HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW THE BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS?

By Julie Reardon

HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW THE BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS?

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While we Virginians fondly like to claim them as our own, what’s called the Blue Ridge is the extremely long mountain crest that runs from just north of the Potomac River on the Virginia-Maryland border south all the way to northern Georgia. The Blue Ridge Mountain complex can be thought of as the Blue Ridge, with two main additions: its low continuations north of the Potomac into Maryland and Pennsylvania and the whole series of high mountains centered on western North Carolina and extending west into Tennessee and south into Georgia. These high ranges include the Great Smokies and many others, and contain all of the 6,000-foot peaks except New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington.

The entire huge complex of the Blue Ridge Mountains has clear natural boundaries. On the east, the mountains rise up distinctly from the flatter, rolling hills of the Piedmont. On the west, the Blue Ridge drops to the extraordinary Appalachian Valley, a continuous trough running from Alabama to Montreal.

          The Blue Ridge and its associated ranges are almost entirely thickly forested, gentle, rounded mountains. Way too far south to even approach having a timberline, even the summits of Mt. Mitchell (6,684 feet) and Clingmans Dome (6,636 feet) are in the middle of deep forest and would have no views whatsoever if lookout towers hadn’t been built. No other large mountain range in the country has as many good, paved roads meandering through the high country and up to important summits. But pointed, craggy summits are as rare in the Blue Ridge as low, rounded ones are in the Tetons.

However, as with any huge area, generalizations are never totally true. There may not be any timberline, but the summits of many “Balds” in the Blue Ridge area are open meadows with often fine views. There are pockets of rugged, challenging terrain, and even a few peaks with rocky ledges at the summits that poke above the trees and provide spectacular mountain settings–Old Rag (3,268 feet0 in Virginia and Grandfather Mountain (5,984 feet in N.C. come to mind.

The lack of challenging “monster mountains” isn’t necessarily a drawback, either. The many high roads in this area, plus the gentle slopes and often short walks to summits from high trailheads, make the Blue Ridge an excellent place for mountain explorers who don’t go for backpacking, rugged scrambling, or rock-climbing. A family or retired couple in their car doing easy day hikes can spend huge amounts of time in the highest country in the east without ever getting a mile away from a car. Also, mountains need not present sheer, craggy faces to impress; the Blue Ridge charms with its endless waves of green hillsides, the incredibly diverse flora and fauna in its damp forests, its haunting blue morning mists (which gave the Blue Ridge and the Great Smokies their names), and the fascinating Appalachian culture of the long-time residents. Some of the mountain folk, isolated in their deep mountain hollows, speak English so similar to the Elizabethan dialect of the 1600s that it has interested Shakespearean scholars.

The very high average height of the southern Blue Ridge region gives it a climate that most people do not associate with the south. Winter snows can be heavy, and even spring blizzards can happen, as Appalachian Trail through-hikers getting an early start in April in Georgia sometimes find out. The area has the greatest rainfall in the contiguous U.S. outside of the Pacific Northwest, and is also much cooler and less humid than the surrounding lowlands. Asheville, NC, the large city in the center of the southern Blue Ridge Complex, has been rated as having one of the most pleasant climates, due to more bearable summers than in, say, Atlanta, with more bearable winters than found in places like New England.

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This pattern is less true for the northern Blue Ridge in Virginia, with its much lower elevations and much narrower mountain mass. The parts of the Blue Ridge nearest to us don’t even lay claim to any of the highest mountains in the state, much less the entire range. With few peaks in the state topping 4000 feet, Apple Orchard Mountain at 4,225 near Bedford is the highest one in the state.

The Blue Ridge from the Potomac River at scenic and historic Harpers Ferry, WV south to Chester Gap near Front Royal, VA is a single, sharp, ridge, still relatively low but slightly higher than the Blue Ridge or South Mountain north of the Potomac. It starts out by rising to about 1100 feet directly up out of the Potomac, curiously lower than parallel Short Hill Mountain (1,484 feet) just to the east. Short Hill Mountain soon dies down into insignificance, though, while the Blue Ridge continues south, gaining height gradually and letting no streams across its crest, despite several wind gaps where highways such as I-66 cross. South of Ashby Gap the Blue Ridge reaches 2000 feet, and south of Manassas Gap (950 feet where I-66 crosses) High Knob (2388′) is the highest point on the whole Blue Ridge north of Shenandoah National Park. The Appalachian Trail follows the backbone of this ridge at first, but for a long stretch where the ridge is known as Mount Weather it sadly dips below the crest and follows along the low western slopes.

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          For its first 15 miles, this low and (let’s face it) somewhat uninteresting 40-mile crest marks the Virginia-West Virginia border. Despite John Denver’s song “County Roads”, in which he sings “Almost Heaven/West Virginia/Blue Ridge Mountains/Shenandoah River”, this insignificant chunk of the massive Blue Ridge is all West Virginia can claim. The Shenandoah River and its namesake valley, paralelling the ridge to the west, is also in West Virginia for only 15 miles. Strangely, though, the Appalachian Trail Conference is headquartered in Harpers Ferry, WV. This means that the umbrella organization for all hiking clubs that maintain the 2,000 mile long Appalachian Trail is in the state with by far the least amount of A.T. mileage, 15 measly miles that are shared with neighboring Virginia.

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