CHEROKEE, N.C. —My plan to drive all 250 miles of North Carolina's portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway was derailed after 2.1 miles.
That's how far south of the Virginia border I was when I came across Gully Creek Trail, a semi-rigorous 2-mile hiking loop down into — and then back up out of — the fall color. Dusk wasn't so far off, and my hotel reservation was 70 miles on, but I couldn't resist.
Down I went into the rich reds, oranges and yellows. The air was slippery and moist, which made the trail about the same. Amid the sweet smell of earthy autumn decay, I passed several people heading up, including a forlorn, red-faced woman with her forlorn, red-faced 4-year-old daughter. "How much farther to the top?" she asked. "Not far." "Good." "Long walk?" She nodded, panting. "But pretty, right?" She nodded, panting, again, but this time, smiled.
Back on the highway, I resumed the scenic journey to my hotel but realized this would not be a road trip about getting from start to finish. It would be a road trip about the road: the hikes, the piney mountains, the well-marked overlooks that make for easy vista viewing, the towering magnolias, dogwood and birch.
The Blue Ridge Parkway, which turns 75 next year, is almost 470 miles long. It begins southwest of Charlottesville, Va., and ends in North Carolina's southwest corner, near the Tennessee border and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. About 250 of those miles happen in North Carolina, much of them through national forest. That's the part I spent three days driving. The speed limit is 45, but I never wanted to go faster than 30.
I passed campers, a church tucked along the side of the road and a sign pointing me off the parkway to North Carolina Highway 21, toward towns called Sparta and Roaring Gap. I laughed at the sign. Who needs Sparta and Roaring Gap when you're on the Blue Ridge Parkway? And on I went.
Fifty miles from my hotel, dusk descended. I considered pushing through. But in the peak of fall color, missing so many trees in the dark seemed a waste. Back to Sparta it was, because 20 miles back the way I had come seemed a better option than losing 50. In that way the parkway in fall is like camping: When the sun goes down, there's not much left to do. When the sun comes up, it's time to start again.
Morning dawned cool and gray as I drove out of relatively nondescript Sparta and stopped for the second time in two days at Bullhead Mountain Overlook. The reds in particular seemed to be coming in so many shades: fiery, burnt, muddy, electric.
I thought I was imagining the colors being more vivid than the day before until meeting Donna and Randy Berg of Murfreesboro, Tenn. They had been driving home from a vacation in Williamsburg, Va., on Interstate Highway 64 a couple of days earlier when they came across the parkway and made an instant decision to drive it. At first they were disappointed; the colors seemed muted. But on that overlook they were happy.
"It seems like all these colors just exploded overnight," said Donna Berg, 53. "We wondered if the people here know how blessed they are, or do they just take it for granted?"
"Except now she's mad because I didn't charge the batteries on the camera," said Randy Berg, 52.
A bit farther I stopped for breakfast at one of the few places to eat on the parkway, Bluffs Lodge & Restaurant. Bluffs put the greasy in greasy spoon, so naturally I took a spot at the counter beside a red-bearded guy with a motorcycle helmet. I ordered a stack of sweet-potato pancakes (a local favorite) with a side of country ham (another local favorite), which is cured in sugar and salt. Lots of salt.
"You'll be drinking water all day," my waitress said, refilling my coffee cup.
The guy beside me was Steve Kirtley, a 31-year-old from Bowling Green, Ky., who, like the Bergs, made a last-moment decision to be here. When leaving home for a short vacation, he intended to bike to Washington, D.C., and New York City. Something about the parkway lured him in, and it wasn't exactly the colors. He's colorblind.
"I just love the scenery," Kirtley said, warming his hands on a cup of tea. "It's been views I couldn't have expected. You're on this bluff, and there's this canopy of golden leaves above you. Now imagine that for 470 miles."
Funny thing was that the canopy was many more colors than golden. He didn't care.
"I definitely want to do this again and take my time," Kirtley said.
Taking time is the point, which is why I took a lazy four hours to go the next 100 miles, stopping for any photo or sweeping overlook that possessed me. A ranger along the way told me it had been a wet fall, which meant an early peak for the color (which is always a tricky wrinkle to a fall colors trip: prognosticating). I was eager to stop at Mount Mitchell, where the 6,684-foot summit is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. By the time I got there, it was fogged in. Onward.
Still determined to have a parkway hike, I continued another 50 miles to Mount Pisgah, where the peak is a mere 5,721 feet. But it was a bit less foggy, so I gave it a try, one foot ahead of the other for an hour with hopes that I'd have a grand view.
The peak was half in clouds when I arrived but still showed me something: rolling miles of color-touched trees to the west. Minutes later I was consumed by clouds and could see no farther than a few hundred yards. Then the clouds left again. They kept coming and going.
After a night at the Pisgah Inn, only 50 miles remained before me. I took them slowly, of course. The fog was still hanging around, and you would think not being able to see more than 20 yards would kill the joy of watching leaves. Not so much.
The vistas were gone, but the gray intensified what was right in front of me: yellows and reds that glowed like stoplights against the mist. The fog taught me a lesson. I'd spent my time on the parkway awed by the sweeping vistas and sheer enormity. But the beauty of fall color also comes in a single leaf.
IF YOU GO:
Fall colors typically peak on the Blue Ridge Parkway in mid-October but may vary. Accommodations and food — blueridgeresort.com Accommodations near Mount Pisgah — 828-235-8228, pisgahinn.com General information — blueridgeparkway.org National Park Service — nps.gov/blri