The Blue Ridge Parkway is history waiting to be discovered. Although the Parkway is seen primarily as a scenic byway with plenty of natural attractions, it is also a cross-section of Appalachian mountain history. Stretching almost 500 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains through North Carolina and Virginia, it encompasses some of the oldest settlements of both pre-historic and pioneer life.
The Human Experience
Evidence suggests that humans lived in the vicinity of the Blue Ridge after the last Ice Age as early 11,000 years ago. Here, we can find out about the human experience from the first nations of the Native Americans to our modern era.
Native American Culture and Influence
The Cherokee Indians of North Carolina and the Monacan, Saponi, and Tutelo Indians of western Virginia were among the earliest inhabitants of the Blue Ridge, leaving artifacts and changes in the landscape as evidence of their existence. Many of the fields still visible at the base of the mountains date back centuries to ancient American Indian agricultural methods of burning and deadening the trees and underbrush to provide needed grazing and crop land. Mountain and river names along the Parkway also reflect the American Indian influence. The best place to learn about the pre-history of the Appalachian chain in Virginia is at the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center Museum (milepost 85.9). Arrowheads and early tools found in the Peaks area are exhibited. In North Carolina, the Parkway enters the Cherokee Indian Reservation at milepost 457.7 and features an informational display on the reservation at the Lickstone Parking Overlook (milepost 458.9).
European Settlements – Homesteads
There are many surviving examples of early Appalachian pioneer structures along the Parkway, beginning at milepost 5.8 at the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center and Mountain Farm exhibit. The easy Mountain Farm self-guiding trail takes you through a collection of 19th century farm buildings, and in the summer months there are often living history demonstrations. The new exhibits at Humpback Rocks Visitor Center opened in the spring of 2000 and represent the most complete effort at interpreting the Blue Ridge region with stories about housing, community, entertainment, and transportation. At the Peaks of Otter (milepost 85.9) there is a moderate loop trail leading to the Johnson Farm, in which generations of the Johnson family lived and worked with other members of the now-vanished community. Another structure of interest here is Polly Woods Ordinary, thought to be the oldest structure on the Parkway, and representative of the early days of tourism in the area. The Trail Cabin (milepost 154.6), Puckett Cabin (milepost 189.9), Brinegar Cabin (milepost 238.5), Caudill Cabin (milepost 241) and Sheets Cabin (milepost 252.4) are all 19th-century log cabins illustrating the sometimes isolated existence of the mountain family and the efforts of the original park planners to save log structures as opposed to other types of larger farm houses they found. The Trail Cabin is especially notable for its spectacular location, and the Caudill Cabin was called one of the finest examples of pioneer cabins along the Parkway by landscape architect Stanley Abbott. The Puckett Cabin is associated with stories of Mrs. Orleana Hawks Puckett, a busy mountain mid-wife of the late 19th century. The Jesse Brown Farmstead (milepost 272.5), consisting of a cabin, spring house, and the relocated Cool Springs Baptist Church, is believed to be pre-Civil War and contains interesting examples of early pioneer log construction.
European Settlement – Pioneer Industries
Along the Parkway are examples of just about every form of 19th-century industrial development. Yankee Horse Ridge parking area (milepost 34.4) has a short stretch of reconstructed narrow-gauge railroad track once known as the Irish Creek Railway, along with an exhibit on logging in the area. The James River visitor center (milepost 63.6) has an exhibit on the ill-fated James River and Kanawha Canal, with a self-guiding trail to a restored lock dating from the mid-19th century. Mining operations in the Appalachians are remembered in place names such as Iron Mine Hollow (mileposts 96.2, 96.4) and at an exhibit in the North Toe Valley overlook (milepost 318.4). Of all the points of interest on the Parkway, perhaps Mabry Mill (milepost 176.2) is the best known. The Mabry Mill Trail features a black smith shop, wheel wright’s shop, and whiskey still, as well as the most photographed structure on the Parkway, Mabry Mill itself. As anyone who has traveled in the Appalachians knows, mountain handicrafts are one of the most popular attractions; traditional crafts and music still thrive in the Blue Ridge mountains of today. Along the Parkway in North Carolina are several places to view and purchase locally made items, such as the Northwest Trading Post (milepost 258.6), Parkway Craft Center (milepost 294.1) and the Folk Art Center (milepost 382).
The Modern Era
By the 20th century, the Blue Ridge was viewed as a desirable location for men of wealth to build retreats; the Moses H. Cone and Julian Price Memorial Parks (mileposts 292 – 298) are examples of this. The Cone estate includes a turn-of-the-century manor house and 24 miles of carriage roads, while the Julian Price Park offers several short trails and a lake. The most obvious modern contributor to the landscape is of course the Parkway itself, conceived and designed 60 years ago as a scenic motor road and conservator of the natural and historical treasures of the Blue Ridge. Today, it is the most visited site in the National Park system.
Historic Sites & Landmarks
All along the Parkway are overlook signs, visitor center exhibits, restored historic structures, and developed areas alerting you to points of particular interest. Here are just a few of the interesting historically significant stops along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
- James River Watergap / James River Face (Milepost 63)
- Mabry Mill (Milepost 176.2)
- Cumberland Knob: Start of the Parkway (Milepost 217.5)
- Stone Mountain (Milepost 229.7)
- Moses H Cone Manor (Milepost 294)
- Linn Cove Viaduct (Milepost 304)
- Grandfather Mountain International Biosphere Reserve (Milepost 305.1)
- Linville Falls / Linville Gorge Wilderness (Milepost 316.4)
- Gillespie Gap (Milepost 330.9)
- Craggy Gardens (Milepost 364.5)
- Cradle of Forestry (Milepost 411.8)
Remember, it is possible to trace the more than 200-year history of Appalachian culture simply by keeping your eyes open and attuned to what remnants: old family cemeteries, spring houses, and other indications of Appalachian habitation are scattered up and down the motor road, just waiting for you to discover them.