Tag Archives: Blue Ridge Parkway

North Carolina — Gilded and Green

North Carolina: My 47th State

Smoky Mtn Pk Newfound Gap state lines
Smoky Mtn Pk Newfound Gap state lines. This is where President Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1941, a year before my first visit (See story about Smoky Mountains)

We divided our time in North Carolina between the American castle–Biltmore Estates in Ashville–and the surrounding Appalachian forests of eastern North Carolina. We entered North Carolina from Tennessee by driving over Newfound Gap in the Smoky Mountain National Park. The took us to the Cherokee town called, uh, Cherokee.  It is the western culmination of the Blue Ridge and packed with motels, activities, and some Cherokee Culture.  I had no idea it was so large and would like to go back and explore it more some time.

Smoky Mtn Park Newfound Gap
Smoky Mtn Park Newfound Gap

After leaving Asheville, I realized I should have visited the home of Thomas Wolfe. His book You Can’t Go Home Again had a huge impact on me as a young girl. But we were there to see the mansion, and then headed out on byways to see the forest country. Along the way we found some delightful places, including the town of Cashiers. (pronounced Cash-ers.)

What connection does George Vanderbilt, a free-spending millionaire, have to the beautiful mountain forests we drove through in eastern North Carolina?

North Carolina mountains
North Carolina mountains

Biltmore Estate

Gifford Pincho
Gifford Pinchot father of forestry


It turns out that Vanderbilt was drawn from his home in New York City to North Carolina by the same thing that draws the millions of tourists that drive the Blue Ridge Parkway and other byways today. I was  surprised to learn that this grandson of the infamous railroad baron Commodore Vanderbilt (the one who built a fortune from $100 to countless millions), spent his life spending some of his inheritance and creating beauty. That beauty included Appalachian forests. In fact, George Vanderbilt and his employee, Gifford Pinchot, were responsible for the system of national forests that we have today, and we visited the cradle of forestry. But first–the mansion.


Biltmore Estate
Biltmore Mansion seen from the least expensive of the dining options–the Courtyard Market, near the Stable Cafe.

Vanderbilt visited the pure air of North Carolina’s Appalachian region in 1888 when his mother was there for health treatments, and immediately invested in some worthless, barren land–125,000 acres of it. He put together a team of three men who were the most prominent architect, landscape architect and the father of forestry to build his 250 room “chateau”, surrounded by newly planted forests.  Today that forest is dense and natural looking and it is sad to realize that Vanderbilt died before the forest reached its present glory.

Frederick Law Olmstead
Frederick Law Olmstead.

You might not recognize the architect, who was the premiere architect of his day, but you certainly have heard of Frederick Law Olmstead–or at least of his most famous accomplishment–Central Park. It was Olmstead’s idea to plant the estate with a forest. This formidable team of four men created a masterpiece. Four, because George Vanderbilt was a hands-on builder.

All the men were more than just employees. They were used to the rarified social setting Vanderbilt traveled in and he considered them friends–even hanging their portraits in the mansion along with his family and ancestors.

The architect traveled with Vanderbilt to Europe to help pick out 17th century tapestries and other treasures.  Then he designed around the precious pieces.  I was incredibly impressed by the 25,000 book collection and the fact that after Vanderbilt obtained an Italian 17th century painted ceiling, the architect designed the library to fit the ceiling. Every detail was carefully chosen, from the marble bathtubs in the 47 bathrooms to the colors of the rooms–each decorated slightly differently to reflect their use.

George Vanderbilt II
George Vanderbilt II with daughter Cornelia in the winter garden, inside, near the entrance. I love this more human view of the millionaire.

Vanderbilt constructed this mansion before he even had a bride, and after he married he and his wife had only one child–a daughter. But all those rooms (and bathrooms) were filled with friends and their servants. (The dressing rooms in the basement indoor pool area are huge because ladies had to have their lady’s maids along to help them dress, dontcha know.)



Besides the house servants, there was an army of farmers and foresters and gardeners taking care of the vistas from every window and every balcony–each vista carefully thought out by Olmstead. The gardens go on and on and culminate in a conservatory where you can spot exotic orchids or visit a cactus room.

We spent six hours on site, determined to make the most of our $55 (each) admission cost (Plus $10 for one audio guide).  If you go, be warned that to fully explore the mansion and gardens you will have to climb a lot of steps. There are some alternatives, but none that can explore the historic site completely.  There are places to have picnics, and we would have taken advantage of that had we been aware that  you can catch shuttles at several locations, so you could get back to your car to get your food and then drive to the pond or river for a picnic. (The website and map do not do a thorough job of explaining the availability of these shuttles, so be sure to ask when you are there.) However, there are also several quite good restaurants, including lighter offerings like an outdoor cafe adjoining the house.

Our six hours was not confined to the house and gardens. We also visit the village with  shops, winery, restaurants, and historical displays.

Finally, be prepared for a constant bombardment of places where you can spend more money–special activities, high end gift shops, even two luxury hotels on the property.  The Biltmore Estate, hugely popular, is run by descendents of George Vanderbilt’s daughter and her husband and they are determined to maintain it as the treasure it is.

On to the Forests

After taking a short stretch of freeway in Asheville from our Red Roof Inn (good location, good bargain, good eats within walking distance) in order to get to the Blue Ridge Parkway, we were on “blue highways” for the rest of the day. After searching on the Internet, I focused on three byways. First, it seemed appropriate to do at least a small stretch on the Blue Ridge, America’s most popular road. I had been on the Blue Ridge in Virginia, but not here at the western end.

The Blue Ridge took us to Pink Beds, a place with a concentration of Rhododendrons and Mountain Laurel and a lovely picnic grounds where we paused for a break. I had to consult with friends on Facebook to learn that this is Mountain Laurel .

Right up the road from Pink Beds (or take a five-mile loop hiking trail that connects the two) is the official Birthplace of U.S. Forestry. We had been traveling through woodlands that once belonged to George Vanderbilt (The Vanderbilt Forest). Upon his death, his wife sold thousands of acres to the United States Government for $40 an acre, and they hired Gifford Pinchot to manage the first National Forest.  The site includes a small interpretive center and has special programs to introduce people to forestry. We were also traveling through the Pisgah Forest, both part of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Next, I spotted a small state byway called the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway, and a portion called by some  Waterfall Byway, and we happily followed that, looking for elusive waterfalls,

Waterfall Byway, NC
Looking Glass Falls along the Waterfall Byway

and finding  boiled peanut stands.

Up and down we went,  through numerous mountain passes gaps and gorges, and soaring up over mountain peaks. On one of the down trips, we came upon the lovely little town of Cashiers, where we ducked into Buck’s Coffee Shop for a refreshment. As we started to leave town, we saw their Village Green town park, and decided it was time for a lunch picnic. This park gets the prize for best town park we’ve come upon.  It had everything. Luscious landscaping, a creative children’s playground, art installations, a boardwalk into a wetland for bird watching and spotlessly clean picnic tables and restrooms. Cashiers, we love you.

Cashiers NC Village Green Park

More up and down mountain driving and across a mountain ridge until we wound down into Georgia and our next stop–in my 48th state.

If you want to see more pictures and comments about my trip, follow me on Facebook , where I’ve been putting up pictures and info that don’t fit here.  I also am posting photos on Pinterest.

Fall Pet Travel: Scenic, Spooky, and Splendid

German Shepherd and Greyhound Hiking
Morgan and Bunny from Tales and Tails blog enjoying the fall scenery at Illinois’s Starved Rock State Park. Photo courtesy of Carrie Noar.

Pet Travel Thursday

Destination: various sites of autumn beauty and ghostly happenings

By Pamela Douglas Webster

With a nip in the air, many Americans start thinking of spooks, falling leaves, and winterizing their homes. My thoughts turn to taking a road trip with my dog.

Summer is wonderful for travel. But pet-friendly travel is risky in the heat. One long line at a rest stop ladies room could cause terrible suffering, for your dog if you decide to wait and for yourself if you don’t. Continue reading Fall Pet Travel: Scenic, Spooky, and Splendid

Blue Ridge Road Trip/Book by Baldacci

From Bert’s Skyline Photos

Destination: Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, USA

Book: Wish You Well by David Baldacci


My friend Bert Latamore is fortunate to live in the Blue Ridge area of Virginia, outside of Washington D.C. (The Blue Ridge Parkway continues south through the Carolinas). Bert and his wife love to explore the natural beauty and small communities and Bert photographs the mountains in their many moods.In this post he describes a novel that could very well lure the traveler to a road trip on the Blue Ridge.

Most people know David Baldacci as the author of high tension political adventure novels, and particularly for Absolute Power which was turned into a hit movie in the 1990s. However, Baldacci’s reach is greater than any one genre. Wish You Well , a coming of age novel set in 1940, tells about a 12-year-old girl who moves from New York City to her great-grandmother’s tiny mountain homestead in the Virginia Blue Ridge after an auto accident kills her father and leaves her mother comatose.

The Novel

Based in part on Baldacci’s mother’s experience growing up in the Blue Ridge, the book traces Louisa Mae Cardinal’s life in a place that had changed little in 100 years. In the process, this fine novel takes the reader on a tour of the Blue Ridge and the traditional life of the people who lived, struggled, and farmed there. It immerses the reader in the beauty and rhythms of a way of life that is now long gone.

From Bert’s Skyline Photos

Travel Today

Fortunately, while the old mountain farms are gone, the land and mountains of the Blue Ridge remain, largely unspoiled. And, thanks to FDR’s vision as realized in the Blue Ridge Parkway, the area is easily accessible to travelers. The Parkway, 75-years-old in 2010, stretches 469 miles, its two-lane road running along the ridgeline of the mountains that separate the East Coast from the continent to the West. It connects the Shenandoah National Park in the north to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south. While Interstates in the valleys both east and west carry traffic at highway speeds, the Parkway offers a trip into an earlier, more beautiful, less hurried land.  While not as spectacular as the western National Parks, the Blue Ridge offers a leisurely driving adventure, where turns in the road open windows to gorgeous mountain views interspersed with historic sites such as Mabry Mill, a working water-powered grist mill set in a beautiful park. And Mr. Baldacci’s novel provides an ideal introduction, commentary, and sample of what you can find there.

The secret to the Parkway is to take a deep breath and surrender to the rhythms of a different time. The speed limit here is 45, sometimes 35. The object is not so much to get somewhere – if that is your need then the Interstates are a better choice – but rather to experience the environment as you drive through it. Plan on making numerous stops to admire, and photograph, the scenery, explore the pull overs, and just relax.

One warning – the Parkway does close in winter from time to time due to heavy snowfalls, so if you are planning a winter visit it is best to check ahead. And in summer the camping facilities and motels can be crowded, so reservations are always a good idea.

You can read Wish You Well in a trade paperback edition, or listen to a recording on cassette or CD. David Baldacci also started a foundation called Wish You Well to support family literacy.


Bert Latamore

Bert Latamore has been a writer all his adult life, and now specializes in writing about technology. He also serves as a book doctor and business report writer. His motto, “You provide the information; I craft the words.”
I met Bert about 15 years ago in an on-line group called “Aspiring Writers Club”. The core of that group continues to correspond by listserve.

The Photos: Bert Latamore took these photos along the Skyline Drive, part of the Shenandoah National Park. A road trip starting in Washington D.C. could follow the Skyline to the Blue Ridge Parkway and go all the way to Georgia. All rights reserved on Photographs.

More about David Baldacci in a post about Washington D.C. and two video interviews with Baldacci. In the 2nd of these interviews, he talks about his Wish You Well Foundation.