The 11 Best Ways to While Away the Spring and Summer in Southwest Virginia

Hit the water at Hungry Mother State Park.
Hit the water at Hungry Mother State Park. Virginia State Parks
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Southwest Virginia is the perfect place to while away the spring and summer. Bestowed with the state’s loftiest peaks, expansive wilderness areas, and a large chunk of the massive Jefferson National Forest, the southwest corner of the state is loaded with potential for outdoor adventure. The area is also a cultural hub, offering everything from artisan-fueled markets to legendary performing venues like the Barter Theatre. There are plenty of ways to spend to the sun-kissed days of spring and summer in Southwest Virginia, but these are a few of the best.

1. Head for the Backcountry

Blanketed by a generous swath of the Jefferson National Forest, dappled with an eclectic patchwork of wilderness areas, Southwest Virginia is a veritable backpacker’s buffet—with plenty to offer trail-lovers after more than a mere day hike. Just north of Marion, Virginia, the rugged Beartown Wilderness showcases one of area’s most singular anomalies: Burke’s Garden, a four mile by seven mile crater framed by 4,710-foot Garden Mountain. South of Marion, the Lewis Fork Wilderness and smaller Little Wilson Creek Wilderness offer access to less-frequented trails and a string of peaks, including 5,729-foot Mount Rogers, the state’s highest summit. Lewis Fork and Little Wilson Creek wildernesses are both part of the 200,000-acre Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, a lofty portion of the Jefferson National Forest. The area is laced with more than 500 miles of high country trails, including 60 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

2. Flavors of the Season

Usher in warmer weather, longer days, and the seasonal rotation of flavors in Southwest Virginia. First peruse the bounty of fresh, locally sourced offerings available at the Abingdon Farmers Market. In addition to the local harvest, the market also features crafts produced by local artisans, including handmade soaps, candles, and home decorations. From the third weekend in April through Thanksgiving the market is open two days a week—on Tuesdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. After the market, head over to the Wolf Hills Brewing Company. Trade the heavy stouts and porters of winter for light, crisp warm weather brews like the White Blaze Honey Cream Ale, the Blackberry Wheat, or the Creeper Trail Amber Ale. The brewery also plays host to a regular entertainment line-up, including everything from live music to trivia nights.

3. High Country on Horseback

One of the most memorable ways to explore the high-country wilderness of Southwest Virginia is on horseback. The area is also especially conducive to equine escapes. A network of bridle trails includes the 68-mile Virginia Highlands Horse Trail, and you’ll find equine-friendly campsites like the Fox Creek Horse Camp and the Hussy Mountain Horse Campground scattered spread throughout the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. For greenhorns, Appalachian Mountain Horseback Riding Adventures in Troutdale, Virginia, offers guides trips for riders of all experience levels as short as two hours.

4. Seek Out Legendary Country Music Spots

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Aside from the smorgasbord of outdoor adventures, Southwest Virginia also has a rich musical history. Sprinkled with everything from hole-in-the-wall joints to iconic country music venues, Johnny Cash even famously gave his last public performance in the area in 2003 at the Carter Family Fold. The Hiltons, Virginia-based venue still offers weekly shows on Saturday nights. Delve deeper into Southwest Virginia’s musical roots on the 330-mile Crooked Road Music Trail, linking a string of musicians, roadside exhibits, and performing venues like Heartwood in Abingdon.

5. Get Artsy

In Southwest Virginia, you can mingle with an array of local artisans—such as members of Round the Mountain: Southwest Virginia Artisan Network, artisan demonstrations at Heartwood in Abingdon, or the Arts Depot, a community-based gallery for local artists also located in Abingdon. Patronize the performing arts instead and catch a show at the Barter Theatre, one of the country’s longest-operating playhouses.

6. Find the Perfect Picnic Spot

Seek out the perfect picnic spot and get an eyeful of southwest Virginia’s mountain-silhouetted vistas with a cruise on the nearly 50-mile Mount Rogers Scenic Byway. The scenic roadway showcases woodland-blanketed slopes, bucolic meadows, and gushing trout streams all while skirting Whitetop Mountain, the second highest summit in the state. The byway also bisects both the Virginia Creeper Trail and the Appalachian Trail, making it easy to stop and stretch your legs.

7. Take an Old-Fashioned Fishing Trip

An old-fashioned fishing trip is arguably the best way to spend a warm weather day—even if you don’t get a single bite. Luckily, the chances of coming up empty-handed are slim in Southwest Virginia. The region is loaded with some of the premier fishing spots in the state, from icy trout streams lacing mountain forests to massive lakes. The Blue Ridge Highlands Fishing Trail highlights 18 different fishing destinations, including locations like secluded Laurel Bed Lake, a hotspot for smallmouth bass sitting atop Clinch Mountain, and Whitetop Laurel Creek, which has been hailed as the state’s premier trout stream featuring brook, brown, and rainbows. The Virginia Creeper Fly Shop in Abingdon can arrange and outfit guided fishing trips in the area.

8. Dogs Days of Summer

Does your favorite road-trip buddy have four legs and a tail? The wild spaces of Southwest Virginia are ideal for exploring with your favorite outdoor-loving canine. Best of all, dogs are allowed in all Virginia State Parks—and Southwest Virginia is home to several of the most stunning recreation areas in the state. Grayson Highlands State Park is loaded with more than a dozen trails and provides a portal to the high country of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, which is punctuated with alpine meadows and quintessential southern Appalachian balds. The park also offers plenty of dog-friendly campsites for overnight adventures.

9. Hike the Appalachian Trail

Ask almost any Appalachian Trail thru-hiker and they will tell you the stretch in southwest Virginia is one of the highlights of the entire 2,190-mile footpath. But the region is not just home to some of the trail’s most stunning scenery, Southwest Virginia is also loaded with backpacker-friendly towns and their renowned "trail angels." At the Partnership Shelter along the Appalachian Trail just outside the town of Marion, Virginia, hikers can even have pizza delivered. The Southwest Virginia town of Damascus, touted as the “friendliest town on the trail” hosts an annual Trail Days celebration every May.

10. Coast the Creeper

Explore Southwest Virginia on wheels on one of the state’s most stunning bike trails. Tracing the route used by the steam locomotives of the Norfolk & Western Railway, the Virginia Creeper Trail runs 34.3-miles from Abington to Whitetop Station. If steamy weather makes the idea of a bike trip unappealing, consider this—the 17-mile stretch from Whitetop Station to the town of midpoint town of Damascus is almost entirely downhill. Outfitters like the Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop in Abingdon and the Adventure Damascus Bicycle & Outdoor Company in Damascus offer bike rentals and can arrange trail shuttles for riders so you can enjoy that one-way journey downhill.

11. Hit the Water

Lakes are the ultimate warm weather escape—a refreshing dip makes for the perfect finish to a hike, ride, or run. Luckily, Southwest Virginia is not only filled with trails, the region is also scattered with several sprawling lakes. Hit the water at Hungry Mother State Park, just outside Marion, Virginia, or at the Beartree Recreation Area, part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Dubbed the "Grand Canyon of the South," the Breaks Interstate Park, straddling the border of Virginia and Kentucky, features Laurel Lake (great for paddling) plus an extensive water park open Memorial Day to Labor Day. Looking for moving water instead? Southwest Virginia is also braided with runnable rivers. Paddle or float the North Fork of the Holston River with Adventure Mendota, located outside Abingdon. Or head for the Clinch River, a hub of aquatic diversity once paddled by Daniel Boone. Clinch River Adventures in St. Paul can arrange trips and boat rentals.

Originally written for AbingdonVA.

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