Blade Edge

Computer software | Video production | My life in general

Blade Edge about header

Roadtrip Review: Scenic Raleigh Drive

April 14th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Personal

View Scenic Raleigh 2010 in a larger map

After successfully navigating my way up to Boston via a predetermined route I chose myself, I decided to go bigger for a trip down to Raleigh, North Carolina to attend the Triangle Game Conference. In looking for roads for my drive up to Boston, the Wikipedia page for the Taconic State Parkway made reference to another road, Skyline Drive. When I saw this was in Virginia and emptied out into an even better road called the Blue Ridge Parkway I immediately set to work figuring out if this would be a viable day trip. At first it wasn’t looking good – the route was coming up as 18-20 hours on the road. Yikes. But I eventually tweaked things around enough to get it down to 15-17 hours and decided to leave very early in the morning to miss traffic and I banked on it being Easter Monday. It was a lot of factors that needed to be accounted for in order for this to work, and I was still looking at some serious road time. Fortunately, the vase majority of it would be spent on twisty, scenic mountain roads.

But still – 15 to 17 hours is a long time to be driving a car. It’s one thing if you’re a passenger, or have someone to swap driving duties with, but I was running this solo. There are three things that, for me, make doing this possible. Number One is that I have a really fun car to drive. It’s fast, the steering is responsive, and it just begs to be driven. Number Two is that I drive with good body posture, and have a seat to support it. I place both hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel, and that keeps my shoulders level, which are supported by wings in my seat. My back is kept straight with lower lumbar support and my legs are properly angled thanks to lower seat controls. Being able to let my seat hold me so well means my body does not get sore or fatigued after long hours of sitting (still, stretch breaks are nice). Number Three is that I wear gloves when I drive. Really, it’s amazing what a thin layer of leather will do to keep your hands from both cramping up and just getting sore from resting on the steering wheel.

I left at 5am and arrived in Raleigh at roughly 9pm. While that’s 16 hours about 2 of them were spent stopped either for stretch breaks and/or food/gas. So around 14 hours of total driving time. And I arrived still able to go out to a bar for a while and stay up until 2am working on my laptop. While the weather was beautiful and sunny, the temperatures soared to 90F by the afternoon, which was too hot for me and my car’s crappy oil cooler.

Now let’s look at the drive itself.

Highways to the Skyways

As I said, I departed my house at 5am and started my trip down to Skyline Drive. Leaving so early helped me avoid traffic all through NJ, DE and MD – up until I hit the beltway around DC. Since I use my laptop for turn-by-turn voice navigation, I was able to use my iPhone to check ahead of me for traffic snarls. Nothing popped up except for this one beltway yellow zone, but there was no way to easily get around it since it was only about 5 miles from my exit, so I just sat through it for about 15 minutes and then I was off zooming again.

I of course zipped along the highways at around 80mph – it seems for some reason every police car on duty was trapping in the opposite lane, as I must have passed at least 4 leaving NJ alone that had already pulled over traffic in the other direction. I wasn’t complaining! The one speed trap I passed in my lane in MD was when I was looking at my iPhone for traffic updates, and had slowed down to around 70mph. Lucky!

My laptop GPS had predicted I would arrive at Skyline Drive around 11am, and I got there a little before 10am. So I was already trimming down time, but that didn’t make me any less eager to tackle these roads with all the speed I could muster.

Skyline/Blue Ridge

Skyline Drive

There are two things that dampen the awesomeness of Skyline Drive. One is that it’s a toll road. You have to pay $15 for a week pass in order to get on the road, mainly because it’s the main access road for Shenandoah National Park so you’re really paying a park access fee. But once you’re past that and on the road, you’re immediately greeted with stunning mountain vistas that stretch out as far as the eye can see – or the morning mist allows you to see anyways. The image above was the first scenic viewpoint, like 2 miles from the entrance. I’m not even up that high yet! There are scenic views practically every 5 miles or so, and the road itself is 105 miles long.

The second thing that sucks about Skyline Drive is that the speed limit is set to a crazy slow 35mph. Again, this is a park’s main access road and as such there are lots of hikers and bikers. There are also corners where vehicles must stop to turn into view areas on the other side of the road. No, this isn’t like Route 1 in California where 35mph is really as fast as you would want to go – these sweeping corners beg you to take them at 40-60mph to really feel those wonderful lateral-G’s. A lot you can, because they don’t turn around blind bends, but there are also plenty you want to take with caution. Not just because of people or other vehicles, but wildlife. I only saw two deer alongside the road, but Skyline Drive literally winds through the middle of Shenandoah, and apparently they have the largest concentration of black bears. You hit a deer in your sports car, and you wreck the car. You hit a fucking bear in your sports car, you wreck the car… and then the bear gets up and eats you.

Also, don’t forget that you’ll be sharing the road – and other than the scenic vista areas Skyline Drive has very little in the way of turnouts, even though it does compensate rather well with a frequent amount of passing zones. Still, you’re going to get stuck behind slow-moving traffic, and you’re going to have to deal with it. Luckily for me, such traffic never consisted of more than one vehicle at a time, with the exception of three motorcycles riding as a group I had to pass once. The other downside to this is that you don’t ever really want to stop to soak in the views, because then the guys you passed catch up to you, and you have to pass them. Again. So most of the pictures I took consisted of pulling over, sticking my camera out the window, snapping a shot and then peeling back out onto the road. Not all the people you ride tail on will get out of the way, either. Some did turn into a scenic vista so I could pass them up, but a lot just ignorantly or unthoughtfully just puttered right along until you hit a passing zone.

Finally, Skyline Drive is heavily patrolled by park police – at least, that’s what the Wikipedia page warns. I’m thinking it was the holiday that had only one or two cops on duty, but I didn’t run into a single cruiser until the last 10 miles or so of the road. I was just about to pass a van in a passing zone when I realized the car coming towards me was a police cruiser. Again, luck was on my side that day being stuck behind a slower vehicle.

Skyline/Blue Ridge

Blue Ridge Parkway

Skyline Drive literally dumps out directly into Blue Ridge Parkway, and the first thing you notice about the road is that the speed limit is now 45mph, which let’s be honest only means that your ticket fine will be slightly less expensive. Everything else about the road is pretty much the same – the corners still invite you to tackle them at around 60mph, and the views are stunning enough that you want to fight the urge to drive that fast and seem to waste it all. It’s a constant battle between driving the road and enjoying the sights the whole time. Both these roads are also wonderfully engineered, with banked on-camber turns that let you keep your speed in and out.

Blue Ridge starts out winding through the mountains, and the forests are largely evergreen so you get that wonderful heady smell of pine permeating the air. As the road goes on (it’s full length is 469 miles through both VA and NC) you slowly start to climb up atop the ridge line of the mountains. It’s really cool to look across a valley and see the road continue up, knowing you’ll be driving on it in a few minutes. Eventually you’ll notice that if you look out both sides of your car you’re staring down into valleys and are about two thousand feet or so above sea level. If you hit a gentle corner, the camber of the road tilts you just enough so the ground falls away on your side, and now when you look out the windows it’s like you’re flying… in a car. Absolutely stunning.

Again, you’re sharing a road with traffic, except for this segment of the drive I frustratingly started finding myself catching up to people literally right after I get out of a passing zone and am forced to follow along behind through corners I could have carved at twice the speed I was traveling. A few times I was fed up enough to turn out into a viewpoint and sit until whatever car was behind me came into view, and then pull out and whip along the road until I caught back up to the car ahead of me. But I rarely did this because I was afraid I would miss the chance to pass them.

And let’s get another thing clear – passing someone in a passing zone while going over the speed limit will still get you a ticket, but at least you won’t get the extra charge of careless/reckless driving for crossing a double yellow. Yes I did want to be a jerk and just zoom past people on the inside of a broad outer turn I could see around, but I couldn’t see around the next corner. And while I wasn’t afraid of hitting anything coming around that corner, I was afraid a cop would round the bend. So I either pulled off or just steamed and dealt with it.

Speaking of cops, I didn’t spot a single one along the entire length of Blue Ridge that I traveled. I didn’t stay on the whole road, but I was able to average about 55mph for most of its length with no trouble at all. Again, no doubt a mix of pure dumb luck and Easter Monday. But even still, this isn’t a major highway despite being called a “parkway” so it’s no doubt relatively lightly patrolled – unlike the VA highways. I passed half a dozen cops on I-95 coming home through VA alone.

You want to drive these roads

Despite the fact that really driving them as they were meant to be driven is rather difficult, the views along the way at least make up for the fact that you’re stuck behind a minivan almost half the time. If you have any excuse to travel through Virginia, find some way to do it on these roads. It will take longer, but you’ll thank yourself later for the experience of doing so.

Tags: ··

One Comment so far ↓

  • Moving on into 2012

    […] out the Cherohala Skyway and did the rest of the Blue Ridge Parkway that I had to skip when I tripped down to Raleigh back in 2010. Coming home from PAX East I took a new route along the Molly Stark Trail as well. If […]

Leave a Comment