Follow a trail of painted landscapes on the Blue Ridge Parkway

An artist sees the world in a different light, literally. Almost an addiction, some say an affliction, but around every turn or long stretch of highway, my eyes focus on each minute detail--the early sun peeking through the morning haze and the late afternoon glow when nature bids farewell to another day. When I travel new terrain, those same senses are heightened even more. With camera in hand and notepad in back pocket, my heart quickens in anticipation of the day's discoveries. And so was my journey traveling the rambling roads of Roanoke, Virginia and the Blue Ridge Parkway.  

Every cool snap whispers memories of autumn's painted landscapes, it's nature's grand finale, her siren song, that seductive allure before winter's somber hibernation. The perfect stage for such a spectacle is the Blue Ridge Parkway, the "backbone" of the Appalachian mountain range stretching across Virginia and western North Carolina.

Blue Ridge Parkway

We began our journey hiking the Roaring Run Falls trail alongside a mountain stream filled with moss-covered rocks and stair-stepped rapids. Our tour guide shared a brief history in front of a 19th century iron furnace with remnants of the centuries-old coal crunching beneath our feet. Listening to the soothing hum of trickling waters and shrouded by gold-leaved hardwoods, we feel dwarfed by the immense beauty. An occasional break in the canopy of trees brings jeweled-toned vistas fading into a blurred horizon. After crossing several boulder-filled streams, we found our prize, a v-shaped waterfall slapping a trail of slick stones. I trekked through the damp tundra clicking my camera while others sat near the misty waters mesmerized by the waterfall's repeated echoes.       

Heading back on the Parkway we reach the Blue Ridge Vineyard just in time for a shot of a mountain range speckled with autumn colors and patches of late afternoon sun. The next morning we coursed the winding mountain roads to Chateau Morrisette Winery nestled in a palatial mountain range with hints of a European lair. The restaurant presents glass-walled mountain views while the winery is a handsome earthy design built with salvaged timber. Patrons sample wines under lofty peaked ceilings with leashed dogs by their side and outside the grounds are filled with people on blankets savoring wine and cheese.

Back on the road, every turn begged a photo stop with grazing horses on rolling pastures and panoramic views of the cities below. Just as the sun began its daily descent we stopped at the Mabry Mill, a restored gristmill and sawmill. It is said to be one of the most photographed sites on the Parkway and rightly so with a glimpse into a long-forgotten mountain culture. A rotating wheel spills water into a shimmering pond while the greying gristmill stands in stark contrast against gold and copper-colored hardwoods.  

Hotel Roanoke

Perched on a small hill in the middle of a wheat field, Hotel Roanoke took roots in 1882 in the small, non-distinct town of Roanoke. Frederick Kimball, a railroad magnate, turned it into a railroad juncture and the hotel became an oasis on a long rail journey. From a rambling wooden structure of less than three dozen rooms, it continued to grow well into the 20th century with modern amenities such as circulating ice water, movable telephones and electric fans. In 1937 the hotel's appearance evolved into a Tudor façade with major renovations.

After being shuttered for four years from 1989 to 1993, the history and décor were carefully preserved in a multi-million dollar restoration project. In 1995 it opened with an antique-filled lobby with the 1930s original floors and Czech-made chandeliers. Ante-bellum murals are painted along the walls of the Palm Court Room while the original ceiling showcases constellations as they appeared in the skies of 1852, the year the first train rode through Roanoke. Adding to the historic décor, many of the rooms face the twin-spired St. Andrew's Catholic Church built in 1902.   

Just steps from the hotel is the historic district and the Railwalk, an outdoor museum chronicling the city's rich history of steam locomotives with interactive signage, displays and whistles. Train enthusiasts will enjoy the Virginia Museum of Transportation with vintage locomotives and rail cars, while the O. Winston Link Museum chronicles stunning mid-20th century photographs of the Norfolk & Southern Railroad.  

Roanoke and the Blue Ridge Parkway offers more than a pretty picture, it's a trip back in time, when getting there was the real adventure with surprises around every turn. Mid to late October is usually the height of the fall colors, but anytime is a good time on the Parkway. Give the friendly folks at the Roanoke Visitor Center a call for a fun-filled itinerary.

Deb Burst celebrates her ten years of writing this year and marks the milestone in publishing her first book, "Hallowed Halls of Greater New Orleans: Historic Churches, Cathedrals and Sanctuaries." For info on ordering the book and more photos of her Roanoke/Blue Ridge Parkway trip,