Set in the heart of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains just an hour and a half north of Greensboro, N.C., and less than three hours from Raleigh, N.C., Franklin County, Virginia, stands out for its rich Appalachian heritage, natural beauty, and laid-back atmosphere. Sandwiched by Smith Mountain Lake on one side and Philpott Lake on the other, the county rightly earns its nickname as the land of two lakes, four rivers, and the Blue Ridge—and likewise its reputation as an up-and-coming destination for outdoor adventure.
Franklin County’s rural roots give the region much of the charm it has today. Famously known as the "Moonshine Capital of the World" thanks to community-wide production and bootlegging during the Prohibition era, the county’s legacy runs equally as deep in the areas of music and agriculture. This is a place where stumbling across a traditional bluegrass jam session and paddling on a quiet lake in the mountains go hand in hand.
Though one weekend isn’t enough time to explore all of Franklin County, we’ve put together a guide to the best outdoor adventures, cultural experiences, and food in this gem of Southwest Virginia.
Start your weekend in the cozy town of Rocky Mount, smack dab in the center of Franklin County. Walking through historic downtown, you’ll stumble upon The Whole Bean Coffeehouse, where you can get quality coffee and espresso drinks made with locally roasted Red Rooster Coffee. Don’t forget to try one of the tempting pastries—baked from scratch right there in-house—and pick up a few of their fresh wraps or paninis for a picnic lunch.
For an authentic, down-home country style breakfast, head to the unassuming Ruth’s Place Restaurant, a few miles from downtown Rocky Mount. This local’s favorite serves up all the southern classics—like grits and homemade biscuits and gravy—along with your usual diner fare in a friendly, no-frills setting.
Not surprisingly, the go-to spots for outdoor adventure in Franklin County are the two lakes: Smith Mountain Lake and Philpott Lake. Smith Mountain Lake, the larger and more developed of the two, is the hub for summer recreation in the area. This 20,600-acre lake—with 500 miles of shoreline—sits in a picturesque valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains and draws crowds for motorized boating and sailing alike. From Rocky Mount, head northwest to the Bridgewater Marina, your jumping off point for a day on the lake. There, you can rent all manner of boats and watersports gear—from pontoons, ski boats, and waverunners, to stand-up paddleboards, wakeboards, and tubes. SML Community Park and SML State Park Beach offer quiet inlets for swimmers and paddleboarders, along with a smattering of picnic areas and short-but-sweet trails.
Those seeking a lake experience with a more remote feel will enjoy the 3,000-acre Philpott Lake and its 100 miles of shoreline. With far less motorized boat traffic and a more natural setting than SML, Philpott Lake is perfect for a relaxing afternoon spent canoeing, fishing, and swimming in the calm waters. A few miles south from the community of Ferrum, Jamison Mill Park features a 6-mile (and growing) trail system, a boat launch, and a lakeside campground with about 20 sites. For a unique adventure, spend the night at the secluded group campsite across the lake—you’ll have to paddle, hike, or bike to get there, but the experience is well worth it. Four miles from Jamison Mill, you’ll find well-maintained fishing piers and picnic areas at the ADA-accessible Twin Ridge Recreation Area.
In addition to the two beloved lakes, Franklin County is full of scenic country roads winding through farmland and mountainous terrain, making it a paradise for avid cyclists. Kayakers, canoeists, and leisurely floaters alike will find adventure on the Pigg and Blackwater Rivers, the county’s two main tributaries. Traditional fishers and anglers also flock to these rivers, as they are brimming with striped bass, river herring, crappie, redbreast sunfish, and more.
Unwind Like a Local
After a day well spent outside, you’ll likely have worked up an appetite for some of the seriously good local eats around Franklin County. You can’t go wrong with the hearty portions and welcoming service of Holly Jo’s Creekside Grill in Boones Mill. The burgers, sandwiches, and salads here sport all kinds of off-the-wall combinations (ever had fried mac ‘n’ cheese on your burger?), and their specialty white lighting hot sauce is not to be missed (try it with their homemade potato chips).
Venturesome souls will be drawn to Chaos Mountain Brewing, a seriously off-the-beaten-path establishment hidden down a lonely country road at the base of Cahas Mountain. Open Wednesdays through Sundays, their taproom pours out a rotating list of wildly tasty beers with an anarchist twist—like their dauntless 18 percent ABV Belgian Strong Dark Ale—brewed right there on site. You’ll find live music there Friday and Saturday nights, and local food trucks in the parking lot most evenings.
Experience the Music of Appalachia
Moonshine aside, Franklin County is all about the music. Hands-down, the best way to experience the American roots music of Appalachia is by driving the Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail. Weaving through scenic roads of 19 counties in Southwest Virginia, the Crooked Road connects a series of major music venues, affiliated jam sessions, festivals, and educational roadside exhibits. Franklin County marks the eastern gateway to the trail, with seven venues where you can catch a jam session five days a week and four heritage festivals throughout the summer and fall. Don’t forget to pop into the Blue Ridge Institute and Farm Museum at Ferrum College (near downtown Rocky Mount) for an overview of the varied musical genres showcased along the trail, like bluegrass, old-time string bands, blues, folk, and gospel.
No trip to Franklin County would be complete without catching a show at the renowned Harvester Performance Center in Rocky Mount. Once a tractor dealership, the casual and intimate concert space you’ll see today is known for its incredibly well-thought-out acoustics and the impressive lineup of artists coming through the door. Big names in folk, bluegrass, rock, country, and other genres (like Gregg Allman, Barenaked Ladies, Three Dog Blind, Willie Nelson, and Mandolin Orange, to name a few) frequent this cozy venue that seats no more than 460 people.
The unique Southwest Virginian experiences in Franklin County are what make it a rising destination for adventurous travelers who seek both a vibrant cultural scene and access to the outdoors.
Originally written for Southwest Virginia.