkway. More than 30 miles of trail and a dog-friendly campground
are the prime attractions here.
The Moses H. Cone Memorial Park is a popular stopping point for relaxing or
exploring. Many miles of horse and carriage trails jump off from the Historic Cone
Manor House and many more trails crisscross neighboring Julian Price Memorial
Park, which includes Price Lake, one of the few lakes along the Parkway. Even if
hiking isn’t on your itinerary when you reach this spot, you will want to stop and sit
on the Manor House lawn with your dog and take in the views. In another 10 miles
you cross the Linn Cove Viaduct, an engineering marvel skirting the side of
Ground was broken on the Blue Ridge Parkway on September 11, 1935 at
Cumberland Knob on the North Carolina-Virginia border, near the mid-point of the
proposed route. By 1967 all but seven and one-half of its 469 miles were complete.
The final section, around the rocky slopes of Grandfather Mountain, one of the
world’s oldest mountains, would not be finished until 1987. To finish the Parkway
without massive cuts and fills on the fragile mountainside would call for the most
complicated concrete bridge ever built – the serpentine Linn Viaduct.
The 12 bridges of the Viaduct were constructed from the top down at an
elevation of 4100 feet to eliminate the need for a pioneer road. In fact, the only
trees cut down during the entire project were those directly beneath the roadbed.
The only construction on the ground was the drilling of seven permanent piers upon
which the Viaduct rests.
Exposed rock was even covered to present staining from the concrete epoxy
binding the precast sections. To further minimize the intrusion on the mountain,
concrete mixes were tinted with iron oxide to blend with existing outcroppings.
Trails lead to views underneath this engineering marvel and access the 13.5-mile
Tanawha Trail from Beacon Heights to Julian Price Park. You and the dog can pick
your way along an interpretive trail to close-up views of the Viaduct.
A most-anticipated highlight of the Blue Ridge Parkway will be the upcoming
Linville Gorge, one of the most remote locations in the Appalachians. Unblazed
trails lead deep into the wilderness but most canine hikers will stick to the two main
hiking trails surrounding Linville Falls. Erwins View Trail is a sporty walk that takes
in four distinct overlooks of the plunging waters in its .8-mile journey. More
challenging is the hike on the opposite side of the water into the gorge that
descends through a virgin hemlock forest via a switchback to the water’s edge
beneath the Falls. This is a great place for a doggie dip.
South of Linville Falls the elevations climb and the canine hiking opportunities
fade away. Craggy Pinnacle Trail at 364.4 miles is a narrow ridge trail that tunnels
through purple rhododendron to a hilltop opening in a veritable sea of trees. A
second moderate trail here is the Craggy Gardens nature trail. Nearby, a spur road
leads up Mount Mitchell. Your dog can make the final paved ascent to the 6684-
foot summit and stand on the highest point of ground east of the Mississippi River.
The mountain was named for Dr. Elisha Mitchell, who fell to his death when trying to
prove the actual height of the peak.
The last major recreation area on the Parkway comes south of Asheville at
Mount Pisgah, once part of the 125,000-acre Biltmore Estate owned by George W.
Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt directed trail building efforts across his vast property to
provide access for hunting and horseback riding. It was the first large tract of
managed forest land in America. The trail to summit views of Mt. Pisgah (5,721
feet) is a hardy 1.26-mile climb. While it is not a prime destination for dog owners,
you may want to make arrangements to visit the Biltmore Estate, America’s largest
private home. Construction on the French Renaissance-style mansion began in
1889 and 250 rooms later was finished in 1895. Admission to Biltmore Estate
includes a self-guided tour of the non-occupied parts of the house, access to the
formal gardens and the Biltmore Estate Winery.
The final gasps for canine hiking on the Blue Ridge Parkway before entering
Great Smoky Mountain National Park – where dogs are not allowed on the trails –
occur at Milepost 431 where Richard Balsam’s self-guiding trail wanders through
the remnants of a spruce-fir forest on the highest point on the Parkway (6,047 feet)
and at Waterrock Knob at Mile 451.2. Here a mountain trail leads to the knob and
its panoramic, 4-state views of the Great Smokies.
Allow yourself three to five days to explore the Blue Ridge Parkway with your
dog – a distance that could be covered in six hours of driving on the Interstate.
Even that may not be enough time. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting
to turn around and do it all again.