Blue Ridge Parkway travel-ready

Planning a summer trip to the mountains? The Blue Ridge Parkway is open for business.

The scenic two-lane had a tough winter, with thousands of toppled trees and the threat of rock slides closing portions of the route.

But after months of cleanup, parkway folks say tourists can expect only minimal travel difficulties from the Fourth of July weekend on.

The parkway runs 469 miles from Western North Carolina to Northern Virginia. It attracts 18 million visitors per year, with the height of the tourist season between July and October, said Mike Molling, the parkway's chief of maintenance and engineering.

The stretch near Asheville (between mileposts 399 and 405) will open to one lane of traffic starting Friday. It had been closed since October due to the threat of rock slides.

A traffic light will help drivers navigate the area. Up to now they have endured a 40-minute detour to get around the unsafe area.

A nearby portion of the road, from milepost 405 to 408, closed daily from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. to remove debris from winter storms. That work has ended.

Crews are still removing fallen trees and limbs from scattered stretches of the parkway, but maintenance officials with the road say only occasional traffic delays are possible. Rock slides remain a concern. A contract work crew has been working since April around milepost 400 to secure the slope with bolts, said Larry Hultquist, project manager for the parkway. The road is expected to open completely around Sept. 3, pending the work progress on the slope, he added.

"The critical thing is making sure people won't be hurt," Hultquist said.

Businesses, on the other hand, have taken a blow. Pisgah Inn general manager Rob Miller said the 93-year-old inn opened March 30 for the season and customer numbers are down.

"I think the park service is doing the best they can," he said. "Closing it was a preemptive measure... (it) was their only alternative."

The holiday weekend is looking up. Miller said the inn is almost fully booked - right on target for this time of year.