Doggin’ The Blue Ridge Parkway
Begun as a Depression-era public works project, the Blue Ridge Parkway was America's first rural parkway. When ultimately completed it was also the nation's longest - 469 miles of uninterrupted mountain roads linking Shenandoah National Park in the north to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south. The Blue Ridge Parkway is far and away the most popular destination in the National Park System - more than 19 million recreation visits per year. One of the explanations for its enduring popularity could be that the Blue Ridge is also one of America's most dog-friendly destinations.
Designed for leisurely motoring, the speed limit never exceeds 45 mph on the Parkway and roadside parking is permitted on the shoulders the entire way. Much of the beautiful road is lined by low stone walls. At times the route shrinks to scarcely 25 yards in width. You will never see a billboard and scarcely any development. Parks and recreation areas - several spanning thousands of acres - appear roughly every 30 miles, although most are located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the 355 miles that comprise the northern part of the route. The lower 114 miles wind through the powerful Black Mountains, named for the dark green spruce that cover the massive slopes, and they offer more limited leg-stretching opportunities.
There is no reason for you and the dog to enjoy the Blue Ridge solely through your car windows. Dogs are allowed on the more than 100 varied trails throughout the Blue Ridge Parkway, ranging from easy valley strolls to demanding mountain summit hikes. Travelers and canine hikers can spend a week motoring on the Parkway and barely sample all its treasures. And it is no trouble to slow down and take as much time as you like on the trails - all the nine first come, first served campgrounds on the Parkway welcome dogs. You will find many of the inns and restaurants in the small towns that flank the Parkway to be dog-friendly as well.
Tracing the route from the north, an early highlight comes within the first ten miles at the Humpback Rocks where the Greenstone Nature Trail leads to the unusually shaped boulders. A strenuous climb accesses the Appalachian Trail in another two miles. Canine hikers will look forward to the Peaks of Otter, in the vicinity of the highest mountains on the Virginia section of the Parkway, beginning around the 75-mile mark. Three mountains - Sharp Top (3,875 feet), Flat Top (4,004 feet), and Harkening Hill (3,364 feet) comprise the Peaks of Otter, a popular hiking destination since Colonial days when Thomas Jefferson was an enthusiastic visitor. The 4.4-mile trail to the Flat Top summit is graded most of the way until jumbled rocks provide athletic dogs a tail-wagging workout.
Also in the Peaks of Otter are a quick loop hike threading through rhododendron and mountain laurel on Onion Mountain and the 1.6-mile loop of the Fallingwater Cascades National Scenic Trail. Both offer splendid views in exchange for moderate effort. At the 167-mile mark comes Rocky Knob, with 15 miles of trails across 4,800 acres. The marquee walk here is the rugged 10.8-mile Rock Castle Gorge National Recreation Trail. Just down the road is picturesque Mabry Mill with an easy, self-guiding trail spiced with interpretive exhibits and in-season demonstrations on rural Appalachian life. Water-powered Mabry Mill is the most photographed landmark on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The first canine hiking after the Parkway crosses the Virginia state line into North Carolina comes on Cumberland Knob at the 217.5-mile mark. A quick 15-minute loop here leads to the knob and a more challenging 2-mile loop that traces Gully Creek. Next up is 7,000-acre Doughton Park, the largest recreation area on the Blue Ridge Parkway. More than 30 miles of trail and a dog-friendly campground are the prime attractions here.
The Moses H. Cone Memorial Park is a popular stopping point for relaxing or exploring. Many miles of horse and carriage trails jump off from the Historic Cone Manor House and many more trails crisscross neighboring Julian Price Memorial Park, which includes Price Lake, one of the few lakes along the Parkway. Even if hiking isn't on your itinerary when you reach this spot, you will want to stop and sit on the Manor House lawn with your dog and take in the views. In another 10 miles you cross the Linn Cove Viaduct, an engineering marvel skirting the side of Grandfather Mountain. Ground was broken on the Blue Ridge Parkway on September 11, 1935 at Cumberland Knob on the North Carolina-Virginia border, near the mid-point of the proposed route. By 1967 all but seven and one-half of its 469 miles were complete. The final section, around the rocky slopes of Grandfather Mountain, one of the world's oldest mountains, would not be finished until 1987.
To finish the Parkway without massive cuts and fills on the fragile mountainside would call for the most complicated concrete bridge ever built - the serpentine Linn Viaduct. The 12 bridges of the Viaduct were constructed from the top down at an elevation of 4100 feet to eliminate the need for a pioneer road. In fact, the only trees cut down during the entire project were those directly beneath the roadbed. The only construction on the ground was the drilling of seven permanent piers upon which the Viaduct rests. Exposed rock was even covered to present staining from the concrete epoxy binding the precast sections. To further minimize the intrusion on the mountain, concrete mixes were tinted with iron oxide to blend with existing outcroppings. Trails lead to views underneath this engineering marvel and access the 13.5-mile Tanawha Trail from Beacon Heights to Julian Price Park. You and the dog can pick your way along an interpretive trail to close-up views of the Viaduct.
A most-anticipated highlight of the Blue Ridge Parkway will be the upcoming Linville Gorge, one of the most remote locations in the Appalachians. Unblazed trails lead deep into the wilderness but most canine hikers will stick to the two main hiking trails surrounding Linville Falls. Erwins View Trail is a sporty walk that takes in four distinct overlooks of the plunging waters in its .8-mile journey. More challenging is the hike on the opposite side of the water into the gorge that descends through a virgin hemlock forest via a switchback to the water's edge beneath the Falls. This is a great place for a doggie dip.
South of Linville Falls the elevations climb and the canine hiking opportunities fade away. Craggy Pinnacle Trail at 364.4 miles is a narrow ridge trail that tunnels through purple rhododendron to a hilltop opening in a veritable sea of trees. A second moderate trail here is the Craggy Gardens nature trail. Nearby, a spur road leads up Mount Mitchell. Your dog can make the final paved ascent to the 6684-foot summit and stand on the highest point of ground east of the Mississippi River. The mountain was named for Dr. Elisha Mitchell, who fell to his death when trying to prove the actual height of the peak.
The last major recreation area on the Parkway comes south of Asheville at Mount Pisgah, once part of the 125,000-acre Biltmore Estate owned by George W. Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt directed trail building efforts across his vast property to provide access for hunting and horseback riding. It was the first large tract of managed forest land in America. The trail to summit views of Mt.. Pisgah (5,721 feet) is a hardy 1.26-mile climb. While it is not a prime destination for dog owners, you may want to make arrangements to visit the Biltmore Estate, America's largest private home. Construction on the French Renaissance-style mansion began in 1889 and 250 rooms later was finished in 1895. Admission to Biltmore Estate includes a self-guided tour of the non-occupied parts of the house, access to the formal gardens and the Biltmore Estate Winery.
The final gasps for canine hiking on the Blue Ridge Parkway before entering Great Smoky Mountain National Park - where dogs are not allowed on the trails - occur at Milepost 431 where Richard Balsam's self-guiding trail wanders through the remnants of a spruce-fir forest on the highest point on the Parkway (6,047 feet) and at Waterrock Knob at Mile 451.2. Here a mountain trail leads to the knob and its panoramic, 4-state views of the Great Smokies.
Allow yourself three to five days to explore the Blue Ridge Parkway with your dog - a distance that could be covered in six hours of driving on the Interstate. Even that may not be enough time. Don't be surprised if you find yourself wanting to turn around and do it all again.
Doggin’ The Natchez Trace Parkway
Long used by the Natchez, Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians as a hunting path from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River, the Trace became an important trade route with the arrival of European settlers. The French mapped the trail as early as 1733 and enough travelers tramped down the crude trail that it eventually became an important wilderness road for trade. The Natchez Trace was the most-heavily used road of the Old Southwest, dotted with roadhouses and familiar with traders in the Ohio Valley who floated goods down the Mississippi River, sold their flatboats for lumber and rode or walked home on the 400+ miles of the Natchez Trace. The importance of the Trace waned in the early 1800s with the arrival of the steamboat and it gradually quieted to the feel of a country lane.
In the 1930s a 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway between Nashville, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi was begun, by which time much of the original Trace had been destroyed by development. Today, modern-day travelers with dogs can enjoy an unhurried trip through the Old South that traces the route of the original trace...
Just six miles from the Northern terminus just below Nashville comes an engineering highlight in the construction of the Parkway - the innovative Double Arch Bridge that rises 155 feet above the valley. Another dozen miles down the road your dog can sample the Old Trace for the first time on a section cleared by the U.S. Army back in 1801. These chances for leisurely excursions on the historic pathway come at regular intervals, seldom longer than a quarter mile.
In fact, most your outings with your dog along the Parkway will be of the laid-back, strolling variety. Your first campground/picnic area comes a bit more than an hour into your journey at the Meriwether Lewis Site at Milepost 385.9. There are foot trails here for your dog along the Little Swan Creek and a recreation of the rough hewn Grinder’s Inn where the co-captain of the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery and one-time governor of the Louisiana Territory died of unexplained gunshot wounds in 1809.
In another 15 minutes a turn-off takes you along a narrow 2.5-mile road that follows the original trace route. In another hour the Parkway briefly visits the State of Alabama. Your dog’s highlight in his short time in the blank state will probably be at Colbert Ferry where he can enjoy a swim in the Tennessee River. The story goes that George Colbert charged Andrew Jackson $75,000 to ferry his army across the river here during the War of 1812. At Freedom Hills Overlook a steep quarter-mile trail leads to Alabama’s highest point on the Parkway, 800 feet.
Crossing into Mississippi, the Parkway begins its final 300 miles by crossing through the largest state park on the route. Tishomingo State Park, named for a Chickasaw medicine man and warrior, offers plenty of outdoor recreation for your dog. Up ahead is the first city of any note, Tupelo, that was known as Harrisburg in the heyday of the Natchez Trace. You can exit for several attractions here, none too time-consuming. A small one-acre sit on West Main Street marks the Tupelo National Battlefield where Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and withering Delta heat were able to halt a Union advance during the Civil War on April 14, 1864. Civil War buffs can detour from the Parkway for two more significant battlesites at Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee and Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site and Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi. Your dog can also spend a few minutes wandering around the boyhood home of Elvis Presley while in Tupelo.
The next 150 miles of the Parkway, until you reach a break in the road, is mostly a driving stretch punctuated by bits and pieces of the original Trace. Highlights include the Jeff Busby Site, named for Thomas Jefferson Busby, a Congressman from Mississippi who introduced the bill in 1934 to create the Parkway. The Little Mountain Trail crawls about a mile to an overlook from a height of 603 feet, one of the highest on the road. Another must-stop comes at Milepost 122 for a one-mile loop hike through a water tupelo-cypress swamp.
After taking a break from the unfinished Parkway to get around the capital city of Jackson, rejoin the two-lane ribbon for your final 80-mile stretch to the Mississippi River. Short trails lead through mixed pine forests, to nearby waterfalls and old town sites. Pull off to wlak you dog through Port Gibson, a town Ulysses S. Grant declared “too beautiful to burn” during the Civil War. If you haven’t stopped to take your dog through one of the deeply eroded “Sunken Traces” of the original wilderness road yet, your last chance comes at Milepost 41.5.
One of the first inns along the Trace, Mount Locust, has been restored at Milepost 15.5. All along the ancient passageway their have been scattered mounds built by prehistoric people for ceremonies and village sites. The final one to explore comes at Milepost 10.3, the Emerald Mound. Built around 1400, this is America’s second-largest ceremonial mound. It covers nearly eight acres and you can take your dog on the trail right to the top.
And catch one last look at the original Trace presents itself just before the Parkway ends and the antebellum river town of Natchez awaits.
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