Autumn Mountainsides

Geology

From Milepost 0 at Rockfish Gap, Virginia to Milepost 355 near Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, the Parkway follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, averaging about 3,000 feet in elevation, occasionally dipping down into coves and hollows or crossing low-elevation water gaps. At Mount Mitchell, the Parkway veers westward through the Black Mountains and then into the Craggies before descending toward Asheville. From there, the road climbs to elevations of over 6,000 feet in the Balsam Mountains before entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee.

Making Mountains

The mountain-building process here is one of both creation and destruction. The creation, perhaps hundreds of millions of years in the geologic past, was both violent and dramatic. The destruction goes on before our very eyes today, at a seemingly slow and steady pace.

Sections of huge plates forming the crust of the earth have collided violently on numerous occasions in the past. The result is folded-up slabs of crust piled up like a deck of cards or a wrinkled throw rug. This mass of mostly igneous (cooled, molten material) and metamorphic (formed under heat and pressure) rock is the geological foundation of the Appalachians that we see today.

Perhaps of more interest to visitors today is the other half of the mountain-building story, their gradual destruction. The slow, steady forces of wind, water, and chemical decomposition have reduced the Blue Ridge from Sierra-like proportions to the low profile of the world’s oldest mountain range. The almost constant wind that blows across the exposed ridgetops of the Appalachians plays an important role in the weathering and eroding processes. Summer thunderstorms bring torrents of rain. In the winter, freezing and thawing water in crevices causes rock slides. Occasional catastrophic events like floods, hurricane-force winds, blizzards, and ice storms can change the face of the mountains overnight.

Geology and Ecology

The geological history of the mountains is a determining factor in all of the flora and fauna protected in the park. Plant and animal communities can change dramatically depending on the direction a particular ridge is facing, the elevation, soil type, and exposure to the elements. The eastern edge of the Blue Ridge is consistently more rugged and steep than the western edge due to the direction of uplift during the creation of the mountains. Because of this, the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge have more rugged river drainage, evidenced by Linville Gorge (Milepost 316) and Rockcastle Gorge (Milepost 169).

Geology Resource Books

Nature Guide to the Blue Ridge Parkway

Nature Guide to the Blue Ridge Parkway

The stunning wildlife along the Blue Ridge Parkway attracts more than 14 million annual visitors from near and far for viewing and photographing opportunities. This information-packed, pocket-size field guide features more than 200 species of mammals, birds, insects, fish, wildflowers, mushrooms and more in a convenient, portable package.

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