Road trips are more than just a passion and career; they are a way of life for me. With the 2018 Travel Blog Exchange fast approaching I decided it would be more fun to road trip to New York rather than drive straight there. For three weeks I traveled across the Appalachian Mountains from North Carolina enjoying breathtaking scenic overlooks, discovering hidden destinations, learning about the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and watching planes land directly over my head.
The #RoadtoTBEX was a three-week road trip from Cherokee, North Carolina to Corning, New York that included a visit to six National Park Service (NPS) sites. But I didn’t realize that was the theme until I was rolling into Corning, facing the end of the road trip, and asking myself, “How do I tell the story about this trip?”
So here are a few photos and a few stories from the six NPS sites I visited on the #RoadtoTBEX.
The #RoadtoTBEX began with at the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. For the next five days I drove the entire 469 miles through North Carolina and Virginia to the northern end at Rockfish Gap in Waynesboro.
I stopped at just about every scenic overlook on the Parkway and discovered some new places to admire the beautiful landscape. At Linville Falls, the most popular waterfall on the Parkway, I found Dugger’s Creek Falls that is too frequently passed over. At Craggy Gardens I finally hiked the Craggy Pinnacle Trail, completing my experience at one of the most gorgeous places on the Parkway. In Roanoke I stood on Mill Mountain just beneath the infamous Mill Mountain Star and watched the lights of the city twinkle at dusk.
I visited the highest point on the Parkway at Richland Balsalm and a few days later the lowest point at the James River. Every evening I scouted out a location to watch stunning sunsets and every morning I came back for more. I took a tour of the top floor of Flat Top Manor (Parkway Craft Center) and hiked around the lake at Moses H. Cone Memorial Park. And I spent my last evening at Ravens Roost Overlook for one final Blue Ridge Parkway sunset before finally leaving “America’s Drive” behind and finishing the entire Parkway for the second time.
Two years ago I spent a single day driving through Shenandoah National Park. It was overcast and chilly, but the fall colors were just beginning, and I have been thinking about the Skyline Drive ever since. When planning the #RoadtoTBEX I decided to take advantage of the seven-day pass at the national park and really explore it this time.
For the first two days I visited every scenic overlook in the park. With a 35mph speed limit and 105 miles to drive it took some time but I got it done with time to spare. I spent each night at a different campground in the park where I found myself surrounded by deer foraging for food and pleasant breezes through the towering trees all night.
On the last day I headed out on some trails, but my goal to do some serious hiking was ultimately curtailed by a series of severe thunderstorms. I had only been walking across Big Meadow for ten minutes when a storm broke over the ridge and dumped an insane amount of rain. Do you know how hard it is to run in wet flip flops? Despite the weather I was still able to hike some short trails, spot lots of wildlife, and enjoyed some pretty good meals from the waysides. Those three days were great; next time I want a week.
After finally leaving Shenandoah National Park behind I drove over to Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park. This was the first time I have come across an NPS site with the visitor center located inside a shopping center. It was a rather nice visitor center with a diorama, film about the history of the park, and a small museum.
The national historical park didn’t have much to offer in the way of scenic overlooks or hiking trails, but there was Belle Grove Plantation. Operated separately from the NPS the plantation was open to guided tours so I headed straight there once I got into the park. The tour lasted about an hour and covered the history of the plantation, the family who built it, and the significance of this park to the Civil War and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.
This was one of the many unscheduled stops I made along the #RoadtoTBEX. My original plan was to drive historic US Route 50 from Winchester to Alexendria. It was a great plan except for one small problem: it was Labor Day and most of the small towns were vacated for the holiday.
I rolled into the visitor center parking lot about 3pm. It wasn’t a terrible amount of time to explore the park for the first time, especially since the sweltering 100+ degree weather meant I didn’t want to be far from the comfort of air conditioning.
Before the end of the business day in the park I visited the Stone House for a guided tour and Brawner Farm for a fascinating interactive diorama depicting the Second Battle of Manassas. Once the rangers called it a day I continued to explore the self-guided auto tour through the park and even ventured out onto a few trails.
After driving the 25-mile George Washington Memorial Parkway I realized I had driven three of the four parkways of the National Park System this year alone (I drove the Natchez Trace Parkway in the spring and the Blue Ridge Parkway just two weeks ago). That’s not bad at all for some NPS travel this year.
The GW Parkway stretches from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, through the city of Alexandria, to a connection with I-495. The scenic drive along the banks of the Potomac River is nice to enjoy and there are several parks with picnic tables and trails, but really it’s a fast commuter route for the massive amount of people who move around the Northern Virginia area every day.
My two favorite spots I found on the GW Parkway were Jones Point and Gravely Point. Jones Point is right at the edge of Alexandria and features a short hiking trail to a lighthouse that used to direct sailing vessels into the docks just up the river. Gravely Point is one of my favorite places to visit in the country. The park is located at the end of the runway at Reagan National Airport; airplanes will fly in over the Potomac River, bank at the last moment to align with the runway, and scream just a hundred feet over the park before landing. It’s noisy, but absolutely fascinating to watch.
On my first-ever big road trip I spent a grand total of two hours here before sunset and moving on. This was back before I created one of my Three Golden Rules of Road Trips: drive no more than a hundred miles per day. I’ve slowed down since then which is exactly why I had two entire days to spend here on the #RoadtoTBEX.
Over the next two days I spent a lot of time at the visitor center. I watched the 25-minute film narrated by Morgan Freeman, learned what a cyclorama was and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and browsed through the largest Civil War museum I’ve seen yet. I got something to eat at the café one day for lunch, enjoyed coffee the next morning, and chatted with the rangers about the park.
Out in the park I drove the self-guided auto tour several times looking for the best photo ops and most interesting history. I found both on Small Round Top with a stunning panorama view above the battlefield and a neat story to go along with it. I climbed to the top of an enormous observation tower, walked a few short trails, and explored the boulders at Devil’s Den. Each evening I watched thunderstorms roll across the flat landscape and drench the fields and each morning a fog rolled over Seminary Ridge.
The #RoadtoTBEX included history, scenic overlooks, outdoor recreation, and fascinating destinations while I learned stories from locals and docents about these areas. These six national park sites were a unifying theme of my road trip, but not exclusively all I did. For that you will just have to keep following along as I talk more about all my discoveries on the #RoadtoTBEX.