Pedaling the Blue Ridge Parkway: The Dream I Thought I Had

Welcome to the Blue Ridge Parkway

This past Saturday, Felkerino and I capped off our weeklong bike tour of southern Virginia with two days on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Below is a map of the segment we toured, which extended from Floyd to the northern edge of the Parkway in Waynesboro, Virginia. As you can see, we covered slightly more than 150 miles of the parkway.

Blue Ridge Parkway. Floyd, Virginia in lower left-hand corner, to Waynesboro on upper right.

During our two days, we managed the aggressive traffic around Roanoke (motorists use that secton of the Parkway as a cut-through as opposed to a scenic byway), overnighted at the lodge at Peaks of Otter, and after a hearty breakfast (best pancakes I’ve had in a while) climbed our way to Apple Orchard Mountain, the highest part of the parkway in Virginia at 3950 feet.

We then plummeted to the James River, which rests at 649 feet, the lowest elevation of the entire parkway. The road rose back up to a height of over 2500 feet, and along the ups and downs of the ridge. At Humpback Rocks, we began to steadily descend and the parkway prepared to release us into Waynesboro.

Reaching Apple Orchard Mountain on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Luckily, we did not have to contend with any severe weather during our two parkway days, only some clouds and a few raindrops. With the exception of the area near Roanoke, the threatening weather kept traffic to a minimum, which allowed us to focus more fully on riding.

Until this trip, I’d dreamed that Felkerino and I would ride all 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway on some future tour. We’d take a week or so and make it happen. I envisioned myself changed into a stronger cyclist after such a ride, and thought how thrilled I’d be to check off bicycling the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway as one of my cycling accomplishments.

Taking a break at one of the overlooks

After this tour, however, I’m not so sure about this dream of mine. While rolling through the sections of parkway last week, I found myself vacilating between how incredible our ride was and wondering when it would end.

With the exception of a few miles near the James River, the road canted distinctly up or down. While there were no steep grades, there were also no easy rollers or sections of recovery. We constantly worked, concentrating on climbing and then getting into the drops as we rapidly lost elevation, only to begin going up again. That type of effort is not a bad thing, but not necessarily what I would want to do for days on end for, say, 469 miles.

Maybe it’s lazy of me, but while I like being physically active and climbing up and down mountains and ridges (it’s one of the only ways to get a breathtaking view, right?), I’m a big fan of variety. Climb a mountain and then enjoy some mellow ups and downs. Take a road that smoothly follows a meandering creek for several miles. Get surprised by that sweet little roller that you dip into and crest with scarcely one pedal stroke. Stop at an intersection that compels a turn and invites exploration.

Climbing away on the Blue Ridge

In addition to the varied terrain preference, neither Felkerino nor I are big on camping (which I admit we should probably address) meaning that lodging and food become an issue, especially when pondering a full Blue Ridge Parkway tour.

There is some lodging on the parkway itself, and often there are hotels close to the parkway. However, many of these require riders to descend for the night and then grind their way up again the following day to resume their parkway progress. That expends a lot of energy and time.

Felkerino and I learned that food is sparse along many segments of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had to exit the parkway into the outskirts of Roanoke one day and contend with hideous car traffic just to grab a sandwich. The next place to eat on the parkway after Roanoke was 50 miles up the road (Peaks of Otter), too far for us to keep going given what we carried in our pockets. We should have planned ahead and packed sandwiches for the day, but we did not realize how harried the entry into Roanoke would be.

From Peaks of Otter, mile 85, to the northern tip of the parkway at mile zero, there were no on-parkway services. There was a little store/restaurant four miles from the James River Visitors’ Center at mile post 60, but no other nearby food options until Waynesboro.

Blue Ridge Parkway stop. Bathrooms, water, and picnic tables

The parkway used to have more services along it, but apparently many of those businesses were not sustainable. Where restaurants and “pop stops” used to be, now only water and bathrooms remain.

This lack of services made the Blue Ridge Parkway a peaceful place to ride in many ways, but it was also isolating. Dealing with minimal services and limited lodging requires a different kind of mindset and preparation. Right now, I don’t see myself enjoying an all-Blue Ridge Parkway, all the time, bike tour.

I like rides where the day is interspersed with towns and stops for breakfast or lunch at little cafes or even country convenience stores. Certainly we could check out the surrounding towns during a Blue Ridge Parkway tour, but the thought of descending a thousand feet only to have to regain it to resume course is daunting.

Riding the Blue Ridge. Nothing but blue sky ahead.

Our days spent on the Blue Ridge Parkway were a highlight of our tour in many ways. The climbs were long, but the grades were not cruel in their steepness. It was an awesome feeling to pedal clear of the trees, round a bend with only blue sky in front of us, and then catch sight of the deep blue of the mountains off in the distance and the green pillowy valleys laid out below. One scenic overlook after another regularly reminded us of how high we were.

One last tour memory on the Blue Ridge Parkway

But what I thought was my dream ride turns out not to be at this point in my life. At least, not as I initially envisioned it. Perhaps if Felkerino and I have the opportunity to take an extended tour that traverses both the full 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway and allows for excursions to the small towns nearby, it will become a dream again.

This realization came initially as a disappointment, but after a few days of reflection, it doesn’t feel so bad. I still dream about riding the Blue Ridge Parkway, and for now the majestic parkway snippets we manage to weave into our touring satisfy my parkway dream.

13 thoughts on “Pedaling the Blue Ridge Parkway: The Dream I Thought I Had

  1. Were you on major roads the entire way? That would probably scare me off a trip like that. I don’t think I’d like to struggle up mountains with impatient cars behind me. Kudos to you both for sure!

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  2. Congrats on getting a taste of the BRP and realizing that it’s not what you really enjoy when it comes to touring. Better now than after you’ve planned and started an end-to-end ride. If you have the time/inclination/money you should consider touring the UK, Ireland or France (outside of PBP). You’re constantly moving from one village to another during the day, there’s sufficient climbing to keep things interesting, and plenty of vistas due to pasturage.

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    1. I definitely second the idea of riding around Ireland. Lovely, lovely countryside, villages interspersed throughout, friendly people, and great beer every night. ‘Twas a magical week my husband and I spent riding through Counties Kerry and Cork.

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  3. I know what you mean about the constant up and down of the parkway become tiresome. In 85 I had spent 6 months bike touring in Europe. When I returned I was going to bike from DC to Roanoke to get my car and things I had stored in my sister house. The plan was to head to Front Royal then down the Skyline drive and the parkway to Roanoke. I got so tired of the parkway that when I dropped off of it in Waynesboro to get food I just stayed in the valley following the bike-centennial route. Which I enjoyed much more.

    I always felt I was less of a person for it and am glad to know I am not the only one.

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    1. Right? I got this “must stay on the parkway” mentality going and then realized, hey, it’s not a big deal if you choose to ride elsewhere. I want to ride more of the bike-centennial route, too!

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  4. Do ride the Parkway. But you do have to have the ‘correct” mindset.

    DON’T do it on a tandem. DON’T do it the heat of Summer. DON’T even contemplate it during Leaf Viewing Season. I recommend camping and riding in September: http://irregularveloadventures.blogspot.com/2010/09/sep-11-thru-17-blue-ridge-parkway.html .

    We encountered almost NO traffic when we went around Roanoke. That may have been a time-of-day thing. We were either lucky, or Dave planned better than I knew.

    It WILL make you stronger. My friend Dave went from hanging-on during our Saturday group rides to ripping-them-apart.

    Consider creating your own small group to lug the baggage in a vehicle. That would solve the logistics acquisition problem, and non-cycling group members would likely see more sights than the cycling members. .

    A couple fracquaintances did the Parkway, fully loaded for camping, in July, but it was so hot they stayed at motels. Gosh, that was 5-years ago, already: http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/?o=1&doc_id=2546&v=PT

    They still enjoyed their experience. There may have been more services then — I dunno’.

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  5. I rode the whole parkway S to N a few years ago and you are right, only flat section I recall was at the NC – VA border. Not the best tandem terrain, long steady slogs. I picked up a book on the BRP and mapped services since there is no signage at all. Isn’t there a restaurant at the Otter Creek Campground north of PoO?

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    1. Hey, Kelly! There used to be a restaurant there, but it apparently closed a couple of years ago. National Park Service staff said they hoped it would be up and running next year, but they weren’t certain.

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  6. I’m with you, MG. I personally find the BRP boring after a while. Yes, there are spectacular views, but to me it’s a service-free, up/down monotony after a while.

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  7. I rode a 30 mile section of it during a short stay near there in the summer near Buena Vista, or as the locals call it, “boona veesta”. The climb up to the parkway was grueling, and as if to add insult to injury, having reached the parkway, it immediately turned skyward for another mile. Thankfully, it wasn’t unbearably steep. None of the roads were, but it was a test of mental endurance to ride these “ultra-rollers”, either descending for a minute or so or ascending for many more. It’s the wrong part of the country if you’re trying to find a flat road.

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