After the exhilarating descent down from Doggett Gap, we briefly enter more populated areas with a fuel stop in the city of Asheville, NC (probably the biggest city we've stopped at so far on the trip). Then a brief stint along interstate 40 before getting off and heading back north to the high spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
As I mentioned earlier, the Blue Ridge Parkway is probably the most recognized scenic byway in eastern North America. It curves and hugs and follows the higher crests of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and is a scenic wilderness route, always staying away from populated and built-up areas. I'd first heard of the Blue Ridge Parkway while reading guidebooks on America's National Parks many years ago (the parkway is part of the national park system), and I'd always had this rose-tinted rustic impression of it. I even drove most of the length of the Parkway back in the 1990s with my good friend Gord - and enjoyed it.
However, what I didn't realize back then was that what I thought was a twisty mountain road was really rather mild. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a mildly twisty route. The really good stuff were the highways that wound up, crossed over, and then wound back down, perpendicular to the Blue Ridge Parkway. THOSE were twisty. I know that now.
And we were on one of those cross-ridge highways right now: NC-80, which climbs up and over at Buck Creek Gap. The eastern ascent was every bit as good as expected, with a long stretch of climbing esses topped off with a nice set of tight hairpins. A bit of traffic marred the show, though.
Reinforcing the no-trucks advisory
At Buck Creek Gap, we decided to take a short drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway itself, if for nothing more than to enjoy the park-like setting and one or two of the many scenic lookouts along its length. We stopped at one such lookout, Big Laurel Gap, and gazed out and across at Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain in eastern North America.
Looking over to the Black Mountains
Beautiful Evening Valley Light
Sunset wasn't too far off as we finished our visit along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but I wanted to make a little more progress before calling it a night. We only had one more day of "recreational" driving before we had to start making our way back towards Canada, and we needed to start making some progress northwards.
We returned to Buck Creek Gap and headed west down NC-80. The highway then turned north and descended down into the Toe River Valley, then stayed on NC-80 as it climbed, roughly following the river's course, but winding through the corrugated hills above it in continuous and excellent twisties. Dusk brought deer, for which we needed to keep an eye out.
Starting another fine bit of NC-80
The twisties just kept coming. Ridges and hills and valleys, continuing on various highways, but generally maintaining a northwards direction. A final burst of excellent twisties -- and the high point of our trip -- up and over 5,500-foot high Carver's Gap. Too bad we didn't have better light on this whole stretch, or we could have been a little more sporting with our driving.
Crossing Carver's Gap also crossed us back into Tennessee, and once we were off the heights, the road began to straighten out a bit. We descended into eastern Tennessee's so-called "Tri-Cities" area, and found ourselves an unassuming Americourt Hotel on the outskirts of Elizabethton. We had pushed longer and farther today, and it had been our longest stint of driving so far: a total of 14 hours and 53 minutes from motel departure to hotel arrival. And although some might think we were crazy to have driven for so long, I did not feel fatigued in the way that I might have after a similar length of time on boring expressways. The vigorous nature of the roads had been... well, invigorating.