Category Archives: RootsRated

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5 More Awesome Day Hikes in Southwest Virginia

Home to the state’s highest peaks and wildest spaces, Southwest Virginia is a wonderland for trail lovers, from hardened weekend warriors to casual day-hikers in search of a little fresh air. The region is overlaid with some of the country’s best-known trails—like the Virginia Creeper and the Appalachian Trail—in addition to countless regional footpaths in the massive Jefferson National Forest. You don’t have to look far to find amazing hiking opportunities that showcase tumbling waterfalls, cloud-puncturing peaks, and wild ponies grazing in upland meadows. With pristine natural areas, federally designated wildernesses, and family-friendly state parks, there are plenty of awesome day hikes in Southwest Virginia, but these are a few of the best.

1. Elk Garden to Buzzard Rock on the Appalachian Trail

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Follow Elk Garden along the Appalachian trail.

Jason Riedy

Named for the animals that once roamed the highlands, Elk Garden features wind-swirled grasslands on Balsam Mountain, providing a picturesque snapshot of Southwest Virginia’s stunning portion of the Appalachian Trail. From the Elk Garden trailhead located along Whitetop Mountain Road (SR 600) just outside Konnarock, trekkers can embark on some of the most extensive tours of the stunning high country of Mount Rogers. Or you can opt for short excursions, like the hike to Buzzard Rock. Straddling on one of the crests of Whitetop Mountain (the second highest peak in the state) Buzzard Rock offers views stretching all the way to Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. On the 6.6-mile, out-and-back hike to the rock jumble perched at 5,095 feet, trekkers are treated to a taste of high country scenery as the trail meanders through a leafy hardwood forest and over a natural southern Appalachian bald.

2. Cabin Creek Trail

Grayson Highlands State Park might be the most picturesque portal to the high country of Mount Rogers, but the pony-grazed recreation area is also stocked with scenic hiking loops for less ambitious trekkers—like the Cabin Creek Trail. The gradual, 1.9-mile circuit leads hikers through a forest of rosebay rhododendron, mountain laurel, and bigtooth aspens, a rarity in Southwest Virginia. For a spell, the trail parallels Cabin Creek, a hotspot for native trout, and ultimately leads hikers past the stream’s 25-foot twin cascade. All along the way, especially while heading to the trailhead from the parking area at Massie Gap, hikers have the chance to spot the park’s free-ranging wild ponies. The wide-roaming herd of nearly 100 ponies roves both Grayson Highlands State Park and adjacent Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, and are regularly encountered on windswept Wilburn Ridge.

3. Molly’s Knob

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The hike to 3,270-foot Molly’s Knob leads hikers along panoramic ridgelines.

Virginia State Parks

The highest point in Hungry Mother State Park, Molly’s Knob is named for an early settler who perished from hunger on the slopes of the pinnacle. According to local lore, after fleeing a Native American raid on settlements near the New River, a pioneer by the name of Molly Marley starved to death while traveling through what is now Hungry Mother State Park. As the legend goes, the child Molly had in tow could utter only one phrase to rescuers—hungry mother.

While the park’s name may be the result of the a tragic tale, today the hike to 3,270-foot Molly’s Knob leads hikers along the shore of 108-acre Hungry Mother Lake, through mixed forests peppered with Catawba and rosebay rhododendron, and along panoramic ridgelines. A loop through the park linking the Lake Loop, Molly’s Knob, Ridge, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Vista trails—including an ascent of Molly’s Knob—is an approximately 5 miles round-trip. For summer visitors, the hike has an added perk of ending with a refreshing dip in Hungry Mother Lake.

4. Chief Benge Scout Trail in the High Knob Recreation Area

One of the best kept secrets in Southwest Virginia is the High Knob Recreation Area, stashed away in the Jefferson National Forest, above the city of Norton. The lofty recreation area is endowed with a high-elevation lake, amenities constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the loftiest campground in the region, and an observation tower offering views of five states.

For hikers, the High Knob Recreation Area also has a number of options, including short strolls around the 4-acre lake, or longer hauls on the Chief Benge Scout Trail. Named for the Chicamauga warrior Chief Benge, son a Scottish trader who spent time living among the Cherokee, the 18.7-mile trail runs from the High Knob Recreation Area to the Hanging Rock Day Use Area near Dungannon, taking in highlights like tumbling falls of Stony and Bark Camp Lake.

For a bite-sized taste of the distance trail, tackle the first 2.5 mile section skirting High Knob Lake and paralleling Mountain Fork stream. For detailed maps of the route, pick up National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Map of the Clinch Ranger District, or refer to the series of section maps of Chief Benge Trail developed by High Lonesome Trails, a website created by the Southwest Virginia Citizen Science Initiative.

5. Big Falls

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Scope out Pinnacle Natural Area Preserve’s treasures like Big Falls.

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Located between the towns of Cleveland and Lebanon in Russell County, the Pinnacle Natural Area Preserve might be compact, but the 776-acre protected area is loaded with natural wonders. Spread along the banks of Big Cedar Creek (recognized as a state scenic river), the natural area is punctuated with waterfalls, striking geological formations, and some the rarest plants on the planet, including rock-dwelling species like Canby’s mountain-lover and Carolina saxifrage, which live nestled in the craggy crevices of the preserve’s precipitous limestone cliffs.

Aside from rare plants, eagle-eyed hikers can also spot plenty of unusual animals in the natural area, too, including hellbender salamanders, which can grow to be over two feet long, and Big Cedar Creek millipedes, which are only found in the preserve and a handful of nearby locations. Hikers can scope out the bulk of the preserve’s treasures—including Big Falls and the namesake "pinnacle," a dolomite spire soaring to almost 400 feet—with a short 3.25 mile trek along Big Cedar Creek to its confluence with the Clinch River, linking the Big Cedar Creek and Pinnacle View trails.

If you’re looking for a base camp during your exploration of Southwest Virginia, the town of Abingdon is located at the epicenter of the area’s best trails. The western terminus of the Virginia Creeper Trail is downtown, while it’s a short drive to all the other major trails in the region. Plus you can enjoy abundance of lodging options, restaurants, theater, and all the other amenities you could need for a weekend getaway.

Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated Media in partnership with Abingdon.

Featured image provided by Virginia State Parks

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Your Complete Guide to the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia

Ask almost any thru-hiker, and they’ll tell you, the 170 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia are among the highlights of the trip. From the leafy banks of Whitetop Laurel Creek to the cloud-nestled high country of Mount Rogers to the ridgelines above Burkes Garden, Southwest Virginia is home to some of the most memorable portions of the legendary 2,190 mile footpath. Beyond the scenery, the region is also renowned for celebrating the culture of thru-hiking, famed for welcoming towns and kindly trail angels.

Overview

The Appalachian Trail saunters into Southwest Virginia from the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, crossing the state line just about four miles south of the town of Damascus. After moseying directly through the heart of the trekker-friendly town, the trail meanders into the into the 200,000 acre Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, part of the massive Jefferson National Forest. Once within the confines of the Jefferson National Forest, the footpath traipses through the lake-anchored Beartree Recreation Area, before entering the high country of Mount Rogers, the realm of panoramic bald peaks, montane forests, and pony-trod meadows.

In the high country, the trail skirts Virginia’s loftiest peak, 5,729 foot Mount Rogers, before snaking through a corner of Grayson Highlands State Park. After descending from the high country, the trail continues through the Jefferson National Forest, veering just seven miles from the hiker-friendly town of Marion. About 35 miles beyond Marion, the trail treats hikers to a bird’s-eye view of pastoral Burke’s Garden—Virginia’s loftiest valley and largest historic district—courtesy of the vantage point provided at Chestnut Knob. Just before meandering out of Southwest Virginia, the trail climbs Pearis Mountain to one of the footpath’s most iconic viewpoints, the rock outcrop dubbed Angel’s Rest, before descending to the New River, one of the oldest waterways on Earth.

You don’t have to be a thru-hiker to enjoy the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia. Choose a scenic section for a day hike, or play a multi-day backpacking trip in the region. Here are just a few of the highlights to explore.

Abingdon and Damascus

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The Appalachian Trail Days is celebrated in Southwest Virginia every spring.

Waldo Jaquith

After the Appalachian Trail crosses into Southwest Virginia from Tennessee, one of the first stops is Damascus. Located 465 miles from the trail’s southern terminus, the town is an alluring haven for weary thru-hikers, with plenty of creature comforts, including places to load up on maps and repair or replace battered gear, like Sundog Outfitter and Mt. Rogers Outfitters.

Just twenty minutes northwest of Damascus is its sister city of Abingdon, which is an excellent base camp for anyone exploring the region. The two cities are connected by the Virginia Creeper Trail, another spectacular option for hiking, running and cycling. (Take a shuttle to the trail’s start at Whitetop Station and enjoy a mostly downhill ride all the way back to Abingdon.) Take advantage of Abingdon’s restaurants, many of which focus on locally produced products, like Jack’s 128 Pecan. After a day on the trail, a craft brew from the Wolf Hills Brewing Co. is a treat not to be missed.

In the spring, the Appalachian Trail Days festival features a rollicking, weekend-long celebration of the iconic footpath, featuring live music, tasty food, and vendor demos.

Mount Rogers High Country

A mishmash of airy Appalachian balds, highland spruce-fir forests, and mountain meadows nibbled by wild ponies, the high country of Mount Rogers is like no place else on the entire East Coast. Fortunately for thru-hikers, the Appalachian Trail offers one of the most spectacular routes through the vista-laden highlands. Besides the wandering ponies, the stunning upland realm supports a unique array of fauna, including Northern flying squirrels, pygmy salamanders, and high-elevation birds not encountered elsewhere in the state.

In the high country, the Appalachian Trail leads trekkers through the pristine Lewis Fork Wilderness and the trout-stream-braided Little Wilson Creek Wilderness, while also rambling past aesthetic gems like "The Scales," a vast alpine pasture that once functioned as a cattle-weighing station, and the braided cascades of Comers Creek Falls, a photo-worthy picnic stop.

Buzzard Rock on Whitetop Mountain

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Buzzard Rock features brilliant colors during the fall.

Virginia State Parks

Crowning a quintessential Appalachian bald, the panoramic crag on Whitetop Mountain dubbed Buzzard Rock is the fourth highest point in the entire state. Perched at 5,095 feet, the stack of rocks offers views of the ridgelines of Iron Mountain, the forest-shrouded summit of Mount Rogers, and weather-permitting, even 5,837 foot Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina.

Grayson Highlands State Park

Located in the heart of the Mount Rogers high country, Grayson Highlands State Park is a luxury-laden pitstop for thru-hikers, replete with perks like hot showers, fire-ring studded campsites, and a seasonal Country Store, perfect for grabbing treats for the trail. The park is also home to nearly 100 wild ponies, introduced to the park nearly a half-century ago to graze the highland balds and thwart reforestation. While the herd freely roams the park and adjacent Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, the sturdy ponies are regularly found grazing the upland meadows of Wilburn Ridge. Besides wild ponies and trailside amenities, boulder-strewn Grayson Highlands State Park is also a hotspot for climbers, loaded with more nearly 1,000 problems to tackle.

Partnership Shelter

One of the most-buzzed about shelters on the Appalachian Trail, the spacious Partnership Shelter has a reputation that precedes it—especially as a place hikers can order pizza on the trail, from the nearby town of Marion. Offering running water, and even a shower, the sturdy shelter is also a popular spot for socializing, especially following Appalachian Trail Days in the spring, when northbound thru-hikers pass the log-hewn lean-to on the path to Katahdin.

Burke’s Garden Overlook

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Burke’s Garden remains a bucolic time-capsule—and one of the state’s most unique historic districts.

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One of the best places to catch a glimpse of the stunning geological anomaly dubbed Burke’s Garden is from the Appalachian Trail, along Chestnut Knob above Walker Gap (marked by the Chestnut Knob shelter, at 4,409 feet). Nicknamed God’s Thumbprint, the high-elevation valley – sitting at 3,200 feet – is completely encircled by Garden Mountain, and was famously the top choice location for George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate. Today, verdant Burke’s Garden remains a bucolic time-capsule, and one of the state’s most unique historic districts.

Practical Information

The Mount Rogers Appalachian Trail Club is tasked with managing about 60 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia, beginning at the Tennessee border, and including section in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, the Jefferson National Forest, and Grayson Highlands State Park. The group is an invaluable source of information on the trail, and leads regular recreational hikes in the high country of Mount Rogers.

Maintained by the Southwest Virginia Citizen Science Initiative, the website High Lonesome Trails also provides detailed information on several regional sections of the Appalachian Trail and other hikes in Southwest Virginia.

For thru-hikers or day hikers, detailed maps of the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia include National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Map of the Mount Rogers High Country (which includes Grayson Highlands State Park), and the pair of maps available from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, covering the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia from the Tennessee border to the New River. So learn more and take advantage of one of the state’s most impressive outdoor resources.

Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated Media in partnership with Abingdon.

Featured image provided by Virginia State Parks

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The Complete Guide to Water Sports on South Holston Lake

Lakes are scarce in the Old Dominion state, making watery expanses like Southwest Virginia’s South Holston Lake particularly precious. Spreading along the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains, the 7,850-acre lake is shared by Virginia and Tennessee, and is easily accessible from towns throughout Southwest Virginia, including Abingdonand Bristol. Besides being among Virginia’s more sizeable reservoirs, South Holston Lake is also one of the most picturesque. Almost two-thirds of the lake is fringed by the Cherokee National Forest, providing boaters and paddlers a serene natural backdrop. South Holston Lake is also a hotspot for wildlife, from rare songbirds to largemouth bass. There are plenty of ways to enjoy stunning South Holston Lake, so here’s the complete guide to recreational opportunities on the water.

Paddling

Peppered with intriguing islands, secluded coves, and expansive stretches of forest-fringed shoreline, South Holston Lake gives kayakers, canoeists, and stand-up paddleboarders plenty to explore. Besides the scenic backdrop, the lake is also a hotspot for wildlife. Paddlers have the chance to spot wood ducks floating on the surface of water, cautious green heron wading in the shallows, and bald eagles soaring overhead. Beyond the birds, the lake also supports plenty of other wildlife to keep perceptive paddlers entertained, including northern water snakes, turtles, and muskrats.

Recreational paddlers headed for South Holston Lake have plenty of options for hitting the water, including the Washington County Park in Abingdon. Two public boat launches are operated by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), and visiting paddlers can rent kayaks or stand-up paddleboards at the Sportsmans Marina in Abingdon. Kayakers still itching for a little moving water can also explore the nearby North Fork of the Holston River, a hotspot for smallmouth bass. The Mendota, Virginia, based outfitter Adventure Mendota rents kayak for self-guided paddling trips on the North Fork of the Holston, and offers shuttle services.

Swimming

There’s something especially restorative about swimming in a pristine mountain lake. For sun-worshippers in search of a perfect spot for a swim, there’s the Jacob’s Creek Recreation Area. Spread over a secluded peninsula on the eastern side of the lake in the Cherokee National Forest, the recreation area features a family-friendly swimming area, and a waterside trail perfect for a brief leg-stretcher before hitting the beach. Or turn a day trip to the lake into an overnight excursion and grab one of the recreation area’s 27 campsites.

Fishing

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South Holston Lake is a big draw for area anglers. The reservoir is loaded with sought after sportfish, including smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, white bass, crappie, and walleye, in addition to foraging fish, like gizzard shad and alewives. Other alluring species include monstrous channel catfish, common carp, and quillback. Plus, the lake is also stocked with brown, rainbow, and lake trout. Visiting anglers heading to the South Holston Lake can stock up on gear—and get the scoop from locals in the know—at the Virginia Creeper Fly Shop in Abingdon. Anyone hoping to fish the dual-state lake must pick up an annual South Holston Fishing License ($21 per year).

Underwater Adventures

While South Holston Lake has ample acreage for paddlers to explore, there’s also plenty to see beneath the surface. The lake is also a hotspot for local scuba divers, a mountain-framed alternative to the Caribbean. Adventure Diving, based in Bristol, Tennessee, just 20 minutes from South Holston Lake, offers private open-water classes for beginning scuba divers.

Recreational Boating

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Recreational boaters have plenty to explore, including 23.2 river miles of water and 182 miles of shoreline. There are a handful of marinas scattered over the lakeshore in both Virginia and Tennessee offering launch and storage facilities, in addition to daily pontoon rentals. The regional options on the South Holston Lake for boaters in Southwest Virginia include the Sportsmans Marina in Abingdon, Virginia and the Laurel Marina & Yacht Club, the Painter Creek Marina, and the Friendship Resort and Marina in Bristol, Tennessee.

The Lake for Landlubbers

You don’t have to hit the water to enjoy the South Holston Lake region. The Virginia Creeper Trail—a nationally-recognized rail-trail running for 34.3 miles from Abingdon to Whitetop Station—crosses the northernmost fringes of the lake just west of the Alvarado Station. For birders and wildlife enthusiasts, the VDGIF South Holston Birding & Wildlife Trail is a drivable loop with several fauna-loaded stops scattered along the lake.

Practical Information

Just 20 minutes north of South Holston Lake, the historic town of Abingdon is loaded with cultural attractions and lodging options, including the Martha Washington Inn and Spa, which dates back to the early 19th Century. For those who like to sleep under the stars, Abingdon offers the seasonal campground at the Washington County Park. Plus, the town is loaded with post-adventure hangouts, like the Wolf Hills Brewing Company. It’s the perfect basecamp for enjoying any of the outdoor activities in the region as well as spending time on the lake.

Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated Media in partnership with Abingdon.

Featured image provided by Dan Grogan

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An Insider’s Guide to Climbing at Hidden Valley Lake

Southwest Virginia is blessed with many of the premier climbing destinations in the state, from the enticing boulders scattered over Grayson Highlands State Park to the precipitous sandstone gorge running through Breaks Interstate Park. But one of the region’s gems is the climbing area at Hidden Valley Lake, stashed away in a forested corner of Brumley Mountain at nearly 4,000 feet, located just 10 miles north of the town of Abingdon, Virginia.

The bands of cliff at Hidden Valley have been popular with local climbers for decades, but after concerns about misuse, the area was closed to the public in 2004. Nearly a decade later, landowners Jeanean Dillard and Suichi Komaba, climbers who fell in love with Hidden Valley in the 1990s, offered to sell part of their property on Brumley Mountain to provide public access to about a mile of climbable cliffline. Enter the Carolina Climbers Coalition. The non-profit now manages the Hidden Valley climbing area in partnership with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), which is responsible for the adjacent Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area, anchored by 60 acre Hidden Valley Lake. Today, climbers at Hidden Valley have access to nearly 500 routes, a combination of sport and traditional lines.

Classic Adventures

Shoutout to Claritin D and too much cough syrup for keeping me alive this weekend

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The climbing at Hidden Valley is divided into two unique areas, dubbed the Left Side and the Right Side of Hidden Valley Road, each with a distinct character and plenty to entice. Now owned by the Carolina Climbers Coalition, the less-trafficked Right Side cliffs offer a higher concentration of traditional routes than the Left Side, while still offering more than enough bolted lines to keep sport climbers entertained. Routes on the Right Side fall into the 5.6-5.13 range, with challenging highlights like Ship Rock. Shady in summer and sunny in winter, Ship Rock is stocked with a mixture of sport and traditional routes, nearly two dozen total, loaded by technical face climbs and chunky arêtes. Each of Ship Rock’s lines has a pirate themed name, like the 5.12b technical face dubbed Calico Jack Spiced Rum.

The more thoroughly explored Left Side cliffs are also loaded with a mixture of sport and traditional routes, most skewing to the more challenging end of the spectrum, falling into the 5.10-5.13 range. The ‘Left Side’ cliffs are also home to some of Hidden Valley’s most popular areas—like dubiously named Butt City, offering nearly 30 sport routes (5.6-5.13) just a short walk from the parking area.

The Left Side is also studded with treasures like Tea Kettle Junction. Distinct from the rest of the cliffs at Hidden Valley, Tea Kettle Junction sits at a geological nexus—situated at the panoramic point where Brumley Mountain merges with Clinch Mountain’s main ridgeline. Besides the vista, Tea Kettle Junction is loaded with 40 routes, almost entirely traditional climbs, including short-but-sweet cracks, cozy chimneys, and plenty of roofs and arêtes.

Secrets of the Park

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While Hidden Valley is renowned for rope climbing, there are also plenty of bouldering problems for adventurous, pad-toting climbers. While detailed route information has not been published, there are bouldering spots scattered along both Right Side and Left Side cliffs. There’s also always the potential to stumble upon an undiscovered gem tucked away in the woods.

Although Hidden Valley has been beloved by locals for decades, for experienced climbers with an adventurous spirit and plenty of patience, there are still places to put up a first ascent. On the Right Side, the most potential options are farthest from the parking area around a quartzite crystal speckled crag nicknamed Microwave Wall. While the Left Side has been more thoroughly explored, the aptly named Forgotten Wall also offers uncharted territory with potential for first ascents.

Besides spectacular sandstone, there are also plenty of ways to give battered fingers a break from the rock at Hidden Valley Lake. The upland lake is open to recreational boaters, and harbors species like largemouth bass, northern pike, bluegill and black crappie. The 14.6-mile Brumley Mountain Trail runs directly through the climbing area, meandering along the ‘Left Side’ cliffs at the Hidden Valley for just over a mile. Outside the Hidden Valley climbing area, the regional trail leads hikers through the Channels State Forest and into the area dubbed "The Channels," a 20 acre labyrinth of sandstone.

Besides the climbing, Hidden Valley is also a hotspot for local wildlife. The crag and neighboring Hidden Valley WMA provide ample opportunity to spot black bears, white-tailed deer, and bobcats. The area is also a highland haven for rare species, like southern flying squirrels and alpine avifauna, including Blackburnian warblers, ruffed grouse, and scarlet tanagers.

Get the Most Out of Your Visit

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The definitive—and only—guide to climbing Hidden Valley is Gus Glitch’s book Hidden Valley Rock Climbs, loaded with detailed route beta, maps, and other essential information about the area.

While there is certainly seasonal variation, Hidden Valley is climbable year-round. In summer, the high elevation and surrounding forest mean the cliffs are cool and shady (although leafless trees mean spring days can be warm). In the winter, a generous snowfall can limit road access to Hidden Valley, but if temperatures are tolerable, southern exposure and bare trees mean the rock sees some sunlight.

For visitors aged 17 and older, a $4/day VDGIF access permit is still required for Hidden Valley (a $23 annual option is also available). Camping is not permitted beneath the cliffs or in the parking area at the Hidden Valley climbing area. However, primitive camping is permitted in the area around Hidden Valley Lake in the neighboring VDGIF-owned Hidden Valley WMA. Nearby Abingdon, Va., also serves as a great basecamp, with lodging options ranging from the historic Martha Washington Inn, which offers plenty of pampering, to local bed & breakfasts, hotels, and motels for any budget. You won’t go hungry there either, with many local restaurants focused on locally sourced cuisine. And after a day on the rocks, a craft beer from the Wolf Hills Brewery hits the spot.

The re-opening of Hidden Valley was only achieved due to the tireless efforts of local climbers, non-profits like the Access Fund and the Carolina Climbers Coalition, and with the permission of local landowners, meaning stewardship is essential from all visitors.

Other Regional Highlights for Climbers

Besides the Hidden Valley crag, Southwest Virginia is scattered with other gems. Just an hour east of Hidden Valley is Virginia’s top bouldering destination, Grayson Highlands State Park, with more than 1,000 problems. Meanwhile, an hour due west of Hidden Valley, the Flag Rock Recreation Area above the town of Norton offers a selection of quality boulder problems, plus 8 miles of newly crafted singletrack, and a trout-stocked reservoir. The Guest River Gorge Trail, also just few minutes outside Norton, features a mixture of over 300 sport and traditional routes spread over just three miles of trail. Further west, straddling the border between Virginia and Kentucky, Breaks Interstate Park only opened up to rock climbing in 2016, but the precipitous sandstone gorge splicing the protected area has vast potential, already offering almost 100 routes, including both sport and traditional climbs. For those who love to climb, Southwest Virginia is quickly becoming one of the must-visit destinations in the eastern U.S.

Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated Media in partnership with Abingdon.

Featured image provided by Nicole Dyer – White Birch Food and Juice/Abingdon Visitors and Convention Bureau

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How to Have the Perfect Health and Wellness Weekend in Abingdon

Seeking an enchanting getaway with friends? A place that has engrossing activities, exceptional food, creative shopping opportunities and lovely scenery? A weekend in Abingdon, Virginia, can leave you and your friends feeling invigorated and refreshed. Visitors will find both outdoor attractions that highlight the incredibly scenic mountains of Southwest Virginia and some of the region’s best music, theater, and other cultural attractions. Throw in one of the state’s most historic inns and you’ve got everything you need for a memorable getaway.

Dinner and a Show

Start with the perfect accommodations—The Martha Washington Inn and Spa, an historic Four Diamond-rated property located in the heart of downtown Abingdon. After you arrive, relax on the hotel’s expansive porch with a drink. After cocktails, walk to dinner at 128 Pecan, a Southern-style American bistro for a casually elegant dining experience. The restaurant serves a wide array of local wines and teas and small plates perfect for sharing.

After dinner, head over to The Barter Theatre for a show. The Barter opened on June 10, 1933, making it the nation’s longest running professional theater. It’s so named because during the depression when money was tight, the theater’s founder allowed patrons to enter by bartering food, livestock or other goods. For 40 cents—or the equivalent in goods—you could enjoy a live show. In 1946, it was designated as the State Theatre of Virginia, and it’s one of the last year-round professional resident repertory theaters remaining in the country. Today it’s packed season offers musicals, comedies, and dramas—there’s something to see nearly every day on two different stages.

Restore and Recharge

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Take a dip in the hotel pool and relax in your beautiful room.

Renee Sklarew

Saturday morning, get a jump on the day, with some laps in The Martha’s therapeutic heated, salt-water pool, kept at the perfect temperature for a loosening up of those tired muscles. Now you’re ready to take on the hotel’s traditional Virginia hot breakfast included in your room rate. The menu features pancakes, waffles, eggs, Virginia Ham, breakfast potatoes, pork sausages, bacon, grits, pastries and the chef’s fruit smoothie of the day. Schedule one of The Martha’s legendary spa treatments, choosing among a hot stone massage, botanical skin resurfacing, or aromatherapy soak.

Another option is the Healing Waters Day Spa, which caters to groups and features holistic and Ayurvedic practices, along with personalized service. Girls Day Out is a package that allows you and your friends to relax together in robes, enjoy lunch and try out the steam room and sauna. Check out their Godiva’s Delight package, which begins with a visit to the steam room followed by a Body Polishing Exfoliating Massage Treatment. Godiva’s Delight ends with a mini facial and hydrating hand treatment.

Exercise Together

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The Virginia Creeper Trail is one of the premier rail-to-trails in the country. Rent bikes and take a shuttle to the start—and enjoy the mostly downhill ride back into town.

Renee Sklarew

Game for a bike ride along the renowned Virginia Creeper Trail? The 34-mile trail is one of the best rails-to-trails in the country. The former railroad tracks were transformed into this running, hiking, and biking path, which stretches from Whitetop Station near the North Carolina border to Abingdon. The Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop is just a few blocks from The Martha at the terminus of the famous trail. Rent a bike there and you can take an easy ride on the trail, or take a shuttle to Whitetop Station and enjoy a mostly downhill ride to Damascus or all the way back to Abingdon. Along the way, you’ll see some of the prettiest scenery in the area, including trickling waterfalls, roaring rivers and thick forests. For anyone who enjoys cycling, it’s a must-do ride when you’re in town.

If yoga is more intriguing to you, take a class at Whitetop Yoga, located in downtown Abingdon. Catering to every skill level, this beautiful and serene studio is a great way to stretch and meditate with experienced instructors.

Sample Southwest Virginia Cuisine

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The Harvest Table Restaurant is on the forefront of the local food movement.

Renee Sklarew

Take a drive to Harvest Table, the restaurant owned by bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver and her family, which moved to the region seven years ago and began farming—a calling that inspired Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. On the forefront of the local food movement, the family serves dishes created from the bounty of local farmers who harvest their produce and raise their animals according to Appalachian heritage farming techniques. Their $50 per person farm tour includes a look at their sustainable practices, a multi-course chef-selected menu and signed copy of Kingsolver’s book.

Another foodie option is The Market, a new café that was formerly Allison’s Diner on Lee Highway. The young owner showcases products from Southwest Virginia’s abundant farms, including fresh breads, recently harvested produce, and grass-fed beef.

You won’t want to miss out on Abingdon’s weekly Farmers Market on Saturdays, where you can pick up seasonal produce, jams, horseradish, honey, eggs, molasses and other treats. From April through Thanksgiving, the market is outdoors, but moves inside, turning into a Winter Market in December. Abingdon Market is a great place to find gifts such as goat milk soaps, dried flowers, Virginia peanuts, soy candles, and pottery. Appalachian mountain artisans sell their hand-crafted alpaca woolen mittens and hand painted wine bottles there, too.Sometimes you’ll catch musical performances, cooking demonstrations and festivals on the grounds of historic Fields-Penn House.

Exploring Main Street and Beyond

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Jerroleen’s Shed stocks both old and the new merchandise, with whimsical furnishings that enchant every shopper.

Renee Sklarew

What’s a rejuvenating weekend without a little shopping? Downtown Abingdon’s Persnickety boutique offers a curated selection of fashion forward designer clothes and jewelry you might not expect to find in a small town. Don’t miss their French vintage medallion necklaces. Down the road, the Forget Me Not shop caters to the youthful and youthful at heart with exuberant tops, dresses and accessories. They also sell scented products, shoes, and boots.

Abingdon is an antique and home decor lover’s dream with multiple stores stocking rare, vintage and reclaimed collectibles and gifts. Zephyr Antiques has an eclectic collection of period furniture, dishware, china, rare books, coins and other historic memorabilia. Jerroleen’s Shed stocks both old and the new merchandise, with whimsical furnishings that enchant every shopper. The Candy Shed carries a mouthwatering assortment of treats, from chocolates, Virginia peanuts, to colorful gummies and suckers—and they have samples.

Abingdon is located in the heart of Appalachian Mountain country, and the town’s galleries showcase many fine examples of heritage crafts. Stop at Holston Mountain Artisans to shop for silk and alpaca woven scarves, patchwork quilts, hand-carved wooden boxes and wicker baskets to name a few treasures in this cooperative gallery. They also offer classes; so check the calendar in advance to see if your group wants to learn a new craft together.

The Arts Depot is a gathering place for seven Resident Artists creating in a variety of mediums right here in their studios, including clay, paint, folk art and weaving. Many of their creations are available for purchase. Heartwood is Southwest Virginia’s Artisan Gateway, with a stunning selection of high quality fine arts, clothing, home goods, and furniture. While you’re there, grab lunch in the Heartwood Café and enjoy sweeping vistas of the surrounding mountains.

No matter how you like to relax, you’re certain to find a way to do so in Abingdon.

Originally written by RootsRated Media for Abingdon.

Featured image provided by Renee Sklarew

20170919-Virginia-Heart of Appalachia Bike Route

5 Incredibly Scenic Road Biking Rides Near Abingdon

The scenic backroads and byways of Southwest Virginia showcase a landscape found no place else in the state, serving up a mélange of mountains and meadows, vast expanses of national forest, gently rolling hills, and inviting towns. Sure, driving these byways is plenty splendid—but the best way to soak up the scenery is on two wheels, relishing both the grating climbs and gleeful descents. For road cyclists, Southwest Virginia offers a smorgasbord of options, but these are a few of the best rides around the historic town of Abingdon, a cozy and convenient launch pad for a whole host of regional adventures.

1. Heart of Appalachia Bike Route

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Make a pit stop along the route in the town of St. Paul to spend a day trading pedaling for paddling on the Clinch River.

Virginia State Parks

Virginia’s only official state bike route, the 128-mile Heart of Appalachia Bike Route moseys through four counties, weaving in and out of the Jefferson National Forest, and connecting Burke’s Garden, one of Virginia’s most stunning geological anomalies, with the starting point for the 5.8-mile wildlife-rich Guest River Gorge Trail. The route cobbles together smooth stretches of asphalt, gravel roads, and rails-to-trails tracks (meaning wider, knobby style tires or hybrid bike are ideal), and it gains 6,585-feet along the way.

Aside from the spectacular show along the ride, the route also offers plenty of options for scenic side trips and detours, like the Pinnacle Natural Area Preserve, distinguished by the eponymous rock massif, dubbed the Pinnacle, which soars 400-feet above Big Cedar Creek. Or make a pit stop along the route to spend a day trading pedaling for paddling on the Clinch River, a global hotspot of biodiversity, harboring more than 50 species of freshwater mussels.

2. Burke’s Garden Century

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A bike trip in Burke’s Garden is like taking a step back in time.

Malee Oot

George Vanderbilt’s first choice for the location of his Biltmore Estate, Burke’s Garden serves as the beginning—or the end—of the Heart of Appalachia Bike Route. But the gorgeous geological gem is worth exploring further. The crater-like depression is fully encircled by Garden Mountain. It claims being both Virginia’s loftiest valley and the state’s largest rural historic district. There only road to take you into the punchbowl valley, where you’ll find a patchwork of farms and pastures. Navigation skills are unnecessary and traffic is virtually non-existent.

The New River Valley Bicycle Association has routed a popular ride dubbed the Burke’s Garden Century, a loop with little elevation gain that makes it an ideal initiation to distance rides for cyclists attempting their first 100-miler. Competitive riders can also tackle the loop every fall during the Burke’s Garden Century, a cycling event staged by the New River Valley Bicycle Association annually on move-in weekend at Virginia Tech. Cyclists can break up the route with a pit stop at the Burke’s Garden General Store, serving up deli-style lunches and offering locally produced goodies.

3. TransAmerica Trail

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Hop on the Virginia Creeper Trail for a night of rest and relaxation in Abingdon.

Renee Sklarew

Possibly America’s most epic cycling route, the TransAmerica Trail crosses the entire country, ribboning 4,228-miles from Yorktown, Virginia, to Astoria, Oregon. Virginia claims approximately 533 miles of the renowned route, including a stunning portion in Southwest Virginia. Beginning along the Kentucky border near Breaks Interstate Park—a location dubbed the "Grand Canyon of the East"—the route continues past other regional highlights like Grayson Highlands State Park, featuring a landscape of highland meadows grazed by a free-roaming herd of wild ponies, and winds through the 200,000-acre Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.

In Southwest Virginia, the TransAmerica Trail also bisects one of the state’s premier rails-to-trails – the 34.3-mile Virginia Creeper Trail – in the town of Damascus, a veritable trail junction. Hop on the Virginia Creeper Trail for a night of rest and relaxation in Abingdon, located at the westernmost terminus of the rail-trail.

4. Mount Rogers Scenic Byway

Showcasing the loftiest reaches of the Old Dominion State, the Mount Rogers Scenic Byway threads a 60-mile course through the high country of Southwest Virginia. The route is divided into two portions – one 13.2-mile section linking Troutdale and Konnarock using Highway 603, and the other 32.5-mile portion connecting Damascus and Volney, using Route 58. The entire byway is studded with spectacular high country scenery – but the route also offers plenty of pit stops and detours to entice cyclists. Along the stretch from Damascus to Volney, the route passes adventure hubs like the Beartree Recreation Area, offering a bounty of trails, campsites, and a plunge-worthy lake. Between Konnarock and Troutdale, the byway serves as a portal to some of the region’s most exquisite long-distance hiking trails, including the Iron Mountain Trail, the Mount Rogers Trail, and the Appalachian Trail – and offers cyclists the chance to pitch a tent for the night at the high-elevation Grindstone Recreation Area. Best of all, post-ride the selection of craft beers at the Damascus Brewery will be waiting.

5. Big Walker Mountain Scenic Byway

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Bike the 16.2 mile Big Walker Scenic Byway.

Malee Oot

The Big Walker Mountain Scenic Byway makes for a short but sweet road ride. The 16.2-mile route strings together sections of State Highway 717 and US 52/21 – winding through a leafy swath of the Jefferson National Forest, and linking Wytheville and Bland. Fortunately, after cyclists complete the quad-burning climb to the 3,787-foot crest of Big Walker Mountain, an inviting outpost is waiting – the Big Walker Country Store, offering luxuries like cold drinks, hand-dipped ice cream, and shaded picnic tables — plus a vast assortment of locally made crafts and souvenirs. The summit is also crowned with the 100-foot Big Walker Lookout, the oldest privately-owned observation tower in the state. Riders who need a little time out of the saddle can also hop on one of the handful of trails splintering off the scenic byway, like the eastbound, 4.9-mile Walker Mountain Trail (which begins just behind the Big Walker Country Store) or the 5.5-mile Seven Sisters Trail, tracing the spine of Little Walker Mountain (accessible from Route 52). Make the ride an overnight outing and crash at the Forest Service run Stony Fork Campground, adjacent to the Big Walker Mountain Scenic Byway, offering campsites spread along the trout-stocked waters of the East Fork of Stony Fork Creek.

Originally written by RootsRated Media for Abingdon.

Featured image provided by Malee Oot

20170919-Virginia-Abingdon-Love

Dining, Shopping, and More: Your Guide to In-Town Exploration in Abingdon

Abingdon is the scenic town that serves as the home base for many on a trip to see the outdoor charms of Southwestern Virginia. Yet is also stands on its own as a cultural destination worth exploring. It was settled in the early 1700s, and its Main Street retains the town’s historic charm with its red brick sidewalks and cultural icons like The Martha Washington Inn and Barter Theatre. But Abingdon is also renowned for its early embrace of local food and the many community artists inspired by their Appalachian mountain roots.

Downtown Abingdon has a wide array of contemporary and traditional eateries where you can taste the region’s bountiful foods. A lovely place to stroll and window shop, Abingdon features exclusively independent shops and retailers— many selling merchandise you can only find in this region. It’s one of the stops on The Crooked Road music trail, which unites other small towns in the region dedicated to the preservation (and enjoyment) of heritage music. It’s the start (or finish) of the wildly popular Virginia Creeper Trail, considered one of the best rail-to-trail conversions in the country. The 34-mile path from Whitetop Station to Abingdon is a popular cycling destination, as many visitors take a shuttle to the top of Whitetop Station and enjoy the mostly downhill ride back into town. In short, Abingdon is filled with options for both spending time outdoors and enjoying the cultural amenities around town.

Eat Like the King of France

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The oldest Building in Abingdon is The Tavern Restaurant, which was built around the founding of the town in 1779..

Jason Riedy

Abingdon’s founding begins about the same time The Tavern Restaurant opened back in 1779. This fine dining restaurant contains more than 80 percent of the original furnishings including the wooden beams. At first glance, the restaurant resembles a movie set during the Revolutionary War. Notable guests of The Tavern include Louis Philippe, the King of France, President Andrew Jackson, and Pierre L’Enfant, the architect behind the design of Washington, D.C. Over the centuries, the Tavern has functioned as a post office, bank, barbershop. and a hospital for wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Today the restaurant features continental cuisine prepared in traditional fashion. It’s also a popular place to stop in for cocktails or after-dinner drinks.

If you’re looking for something more casual, consider White Birch Juice Company. Here’s where the emphasis on local products shines brightly. Along with cold-pressed juices, you can try its flavorful breakfast items like the Veggie Heaven Sandwich or during lunchtime, their Gourmet Grilled Cheese. The restaurant lists where each of its products is sourced and features a selection of local beers and ciders.

Those with a sweet tooth must save room for Anthony’s Desserts, known for the menu’s exquisite crème brulee and cheesecake. Visitors and locals rave about Anthony’s signature roast coffee from Costa Rica along with the hand-dipped ice cream. Anthony’s is a perfect place to go for a romantic date night or special occasion. Another popular dessert destination is 149 Sweets offering irresistible desserts baked in the Southern tradition of scratch baking. Some favorites include their lemon meringue pie, brownie bars and coconut pound cake. Everything tastes like your grandmother made it. Looking for something more exotic? Check out Abingdon’s Balkan Bakery where you can find both savory and sweet pies and international treats like spanakopita and baklava.

Unique Shopping

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Find beautiful, regionally made art at Heartwood.

Renee Sklarew

Abingdon is known for its Appalachian Mountain crafts, and you can find them in abundance in the town’s local galleries near Main Street. Holston Mountain Artisans is a gathering space where people take classes to work with various media. The cooperative gallery also sells woodworking, pottery, quilts and hand-woven baskets. Down the street, the Arts Depot is located inside an 1890s freight station. Today the community-based gallery hosts seven Resident Artists who you can observe while they create in their studios.

The artwork is displayed in an elegant environment, and much of it is for sale, including the photography, jewelry, sculpture, paintings, folk art, and weaving. If you’re in the market for home furnishings, stop in Shady Business where they stock an eclectic selection of lampshades, home décor and lighting options. Crafty folks should visit A Likely Yarn to be inspirited by their colorful stock of sewing, crocheting, weaving, and knitting products. Connoisseurs can stock up on wine, beer, and cheese at Katbird’s Wine & Gourmet, housed in a traditional brick building on Main Street. Whether you’re entertaining or treating yourself, order a cappuccino while you peruse this excellent collection of fine foods.

That’s Entertainment

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Check out Wolf Hills Brewing where live bands play while you sample their tasty craft brews.

Jason Riedy

Live music is a way of life in Southwest Virginia, and Abingdon is an incubator for performing artists. Check out Wolf Hills Brewing, where live bands play while you sample their tasty craft brews. This festive microbrewery is housed in an old barn. Heartwood is the headquarters of The Crooked Road, and it’s the best destination to truly absorb what makes this Appalachian Mountain culture popular with fans around the world. This architectural marvel is the place to hear musicians playing bluegrass, gospel, and old-time tunes. There’s a wine and coffee bar, and if you do bring your own instrument, you might get to jam with the musicians.

JJ’s Restaurant and Sports Bar features an impressive number of draft beers, many from the region, and the chef turns out some imaginative twists on comfort food. Try JJ’s Loaded Potato Soup, Pig Wings, and the unforgettable JJ’s Special Burger with fried jalapenos and Pimento Cheese. That burger is life changing. Watch a game on one of their 10 big-screen TV’s, and feel like a local.

Abingdon hosts a well-known festival that showcases music and other live entertainment. Time your trip around the Main Street BuskerFest, where you’ll see circus acts, mimes, sword swallowers, acrobats, and magicians converging at this beloved annual event held over Labor Day Weekend.

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Heartwood is one of the stops on The Crooked Road music trail.

Renee Sklarew

If you miss that, every Thursday evening during the summer you can attend Thursday Jams at the Abingdon Market Pavilion. Each week, popular regional performers come out to entertain guests sipping on craft beer. It’s a fun time for every age group. During the month of January, notable talents grace Abingdon audiences at January Jams held in the Barter Theatre. This is an opportunity to see musical legends perform an intimate concert in this luxurious historic theatre.

These are just a few memorable experiences you’ll find on a visit to Abingdon. Take advantage of this charming historic town’s special brand of hospitality and liveliness in any season.

Originally written by RootsRated Media for Abingdon.

Featured image provided by Renee Sklarew

20170919-Virginia-Great Channels

A Guide to the Great Channels: A One-of-a-Kind Maze of Boulders and Crevices in Southwest Virginia

Tucked away in the verdant depths of the 4,836-acre Channels State Forest is one of Virginia's best kept secrets and most singular natural wonders. Located in the heart of the vast state forest, in the designated 721-acre Channels Natural Area Preserve, the Great Channels are a 20-acre labyrinth of sandstone formed during the last ice age, stashed away along the 4,208-foot crest of Middle Knob, the high point of Clinch Mountain.

Formed 400 million years ago during the last ice age, the geological formations are likely due to permafrost and ice wedging, which split large seams in the soft sandstone. The Great Channels are an otherworldly experience, like no other place else in the state and reminiscent of the slot canyons and gorges of the American Southwest.

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Once off-limits for even the hardiest of hikers, today the Great Channels are accessible courtesy of two different approach routes.

Alan Cressler

The trek to the Great Channels is also one of the newer hikes in the state. In 2004, the Nature Conservancy purchased the nearly 5,000-parcel of land housing the Great Channels from a private owner, and just four years later, through a collaboration with the state, the Channels State Forest was created. Adventure-seeking members of the public have only been able to hike the area for a little over a decade—and until just a few years ago, there was only one route into the hidden sandstone labyrinth.

Classic Adventures

Once off-limits for even the hardiest of hikers, today the Great Channels are accessible courtesy of two different approach routes through the Channels State Forest. Both options end at the top of Middle Knob and offer sweeping 360-degree vistas of the surrounding ridge and valley defined landscape. From there, both descend along the same path into the elaborate network of sandstone formations.

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The Channel Trail features an a 11-mile, out-and-back trip with about 2,600-feet of elevation gain.

Alan Cressler

The Channels Trail is the older of the two routes into the Great Channels, and it features an 11-mile, out-and-back trip with about 2,600-feet of elevation gain beginning from the trailhead on Route 689 (just across from Fletcher's Chapel). Along the 5.5-mile trip to the Great Channels, hikers are treated to a lengthy haul through a leafy swath of the Channels State Forest, a wilderness roamed by black bears and white-tailed deer.

The newer (and significantly shorter) route into the Great Channels is along the 14.6-mile Brumley Mountain Trail. Orchestrated largely by the local non-profit group Mountain Heritage, the four-year-old trail traces a course along the spine of Clinch Mountain, running from Hayters Gap on Route 80 to Hidden Valley Lake, moseying through the Channels Natural Area Preserve, the Channels State Forest, the Brumley Cove Baptist Camp, and the Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area.

Tackling the Great Channels on the Brumley Mountain Trail, beginning at the parking area on Route 80, requires hikers to traverse the easternmost 3-miles of the regional trail. From Route 80, trekkers have a 6.6-mile out-and-back trip featuring about 1,219-feet of elevation gain. Hikers are delivered to the portal into the Great Channels after about 3 miles of walking.

At the crown of Middle Knob, the Channels Trail and the Brumley Mountain Trail meld in the shadow of a lofty lookout tower and merge into a single route into the Great Channels. If the weather cooperates, views atop Middle Knob can stretch into the high country of North Carolina, as well as showcasing closer summits, like the string of pinnacles along the Clinch Mountain, including 4,689-foot Beartown Mountain.

Secrets of the Park

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The Hayters lookout was built by Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps in 1939.

Malee Oot

The soaring Hayters Knob Fire Tower, perched atop Middle Knob, may be out of commission for now, but the looming structure has a rich history. The lookout was built by Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps in 1939, one of many fire towers constructed throughout the country in that decade at the behest of the Division of Forestry, the forerunner of the Forest Service. The fire tower was operational for just over three decades, finally retired in 1970.

The Channels State Forest and Channels Natural Area Preserve are just two patches on a vast quilt of contiguous wilderness, which includes the adjacent 6,400-acre Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area and the 25,477-acre Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area. The vast expanse of wilderness surrounding the Great Channels offers endless opportunities build an even bigger outdoor adventure out of the trip, including options like fishing the trout-stocked waters of Big Tumbling Creek or paddling Hidden Valley Lake.

Quick Tips: Getting the Most of Your Trip

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Hikers should get their bearings – and take note of their route – when delving into the sandstone labyrinth of the Great Channels.

Alan Cressler

Whether hiking to the Great Channels along the Channels Trail or the Brumley Mountain Trail, plan to make a day of the out excursion—and don't rush. Allow for the added travel time required to navigate gravel backroads and byways, and most importantly, budget ample time to adequately explore the mountain-entombed sandstone labyrinth and to soak up the scenery from Middle Knob.

Both trailheads are on fairly remote stretches of roadway, so be sure to stock up on any last minute essentials for the trail in the nearby town of Saltville.

The trek from the crown of Middle Knob down into the channels is a steep section of trail. Plan to wear shoes with reliable tread and ankle support, and anyone who regularly uses hiking poles may be happy to have the extra stability during the descent.

Hikers should get their bearings and take note of their route when delving into the sandstone labyrinth of the Great Channels. Although the mountain-entombed maze is fairly condensed—spread over just 20 acres—the formations can begin to look familiar and possibly confuse some hikers trying to backtrack to the entrance route.

If tacking on a trip to the Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area or the Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area, keep in mind both are fee areas requiring a $4 access permit, available for purchase from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

For hikers hoping to make an overnight escape out of their foray into the Great Channels, camping is not permitted in the Channels State Forest, the Channels Natural Area Preserve, or anywhere along the Brumley Mountain Trail. However, there are opportunities for primitive camping in both the Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area and the Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area.

Originally written by RootsRated Media for Abingdon.

Featured image provided by Alan Cressler

20170901_SWV Tourism RR-102

Is This the Most Scenic Section of the Appalachian Trail?

Southwest Virginia has become a tourist destination for many reasons—scenic mountains, heritage music, farm-to-table restaurants, and Appalachian culture, just to name a few. But many people are passing through on a much larger journey: Hiking the Appalachian Trail. Thousands of hikers each year set out on the 2,200-mile long trail that connects Springer Mountain in Georgia with Mount Katahdin in Maine.

Of course, not everyone is taking the full trek across the country. The Appalachian Trail is filled with scenic sections that make for excellent day and weekend hikes, attracting people from across the country. For long-distance hikers, hitting Southwest Virginia is a mixed blessing: It is indeed considered one of the most scenic sections of the trail, following both ridges with sensational views and tree-covered wilderness. You’ll find the wild horses of Grayson Highlands and Damascus, Virginia, known as the "friendliest town on the trail."

But with those highlights come the unavoidable fact that you’re in for a lot of climbing. The trail crosses the state line from Tennessee into Virginia at an altitude of 3,302 feet, and from there it’s up and down along the 167 miles of trail that go through the region. You’ll hit the highest point of Virginia, Mount Rogers—technically just off the trail, but not by much—at an altitude of more than 5,700 feet, along with many several other high points along the route.

Of course, these climbs are also part of the fun, especially for day hikers who aren’t covering the full 550 miles of the trail that go through Virginia. For those looking for for the best of Appalachian Trail experience in the state, here are some must-hit sections in Southwest Virginia.

Damascus

Damascus is one of the most popular trail towns on the AT. It also features several other regional trails that are good for day hiking, including the Virginia Creeper Trail.
Damascus is one of the most popular trail towns on the AT. It also features several other regional trails that are good for day hiking, including the Virginia Creeper Trail.

Perry Smyre

Those doing the full AT hike look for hiker-friendly towns along the route, and Damascus as become known as one of the best. Travelers on the AT will find restaurants, laundry facilities, a post office, pharmacy, outfitters, plus several hostels and B&Bs where they can take a break. For day hikers, Damascus is also the epicenter of several opportunities for exploring the region, as seven major trails pass through the town. In addition to the AT, you can access the Virginia Creeper Trail, the Trans-America National Bicycle Trail, the Iron Mountain Trail, the Daniel Boone Heritage Trail, the Crooked Mountain Music Heritage Trail, and Virginia’s Birding and Wildlife Trail. You’ll also find loads of recreational opportunities in the adjacent to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.

After crossing the Virginia/Tennessee state line, the Appalachian Trail reaches downtown Damascus in only about three and a half miles. Here, you have a wide variety of options, whether you plan on sticking to the trail or incorporating some of the other trails as well. Some routes that can be done in a day include:

Loop Hike on the Appalachian and Iron Mountain Trails : From Damascus, start on East 4th Street and the trailhead to the Iron Mountain Trail, which is blazed with yellow markings. After about two miles, you’ll find a short, blue-blazed connecter trail, which will connect you to the Appalachian Trail (with white blazes). The return trip over a ridge features excellent views of the city. You’ll also enjoy some easy stream crossings and some manageable climbing.

Loop Hike on the Appalachian and Virginia Creeper Trail : Once again, start in Damascus for this 8-mile, easy-to-moderate hike. Start heading east on the Appalachian Trail/Virginia Creeper Trail. Follow the signs for the Appalachian Trail when they separate after you cross Route 58/91. Here you’ll enjoy the ridged view for about four miles, before you’ll cross a small log bridge and turn right on the Beech Grove Trail, where you’ll descend over about a quarter mile to the Straight Branch Virginia Creeper Trail parking lot. From there, you can hop on the Virginia Creeper Trail and head back into town.

Damascus is also home to the annual Appalachian Trails Days festival each May, which brings nearly 20,000 outdoor enthusiasts to the town each year to take advantage of workshops, outdoor outfitters, food, and entertainment.

Mount Rogers

The trail to Mount Rogers offers some of the most stunning views in the region.
The trail to Mount Rogers offers some of the most stunning views in the region.

Ryan Somma

You can reach Virginia’s highest point with a very scenic but challenging nine mile, out-and-back hike, mostly on the Appalachian Trail, which starts at Grayson Highlands State Park. While it’s great to reach the summit, one of the draws of this hike is viewing the wild ponies that live in the area. They help keep these bald mountains bald—that is, without significant tree cover—by eating the grasses and underbrush, which also is helpful in preventing wildfires. It also means that you get excellent panoramic views as you ascend the trail.

Start at Massie Gap in the state park, where you’ll pass through a horse gate and begin going up on the wide, gravel path. It isn’t long before you’ll reach the Appalachian Trail, which heads south and takes you most of the way to Mount Rogers. The wide open terrain is much different from the rest of the Appalachian Trail in the region, with little tree cover, rocky terrain and exposure to the elements. The final spur to the summit leaves the Appalachian Trail, where you enter a fairly thick evergreen forest. There’s a marker on the top of the mountain, but no view to speak of. This is truly a case of the journey being better than the destination.

Chestnut Ridge and Burke’s Garden

For those looking for a hike even more off-the-beaten path, Burke’s Garden is one of the more interesting geographic formations in the state features a section of the Appalachian Trail that doesn’t get a lot of day hikers. Located near Tazewell, Virginia, Burke’s Garden is a low valley surrounded 360-degrees by mountains. From above, it looks as if massive being pushed a finger down and created the valley, which has lead to the area’s nickname as "God’s Thumbprint." The lush valley is a throwback to another time, occupied mostly be family farms. The Appalachian Trail wraps around the ridges, and while it is mostly tree covered, you do get a few gaps that allow for some spectacular views.

For those not on a thru-hike, however, this section of the trail isn’t widely promoted. You won’t find signs for the trail in Burke’s Garden, which is made up almost entirely of private farmland. The easiest way to access the trail is through an entry point at Walkers Gap, which is located in Burke’s Garden. From there, take the trail (mostly uphill, with some significant climbs) for a bit over a mile to get to Chestnut Ridge and the stone shelter at the top. The trees open up and you’ll find excellent views of the valley below. Continue on the trail along the ridge to extend the hike. Chances are, the only hikers you’ll meet will be those doing either the full trail or at least a multi-day trek through the state.

Of course, these are just some of the options. Nearly any section of the trail offers something for day hikers to enjoy. And it won’t take long to figure out why so many thru-hikers view Virginia as the most scenic section of this 2,200-mile trail.

Originally written by RootsRated for Southwest Virginia.

Featured image provided by Cody Myers Photography

20170711__Virginia_Grayson Highlands

Climbing High: Reaching the Top Peaks in Southwest Virginia

You may find yourself at a loss for words as you reach the top of your first Virginia mountain. Which is OK, because the panoramic view of the surrounding ridges and valleys stretching endlessly toward the horizon won’t require much talking. Seeing as how Virginia is an exceptionally photogenic state, your summit photos will speak for themselves.

The good news is that mountaintop scenes like this abound in Virginia—and could keep you busy bagging summits for years. The better news is that most of them can be reached within a very few miles of your car.

Wild ponies roam the higher altitudes at Grayson Highlands State Park, giving hikers yet another reason to tackle the nine-mile, round-trip hike to the summit.
Wild ponies roam the higher altitudes at Grayson Highlands State Park, giving hikers yet another reason to tackle the nine-mile, round-trip hike to the summit.

Dzmitry (Dima) Parul

Of course, a hiking tour of Virginia wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the state’s highest point, Mount Rogers, which does require a bit of a walk. At 5,728 feet, Mount Rogers may not be at an especially grand elevation, but it is set amid some pretty spectacular scenery. The nine-mile, out-and-back hike to the mountain’s summit begins at Massey Gap and meanders through Grayson Highlands State Park and George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, sticking to the Appalachian Trail for most of the way. In the rolling high-country pastures here you can often catch glimpses of the famed wild ponies that roam the area, using their impressive looks to try and pilfer snacks from visitors. Don’t be fooled, they are wild animals, and should be given plenty of space.

Just before the summit, the trail enters a beautiful old-growth spruce/fir forest that encompasses the top of the mountain and pretty much obliterates any views. Don’t let this discourage you, though: All along the approaching trail you’ll enjoy sweeping vistas of the surrounding highland balds and peeks into the lush valleys below. The views of the rolling grasslands and rocky hills make the trek up Mount Rogers more than worth it. This trip makes a great long day hike, or you can use the trailside backcountry sites to turn your Mount Rogers expedition into a multi-day adventure.

A visit to Virginia’s second highest point requires significantly less effort. The state’s highest navigable road will take you very nearly to the summit of Whitetop Mountain. All that’s left when the well-maintained gravel road runs out is about a half-mile hike to another spectacular peak. Like Mount Rogers, Whitetop Mountain is also cloaked in an old forest, but the trees leave room for a panoramic view of three states. This mountain is an ideal spot to catch a lovely Virginia sunset, especially since the walk back to the car is so brief.

McAfee Knob is one of the most photographed spots on the Appalachian Trail.
McAfee Knob is one of the most photographed spots on the Appalachian Trail.

Robert Aberegg

For another longer hike, a trip to McAfee Knob should be on anyone’s Virginia bucket list. This 8-ish mile round trip will take you to one of the most photographed spots along the Appalachian Trail. The trail leaves from a parking lot on VA311, which often fills on weekends as the hike’s popularity has grown. The ascent is decently long but fairly gradual, reaching its apex at just under 3,200 feet. From McAfee Knob, an extremely photo-worthy jutting rock formation, you can enjoy 270-degree views of the Catawba Valley and the tree-covered ridges below.

Two benches at the top of Molly’s Knob offer a spectacular place to take a rest and enjoy the view.
Two benches at the top of Molly’s Knob offer a spectacular place to take a rest and enjoy the view.

Virginia State Parks

Another of Virginia’s many gorgeous recreation areas, Hungry Mother State Park, is a wonderful place to take a small walk for a big view. The 1.6-mile roundtrip hike to Molly’s Knob is moderately difficult (it becomes a bit steep near the top) and weaves through dense rhododendron tunnels on the way to the summit. At about half a mile, the trail offers clear view of the prominent Molly’s Knob, the park’s highest point, and the lake below. The final half mile of the hike becomes quite steep as you push for the summit, but you’ll be rewarded by two welcoming benches at the top. From here you can look out onto Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain to the south as you rest before the return trip.

These peaks only scratch the surface of all there is to discover in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. Whether you opt for the rigorous Mount Rogers trek or a smaller but equally rewarding jaunt, you are sure to find a beautiful panoramic vista from which to enjoy a picnic, a sunset, or a sunny southeastern afternoon.

Originally written by RootsRated for Southwest Virginia.

Featured image provided by Robert Aberegg