Let’s start with the second question because it’s the one I’m hearing most often. “Why isn’t everything on the Blue Ridge Parkway open when I can social distance at a picnic area or campground?” For a little perspective, when the citizens of North Carolina and Virginia were instructed to stay home to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, most all the National Park Service (NPS) staff for the Blue Ridge Parkway went to work at home as well (and many are still working at home). At the beginning of the stay at home timeframe, while the Parkway was fully open, some visitors were congregating at trailheads, leaving overflowing trash bins, and even using the bathroom in inappropriate places because the bathrooms were closed. To protect visitors, staff and natural resources, and follow local, state, federal and CDC guidelines, certain high-use sections of the Parkway were subsequently closed.
The Parkway runs through North Carolina and Virginia and each state is setting its own phases for reopening. The Blue Ridge Parkway is reopening in steps as well, instituting new protocols and procedures to keep staff and visitors safe. In order for the closed portions of the roadway to reopen, debris from fallen rocks and trees had to be moved and lots of mowing needed to occur. The closed portions of the roadway were opened on varying dates in May. For picnic areas and restrooms to reopen, regular annual tasks needed to be completed prior to their opening: mowing, debris removal from any fallen trees, getting water turned back on and water treatment systems back online. Not to mention cleaning and any necessary repair work. Most picnic areas and restrooms along the Parkway opened on June 13. A list of what picnic areas are open, where there are additional porta-potties, and what’s not yet open is here. Unfortunately, some sites along the Parkway may not open this year; exact details have not yet been released.
Other visitor facilities on the Parkway are beginning to open. You can find the status of your favorite places like Pisgah Inn, the Folk Art Center, Moses Cone Craft Center, Blue Ridge Music Center, Mabry Mill, and the Peaks of Otter here. But campgrounds and visitor centers along the Parkway are not yet open and will likely not be open until mid-July or later. Before they can open, seasonal staff must be hired, maintenance and mowing must occur, new plexiglass shields and other safety measures must be implemented, and water must be turned back on and water treatment systems gotten back online. So yes, you can social distance at a campground, and yes, the Park Service staff are working to get the campgrounds open, but they are also trying to keep visitors and staff safe while following the local, state, federal and CDC guidelines that apply across the 469 miles of Parkway in North Carolina and Virginia.
SO, the first question, What CAN I do? Well, there’s still lots of options:
You can hike on Parkway trails. Keep in mind that many of the trails that are accessible from the Parkway are actually on State Park, National Forest, or other land, so make sure to check with the land manager of the area you want to visit before heading out. Have a question on a weekday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.? Call BRPA at 828-670-1924 and we’ll help you with all the information that we have. We have recently added trailheads to our Interactive Map, so if the place you’d like to hike along the Parkway is busy, you can look for another less-busy trailhead nearby. Other great resources for finding trails (keep an eye out for ones that are not highly-trafficked) are Carolina Mountain Club, Romantic Asheville, Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and AllTrails.
You can camp at any number of privately-owned campgrounds found along the Parkway. Most offer varying forms of electric, water, and sewer hookups. They’d love your business! You can find lodging along the Parkway by visiting our Interactive Map and selecting the lodging category you are interested in. Click on the businesses near to your desired location to find out more information. If you’d prefer a public campground, visit recreation.gov, enter the location name (or you can be general and just enter a state such as North Carolina), and enter the dates you’d like to visit, and then click on the colored icons (gray indicates that the site isn’t available) to check the availability of each site in your desired destination. For reservable sites, you can make reservations right on this website. Keep in mind that most public campgrounds (at least in our area) don’t have electric, water, or sewer hookups at each site; some don’t even have showers available.
You can visit many attractions and find lodging along the Parkway. These businesses would also appreciate your patronage! You can select various kinds of attractions and lodging on the Interactive Map. Remember to see what’s open and what restrictions are in place prior to visiting; you’ll need to check with each site individually via telephone or website to confirm their hours, mask requirements, whether reservations are required, etc. If you know what area of the Parkway you’d like to visit, you can also search for amenities found in a particular Parkway region by selecting that region on our homepage at www.blueridgeparkway.org.
You can do your research and go where everyone else isn’t. Don’t go to places like Skinny Dip Falls, Graveyard Fields, or Devils Courthouse on the weekend. My husband and I went to Craggy Gardens on Saturday, May 30 (so I could see if the rhododendrons were blooming yet) and it was frustratingly impossible to maintain a 6-foot distance from other hikers on the trail or even in the parking lot, many of whom seemed oblivious to CDC guidance to keep a distance between yourself and others to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. So on June 13, I found a section of NPS road that was closed to vehicular traffic but not to pedestrians and cyclists, and we went for a bike ride and had a picnic on a beautiful weather day and saw exactly eight other people along the road the whole time we were there, most of whom we were zooming by on our way back down to our vehicle. Instead of parking at the already-crowded trailhead, we went back the 1,000-feet to the nearby (and empty) overlook and parked there. And did I mention that we saw springtime blooms (pictured above), as well as two bull elk grazing along the side of the road (which we viewed safely from our vehicle)? Check out the Blue Ridge Parkway Realtime Road Closure Map, Shenandoah NPS site or Great Smoky Mountains NPS site to see if there are sections of the road near you that are closed but still accessible to pedestrian or cyclist traffic. Or you could just find an empty overlook along the road and have a picnic using camp chairs.
You can be considerate by keeping a distance between yourself and others, covering coughs/sneezes, and wearing a mask that covers your nose and mouth to protect those around you. Follow CDC guidance like washing your hands often or using hand sanitizer, especially after touching doors, sinks, faucets, or other items touched by other visitors. Visit early in the day, later in the evening or on a weekday. And follow Leave No Trace Principles like taking all your trash with you, leaving what you find, not feeding wildlife (either on purpose or by leaving food unattended), staying on durable surfaces (not stepping on fragile plants or ecosystems off the trail), and being respectful by yielding to other hikers along the trail and keeping your dog on a leash.
This summer is surely a challenge for all of us as we navigate so many changes in how things operate in the world around us. We all want the world to be “normal” again. In the meantime, let’s all exercise some patience and think positively. Although some things aren’t open or just aren’t the same right now, there are many things that we can still do. This year, let’s think outside the box, do new things, and find ways to travel safely so that we protect ourselves and others while we enjoy the beauty of the natural world around us.