Virginia is for state park LOVERS
What do a mountain lake, a grand canyon, wild ponies and an historic route to the west have in common? You can find them all in Southwest Virginia at a State Park. Here are a few choice parks to fall in love with in the Old Dominion.
Wild views and Wild Ponies
The views from the Sugarland overlook at Grayson Highlands State Park are as sweet as the name implies. As far as the eye can see, a brilliant patchwork of fields, forests and groves of Christmas Trees fills the valley below while another group of high peaks lines up along the horizon. This is the “rooftop of Virginia” a place of unescapable beauty, peace and a little further up the road, wild ponies.
Introduced back in 1974, the wild ponies at Grayson Highlands have become one of the park’s most popular attractions. There are more than a hundred of them roaming the area around Massey Gap, where you’ll find the trailhead to Mt. Rogers, Virginia’s highest peak.
If you’re not into hiking the five miles or so to Mt. Rogers, don’t worry, there are much shorter hikes that actually provide you with even better views. A half-mile hike takes you from the Visitor’s Center to both the Little and Big Pinnacle overlooks. These are the highest points in the park. From these unique rock outcroppings you can look down into Massey Gap, take in the view of Mt. Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, the state’s second highest mountain.
A beach in the mountains
While Virginia is famous for its beaches along the Eastern Shore, there is one just a few miles off Interstate 81 along the shores of a pristine mountain lake. Hungry Mother State Park dates back to the Great Depression when the Civilian Conservation Corps built the park. Today, you can walk along the shores of the lake, cross a bridge over to an amphitheater on a small island, relax on the sand or take a dip in the cool waters of the lake.
This popular state park gets its name from the legend of Molly Marley. She and her child were said to be taken by Native Americans during a raid. Molly and her child managed to escape, but Molly didn’t make it. The child wandered down the creek that now forms the lake at the park. When a search party found the child, the child apparently could only say the phrase, “Hungry Mother.”
While the tale is a bit grim, there is nothing grim about the park and that includes the spectacular views hikers find when they ascend “Molly’s Knob” and reach the overlook at the top.
The Grand Canyon of the South
Nature has been working for more than a million years to create the masterpiece that is the Breaks Canyon. Located on the Virginia/Kentucky state line, this 5-mile long cut through the Appalachian Mountains is one of the deepest in the Eastern United States earning it the nickname “The Grand Canyon of the South.”
The Russell Fork River wraps tightly around a rugged peak called the Towers near the entrance to the park on the Virginia side. It’s easy to see the formidable presence the mountains have here as you see what a narrow pathway the river has as winds its way out of the canyon.
A break in the 125-mile long Pine Mountain is the reason for the name of this rugged masterpiece in the middle of the coalfields. Visitors can gaze into the gorge from easy to reach overlooks and rooms at the park lodge. They can also venture down to the river where massive rock walls rise high above it and Kentucky Route 80 . Cabins, a campground, a small lake and a water park provide plenty of other reasons to spend even more time at the park.
In the footsteps of Daniel Boone
At one time the Gateway to the West could be found at the westernmost tip of Virginia at the Cumberland Gap. The Wilderness Road brought thousands of families to this remote part of the early American frontier as they looked to start new lives.
Located just a few miles from Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, Virginia continues the story of the early settlers at Wilderness Road State Park at Martin’s Station. At one time this was a thriving outpost in the westernmost part of Virginia., one familiar to Daniel Boone who lead many expeditions through here and the Gap. Today, visitors can get a taste of what life was like for the people who made a living on the Wilderness Road through several interpretive exhibits and a living history element where the fort comes to life.
For some outdoor adventure, an 8.5 mile trail lets you hike, bike or horseback ride all the way to the National Park where you will find another 50 miles of trails.
Riding on that New River Trail
Rails to trails projects have become quite common as more and more old rail lines cease to be used. One of those runs along North America’s oldest river, which strangely enough is called the New River. In a small town where a massive textile mill once stood, a sign proudly says “Welcome to Fries, where the trail begins.” Fries (which is pronounced “freeze”) is the place where I lived while I was in High School and a place that will forever be in my heart and mind.
For more than 25 miles, this relatively level New River Trail runs along the banks of the river providing breathtaking views as it passes through remote areas, past two dams and even through a tunnel in the community where the “Father of Texas” was born back in 1793. The entire trail is 57 miles long and includes a “spur” into the city of Galax, home to the world’s oldest and largest fiddler’s convention.
While the trail begins in Fries, the headquarters for this haven for hikers, cyclists and horseback riders is located in Foster Falls near Wytheville. It’s a great place to learn about the park, enjoy great views of the New River and immerse yourself in a bit of history, especially if you visit the Shot Tower nearby.