Park History: Exploring the National Parkways

A section of the Old Trace can be spotted along the Natchez Trace Parkway. NPS Photo

I didn’t travel much when I was growing up in Michigan. One result is that I didn’t see a real mountain or set foot in a national park until I was a 21 year-old Army butterbar motoring east with my bride to my first active duty assignment.

It was 1964 (a bad piece of timing, Vietnam War-wise), and I will never forget my first encounter with Shenandoah National Park. It was then and there that I fell in love with the whole idea of national parks. Shenandoah was, and is, forested and gorgeous. It was the scenic vistas – those grand, sweeping views -- that really took my breath away. Air pollution had not yet grown terrible in the Shenandoah vicinity, so you could still see a very long way and even recognize (or at least plausibly claim to see) the Washington Monument 70 miles off to the east.

Sandy and I were very impressed by the marvelous road that ran for miles and miles along the mountain crest and took us to what seemed like an endless number of scenic overlooks where we could stop and take lots of pictures. We were on the Skyline Drive, the pride of Shenandoah National Park.

Skyline Drive was the first lengthy parkway every built. When it opened for public use in the 1930s (last section completed in 1939), it signaled the dawn of a new era of “windshield touring” in our national parks.

A parkway is not a normal road. It is a limited-access scenic highway designed for pleasure driving instead of just getting you from here to there in a hurry. Parkways prohibit commercial traffic, have modest speed limits, and possess leisure-friendly features such as scenic overlooks, picnic areas, trailheads, and related features catering to recreational users.

Ideally, a parkway should prohibit commercial traffic, avoid cities and urban areas, have few intersections, and offer a roadside “viewscape” that is free of homes, stores, billboards, hot dog stands, and other forms of development. At periodic intervals on long parkways there should be comfort stops with restaurants and gasoline, campgrounds, historic attractions, or similar developments run by concessionaires.

Many roads in the national parks meet parkway criteria, but are not separately authorized units of the park system. Among the prominent examples are Going-to-the-Sun Road (Glacier National Park), Trail Ridge Road (Rocky Mountain National Park), and the Generals Highway (Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park).

Six road-focused units of the park system, however, are parks that bear the name “Parkway” in their official title. This short list of parks includes The Blue Ridge Parkway, the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the Natchez Trace Parkway, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the Colonial Parkway, and the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway.

Several other parkway units have been authorized or proposed for addition to the National Park System. The under-construction Foothills Parkway, for example, is a national parkway project that will connect Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Tennessee recreation areas and Interstate 40.

Blue Ridge Parkway

In 1936 the Blue Ridge Parkway became the first unit in the National Park System to be formally called "Parkway." The Blue Ridge Parkway was inspired by Skyline Drive and conceptualized as a link between Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. The nearly 500-mile long, two-lane paved road would be aligned with the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, thus conveying motorists through the highest mountains in the eastern United States and offering some of the prettiest scenery east of the Rockies.

It was a great idea (though not loved by all in its path), and today this venerable parkway is the single most heavily used unit in the entire National Park System. The best guess is that it serves about 20 million visitors a year. This parkway preserves much more than just scenic vistas and recreation opportunities. Because the Blue Ridge Mountains have so many different elevations (ranging from 600 to 6,000 feet) and a great mixture of northern and southern species, this mountainous realm harbors an amazing variety of plant and animal species. Among them are at least 1,200 known species of vascular plants, including nearly 100 species of trees. (That is nearly as many as in all of Europe.) The Blue Ridge Mountains have the widest diversity of snails and amphibians found in North America, the second largest variety of hardwood and coniferous trees, and numerous plant species that are seldom found south of Canada. At least 400 of the plant and animal species are found in 100 or fewer locations on earth.

George Washington Memorial Parkway

The George Washington Memorial Parkway is a landscaped riverfront parkway running along the Virginia and Maryland shores of the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. Although the Blue Ridge Parkway is technically the first stand-alone national parkway, the GWMP was authorized in 1930 and transferred to the park system in 1933. That’s the same year that construction began on the Blue Ridge Parkway, so there are some people who argue that the GWMP should be given co-equal status as the granddaddy of America’s national parkways. Whatever its bragging rights may be, the GWMP links a whole bunch of interesting scenic, recreational, and cultural/historic areas long the Potomac, including Mount Vernon and other landmarks and areas important in the life of George Washington. The GWMP is very heavily used as a commuter route, so there are some who argue that this particular park should be "de-established" -- that is, removed from the National Park System.

Natchez Trace Parkway

The Natchez Trace Parkway resulted from a project that was authorized in 1934, begun in 1939, and finally completed in 2005. The parkway follows an historic Indian trail from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee. This trail was heavily used by American pioneers. Many people from the Midwest who floated down the Mississippi River on flatboats and rafts used the Natchez Trace Parkway on their way home. It is now very heavily used by motorists, and much of the traffic is not recreational. The parkway has lots of scenic easements, and there are many intentionally kept "working farms" along the route. In the Natchez area, many magnificent antebellum homes are located not far from the parkway. Perhaps the most historically interesting part of the parkway is the “Sunken Trace,” a 200-yard long stretch of the original footpath that has been preserved at the 41.5-mile marker.

Baltimore-Washington Parkway

The Baltimore-Washington Parkway is sometimes described as a gateway to our nation's capital or as America’s “backyard” national parkway. However it may be billed, this parkway certainly has a prime location and is very heavily used. Through the combined efforts of the federal and state governments, the Baltimore-Washington was opened more than a half-century ago (1954) to provide a special entryway to the eastern boundary of Washington, D.C., for traffic moving from the Baltimore, Maryland, direction. Planners believed that conveying traffic into Washington, D.C., via a scenic parkway would be a very appropriate way to underline the special importance of the capital city. Back in the 1950s the Fall Line area through which the roadway passed was mostly undeveloped land. Today the 29-mile scenic highway is bordered by extensive suburban development, but continues to carry many thousands of tourists, commuters, shoppers, and others converging on the national capital every day. The Park Service manages the 19-mile section of the parkway that extends from the District boundary to Fort Meade, Maryland (Route 32). It is actually a collaborative effort. The U.S. Park Police provide law enforcement and related services, while the Greenbelt Park maintenance staff keeps the parkway clean and clear of snow.

Colonial Parkway

The Colonial Parkway is a 23-mile long scenic highway on the Virginia Peninsula. Twenty-six years in the making, and finally completed in 1957, this three-lane highway stretches from the York River to the James River and interlinks Virginia's “historic triangle” -- Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg. Several million travelers use this route each year. The Colonial Parkway connects the various administrative components of Colonial National Historical Park, including the two main ones, Jamestown and Yorktown. It is considered a highly successful project, in that this thoroughfare unifies culturally distinct sites while crossing several pristine natural environments and still maintaining the Park Service’s prime directive …. "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same.”

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway

The John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway provides a scenic link between Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. To put a finer point on it, the parkway features a two-lane paved road that connects the West Thumb Geyser Basin area of Yellowstone with the south entrance of Grand Teton. The 24,000-acre parkway is more than just a road with great views of the Tetons, the Snake River, and other scenic delights. As in the two parks that it links, the parkway travels through the habitat of an impressive assortment of wildlife, including grizzlies, black bears, moose, elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep. In addition to pleasure driving and wildlife viewing, visitors enjoy fly fishing, rafting, and other recreational pursuits. In the winter, the parkway serves as a staging area for snowmobile trips into Yellowstone. The parkway commemorates John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s many important contributions to the national parks. Rockefeller donated money and lands that helped to establish several national park units, including Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Teton, and Virgin Islands. The Rockefeller Parkway, which is administered by Grand Teton National Park, was created on land transferred from the U.S. Forest Service and completed in 1972. It is the youngest of the parkway units.


I drive the BW parkway at least four days a week. It's miserable with all the traffic and lack of public transportation in the Baltimore/Washington corridor. Nice on a Sunday morning though, and even though it's always jam-packed, at least there are no trucks!