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Taking the Scenic Routes
My earliest memories of the mountains were through the car window,” said Jenn Wood of Asheville, who first visited Western North Carolina as a child.
Wood grew up in South Carolina and cherished trips with her family to the high country. “We would drive along the curvy mountain roads, stopping to enjoy the view from overlooks or to take a hike to a waterfall.”
Western North Carolina is teeming with natural beauty. From its high peaks to rural valleys, it is filled with cascading streams, rolling pastures and rocky cliffs. This diverse and stunning scenery is a major reason why we hold this region so dear, undeniably inspiring residents to make it home and luring millions of visitors each year from far and wide.
A few months back, this column explored the ways in which Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy showcases the relevancy of land conservation efforts by facilitating public access to conserved lands via trails and greenways. While lacing your boots or saddling your bike may be more direct and intimate methods of experiencing the natural splendor of our region, a vehicle is most often still necessary to access them. And many outdoor activities are not accessible to all who seek mountain views.
More frequently than not, WNC's gorgeous scenery is experienced, or accessed, out the window of a vehicle. Like Wood, many current residents first experience our region's magnificence from within an automobile.
“They fall in love with this place looking over the dashboard,” she said.
“Our region's byways bring thousands of travelers to WNC each year,” added Wood, now CMLC's land protection associate. “These roads are utilized for scenic drives, access hiking trails and fishing spots, and even to learn about the history of the region.”
In addition to the Blue Ridge Parkway, five designated Scenic Byways are within CMLC's land protection service region. Because of their importance in how residents and visitors enjoy our region, protecting the natural heritage along these routes — and the landscape visible from them — is a particular focus of CMLC's conservation efforts.
“Conservation efforts along Scenic Byways protect them from encroaching development, unsightly land management and the destruction of historic landmarks,” Wood explained.
CMLC, in partnership with the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, received funding in 2011 from the Federal Highway Administration's Scenic Byways program that enabled conservation planning efforts for the five byways in CMLC's service area.
The funding also made possible the direct conservation of two critical land protection projects along these scenic routes.
But while Scenic Byways are the most prominent medium for how we view and enjoy our mountains' scenery, their names, routes and significance to the region are relatively unknown. In fact, you probably have driven — and enjoyed the view from — several Scenic Byways in CMLC's service region without knowing it.
Let's take a look at the Scenic Byways in our region, and learn why they're worthy of a special designation — along with CMLC's protection.
Black Mountain Rag and Drover's Road Scenic Byways
The Drover's Road Scenic Byway runs along U.S. Highway 74A, extending from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville through Fairview. It continues into the upper Hickory Nut Gorge, with its designation ending in Bat Cave at N.C. Highway 9. There, it intersects the three-pronged Black Mountain Rag Scenic Byway, which includes N.C. 9 extending north to Black Mountain, U.S. 64 southwest to Edneyville and U.S. 74A east through the lower Hickory Nut Gorge to Lake Lure.
Following the route of a prehistoric game and Native American trail and later the historical route used by early settlers, the Drover's Road Scenic Byway showcases the contrast between the agricultural character of the Fairview valley and the steep slopes of the upper Hickory Nut Gorge. It is named for the early mountain settlers who once drove their herds of livestock through Hickory Nut Gap and down to the booming markets of the low country.
Winding in and out of the Hickory Nut Gorge, the Black Mountain Rag Scenic Byway takes visitors on a twisting ride full of sharp curves, appropriately corresponding to the byway's namesake, a fast-paced fiddle tune. The route passes the picturesque shores of Lake Lure and the dramatic cliffs of Chimney Rock State Park while paralleling the scenic Rocky Broad River.
Lake Lure and the Hickory Nut Gorge is a key conservation focus area for CMLC due to the concentration of unique biodiversity, majestic scenery and budding recreational opportunities.
The Scenic Byways program enabled CMLC to pursue land protection and promote recreation in the gorge, funding additional protection of Bearwallow Mountain through a conservation easement, and facilitating public acquisition of the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trailhead.
The grassy summit of Bearwallow Mountain, accessible to hikers via a one-mile trail, hosts one of the most scenic views near the byway. The Upper HNG Trailhead, a new public park owned by Henderson County, provides parking and trail access to CMLC's 600-acre Florence Nature Preserve. It will also serve as the primary starting point for visitors exploring the developing Upper HNG Trail network.
Historic Flat Rock Scenic Byway
The Historic Flat Rock Scenic Byway passes through Flat Rock along portions of Little River Road, Greenville Highway and Rutledge Drive.
This route views the quaint Village of Flat Rock, historical buildings from the turn of the century and pre-eminent cultural attractions including the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, St. John of the Wilderness Church, and the state theater of North Carolina, Flat Rock Playhouse.
CMLC has supported the preservation of the byway's scenic character through several conservation easements on adjacent or nearby lands, including nearly 60 acres of forested slopes on Rush Mountain. Several nearby conserved tracts also protect scarce Southern Appalachian mountain bogs and the Bunched Arrowhead flower, considered one of the most rare plants in North Carolina.
Forest Heritage Scenic Byway
The Forest Heritage Scenic Byway forms a loop with U.S. Highway 276, N.C. 215 and U.S. 64 in Pisgah National Forest, the rural Bethel community and Brevard.
The route hosts breathtaking views of large expanses of protected lands. Visitors can stop at the Cradle of Forestry to learn the history of forestry in America, hike, bike and ride hundreds of miles of trails or buy locally grown produce at a farm stand.
Countless recreational opportunities are accessible from the byway, including popular destinations such as Looking Glass Falls and Sliding Rock. The route crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway twice, and the loop offers an easy day trip for Blue Ridge Parkway travelers.
CMLC protects the scenic vistas so abundant from the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway with conservation easements totaling 1,237 acres directly adjacent to the Pisgah National Forest.
Whitewater Way Scenic Byway
Stretching along U.S. Highway 281 from U.S. 64 near Sapphire south to the North Carolina/South Carolina state line, the Whitewater Way Scenic Byway takes motorists through the “Land of Waterfalls.” Nearly 20 waterfalls splash down along the route, including Whitewater Falls, considered by many as highest cascade east of the Rockies.
The route offers the traveler an abundance of hiking trails, streams to fish and dramatic mountain views. Visitors can experience a temperate rainforest at Gorges State Park, rich woodlands of Nantahala National Forest and even try their luck at panning for sapphires and rubies.
CMLC protects the Whitewater River, parallel to the scenic byway, with a conservation easement on 122 acres at the headwaters of Carson Creek, just upstream from Whitewater Falls. An additional 22 acres are expected to be conserved by the end of the year.
See them for yourself
Now that you know where they are and why they're worthy of a special designation, consider taking a drive on one of our region's scenic byways. While you're enjoying the views, consider why preserving this scenery is so important — and why continued land conservation surrounding these byways will keep our region beautiful.
A special thanks to Jenn Wood and Cheryl Bolton, CMLC stewardship associate, for their contributions to information about WNC's Scenic Byways in this column.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.