Blue Ridge Parkway: Closed to traffic, open to adventure

My favorite time to be on the Blue Ridge Parkway?

When it’s closed.

As of Thursday, 81.8 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina are closed because of wintery weather conditions. (With few exceptions, the entire 469.1-mile parkway isn’t plowed during the winter. When it snows or the road ices over, the road stays closed until the snow or ice melts.) When those sections are closed to automotive traffic they become some of North Carolina’s best outdoor playgrounds.

A section that’s particularly fun, and that’s often closed and that’s currently closed: the stretch from Mount Pisgah west — to the parkway’s end at Milepost 469.1, at US 421 in the Great Smokies. An especially good, long day trip in that stretch (a shuttle is required; find the route here), is the 18-mile run, mostly along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, from US 276 west to NC 215.

Start from the US 276 end and you’ll need to walk west on the Parkway for a mile and a quarter to pick up the MST. The next six miles or so is a bit of a rollercoaster, with surprisingly steep climbs above the Parkway. The terrain mellows around mile 6, which is also where you’ll take a diversion from the MST and head north to Ivestor Gap, gateway to the Shining Rock Wilderness. It’s another two miles to Shining Rock if you’re doing well timewise; otherwise, pick up the Ivestor Gap Trail back south to the Black Balsam parking area and rejoin the MST heading west to NC 215.

There may be more highlights-per-mile on this trail than you’ll find anywhere in the state. The torturous climbs early on provide stellar views, you’ll find some gorgeous waterfalls just below Graveyard Fields, Ivestor Gap has a wide-open alpine beauty that’s hard to find east of the Rockies, there’s a rare passage through a black balsam forest and some impressive rock outcrops.

Build extra time into your hike schedule for photos. It’s a trip that will make you glad you’re hiking in the digital age.

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For more on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, including descriptions through this stretch, visit the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Good trail maps for this region: “Trails Illustrated: Pisgah Ranger District” (National Geographic), and “Shining Rock & Middle Prong Wilderness” (USDA Forest Service). If there’s 8 inches or more of snow on the ground, you might consider ditching your hiking boots for cross-country skis.

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