The Unbridled Beauty and Potential of the Blue Ridge Parkway, from the New Deal to Now

Map of the Parkway. Via BRPA, NPS

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the inspirational vision to create a roadway to connect Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Shenandoah National Park. That vision became a reality through New Deal work programs and national park proponents who transformed Appalachia and the U.S. as we know it today. Hence, the Blue Ridge Parkway was created, winding 469 miles from Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park via the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina. 

The national park system is largely a result of things like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a work relief program for young men during the Great Depression, and New Deal-inspired projects that came later, like the Blue Ridge Parkway. The construction of the roadway began in 1935, but wasn’t officially completed until 1987. After the disbandment of the CCC, the National Park Service completed most of the roadway in 1966. The project was an engineering feat, with 26 tunnels, 168 bridges, and miles of pavement laid through treacherous mountain terrain. The Parkway was completed when the most technical masterpiece, the Linn Cove Viaduct, was installed around Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. 

Shenandoah National Park. Via Annie Chester.

Some of the major highlights of the Blue Ridge Parkway include:

Mountain to Sea Trail signage in Western NC. Via Alena Klimas.

In addition to the two national parks connected by the parkway, a nature and outdoor recreation system has blossomed along it. State parks like Grandfather Mountain State Park have also coalesced around the parkway. Additionally, less-formalized trail systems are growing, such as North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST). Trail runners and hikers based in Asheville, and other towns along the Parkway, often enjoy the MST and the Blue Ridge Parkway. In Virginia, the RockStar Trail system is a 270-mile route from Harrisonburg in the east to Roanoke in the west.

However, the creation of national parks did not immediately signal widespread usage for all Americans. Today, the problem of diversity remains a challenge for the parks and parkway. 

Many national parks were segregated, especially in the South, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The national parks today are still sorely lacking in diversity, but there are growing movements to get more BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color), women, and people of different ability levels passionate about and included in outdoor recreation. 

There are some educational and outdoor recreation nonprofits with intentional programming for inclusion like the Big City Mountaineers and Trail Sisters, a group focused on empowering women to feel more safe in the outdoors. Other representation by athletes and outdoor advocates, like the Black Foxes, Blackalachian, and Unlikely Hikers, are leading the way to make the outdoors more accessible for all. These changes are pushing companies like REI to be more inclusive and share stories like Pedal Through.

Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Via Alena Klimas.

In the same vein, the Blue Ridge Parkway offers something that is particularly exceptional for national parks: accessibility and access for nature lovers of any persuasion or ability. Many of the tall peaks of the parkway have accessible paved paths or ramps, like Clingman’s Dome and Mount Mitchell’s peak, and a full list is available on the National Park Service website. Even simply driving along the parkway will blow visitors away with awe, and offer many trail and roadside views.

Parkway Pick Me Up Coffee. Via Alena Klimas. 

Businesses are also buying into the power of the parkway with their branding and local connection. The Pisgah Coffee Roasters company in Pisgah Forest, North Carolina, for example, has used the landscape and system trails to brand their products. Notably, the “Parkway Pick Me Up” roast is characterized by the experience of driving along the parkway. In Salem, VA, the Parkway Brewing Company is reliant on tourists to visit after a run or hike, and is known for their “Get Bent IPA.” The company’s description says it all:

“We love our home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and we love the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469 mile scenic journey of mountainous wonder that showcases the natural beauty and unique heritage of our region.

Beautiful vistas, distinctive music, oddball characters and fantastical folklore are just a few of the things that make our home a special place. It’s enough to make a person mighty thirsty.”

The parkway significantly shapes the tourism and recreation industries, nearby towns, and community identity in Appalachia. The Blue Ridge Parkway, and the national parks and forests of Appalachia, offers a road to prosperity and reconnection to nature, which many folks need in these highly digital times. It is hard to imagine the bustling recreation hubs of Asheville, NC and Roanoke, VA without this national project. 

This year has seen an incredible increase in park visitors and outdoor recreation sales. With this momentum, perhaps it’s time for the federal government to invest again in the people of the Appalachian mountains and in long-lasting infrastructure based on the natural landscape.

Bad Fork Valley Overlook, North Carolina section of the parkway overlooking Pisgah National Forest. Via Alena Klimas.

Furthermore, outdoor recreation doesn’t need to center or build on some huge attraction. The parkway presents another strategy: Finding ways to connect and showcase the natural assets already in Appalachia. Every mile of the parkway feels remarkable and accessible in its own way. It’s not just the flashy summits or attractions that make the Blue Ridge Parkway a lovely experience—it is all the curves that lead to overlooks of the vast, often-empty landscapes. Take the Bad Fork Valley Overlook above, a gem that is just one of many along the road. Its worth is immeasurable in the community, pride, and happiness it brings to locals and tourists alike. 

Since the 1930s, the Appalachian mountains haven’t seen such an ambitious outdoor recreation infrastructure project. Some recent regional outdoor recreation projects stand out as notable, like the Pittsburgh, PA to Parkersburg, WV Rail Trail (P2P),  but no other road or trail project captures the scale of the Blue Ridge Parkway. In the 1930s this project, along with the building of the national parks system, was a feat that many people would have considered impossible, too expensive, or overly ambitious. 

But much of Appalachia’s basis for its tourism economy relies on those New Deal projects or federal government management—Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains, New River Gorge National River, Shenandoah National Park, and Nantahala National Forest, Daniel Boone National Forest, to name a few. 

Accessible peak of Mount Mitchell. Via Alena Klimas.

Despite the election-year drama and political animosity between the parties, the outdoors and parks are a bipartisan issue. Sure, each party may have different ideas about funding or use, but both broadly support the national parks. On August 9th, the Great American Outdoors Act, passed with bipartisan support, demonstrated this by adding permanent funding for maintenance of the National Parks System, which hosts over 325 million visitors annually. Either way, the wind blows this November, we should continue to advocate for ambitious nature preservation and recreation projects that can create prosperity, community, and opportunity for all in Appalachia.

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Alena Klimas is a trail enthusiast based in western North Carolina. Klimas is a co-founder of expatalachians and co-manages the weekly Newsletter.

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