Drive along the Parkway.

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It was a gorgeous day so I took the car up the Blue Ridge Parkway again.  I never get tired of its views.   This activity is so relaxing to me.

The first picture (above) I took at Craggy Gardens, which has an elevation well over 5000 feet.  The trees here are stunted, short, and knobby looking, due to both the cold and the wind.  A little higher up, and deciduous trees disappear completely and are replaced by a spruce/fir forest, similar to what you might see in Canada.  This is the home of the Frasier fir, similar to the kinds of trees you find in a northern boreal forest, but native to the southern Appalachians.  The Frasiers were almost killed off some years ago by the wooly adelgid, a parasite that attacks balsams, hemlocks, and fir trees, but they have grown back.  You can still see the white “skeletons” of the dead trees here.  Contrasted against the deep green of the live trees, they give the scenery an eerie feel.

The next four pictures are from Mt. Mitchell (the highest peak east of the Mississippi, just a little higher than Mt. Washington in New Hampshire), in the Black Mountains, the range of the Blue Ridge having the highest peaks.  The sign shows the elevation I was at when I took the picture.

There’s a road that branches off from the Parkway and continues to climb until you get to the parking area, which isn’t far from the summit.   It’s interesting to observe the changes in both microclimate and the ecosystem as you go higher.  It was a hot day, in the low 80s, but at the top of Mt. Mitchell, it was a frosty 55!  It was also interesting to me that the last deciduous trees, just before you reach the all conifer forest (taiga) were not merely stubby and short, but were also only just starting to turn green.  At this high an elevation, it looked (and felt!) more like March or early April than the end of May!   They probably aren’t even fully green until the end of next month, and of course winter comes here early too.  The trees here are green probably for only about 3 or 4 months or so, maybe from June until September.  Brrr!   I wonder how high a mountain would have to be this far South for the trees to disappear completely and be replaced with tundra.  Of course, there aren’t any mountains that high here.  I remember back in the 1980s, when I climbed Mt. Washington in New Hampshire with some friends.  Mt. Washington is almost the same height as Mt. Mitchell, but the last few hundred feet or so was a stark, grayish tundra.

The last three pictures are from farther up the Parkway, near Grandfather Mountain and Linville Gorge.   As you can see from the tree types, this is not as high an elevation, though it’s still pretty high.

 

Mount Mitchell State Park: 

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Grandfather Mountain/Linville Gorge area: 

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I have to say, I think these are some of the best pictures I’ve taken of Blue Ridge Parkway scenery.

 

Autumn’s last gasp: day trip on the Parkway.

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Looking up toward Craggy Dome, 6105 ft.

Down here in the southern Appalachians, the trees still have some color (a few are even still mostly green!)  I’m also happy to say that once October came, the trees seemed to be more colorful than they have been in the past several years.   Perhaps this was due to the very rainy July and August, followed by a very dry September.   It’s also been unseasonably warm (though not hot).  So I actually found myself appreciating Fall more this year.

This is my second drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway since fall started, and I’m happy to say the weather this time was much more pleasant than the last time.   This time I decided to drive north on the Parkway (last time we drove south, to Mount Pisgah),  with the intention of making it to the Virginia border.

But I got a very late start (it was almost 1:00 when I started out) and drove as far as I could to leave myself enough time to drive back before it got too dark.   I made it as far as the Blowing Rock/Boone area , which is about 120 miles north from where I live.

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The parkway begins to climb when you enter the Black Mountains, on its way to Mount Mitchell, the highest peak on the East Coast.   I chewed gum to relieve the popping in my ears.  As you climb, the trees become shorter and scrubbier, almost like shrubs.  At that high an elevation, that’s as high as deciduous trees can grow.  Their short and slightly twisted stature helps them conserve energy and protects them from the high winds.  At that high elevation, the air is colder and the trees were completely winter-bare–except that many of these trees are sporting clusters of bright red  berries!    Craggy Gardens, several miles south of Mount Mitchell, is filled with wild evergreen rhododendrons and all those attractive red-berried small trees.

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I had the radio on while I drove, and kept switching stations.   I settled on a country station that was playing this song about driving on backroads so I left it on and sang along while driving.

As you drive farther, you can see the rather sharp delineation (around 5,500 feet) where the conifers and fir trees (taiga zone) begin to take over from the last stunted deciduous trees.   That high up, the climate is too cold for even deciduous trees to survive.   At the tops of the peaks of the Black Mountain range, there are nothing but dark conifers, which gives the mountains the black appearance that inspired their name.    The starkness of the landscape this time of year gives it a primordial feel and you are stuck by just how ancient these mountains are (they are the oldest mountain range in the world: millions of years ago, they were as high as the Sierras).

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Once you pass through the Blacks, the road descends and your ears start to  pop again.  For about 30 miles the landscape is pretty, but not that exciting.  There are a few spectacular views from the various outlooks, where people stop to take pictures or take a break from driving.   The deciduous trees took over again, but this far north, I noticed they were almost completely bare and did not show the color the trees farther south did.    I realized that even though I’d only driven about 70 or 80 miles by this point, I’d probably entered a more northerly “hardiness” zone.   The landscape had a decidedly more “northern” look even though I was still in North Carolina (and would be for some time, since I live very close to the South Carolina border).

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I drove about another 50 miles and passed through another mountain range almost as high and impressive as the Blacks with a more rugged appearance (Linville Gorge Wilderness).  Grandfather Mountain is here,  just outside of Marion, and I remembered my son went on an Outward Bound expedition here as his 8th grade school trip and how much that experience seemed to change and mature him.   By this point I was picking up a rock station out of Winston-Salem, so I left that on for awhile.   I also found another station–an oldies station that plays only music from the 50s and 60s!  (I didn’t think those existed anymore!)

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I kept driving, and the landscape leveled out again.   I passed through areas where you could actually see private homes and farms from off the Parkway (closer to where I live, the Parkway’s surrounded by the Pisgah National Forest, so you cannot see private homes or property from the road).   It looked like winter here, even though the temperature wasn’t that cold.   When I reached the Blowing Rock/Boone area, I decided it was time to turn around and go back.  It was already close to 3:30 and since I have such terrible night vision and knew it would be getting dark by 6 (we set the clocks back tonight, folks) that I could go no further.   My bladder was about to burst!  I stopped back at Craggy Gardens to pee, but had to use their Port-a-Potty because the visitor center was closed.

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I arrived home just after sunset.   I love driving on the Parkway; it’s always so relaxing and spiritually uplifting, no matter what time of year I go.

Clearing my head.

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I needed to clear my head today.  Sitting around the house does me no good at all and it’s easy to sink into negative emotions like depression and worry.    I knew I had to get out for awhile.  Fortunately I live very close to the Blue Ridge Parkway, so I decided to take a nice long Sunday drive.   I decided to go up into the Black Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge just north and east of Asheville.

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I drove about 60 miles, to Green Knob, which is about 15 miles past Mt. Mitchell (at 6,683 feet, it is the highest peak on the East Coast, even higher than Mt. Washington in New Hampshire).  I was going to go up to Mt. Mitchell and take some pictures, but I took one look at the line of traffic on the off road going up there and said, “no way.”   There are other spots just as nice.

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The drive up there is always interesting.   As you climb, you feel your ears pop, and the air gets noticeably cooler.   I was able to turn off my A/C and roll down the windows and breathe in the fresh mountain air.    After awhile, the deciduous trees get shorter and stumpier, until they are mere twisted shrubs.   Craggy Gardens is filled with these stunted little trees and lots of wild rhododendrons, which are native to this area.   When they’re in full bloom, they have beautiful, big lavender clusters of flowers.   Right now they’re just dark green.

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Climb a little higher, and the deciduous trees and shrubs are completely replaced by conifers.    I’ve been told the climate up here is similar to southern Canada.   There’s a lot of ice and snow here in the winter and this part of the Parkway is usually closed off during the cold months.   Mt. Mitchell itself is covered with the skeletons of the Frasier firs, which were indigenous to this area but died off about 30 years ago due to an aphid infestation. But it isn’t all bare–there are other types of conifers that are surviving quite nicely.

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On the drive home, it rained a little–some of the photos here show the building up of the storm clouds.   I got home and felt much more at peace.  Spending time with nature always has that affect on me.   Here are the rest of the photos I took today.

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Snow and sky.

I took some photos around Asheville, North Carolina yesterday and today. Yesterday’s photos are the sunny ones. Today’s are the ones with the trippy looking sky. It’s warmed up quite a bit, with temperatures above freezing for the first time in a week.

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If you click this photo to make it larger and look closely at the left hand side where the land meets the sky, you can see the top of Mount Mitchell, part of the Black Mountain range of the Blue Ridge, and the highest peak on the East Coast. It’s covered with snow.

Other snowy photos from yesterday:

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The sky is on hallucinogens! (these photos are from today)
These photos don’t quite capture the almost otherworldly weirdness of the sky today. These are not storm clouds. I don’t know the name of these wavy clouds but they are shaped by wind currents.
Click the photos to enlarge.

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