Around the turn of the twentieth century, Moses H. Cone, who earned his fortune by becoming the “Denim King,” purchased extensive acreage at what is now milepost 294 along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Blowing Rock, North Carolina, to develop his personal mountain kingdom. For hikers, the most outstanding changes Cone and his wife, Bertha, made to the landscape was the construction of approximately 25 miles of carriage trails that twist, wind, ascend, descend, and meander into every part of the estate.
On the way to the summit, the 5.1-mile Rich Mountain Carriage Trail ascends from the Cone’s Manor House, goes through open fields, into rhododendron-rich forests, circles small Trout Lake and old building foundations, and passes other reminders that the Cones worked every part of their estate. The grandstand view from the fire tower atop another summit, this one reached by 2.8-mile Flat Top Mountain Carriage Trail, is not the only reason to walk the pathway. Wildflowers line much of the route through a deep maple forest, and broad open pastures provide additional vistas.
Within the next few weeks, the 3.8-mile Watkins Carriage Road will be the place to hike for wildflowers. The route switchbacks at least ten times as it descends from the Manor House and nature seems to have chosen a different wildflower to grow in the flat area of each switchback. Expect to come across lousewort, wild geranium, violets, painted trillium, rhododendron, mountain laurel, and more. The Maze, a 2.3-mile carriage road, will be lined by the huge white blossoms of magnolia trees from late spring into summer.
This is just a sample of the carriage roads. All of them interconnect in some way, making for numerous possibilities for extensive day-long hikes with ever retracing your steps. The Blue Ridge Parkway is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and Cone Memorial Park is a great place to get acquainted with the many hiking opportunities (close to 200 trails) it has for travelers in North Carolina and Virginia. The websitewww.nps.gov/blri has general parkway information and Walking the Blue: A Guide to the Trails of the Blue Ridge Parkway provides details about every one of its pathways.