Skyline Drive, The Blue Ridge Parkway, OBX and more………..
A couple of months ago my wife & I took the first road trip since February 2020. What follows is a synopsis of that trip, and I hope you find it useful, if not entertaining. Links are provided to those establishments and concerns that we would return to again.
Day 1: Saturday, Oct. 9- Travel day
Long drive from almost-Canada down into Pennsylvania. Started out a sunny day, but soon changed to clouds as we crossed Vermont, and intermittent light rain through New York and New Jersey. Traffic less than expected, except for the run-up into Rensselaer and Troy. No shortage of ignorant/ foolish/ dangerous/ oblivious drivers- the further south you go, the more challenging the road becomes.
Snacked from the Price Chopper in Bennington, and had a nice dinner at the Lancaster Brewery Tap Room close by to the Comfort Suites.
Day 2: Sunday, Oct. 10- Amishland (Lancaster, PA and environs)
Very sad continental breakfast at the hotel.
Vermont and Maine are more Amish than what we see here. Lots of farms and buggies on the road, but it all seems to focus on the tourism grift. Checked out a couple of antique shops, saw some cows, horses, and yes, a camel.
Had a non-memorable lunch at The Sandwich Factory in Lancaster on the way to the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery. Then enjoyed a very good dinner at The Brasserie in Lancaster later that evening. Will be glad to be clearing this area early tomorrow morning.
Day 3: Monday, Oct. 11- Shenandoah National Park/ Skyline Drive
Started at the crack, departing the awesome Comfort Suite room (it was a better than usual room!) for Front Royal, Virginia. Not a bad ride, but all highway, and right through Harrisburg, which was horrible. Hit light to medium rain on and off throughout the 3 hour trip.
Gassed up and stopped at Aldis in Front Royal for lunch provisions around 10AM. Then proceeded to the Shenandoah National Park entrance, where we bought an Annual Pass. Proceeded into the park and made the initial climb to the ridge, which we followed 105 miles on the Skyline Drive.
Gawd, what clouds and fog! Saw literally nothing for the first 30 or so miles. Finally things started clearing a bit, and we stopped at a couple of overlooks, which were cool, but really no better than what’s back home. Stopped at one of the larger spots, and I figured I’d grab my camera and head up the trail for some photos- the viewpoint looked close.
A mile plus later, and 1500 feet up, back into the clouds. Seems that I chose a section of the Appalachian Trail that went up to Mary’s Rock. Sigh. Need to do better research before wandering off in the future. Surprised myself, though- the trail went up, up and up, and so did I, not stopping until I hit the clouds. I’ve still got the ups. This is a good thing.
Finished the Skyline. Was pretty crowded today, being a holiday (COLUMBUS Day), even though the weather was lousy in the morning. Plenty of dangerous drivers speeding down the roadway, oblivious to the clouds and fog. Hoping the BRP later this week is calmer and more interesting.
Staying at the Blackburn Inn for the next two nights. Former mental hospital and prison renovated into a hotel and conference center in Staunton, VA. Booked it as part of our program to avoid national chains wherever possible. The room is nice but small. The staff is super accommodating and the town is pretty neat. Old, restored, and trying to make it all work. Had a nice dinner at The Mill St. Grill. Chickens for both and a bottle of Pinot Grigio. Cigar and whiskey on the veranda of the hotel afterwards, and here I am.
Tomorrow Monticello and Appomattox Courthouse. Maybe more? Good trip so far.
Day 4: Tuesday, Oct. 12- Monticello and Appomatox (and more Staunton)
Started the day with breakfast at the Second Draft Bistro at the hotel. More of a name than a place. Wife had the egg sandwich while I opted for the oatmeals. I usually eat Walmart Apple & Spice Instant Oatmeal for breakfast every workday, and it’s better than the “Steel Cut Oatmeal” I paid $4 for today. Low tastes, I guess.
Off to Monticello. Have always wanted to see it, and was a bit underwhelmed by the interior of the building, along with the constant guidespeak mantra of “there are many other stories here than Thomas Jefferson”…..yeah, no kidding, but without TJ, do you think anyone would care? And while some of the interior furnishings were TJ’s, most were just “period correct”. The exterior of the building and grounds were striking, and the vegetable gardens were incredible.
This guy went the distance with his grows…….spectacular variety. But would he have gone there if he had to do the work himself? Hard to know. I’ve always been suspect of TJ’s motivations and belief system. But he was a leading figure of his times, so worthy of study.
Walked from the house down the trail to the graveyard where TJ is buried, along with many friends and family. Dollar bills and coins adorned the platform of his obelisk marker- why, I have no clue. The park ranger we encountered there was also at a loss to explain this phenomenon. There is a military tradition of coins upon the headstone, but Jefferson wasn’t military. Finished the downhill path to the parking lot and departed. A well designed and run money-making operation is Monticello, but without something like it, how would it have been preserved? Huge thanks goes to Admiral Levy and his family that bought and maintained Monticello for over a century after TJ’s family departed the scene. Perhaps he is the true hero of Monticello’s survival.
Next planned stop was Appomattox. Directed Google to get us there without Interstates, and enjoyed a nice ride through Virginia countryside. Made a brief diversion to see what the Trump Vineyards were about, but found nothing but a perfect sign and locked gate. Continued onwards to the surrender site.
Very quiet at the Appomattox Court House National Park. Very few visitors, unsurprisingly. Had a short picnic lunch at the provided tables, and then wandered the site for a while.
It is not a large place. Some original buildings, many not. The McClean House- site of Lee’s capitulation- is a total reconstruction, so opted not to wait the hour until it opened. What’s the point of visiting a reconstructed building?
There are excellent narratives describing the events of that day, and they’re enough for me. But I am glad to have visited the site that ended that particular madness. Cruised on back to Staunton, again on the back roads of Virginia.
Back at the mental hospital & prison hotel, I spent some time exploring the building, including making the climb to the cupola, and out onto the walkway around it.
Stunning views of Staunton and the surrounding area.
From there Wife and I repaired to the Redbeard Brewery for a couple of beers, and then to Baja Bean where we enjoyed fajitas for dinner. A nice evening, capped with an Irish Jimmy on the hotel veranda.
We stayed far away from anything connected or related to Woodrow Wilson. No need to spoil the stay in Staunton.
Tomorrow begins the three day journey on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Can’t wait.
Day 5: Wednesday, Oct. 13- 1st Day on the Blue Ridge Parkway (Waynesboro – Floyd, VA)
Got rolling early enough this morning. The logistics in departing The Blackburn Inn left something to be desired. Headed straight to Martin’s supermarket for the day’s provisions, topped off the gas tank and grabbed a cup of coffee. (That coffee stop would turn out to be the first and last visitation of a fast food restaurant on this trip.)
On to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Which is awesome! Travelled roughly 160 miles today, and stopped at many gorgeous “overlooks”, in the parlance of the parkway. The weather was perfect. Bright & sunny, with very light white clouds floating across a brilliant blue sky. The best weather of the trip so far. Walked across the James River, and also around Abbot Lake at the Peaks of the Otter stop. Experienced a detour north of Roanoke, and had the lovely experience of driving in downtown Roanoke. Rejoined the BRP after climbing Bent Mt., which featured the most interesting mini-switchback climb I’ve ever seen. The BRP from there until Floyd seemed to be a lesser-loved part of the ride. Private property pushed up close to the road- I suspect the folks in this area played hardball with the BRP developers, and I don’t blame them a bit. Beautiful country.
Exited the BRP around 5PM, and headed for the evenings accommodations at the Pine Tavern Lodge in Floyd. Met Dave in the office, and he personally gave Wife and I a tour of our suite, the end unit of a nicely restored motel which saw its heyday at least 50 years ago. We made an excellent choice booking this stay.
First BBQ of the trip for dinner. Visited downtown Floyd (one traffic light) and decided to grab some plates from a food truck, beers (PBR!) from a different truck, and enjoy the live music at Outer Space, not surprisingly an outdoor venue.
Met a very good dawg named Ty, who had the dignified begging act down cold. He got brisket from me and pulled pork from Wife.
Brought some smoked wings back to the room for later- haven’t had them in years.
Early night – Day 2 on the BRP looks to be even better than today.
Day 6: Thursday, Oct. 14- 2d Day on the Blue Ridge Parkway (Floyd, VA to Marion NC)
Started the day with a wonderful breakfast at The Blue Ridge Diner by the Floyd traffic light. Allowed myself some biscuits and gravy. As delicious as they are, that dish isn’t good for you. Wife enjoyed a breakfast sandwich and then off we went to the Parkway for the second day.
The southern Virginia section of the BRP isn’t the most interesting, that’s for sure. Much tighter than most of the previous day’s experience, and much lower in elevation. Lots of beautiful farm and ranch land along this part of the ride, heading into North Carolina.
I stopped to hike a 3-mile section of the Rocky Knob Trail, about 10 miles or so north of the Meadows of Dan and Marbry Mills. The walk was good, and enough exercise to work off the sausage and biscuits. The view to the east was incredible. Later in the day I walked a couple of miles out and back to Thomkins Knob, an unremarkable trip. Here’s the most photographed place on the Parkway, Mabry Mill.
We stopped near The Meadows of Dan at a very old, and somewhat sad general store right off the BRP named the Mayberry Trading Post. The proprietor was a nice older lady, and we bought a hand-turned cherry wood bowl. Only cash is accepted. The store is for sale, I think. At least, we saw a real estate agent’s sign at the roadside. We then stopped a couple of miles north of the North Carolina border to pick up some lunch for later at The Gap Deli in Fancy Gap, Virginia.
Heading into North Carolina the scenery improved and the elevation increased. We stopped for lunch at one of the many turnouts; the one we chose was a large picnic area with many parking spots and tables, but only one other couple there at the moment. They were a bit older than us, British, and sporting an immaculate 1990s-era Jeep Cherokee with more than a quarter-million miles on it. I’ve owned several XJs, and believe it’s one of the greatest Jeep models ever made. The food we picked up at The Gap Deli was very good.
After lunch we made an off-Parkway detour to the Mast General Store near Sugar Grove. We hoped for the best, but it was not much more than the typical countrified tourist trap store, selling wares not made very well, nor here in the USA. There are a lot of these places in the Northeast. We did not spend long here before heading back through Boone, returning to the Parkway.
And what a return it was. My inept Googling charted us a course up the sheer ridge on Shulls Mill Road. This is one of the most twisted, tight and steep roads I’ve ever driven. Extremely challenging, with plenty of briskly moving oncoming traffic. I was glad when we came to the top of the ridge and regained the Parkway. My hands hurt. Interesting how things work out sometimes- had we not made the detour to the tourist trap, I would not have had the opportunity to drive up the hillside on Shull Mills Rd., an experience I’m glad to have had, and am okay not repeating.
Progressed down the BRP, stopping at various turnouts, taking our time. The Parkway is one of the most scenic drives I’ve ever experienced.
The destination for the evening is the Alpine Inn in Marion, and we reached it at the end of the afternoon.
There was still sunlight, but it was fading fast. After checking in, we headed down the mountain to Spruce Pine, where we gassed up the Jeep, got some provisions and had a meal at a grill at a golf course. Not much to say about the meal or the grill or the golf course, for that matter, but the people there were very nice.
The Alpine Inn is perched upon the crest of a ridge, with the room entrances being quite close to the road. But, it’s a quiet, very lightly travelled road. Our room had a small private balcony, which was 30+ feet above the ground, looking over the mountains to the east, with Table Rock Mountain clearly visible. As the sun set and the dark descended, there were all kinds of noises from the woods, and many bats flying through the trees. It was marvelous.
Remember the chicken wings last night? Well, the leftovers spent the day in the cooler, and were an evening snack after the less than satisfying dinner. Chomped down the final four, and tossed the bones in the room’s wastebasket.
At about 1AM in the morning Wife is shaking my shoulder saying “There’s something in the room!”. Replying colorfully, I found the light switch, and we saw nothing creeping or crawling around. Lights off and back to sleep.
Seemingly moments later, Wife says “There’s something moving in the trash!”. This time I hear it too, and slowly get out of the bed. Then I have Wife turn on the light. Flying out of the trashcan comes a little brown mouse. Like a shot he’s across the floor and under a bureau. The chicken bones, of course. Out on the balcony with the trash can, and quiet returns.
Except later in the night we hear loud voices from the next room over, so perhaps our visitor found new friends?
Day 7: Friday, Oct. 15: 3d Day on the BRP, and then to Statesville NC
Our third and final day on the Parkway began with an amazing sunrise. The same mountains we saw fade to black last evening slowly reappeared as the sun crawled over from the Atlantic. Stunning.
We packed quickly, and had a good breakfast on the Alpine Inn’s office balcony, watching the hillside wake up. Wanting to get an early start, we finished the light breakfast quickly, said goodbye to our hosts, and set out. I thought the Alpine Inn was great.
First stop for the day was the summit of Mount Mitchell. This is the highest peak east of the Mississippi, and is a detour of a few miles directly off the Parkway. Once you reach what’s basically the top of the mountain, there’s a parking lot and a short walk to the actual summit.
Now, I’m a walker and hiker of hills and mountains- have been for close to 50 years. While the mountains are more plentiful and yes, a bit taller in North Carolina, they don’t seem as remote and rugged as the northern Appalachians I know well, in New Hampshire, Vermont and western Maine. I think the more severe weather, along with the mountains’ more pronounced elevation over surrounding terrain make them more formidable in the North. Just an opinion, but it’s mine. I did the 5-minute walk up the paved trail to the summit of Mt. Mitchell. Peak bagged!
It was all downhill from there. We made a quick stop at a Publix supermarket in Waynesville for lunch supplies, and then back on the Parkway for the final run to its end. We continued our southward travel, stopping at various points of interest and overlooks, taking our time. We broke out the camp chairs and cooler for a picnic lunch at one of the turnouts, and in general had a great time enjoying the mountain scenery. I think we were continually above 3000 feet in elevation for the better part of the last two days on the Parkway. The road gets up on the ridge and stays there, and if it can’t go over the mountaintop, it goes through it. There are many tunnels.
It was early afternoon as we came to Mile Post 469, the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We made the right turn towards the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. At its entrance, we parked the Jeep and wandered for a bit, stretching our legs before starting the transitional part of this road trip. And we used the rest rooms. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park will wait for a different trip.
The rest of the day was highway travel towards the coast. After so many days on slower secondary roads, getting back on the Interstate was a change of pace. Statesville worked out to be the midpoint of this trip east, and that was our destination for the night. We had a reservation at the Inn on Front Street. Another one-of-a-kind property we were looking forward to visiting.
We arrived at the Inn late in the afternoon, after the high speed transit from Cherokee. The Inn’s proprietors, Mike & Jerilyn Davidson, provided a warm welcome and introduction to their unique and beautifully restored early 20th Century (1917) property. After we got settled into our second floor room, we met Jerilyn again on the rear deck and learned some of the history of Statesville in general, and the Inn in particular. Statesville seems to be that mid-sized American city still trying to rebound from the loss of whatever drove its local economy. It’s a familiar American story these days, but it’s always encouraging to see and experience the efforts of folks trying to reverse the tide, investing and revitalizing their cities and towns.
Mike recommended a restaurant several blocks away for dinner, the 220 Cafe. We decided to walk, as it was close. Our dinner was enjoyable, and the atmosphere and service was great. The 220 Cafe had live music that evening, a one-man band with a guitar and more pedals than I’ve ever seen a guitarist have handy. He was a pretty good player, but sadly, he also was the vocalist.
Wife and I walked back to the Inn, where we closed out the evening with some complimentary wine and a cigar on the spacious rear deck of the Inn, around the fire. She had white, I had red. I smoked the cigar.
Day 8: Saturday, Oct. 16: Logistics day, Statesville to Nags Head NC
Up and at ‘em early today, as this Saturday is nothing but logistics and travel, completing the transition from the mountains to the coast.
After loading up the Jeep we started our day with the absolutely best breakfast of the trip. Jerilyn & Mike served up a wonderful souffle, preceded by fresh fruit and accompanied by excellent brewed coffee. I highly recommend checking out The Inn on Front Street to anyone going through the area. We will return if anywhere near Statesville in the future.
Next up was finding a laundromat. We found the Statesville Coin Laundry over by the Interstate and proceeded to process the laundry. This facility was large and clean, with plenty of parking. The place was starting to get busy, but there were enough machines for all. One thing that caught my eye was a man carrying a 9mm pistol in an open holster. I live in Northern New England, where constitutional carry is the law, and have absolutely no issue with people carrying firearms. As the saying goes, an armed society is a polite society.
After assisting with getting the laundry into the washers, I went down the road to gas up and wash the Jeep. It was pretty filthy after the first week of the trip. Filled the tank and then pulled into the carwash, and there are two more guys carrying in open holsters. Now I’ve seen more people with pistols on their hip than I have in a long time, so I had to ask the attendant “what’s up with that”? Apparently Statesville has a bit of a drug-fueled gun violence problem, and “a lot of folks have decided to protect themselves”. That’s what I was told, and some brief research supports that opinion. I hope the folks in Statesville work their way through this successfully. Perhaps the armed society will promote a more safe and polite society? That’s usually the way it works out.
Returning to the laundromat with a clean ride, I helped to finish up with the laundry, reloaded the Jeep and off we went eastbound on I40, with our destination being the Outer Banks. It was a long, uneventful trip. We arrived in Nags Head as the sun was slipping low in the west, and checked into the Holiday Inn Express on the beach. Once offloaded into the room, we went over to Blue Moon Beach Grille for a solid dinner to end the long travel day.
Day 9: Sunday, Oct. 17: Exploring OBX
After having breakfast at the hotel, we decided to head south on NC12 to begin exploring the Outer Banks, or as they’re called here, OBX. Typical sand-bounded 2-lane beach highway with the Atlantic visible to the left and Pamlico Sound to the right. It was yet another bright & sunny day. We’ve hit the weather jackpot on this trip. With the exception of some light rain on the first day heading for Lancaster, and then the clouds and fog in the morning on Skyline Drive, every day has been bright, sunny and clear.
First stop was at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge where we checked out the Visitor Center. Not bad. Then we walked the North Trail along some man-made impoundments where there were many seabirds taking some shelter from the steady, more-than-brisk wind. Many varieties of gulls and ducks, with a good representation of Canada geese. The trail ends at a sturdy elevated observation center.
Moving to the south, we passed through towns all geared towards ocean and beach activities. Many condominium-style vacation properties on both sides of the road. Our next stop was at the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, which I thought was one of the better lighthouses we’ve seen, and we’ve visited plenty. We continued south on NC12 until we came to the ferry terminal. To continue south we would have had to take the ferry across, but for this trip we decided we were far enough down the sandbar, and turned around.
We grabbed a Hawaiian sandwich at The Village Red & White grocery store in Hatteras, and then returned to a picnic area near the lighthouse for lunch. The wind had died down a bit, and we had a nice lunch in the sun.
Continuing north, we stopped at Access Point 30 to get out onto the beach for a bit. Wandered about, beachcombing and watching the plover working the water’s edge. After an hour or so we headed back to the Jeep and continued north.
The last stop of the day was at Bodie Island Lighthouse, which is near Nag’s Head. Nice looking spot, and I walked out along the boardwalk to an observation platform on the edge of the tidal marsh. Saw some small fish working the shallows.
For dinner we visited Owens Restaurant in Nag’s Head, a super-old school dining room. Carpeted floor, captain chair seating, and a menu featuring dishes I’ve not seen for many years. I ordered the Filet Oscar. It was delicious. We had a good time at Owens Restaurant.
Day 10: Monday, Oct. 18: OBX to Yorktown, VA
We packed up, had breakfast and cleared out of the OBX Holiday Inn around 8:30. This was probably the most expensive HI Express we’ve ever used, and the expense was completely due to location- it’s right on the beach. The property wasn’t anything special. When we can’t indulge the non-chain preference, our go-to is the IHG Hotels Group. Usually convenient and clean properties at reasonable prices.
First stop of the day was in Kitty Hawk, down the road a short distance at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. This is a very well done tribute, honoring the men that pioneered powered air flight. The National Park Annual Pass covered the entrance fee.
On to the Visitor Center, where there’s a replica of the original Wright Flyer along with many other artifacts and exhibits. Afterwards, we checked out the field where the distances of the four initial flights are marked, and then I walked up the hill to see the memorial up close. There is an airport abutting the park and while we were there saw a Coast Guard helicopter come in for a landing.
Onwards, north on US Rt. 158, through the pretty coastal counties as we headed towards Yorktown, Virginia, the planned stop for the afternoon. The traffic became more and more congested as we approached the NC-VA state line, and even worse as we closed in on Norfolk. As we exited a tunnel and started over a bridge, we saw a massive aircraft carrier off in the distance to the east. I think this was the new USS Gerald Ford. It’s undergoing final preparations at Newport News Shipyard for its first deployment, set for 2022- four years later than originally planned.
Arrived at Yorktown Battlefield around 1PM. This park is part of the Colonial National Historical Park, and the National Park Annual Pass once again covered the entrance fees. There’s a really well done, but small exhibit at the Visitor Center, which we did take the time to see. We then went off to the picnic area for a bit of lunch, as we had stopped at a supermarket for provisions prior to going through the Norfolk area earlier.
I’ve been a student of American history for most of my lifetime, and the Revolutionary period has always fascinated me. I’ve seen many battlefields of this period, with my favorite being Saratoga. This was my first chance to see Yorktown, as I’d never been in this area before.
Seeing the terrain always brings me more understanding of a battle, and Yorktown was no exception. Of course the land has changed quite a bit, but it’s still obvious that Cornwallis was pretty much screwed once the French fleet shut down his water access, and the American and French armies started their siege. Interestingly enough, the loss at Yorktown did not adversely affect Cornwallis’ later career. He went on to great success and fame for the British in India.
There are two self-guided driving tours of the battlefield. One covers the front lines of the siege, and the other the rear areas. We did them both and they were well worth the time. If you don’t have a general understanding of this battle, the tours will seem confusing, so get a bit of the learn on before visiting.
The Colonial National Historical Park is near Williamsburg, VA, and this is a heavily developed area. It’s crowded. Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens are the big area attractions, but they’re not on our agenda for this trip. After completing the Yorktown tours we went to our lodging for the evening, another Holiday Inn, this one in Williamsburg. The property was newly renovated and a nice place to stay.
We had an interesting dinner at The Amber Ox Public House in downtown Williamsburg. Interesting food in a hipster-style atmosphere. I was wearing a plaid flannel shirt so I fit in well. Wife and I decided it was time to head for home tomorrow, so we finished our dinner and did exactly that, arriving Pondside in the early afternoon Wednesday, October 20th.
Some final thoughts & comments………
We began planning this trip in July 2021 for a variety of reasons. Like the rest of the America we know, we’ve had quite enough of the pandemic, especially the non-stop media and government-sponsored fear campaign. It was time to get back out and about, and see how folks in other parts of the country were doing. In person. We’ve travelled much of the US like this in the past, but this would be the first time I’d try to document the journey as it happened.
During the trip, the only places where there was evidence of a pandemic was at the Federally-owned visitor centers in the parks. Had to wear the face rags inside. Interestingly, I saw many discarded masks on the ground in the parking lots at these facilities. We saw very few people wearing them anywhere else throughout the trip. Restaurants, stores, and hotels did not require them. People seem to be really tired of COVID and all of the nonsensical rules, requirements and mandates.
Our garden set the window for this trip, as we had to wait for the season to wind down. Just about everything was harvested, processed and stored by then, and we were hoping for some good fall weather. Hit the jackpot on that one; aside from a little light rain early in the trip, each day was bright, sunny and dry until we returned home on October 20th.
It’s pretty obvious that the focus of this trip was the Skyline Drive & Blue Ridge Parkway. I’ve always wanted to travel those roads, and was not disappointed. Heading over to the OBX was our option to not come back the way we came, and allowed us to see a few more places for the first time. Our program of trying to find and stay at one-of-a-kind inns and hotels will continue. We found some gems on this trip. However, we’ll continue to avoid Airbnb and the like. While advertised nightly prices can be attractive, by the time they are done loading up fees and service charges you may as well just book a hotel.
Our National Park system is a treasure. Get out there and enjoy these places while you can, and while they last. Consider an Annual Pass- individual admission for 2-3 parks will exceed the annual $80 price tag for the pass. And when you reach age 62, you buy the Pass one more time for $80, and it’s good for the rest of your life.
Next trip is planned for Winter 2022, and the theme is “Warmer Climes”. This trip will be to coastal US cities in the South- some we’ve seen before and others new.