For three years, the portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway that passed by Mary Sink’s family farm was a road to nowhere.
The scenic byway had been closed since May 22, 2020, after a 150-foot-long chunk of pavement collapsed down a mountainside following heavy rains. Nearly 15 miles of road were closed between the parkway’s entrances at the top of Bent Mountain and at U.S. 220 in Roanoke County as repairs dragged on.
Sink, whose Clover Hill Angus beef cattle farm sits next to the Bent Mountain entrance off U.S. 221, said that her father-in-law joked that “it took less time to build the whole parkway than it took to fix this.”
To be sure, construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s entire 469-mile stretch across Virginia and North Carolina lasted two generations after ground was broken in 1935, but Sink’s father-in-law had a point. It sure was taking a long time to fix 150 feet of road.
When the repairs were completed at a cost of $2.5 million earlier this year and the parkway reopened June 8, Sink and other Bent Mountain residents cheered the return of tourist traffic to the community.
“We love the parkway,” Mary Sink said. “We use it as a different way to get to places like Roanoke, Bedford and Vinton, and it’s been good to see more people enjoying what we have here in the community. Its closure mattered a great deal to us.”
The three-year closure irked Carolyn Ward, too. She is the CEO of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, a North Carolina-based nonprofit organization that serves as a chief fundraising partner and advocate for the parkway. Even though the parkway is a unit of the National Park Service — the most-visited NPS site, with more than 15.7 million travelers annually, according to park service estimates — the scenic road is often underfunded and has a backlog of deferred maintenance and repair projects totaling $347 million, which is in addition to an annual maintenance budget of $17 million.
Ward saw that when Yellowstone National Park was devastated by historic flooding and mudslides that destroyed roads in June 2022, the park service got some park entrances opened within days, and the rest reopened by autumn.
“In Yellowstone, a road was washed out, completely gone, and they rebuilt that road in five months,” Ward said, comparing the speed of that repair to the delays along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“A slide 150 feet … how many damn years did that take?”
She added: “If we spoke with unified advocacy, our voice would be made more powerful. If that happened, I wonder how long it would have taken for that road to be repaired.”
The parkway needs more advocates, she said. A person might think that a scenic road that rolls through 29 counties in two states, bypassing more than 4,700 property owners along a 469-mile winding corridor that ferries millions of visitors through the prettiest mountain scenery on the East Coast, would have an abundance of advocates, and the parkway surely does have its share of admirers and supporters.
But those myriad jurisdictions and property owners can be a diverse, unwieldy bunch when it comes to finding common goals and ideas for the parkway’s benefit and future. The parkway’s strength, its skinny, snakelike path flowing for hundreds of uninterrupted miles, is also its weakness. The road has no single central attraction or organized band of supporters.
To that end, the foundation embarked upon a project it calls Blue Ridge Rising, an initiative to unite the “gateway communities” along the parkway from Shenandoah National Park across the state line to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The foundation describes Blue Ridge Rising’s core mission as an effort to “strengthen cross-jurisdictional relationships, foster economic development within the region’s gateway communities and establish a unified regional voice.”
If the parkway doesn’t find that common voice among supporters, the park’s future is as rocky and rutted as a country road strewn with potholes.
“If we don’t do something to protect it, we are going to lose it,” Ward said.
* * *
Ward grew up in Wytheville, and she recalled childhood days when her family would travel south on U.S. 52 to reach the Blue Ridge Parkway’s entrance at the Carroll County community of Fancy Gap.
“That was our Sunday drive,” Ward said. “It was always so beautiful and curvy. It’s still just as I remember it.”
The foundation that she leads has given $22 million directly to the parkway since 1997, plus millions more in matching funds, grants and other indirect contributions. Over the past 10 to 15 years, the foundation has taken a more active role in managing or funding parkway sites and activities that otherwise wouldn’t be funded by the park service.
The foundation runs the Blue Ridge Music Center near milepost 213 in Carroll County and schedules the weekend mountain music programs at places such as Mabry Mill and Peaks of Otter, and it helped reopen the popular Bluffs Restaurant in North Carolina after it closed in 2010. The foundation has also paid for construction and renovation projects, such as repairs at Mabry Mill, and supported ecological work, such as conducting research to save bats from extinction.
Ward said that the parkway needs the foundation’s help because of the parkway’s unique size and shape, its popularity with visitors — and a lack of money. The parkway is free to the public — drivers, bicyclists, hikers included — making it one of the few National Park Service units that does not charge entrance fees.
“The parkway’s annual operating budget [it receives from the park service] works out to about one dollar per visitor,” Ward said. “That’s not an adequate number. The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation is here to bridge the gap between what the parkway receives and what it needs.”
The parkway has put off many maintenance projects over the years due to lack of funding. The park service has had difficulty finding workers for some jobs, with only about 60% of its seasonal positions filled this year, Ward said. The Otter Creek Campground in Bedford County closed in August due to a lack of staff, prompting the park service to offer refunds or direct campers to other sites along the parkway.
Even though the parkway receives more visitors than the Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon national parks combined, last year’s 15.7 million travelers were nearly 6 million fewer than the all-time high of 21.5 million in 2002, an astounding 28% drop. Some of that decline could be due to changes in methodology that the park service uses to estimate visitation, park managers have said, but much of the loss is due to road closures, fewer camping spots, overgrown trees that block views at overlooks and other reasons, according to park service surveys over the years.
“The challenges for parkway management are extraordinary,” Ward said. “With increased visitation, and a much smaller staff, the parkway is suffering.”
Help is on the way in the form of increased federal money from the Great American Outdoors Act passed by Congress in 2020, which set up funds that provide up to $1.3 billion annually for making improvements to national parks. The Blue Ridge Parkway expects $58.1 million for parkway improvements over the next couple of years.
The parkway will also benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and the infrastructure bill passed in 2021, said parkway spokesperson Leesa Brandon.
“A lot of good things are going to be happening on the parkway,” Brandon said, specifically pointing to a paving project north of Roanoke set to begin next spring. Other Virginia projects include bridge repairs over the James River and in the Carroll County community of Laurel Fork.
* * *
This year, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation held 39 meetings in locations along the parkway route, spending more than two hours of each meeting talking to local leaders from every county through which the road passes.
During those meetings, foundation and parkway managers heard many concerns and ideas from local leaders and landowners, which ranged from wanting better signs along the road to working more collaboratively to improve the visitor experience and increase the parkway’s economic benefits. The parkway provides a $1.3 billion economic impact and supports approximately 17,900 jobs through visitor spending, according to a 2022 park service report.
But that impact can be spread unevenly across a region that includes big metro areas such as Roanoke and Asheville, North Carolina, as well as hamlets such as Meadows of Dan and Fancy Gap and Sparta, North Carolina.
All the localities will have to come together to increase economic benefits for everyone along the parkway, Ward said.
“There’s a difference between a weekend in Asheville and a weekend in Sparta,” Ward said. “Not everyone wants an Asheville experience. The plan is to become more cohesive, unified and more holistically managed.”
To that end, the foundation is holding a Blue Ridge Rising Summit on Dec. 5 and 6 in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, that will bring together more than 200 people from along the parkway to learn about the results from past meetings and to schedule next steps for implementing the plan.
“Natural resource protection, marketing and promotion for tourism, trail connections, the economy … all of these conversations can be elevated if we are looking through a regional lens,” said Brandon, the park service spokesperson. The parkway’s management is supportive of the foundation’s Blue Ridge Rising plan, she said.
“By harnessing the power of that collective voice, there’s power in big and small ways,” Brandon said.
* * *
Jill Peterson and her husband moved to a Carroll County farm from New Mexico several years ago, and the couple now owns the Frontera Roots clothing and gift store in Fancy Gap, a baseball toss from the parkway’s stone bridge that crosses U.S. 52.
Fancy Gap has blossomed into a small tourist hub over the past 20 years, with three restaurants and several gift shops near the parkway entrance. Most of the businesses were started in old, existing buildings by Margaret and Charles Barnhardt, who opened a deli, a garden center and an antique shop in the early 2000s. Peterson bought her store from the Barnhardts two years ago.
“It’s a gold mine here,” Peterson said of her store’s location at the parkway entrance. “I never dreamed it would be this amazing. We’re steadily busy, and in the fall, we’re crazy busy. You wouldn’t believe how many different languages you hear spoken in here.”
The parkway brings thousands of travelers through the area, especially on October weekends when the leaves blaze in oranges and reds.
Peterson said that she wishes parkway management worked more closely with business owners, especially in small communities such as Fancy Gap, where people don’t know how to easily share ideas with park officials or make requests.
A year or so ago, she said, a group of older ladies who were craftmakers came to her store to sell their wares and to share some local contraband — Blue Ridge Parkway maps.
“Guard these with your lives,” the ladies told Peterson. Parkway maps are hard to find other than at the road’s visitors’ centers.
Peterson wishes she just had a way to get maps to share with visitors. The parkway and the foundation websites have maps, but she’d love to have old-fashioned, paper maps.
Across U.S. 52 from Peterson’s shop, Mary Lynn Gaydos scooped ice cream at Fancy Gap Country Store, which she and her husband, Mark, opened this summer in a building that has housed various shops over the years. Business has been brisk, she said, and the couple, who are both bluegrass musicians, plan to offer mountain music shows in the coming months.
While taking a break from serving orders of barbecue, “smashed” potatoes (covered in barbecue), hot dogs and collard greens, Mary Lynn, said she, too, would love a stack of maps.
“People come in here all the time looking for a physical map of the parkway, if one exists,” she said. Fancy Gap does not have a visitors’ center, so she’d like her store to be a go-to stop for parkway tourists.
“We’d gladly put shelves in here filled with parkway maps and other items,” she said. She was not familiar with the Blue Ridge Rising initiative, but she said she supported anything that increased the number of travelers on the parkway.
“This is a growing community here,” Gaydos said. “There’s a good vibe here. More business promotes more business.”
Back on Bent Mountain, Mary Sink said that traffic has increased since the parkway reopened and has helped local businesses, which include Grateful Produce and the Treehouse Tavern restaurant.
“I’m so happy to see more people enjoying what we have in the community,” Sink said. “The Blue Ridge Parkway needs more public attention. It needs more money to increase tourism.”
Ward, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation CEO, said her group is working on that. With more businesses, residents and local leaders at the table, everybody wants their piece of the parkway pie, especially now during apple pie season.
“When everybody wants a piece of pie, you don’t say, ‘There’s no more pie,’” she said. “You just make a bigger pie.”