road through blue ridge parkway during fall with brown and red trees on the side of the road

road through blue ridge parkway during fall with brown and red trees on the side of the road

From Vision to Reality: The Story of the Blue Ridge Parkway


The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of America’s most ambitious–and audacious–national park projects. This long and narrow park is shaped like a ribbon and spans 469 scenic miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains. It extends from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. A road runs through it but this is no ordinary road—it is a work of art. 

“I can’t imagine a more creative job than locating that Blue Ridge Parkway because you worked with a ten-league canvas and a brush of a comet's tail,” said Stanley Abbott, the landscape architect who designed the parkway.

“Your composition is one of fields and fences, lakes and streams, and hills and valleys; and your problem is that of placing your roadway in such a position as best to reveal them…it’s almost a form of sculpture.”

This National Park masterpiece in the Southern Appalachians took 52 years to complete. A dedicated team of skilled landscape architects, engineers, craftsmen, and thousands of hard-working laborers got to do the job.

Once finished, the 88,000-acre canvas included numerous:

  • campgrounds
  • hiking trails
  • visitor centers
  • historic sites
  • 272 spectacular scenic overlooks

all designed to showcase the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

What is the story of Blue Ridge Parkway?

old photo of blue ridge parkwayPhoto from Blue Ridge Heritage donated by Paul Allen

During the Great Depression, the Roosevelt Administration started one of the great public works projects: The Blue Ridge Parkway. President Franklin D. launched the idea in 1933. Roosevelt visited Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

On the park's recently built Skyline Drive, CCC members were creating overlooks and restoring the natural landscaping. Driving along the scenic mountain-top road, the president liked what he saw. 

Senator Byrd proposed extending the road along the mountain ridge to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This would connect two national parks with a scenic drive through beautiful landscapes.

blue ridge parkway route map

It would be a great way to showcase America's beauty. Roosevelt thought it was a grand idea and got the ball rolling. In November 1933, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes approved the “park-to-park” highway. 

On September 11, 1935, construction on the 469-mile drive began. The public works project provided desperately needed jobs for thousands of unemployed workers in Southern Appalachia. 

Stanley Abbott: The Landscape Architect Behind the Parkway

photo of Stanley AbbottPhoto from National Park Service

With a budget of $16 million dollars, Ickes hired Stanley Abbott, a 25-year-old landscape architect from New York, to oversee the monumental project. He chose the right man for the job. Though young, Abbott had the vision, creativity, expertise, and determination to get the job done.

“Now we are coming in here amidst this natural beauty. We had better design and build thoughtfully, sensitively, creatively,” he said. And that’s just what he and his team did.

Restoring Natural Beauty: The Landscaping and Wayside Parks

Rail fence along the Blue Ridge Parkway in VirginiaPhoto from Blue Ridge Heritage

They certainly had their work cut out for them. The beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains we see today were not quite so beautiful back then. Decades of poor logging and farming practices in the early 1900s had decimated much of the landscape. In some places, there were no trees at all!

So, in addition to designing a 469-mile roadway that would showcase the best scenic views, Abbott also designed the landscaping around it to restore its natural beauty.

Part of his plan included building numerous wayside, or roadside, parks. These scenic overlooks, picnic spots, and recreation areas were some of Abbott’s most important contributions.

“They are like beads on a string; the rare gems in the necklace,” he said.

Local workers constructed the parkway, while the Civilian Conservation Corps' young men made it attractive. They replanted native flora under Abbott's landscape architects' guidance and earned the nickname Boys in Green for their green uniforms. They brought the natural splendor of these mountains back to life.

Harmonizing with Nature: The Rustic Simplicity Design

blue ridge parkway during fall

The designers planned everything along the parkway to enhance the natural beauty, including fences, guardrails, tunnels, bridges, and stone-lined ditches. They recruited master stone masons from Italy and Spain to cut and lay the decorative stonework. The parkway's structures were designed to be rustic and simple to blend in with nature. The purpose was to elevate the parkway's overall appearance.

“The idea is to fit the Parkway into the mountains as if nature has put it there,” Abbott said.

To achieve this natural look, the parkway’s design included a narrow band of parkland on either side of the road–large enough “to comprehend a mountain or embrace a lake and the hills around with insulation enough to conserve it forever....” said Abbott.

Acquiring this right of way from local homeowners and the Eastern Band of Cherokee called for sensitive negotiating and creative compromise. The purchase of this scenic easement enabled the National Park Service to restore and preserve the roadside landscape. This helped in retaining the natural character of the parkway.

Pleasing the Viewer: The Parkway’s Purpose and Speed Limit

They also set a restriction in place to prevent anything detracting from the views. Drivers did not encounter heavy trucks, telephone poles, billboards, power lines, or commercial buildings anywhere on the parkway. And the maximum speed limit was set at 45 miles per hour. 

The slower speed limit was intentional. Unlike highways designed for efficiency and speed, the parkway was meant to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace–allowing one to savor the scenery.

“The only reason for the Blue Ridge Parkway is to please the viewer and so its chief concerns are beauty and interest,” said Abbott. 

The Completion of the Parkway: The Linn Cove Viaduct and the Final Segment

linn cove viaduct during fall

Construction of the parkway was brought to a halt by World War II. But not before completing the first 50-mile segment near Roanoke, which opened in April 1939. They had finished approximately one-third of the parkway. Building resumed after the war. They completed the final segment of the parkway in 1987 with the construction of the iconic Linn Cove Viaduct, which is one of the world's most complicated bridges and an engineering marvel.

Over 15 million people drive the Blue Ridge Parkway each year. It has been the most visited National Park Service site in America almost every year since 1946. The Blue Ridge Parkway has earned the nickname "America's Favorite Drive" because it offers a "ride-a-while, stop-a-while" experience through some of the most spectacular scenery in the eastern United States, along with abundant recreational and cultural opportunities.

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We hope that we’ve given you all the information you need to make the most of your day. Your vacation is extremely important to us so if you have any questions feel free to reach out at aloha@shakaguide.com.

For more detailed information to help you plan, check out our Blue Ridge Parkway Itinerary and Know Before You Go article.

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blue ridge parkway history as title with its background during fall


Know Before You Go, Blue Ridge Parkway Asheville

Know Before You Go, Blue Ridge Parkway South

Know Before You Go, Blue Ridge Parkway Virginia

Blue Ridge Parkway Asheville Itinerary

Blue Ridge Parkway South Itinerary

Blue Ridge Parkway Virginia Itinerary


29 Best Blue Ridge Parkway Hikes

A Guide to Blue Ridge Parkway Entrances

Blue Ridge Parkway Asheville: The Ultimate Tourist's Guide

Blue Ridge Parkway Virginia: Ultimate Travel Guide

List of Blue Ridge Parkway Overlooks from VA to NC



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