Summer Special: Windshield Touring in the Eastern Parks

Deer on Skyline Drive, replica covered bridge on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, and bicyclists on a southern section of the Natchez Trace Parkway. Top photo by Bob Janiskee, others NPS.

Editor's note: In this updated story from the Traveler archives, Contributing writer Bob Janiskee continues his exploration of the many wonderful "windshield touring" choices available to motorists in our national parks. Part one featured scenic drives in the western parks. The focus today is on praiseworthy traverses, loops, and shuttles in eastern parks.

ACADIA NATIONAL PARK

Acadia National Park in northern coastal Maine has a road that is about as nearly ideal for windshield touring as a park road can be. Tours of the 27-mile long Park Loop Road begin at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, where many visitors rent audiotape or CD tour guides they can listen to as they negotiate the loop and enjoy its attractions. Motorists normally spend about three or four hours on the loop, but there are enough interesting things along and near the road to keep a person joyfully occupied all day. The main attractions include Cadillac Mountain, Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, sea caves, sea arches, headlands, Otter Cliffs, wave-cut benches, tidal pools, surf, and birds.

Stop and walk: You'll want to get out of your car more than once. Visit Thunder Hole, a shallow wave-pounded sea cave worthy of the name at high tide. If you’ve got the stomach for it, take a swim in very cold (50s) ocean water at Sand Beach. The rigorous trail to the top of the Beehive affords a memorable view of Frenchman Bay. Stroll one of the park's famed carriage roads. Take the spur road to the top of Cadillac Mountain and enjoy the panoramic view from the highest mountain (1,530 ft.) on the East Coast.

Caveats: The Park Loop Road is heavily congested in the busiest months , and parking places can be mighty hard to come by. Consider leaving your car in Bar Harbor so you can enjoy the Loop Road experience aboard one of the Island Explorer shuttle buses They stop at key points along the loop. Concessionaires also offer guided bus, trolley, and carriage tours in the park.

Planning in advance is essential. RV drivers need to know that there are four low-clearance bridges on the Park Loop Road . All motorists need to be aware that the loop does not remain open year round. It closes in the late fall, either after the first storm following Veterans Day or on the Monday after Thanksgiving, whichever comes first. The road reopens between mid- and late April, depending on the weather. The 2011 opening has been set for Friday, April 15.

SLEEPING BEAR DUNES NATIONAL LAKESHORE

Situated about 25 miles from Traverse City, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore protects a 35-mile stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline that has enormous sand dunes, excellent sand beaches, island backcountry, lakes and wetlands, extensive forests, and cultural features such as a lighthouse, a restored life saving station, old farm buildings and orchards. While this park is praised for its hiking and dune climbing, camping, boating, paddling, swimming, fishing, wreck diving, hunting, snowmobiling, and related outdoor fun, it's also great for windshield touring.

All-weather roads feed traffic into the park from the east, north, and south. State highways 22 and 109 traverse the park along its north-south axis, providing convenient access to major sites and offering high-quality scenery watching. M-22 is the through route for north-south traffic, while M-109 is a connector that skirts the west end of Glen Lake and affords access to major park attractions such as the Dune Climb, the D.H. Day Campground, the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station/Maritime Museum, and the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. As the name implies, the latter was designed as a windshield touring loop. It even sports a replica covered bridge.

Stop and walk: A main attraction along the Pierce Stocking loop is the Lake Michigan Overlook , a wooden observation deck perched on a very high and steep shoreline dune. This overlook offers a dramatic view for miles to the north and south along the shoreline and out to the Manitou Islands. You can also stroll the trail atop the dunes. For a more enervating experience, park in the Dune Climb lot (just off M-109), huff and puff to the top of the dune, and be rewarded with a panoramic view centered on scenic Glen Lake.

Caveats: Be patient on the two lane highways, which get a lot of use by local residents as well as tourists. You can expect area roads to be congested from June through September. Last year this park attracted nearly 790,000visitors during July-August alone.

CAPE HATTERAS NATIONAL SEASHORE

Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina’s Outer Banks region has a two-lane paved road, North Carolina Highway 12, which runs north-south the entire length of the seashore. Most motorists enter at the northern end of the seashore, which is adjacent to an intensely developed seaside resort. Trips north or south on NC-12 (the “beach road”) offer windshield tourists some of America’s best seaside scenery as well as convenient access to excellent sandy beaches, picturesque Ocracoke Village, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, three picturesque lighthouses (Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island, and Ocracoke), and other delights.

A beach road traverse requires some island-hopping, so the Oregon Inlet Bridge and a fleet of
car-toting ferries play a vital role. Though sometimes involving a fairly long wait to board, the 40-minute ferry ride between Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands is a big part of the fun for most visitors. Traveling between Ocracoke Island and the mainland – something that most park visitors don’t do -- requires a time-consuming ferry ride for which you need a reservation.

Cape Hatteras has places (such as Oregon Inlet) where ORVs can be legally driven on the beach. ORV drivers must obey rules designed to protect the dunes, wildlife, and fellow visitors.

Stop and walk
: Be sure to take a walk on the beach. There are dune crossovers served by parking lots at various places along the shoreline. There are several nature trails too, including a nice one at Pea Island National Wildlife. Though not for the faint of heart or short of breath, the spiral-stair climb to the top of the 12-story high Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is a unique experience that provides a very rewarding panoramic view. The 207-feet high lighthouse, one of the world’s tallest brick structures, is open from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day.

Caveat: The narrow, windswept barrier islands of the Outer Banks region are frequently pounded by storms, some of which can be dangerous for park visitors and locals alike. The hurricane season (June through November) encompasses the prime tourist season. Motorists should avoid NC-12 when hurricanes threaten. Nor'easters can also produce hazardous driving condition with powerful winds, drifted sand, and flooding.

SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK

The famed Skyline Drive is the only public road through Virginia’s north-south trending Shenandoah National Park. Built during the 1930s and running along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles, Skyline Drive was the first lengthy scenic road constructed in America. It is still one of the prettiest.

If you wanted to drive the entire length of the road, minding the 35 mph speed limit, you could do it in less than four hours when the weather is clear and traffic is light. But what a wasted opportunity that would be! The route has no less than 75 overlooks, each offering a great view of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the Piedmont to the east. You’ll see plenty of trees and flowering shrubs along the way, plus a good selection of wildlife that may include white-tailed deer, black bear, wild turkey, and raccoon. The leaf-peeper season in October brings gorgeous fall colors, together with bumper to bumper traffic. Pick up a park map and use the mileposts on the west side of the road to locate points of interest. All park maps and tourist brochures use the mileposts for locational references.

Stop and walk
: There are lots and lots of places for short walks to scenic attractions. The largest developed area is Big Meadows, which is near the center of the park at Milepost 51.

Caveats
: Snow and ice on the road prompt periodic closings, so watch the weather reports and check with the park if in doubt. Don’t be in too much of a hurry, and do watch out for deer, bears, turkeys, and other wildlife crossing the road. Expect heavy traffic in summer and the fall color season. If you are driving an RV, pulling a travel trailer, or hauling a horse trailer, make sure your vehicle is in good condition and be careful on the many steep grades and sharp curves. Be aware that the clearance is just 12’ 8” at Marys Rock Tunnel, which is near Milepost 32 just south of the Thornton Gap entrance from Route 211.

BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY

Inspired by Skyline Drive, Blue Ridge Parkway is a two lane, 469-mile long scenic highway that follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and connects Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with the eastern entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. The Blue Ridge Mountains are the highest mountains in the eastern United States, so the views from the high vantage point of the parkway (average elevation about 3,000 feet) are very scenic. Adding to user pleasure are many recreational, natural history, and Appalachian culture sites. The Federal Highway Administration’s National Scenic Byway Program has designated the Blue Ridge Parkway -- the most heavily visited single unit in the Park System -- an “All-American Road.”

The spring flower and fall leaf peeping seasons are especially delightful times to be on this road.
Many would argue that the parkway's prettiest month is October, a time when the mountainsides are ablaze with brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows.

Stop and walk: You can drive the entire length of the parkway in two seven-hour stints at the wheel. However, the Park Service designed this scenic route to be a “drive a while, stop a while” experience. There are lots of overlooks, easy trails, and other attractions that make for great "leg stretcher" interludes. Two popular stops in Virginia are the Peaks of Otter complex (mile 85) and Mabry Mill (mile 176.1). The North Carolina stretch of the parkway, which has the most impressive terrain, offers Cumberland Knob (mile 220), Doughton Park (mile 240), Moses H. Cone Memorial Park (miles 292-295), Julian Price Memorial Park (mile 297), Linville Falls (mile 316; via 1.5-mile spur road), Crabtree Meadows and Crabtree Falls (mile 339), Craggy Gardens (mile 364; wonderful catawba rhododendrons in mid-June), Mount Mitchell State Park (miles 363-369, via 4.9-mile spur), the Folk Art Center (mile 382 near Asheville), and Waterrock Knob (mile 451, steep trail to the top).

Caveats: The speed limit is a modest 45 miles per hour (35 mph in developed areas). In addition to twists and turns and ups and downs galore, one can expect to encounter traffic congestion and some unreasonably slow vehicles in seemingly endless no-pass zones. Traveling on weekdays helps to avoid the heavy traffic during the spring flower and fall leaf-peeping seasons. Snow and ice at higher elevations may prompt unannounced closings, so watch the weather and check with the park if in doubt.

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK

We’re dealing with Great Smoky Mountains National Park here, so let’s put a traffic congestion caveat right up front. Great Smoky is the most heavily-visited of the 58 National Park-designated NPS units. It hosts about 9.4 million visitors a year, and nearly all are windshield tourists in cars or buses. If you drive the park roads and look for a parking place during the peak summer months or the fall color season, you may feel that all 9.4 million visitors have come at the same time.

East-west oriented Newfound Gap Rd.(Hwy 441), the only highway that crosses the park, offers plenty of scenery for the typical motorist. That said, the renowned Cades Cove Loop Road is the park's windshield touring gem. It’s no wonder that the 11-mile long, one-way circuit entertains 2 million windshield tourists a year, or about 4,500 carloads on a typical day in the summer or during the October leaf-peeping season. So go ahead and fit the Cades Cove Loop into your travel plans if you get the chance and can time it right. Renting a tour CD/tape will increase your enjoyment of the many cultural/historical and scenic attractions along the loop. To lower your stress level and help reduce the park’s notoriously high air pollution level, consider renting a bike or using the concessionaire-operated, clean-fueled shuttles.

The Cades Cove landscape has been largely restored to its historic appearance when it was an isolated farming community in the 1800s and early 1900s. The fields, fences, crops, meadows, and other things you see there will put you in mind of a time when the rural landscape was finer-grained, the horse and wagon dominated transport, and people enjoyed a bucolic lifestyle that was simpler, quieter, slower, friendlier, greener, and closer to nature. Cades Cove is also a good venue for viewing wildlife, especially white-tailed deer, black bears, turkeys, and foxes.

Stop and walk
: Near the Cades Cove visitor center is an “open air museum” of historic structures depicting 19th-century Appalachian pioneer architecture, technology, and lifestyles. On display are farmsteads, log cabins, a fully operational gristmill, a frame church, and other structures of historic interest. When you make that traverse of the park on Newfound Gap Road, stop at Clingmans Dome and take the (somewhat strenuous) paved trail to the observation platform. If you crave to add the Appalachian Trail to your "been there, done that" list, you'll find a stretch of the AT very close here.

Caveat: If you plan to visit Great Smoky during the October leaf-peeping season, get your lodging reservations booked as early as you can. All rooms in area motels and B&Bs are booked solid long before the fall colors appear.

NATCHEZ TRACE PARKWAY

The Federal Highway Administration’s National Scenic Byway Program has awarded its “All-American Road” designation to Natchez Trace Parkway, a scenic route that has much to offer motorists who enjoy pleasure driving through landscapes of the historic-relic-bucolic variety, interspersed with diverse natural areas (six major forest types, four major watersheds). The 444-mile long parkway follows an historic Indian trail (actually a network of roughly parallel paths) from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. This trail was heavily used by American pioneers, post riders, soldiers, government officials, and various others moving between the Mississippi Territory and the United States. “Kaintuck” boatmen and many other people who floated down the Mississippi River on flatboats and rafts traveled the Natchez Trace as they made their way home. Today the parkway has lots of scenic easements and there are working farms, battlefields, relics, and other interesting cultural and natural features to see along the way. The fall leaf peeping season brings out lots of motorists. In the Natchez area, there are magnificent antebellum mansions near the parkway

Stop and walk: The parkway offers plenty of "leg stretcher" choices in the form of scenic turnouts, historical markers and sites, museums, and other attractions. Two of the most historically interesting places are Grinder's Stand, the tiny inn near Hohenwald, Tennessee in which Meriwether Lewis died in 1809 under mysterious circumstances, and the “Sunken Trace (mile 41.5), a 200-yard long stretch of the original footpath that has been preserved. If an easy hike is what you want, the six-mile long Tupelo Trail in Mississippi (miles 260.8 to 266) is the shortest of the parkway's four major trails.

Caveats
: Although recreational use is substantial (5.9 million visits in 2010), and no commercial truck traffic is allowed, there is a great deal of local and commuter traffic in urban areas. Some stretches of this scenic/historic parkway are heavily congested. Since the parkway is a designated bike route, motorists are cautioned to watch for bicyclists. Animals crossing the road are a common hazard, too. Extra caution and reduced speeds are needed during prescribed fire operations when visibility is reduced and there are rangers, firefighting personnel, and equipment along the roadway and mowline.