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WNC Business

A resource for outdoor adventure and economies of local communities

Jun 01, 2023 12:38PM ● By Randee Brown

The Blue Ridge Parkway, a park within the National Park Service, was a draw of just under 16 million visitors in 2022, 11,806,222 of those in North Carolina alone.

Leesa Brandon, External Affairs Specialist for the Blue Ridge Parkway, said that with these large numbers of visitors spread out across 365 days and 469 miles, the drive is still peaceful and leisurely.

Brandon said that travelers come from all across the country as well as internationally. “For many visitors, they are checking off a bucket list item,” she said. “So many visitors are within a close drive of the park. Many ‘neighbors’ come for a day trip, and there is an abundance of regional visitors.”

Though the Parkway was conceived and designed in the 1930s when the thought of motor vehicle recreation was new and exciting, Brandon said that all of these visitors use the Parkway in a variety of ways.

Brandon said that there are so many different activities to suit the many different visitors that the Parkway receives. She said that people can enjoy wildflower walks in the spring, a cultural experience with Appalachian music and crafts, strenuous hikes, waterfalls, or simply a leisurely, scenic drive that highlights scenic views along the ridge lines.

Some of the most popular stops and attractions within the North Carolina portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway, according to Brandon, include the Folk Art Center in Asheville, hikes along the Mountains To Sea Trail, Moses Cone Memorial Park, Waterrock Knob, the Pisgah Inn and campground, and Graveyard Fields. 

While the Blue Ridge Parkway offers an array of outdoor recreational opportunities, the large draw of visitors plays a part in the economy of Western North Carolina as well. According to a new National Park Service report, in 2021 the 15.9 million visitors spent an estimated $1.4 billion in local gateway regions when visiting the parkway, supporting 17,900 local jobs and providing a cumulative economic benefit to local areas of $1.7 billion.

“Supporting communities along the route of the Parkway was part of the intent since conception,” Brandon said. “The idea was to create an economic engine to help serve the southern Appalachian region well just after the times of the Great Depression. It was about the time of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the Parkway has proven time and again the benefit of having that protected space and available recreation opportunities. This more than created jobs for the builders, it also continues to benefit its neighboring communities.”

Brandon said that there were debates back in the conceptual days regarding the routing of and links to the Parkway. She said that there were debate stories from communities that lobbied and advocated for the Parkway being routed close to them. 

“Everyone wanted a piece of a National Park in their backyard,” Brandon said. “This demonstrates the importance of the visitor draw to these communities. That being said, we think it landed in the right place.”

While there are no plans for expansion in the near future, Brandon said that there are current maintenance projects underway. Partnering with the NC Department of Transportation, the new bridge crossing I-26 is in progress. She said that the planning was done so that the new bridge and new sections of the Parkway will be fully in place before the old bridge is torn down, minimizing the impact to visitors of the park.

“We are continuing to manage the park ensuring its protection for the next generation,” Brandon said. “We are protecting every aspect of this resource and making sure it remains available to visitors and benefiting communities well into the future.”