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Asheville, North Carolina and Blue Ridge Parkway

Asheville, North Carolina and Blue Ridge Parkway

Old Jul 1st, 2022, 09:38 AM
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Asheville, North Carolina and Blue Ridge Parkway

This was a very short 3 day road trip from Atlanta area, meant to be a chance to see the Smokies and visit the Biltmore Estates, with Asheville suburb as the base.

This mountains trip was oddly hard to plan, not like the Cades Cove/Smoky Mountains National Park one (with Townsend, TN for lodging) last year – there is a lot of information out there about the Blue Ridge Parkway (which is a national park) but we seemed to have a hard time visualizing it. Everything seemed to be about driving the entire route and in the opposite direction; my normal routine of having a book guide was ineffectual.

We took a “long route” to Asheville from Atlanta so that we could get on the Parkway west of Asheville, at Balsam Gap, joining where Highways 23 and 74 intersect near Waynesville, but it made for a tiring day. Views were good, temperature fine, there were enough pull offs and picnic spots that we were able to take breaks. I had envisioned a slightly more commercial and busier parkway but no complaints; it really did feel like we had entered a much shadier, more peaceful world when we turned onto the Parkway. I am guessing that the middle of the week, the third week of June, is not peak season by any means. We never got behind another vehicle; it was very leisurely driving.

Unfortunately, we entered the Parkway at a far distance from any type of Visitor Center so we were sort of on our own for the drive. We stopped for a picnic (lots of picnic tables at the pullout spots but not bathrooms of any kind). Then we left the parkway briefly, to get to the federally run Cradle of Forestry site and did a short 30 minute trail that highlighted the Vanderbilt sponsored forestry school, the first one in the United States. It was 4:00 in the afternoon though and this was at a lower elevation than some of the spots so we didn't stay as long as we might have. $6 entry fee per person.

The main “picture in my head” from the drive was at the pullout where we had a view of the Biltmore itself as the only visible building, and quite a grand one, just sitting in the mountains. Biltmore was the largest private residence ever built in the country, far larger than the Hearst Castle or the White House.

I had hoped that we would have time to detour to see the inn at Mt. Pisgah or stop at the North Carolina Arboretum but time didn't allow for that. The Arboretum has enough of a "parking fee" that a short visit didn't seem practical.

Our Airb&b was in the little town of Woodfin, just north of Asheville. House was in a former industrial area, on the French Broad River. Across from us was a huge red brick former cotton mill complex that has been made over into offices. The house itself shared a steep driveway with neighbor (houses close together). Never saw neighbor but they had 2 chickens that were roaming free. The house itself was probably built around 1900, probably as a mill supervisor’s home, had some nice "old house" touches but modern kitchen and bathroom.

The river was in back of the mill, with a little public access spot, so I could walk back there. There was a nice riverside park, maybe ½ mile away that would have been in walking distance if there had been sidewalks. We saw paddle boarders and kayakers on the river the Friday evening we visited it.

We picked up very good Thai food from nearby restaurant (Siam Thai) for that evening.

Next morning we had a 10:15 reservation for Biltmore House tour. It was the hottest day of the week, unfortunately, and sunny. The road entry into the Biltmore, designed by Frederick Olmstead, was just as lovely and relaxing as promised; and because summer is not their “high season”, we did get into a nearby parking lot. We had time to walk around the Italian garden in front of the house before our reservation time. We did have to stand in line in the sun for 10-15 minutes before we actually got in the house (which was cool, thanks to some air conditioning, fans and good design).

The conservatory is what you see when you first walk in and it is lovely; all the palms and big plants, the light pouring in from the skylights. What a joy it must have been in the winter. On through their entertainment rooms, the huge dining/banquet room, walls hung with tapestries. I didn’t really envy them that room but the breakfast room was delightful, a round table with seating for 10-12 next to fireplace, set with lovely china, then at other end of room, cushioned window seats with little tables nearby and glass doors that opened onto the balcony. I could have just spent my whole summer out on that huge balcony.

The music room was unfinished during George Vanderbilt’s lifetime (he died in 1916, house opened in 1895 after years of construction). There was the tapestry hall then leading to the library, which originally held 10,000 volumes all personally selected by George Vanderbilt, who was considered the best read man of his times. You could see the doors on the library’s second floor that offered guests access from the halls of the guest wing. Lots of paneling and dark wood, cozy fireplace and many comfortable wing chairs.

Edith Vanderbilt’s bedroom was beautiful, with lovely views of the mountains but I didn’t envy George his room although it was very large and full of heavy, ornate furniture.

The guest rooms on the 2nd floor were all very nice, remarkable though more for the number of them than the décor. And interestedly, the many bathrooms were quite plain although large. (Edith Wharton was a frequent guest, Henry James an occasional one.)

George Vanderbilt appreciated art and had an extensive collection of prints; many of them are displayed on various walls but with poor lighting, other people and ropes to keep you a bit away from the walls, it is hard to properly appreciate them.

The kitchens, pantries and cold cellars were fascinating to me – seems the Vanderbilts had a French chef and he did not eat with the rest of the servants but at his own small personal table. The servant rooms, even though they were in the basement, were nice – last time we came, we took an extra “behind the scenes” tour and saw the 4th floor servants rooms which were more cramped than these.

Also in the basement was the huge pool, exercise room, bowling alley and what was called the “Halloween” room with murals on it painted by the guests at a 1925 New Year’s party – room now set up with exhibits about the building of the house.

We did a trip to the Biltmore back about 2008 and were there in late May, when it was cooler. We enjoyed the gardens very much that time and took several walks in different places on the estate. But this time, when we went down the hill into the main gardens, it was 1:00 and very sunny. We walked through a couple of the gardens and briefly through the wonderful conservatory but we wilted fast.

We had tickets for the “Monet and Friends” immersive exhibition at their Events Center – I’m a big fan of the Impressionists but this show was not as wonderful as the Van Gogh one I saw in Atlanta. There were only 2 big rooms; one with the “immersive” film loop running with huge projections on all walls and floors and then an exhibition room that was timelines of all the Impressionist artists.

Because I am a fan and because I knew enough to recognize many of the paintings and artists, I did enjoy it but not sure if I would recommend it. The film loop for Van Gogh was probably 10-15 minutes and there were chairs in the room, it wasn’t crowded. No chairs at all in the Monet room, we didn’t know going in that it was a 48 minute loop (with no start and no finish). There were benches but not enough, room felt very crowded. I sat on the floor for at least 30 minutes and then, finally, managed to heave myself up and get an empty bench spot.

We then went to the estate village, revived ourselves with ice cream, visited the museum about the Vanderbilt family and then went to the most charming (but hot) outdoor “botanical & model train” exhibit – there were “botanical models” of the important places the Vanderbilts had visited in their lives (Taj Mahal, Hagia Sophia, Mayan temples, Buddhist temples in Thailand, the Great Pyramid, the Great Wall, etc.) and then trains running by them, over them, all around them. It was hot and sunny for that, too.

The winery at the Biltmore is a big deal but not my thing. Biltmore is unusual in that it is entirely privately owned, designed to make a profit and receives no federal or state grants or subsidies.

I read The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan before the trip; it is an enjoyable nf account of the life of George and Edith Vanderbilt with lots of background on the Biltmore and Asheville itself.

Moe's Original Barbeque for dinner (also picked up as we got back into Woodfin.) Friday, we drove north from Woodfin to connect to the Elk Mountain Scenic Highway and then joined a different section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was partially cloudy and cooler; also mountains just naturally cooler than Asheville, much more pleasant temperatures than at the Biltmore. This was my favorite day.

We stopped at the Craggy Gardens Visitor Center about 9:45, where it was very foggy and we couldn’t even see the Craggy Mountain Pinnacle (which has a trail that we were meaning to take, just for the view). Luckily, we met a real live ranger who advised us to wait until later in the day for that trail and to go on the Visitor Center trail first. Not a fancy visitor center, we used a portable potty here but glad to get trail maps and finally the official map of the Blue Ridge Parkway itself.

Lovely trail. Most of the rhododendron, mountain laurels, native azaleas were through blooming but there were still pockets of them with gorgeous flowers. We took a spur trail that let us wander around on a bald (which had low shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers). There was a guide out on the bald with about 6 or 7 yoga students, leading a class.

The fog would come and go so that at some outlook spots we could get a view, some we couldn’t. About 11:30, we drove to the nearby picnic spot & took another short trail hike before we decided that at 2:00, the mountain crest would be at its best. It was a short drive back to Pinnacle trail and took us no more than 30 minutes to huff and puff up there – great fun to feel the fog roll over us and catch the views as different sides would momentarily clear.

Do plan on picnics and bring your food & water when exploring the Parkway. Maybe other sections have more entry and exit points but our 2 short sections were very limited, which was fine but you need to be prepared.

I was hoping we could take one of the Elk Mountain forest trails, that are part of North Carolina’s Mountains to the Sea trail system, on the return route to Woodfin but time didn't permit. We did take a very short side detour to visit the free North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance Birthplace historic site (restored to the early 1830s).

Vance was a Civil War governor; then re-elected after Reconstruction, later a Senator. They did a good job at the site of telling the story of the 10-12 enslaved people that belonged to the Vances & making the point that Asheville & the Vances transitioned from an economy that had slaves to a slave-based economy in the 1850s.

We also stopped at the Audubon Sanctuary on Beaver Pond that was just 3-4 miles from our Airb&b. It had a nice trail, with observation points.

Final night at the Airb&b we had assorted leftovers for supper and then drove down to the riverside park. The French Broad is so pretty, a greenish color, very wide.

We stopped at the Biltmore Village on the way out of Asheville, mainly to see the Anglican church that George Vanderbilt had built but there was a wedding starting so we couldn’t go in or even get very close to it.

I enjoyed Asheville; it did not have heavy traffic so that was a relief – maybe we should have visited the artsy section but we didn’t. We had seen the Grove Park Inn, the Thomas Wolfe House and a few other places on our previous visit.

Wish we had been on the Parkway section nearest Asheville itself that has the large Visitor's Center and the Folk Art Center but maybe on another trip. I would highly recommend taking this particular trip in late May or early June both to have cooler temperatures at the Biltmore but also to see more of the mountain blooms.
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Old Jul 1st, 2022, 09:51 AM
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Thanks for this delightful trip report. I visited the Biltmore, Asheville and the western North Carolina mountains for the first time last year and really enjoyed the detail you provided in the report. You capture nicely what makes that area of the country special!
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Old Jul 1st, 2022, 10:24 AM
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Excellent trip report. Thank you so much.
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Old Jul 2nd, 2022, 08:22 AM
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The North Carolina mountains are fairly close for me but I still am so impressed with their many, many kinds of trees & flowers. I wish I could have seen them in the days when the American Chestnut was common there. These mountains are very different from the Rockies.

Later this month I will be in Quebec City, the furthest north I will have ever visited, and am looking forward to a different landscape there.
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Old Jul 3rd, 2022, 03:56 PM
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Hi CLBTravel,

I am from Montreal and have been up by Quebec City on a number of occasions. The landscapes are indeed quite different in that part of the world relative to western North Carolina; I think and hope you will enjoy! The Charlevoix region is really gorgeous.

Happy travels

Daniel

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