The parkway idea was born in the early 1900s when roads like New York's Westchester Parkway and the George Washington Memorial Parkway between Washington, D.C., and Mount Vernon (near Alexandria, Virginia) were built in an effort to merge speed and scenery. The critical development that sparked the parkway came in 1931, when construction began on the 100-mile Skyline Drive along the spine of the Blue Ridge in Shenandoah National Park.
Talk soon turned to linking the road with the Smokies. After a major political battle, North Carolina was chosen over Tennessee for the southern section of the route. The Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway are similar roads and often are paired in one experience. Taken together, the drive/parkway sojourn is nearly 600 miles of manicured road almost continuously at the crest of the electric-hued autumn wave of the Southern Appalachians.
The parkway is a perfect portal to the quintessential Appalachian experience – especially if you're the active, outdoors type. A "who's who" of major Appalachian summits line the route. The parkway is wrapped in hundreds of thousands of acres of surrounding national forests and other parks, so miles of rushing rivers, dozens of lofty lakes, and backcountry trails for bikes and hikes lie along almost any side road. It's not at all uncommon to see parkway motorists driving along with bikes, boats, and backpacks atop their vehicles.
The mountains are the magnet for parkway motorists, too, and this "Appalachian Trail for cars" presents ever-changing vistas right through the windshield. But at dozens of overlooks you'll notice a parkway specialty – the "leg-stretcher trail." Here and there along the route, easy-to-moderate trails lead away from parking areas. Some are a few miles long, but others are much less. The parkway is a "scenic drive," after all, so these short hikes entice even sedentary motorists out of the car to outstanding overlooks and outdoor experiences.
If you don't want to get off the parkway, you almost don't have to (except to fill up on gas, and stations are an easy hop off at major junctions).
The parkway passes an astounding number of quaint mountain towns and genteel resort areas, many with century-long traditions as cool refuges for the wealthy from the Southern summer heat. Any parkway trip should include a few such side trips. Great restaurants, atmospheric inns, and even wineries lie all along the parkway.