Traveling Around the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia
By Rich Grant
The first person to “leave his mark” on the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia was George Washington, who while surveying the area in 1750, climbed 22 feet up a cliff and carved his initials in the rock.
The “G.W.” can still be seen at Natural Bridge State Park.
Despite his early graffiti, George had big plans for the Blue Ridge Mountains. After the Revolution, in 1785, he was honorary president of the James River Canal, which hoped to connect shipping on the Virginia coast across the mountains to the Ohio River.
Through, not Into the Mountains
But the canal went bust. When the railroads came later, they followed the old canal route into the mountains — and kept going. The industry went “through” the mountains, rather than “into” them.
As a result, today the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia are almost unchanged from the ones George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Daniel Boone knew 250 years ago.
Only 300,000 of Virginia’s 8.6 million residents live in this vast area, which is still covered by undulating hills of trees spreading out like green waves to the horizon. It can be a sleepy region of quaint small towns, farmers’ markets, scenic roads, and country stores
But the times, they are a-changing. Drive just a little more around that scenic bend, and you’ll find that the Blue Ride is also bursting alive with a slew of new craft breweries, distilleries, moonshiners and wineries, live music, mountain biking, kayaking, art, woodworking, fun festivals, history, and hiking. There are so many things to do in the Blue Ridge Mountains, as you’ll read below.
The Appalachian Trail runs through here, the popular TV show “Salvage Dawgs” is filmed here which will make this one huge upcoming travel destination.
Here are seven reasons why to put Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains on the bucket list, all based around Roanoke, the largest city and natural touring base.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
Billed as “America’s Favorite Drive,” the 469-mile parkway is maintained by the National Park Service and is the longest linear park in America. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the construction in 1936 as a way to generate jobs while creating a scenic road that would connect the Shenandoah National Park of Virginia in the north to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park of Tennessee in the south with the new road mostly following the ridgeline of the Appalachian Mountains.
It was never intended to be a highway, but rather a scenic drive with commercial traffic banned, a top speed of 45 mph (often much slower), and hundreds of scenic pull-offs. Today, to be honest, traveling any great distance on the road can be a grind. Of course, it’s beautiful. But it’s long and slow. And in the 21st century, scenic drives are just a way to get to places where there is more active fun of hiking, mountain biking, rafting, and climbing.
But three stops on the parkway near Roanoke are must-visits. Mileposts are measured as the distance south of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. At milepost 85.6, a place called Peaks of the Otter has three mountaintops, a historic farm, pretty Abbott Lake, and best of all, a lodge and restaurant.
The lodge has been closed with the pandemic, but the Lake View Restaurant and bar are open with (as the name says) spectacular lake views. There are Adirondack chairs to relax in, a level one-mile walk around the lake, and a bus shuttle to the summit of Sharp Top Mountain.
Rocky Knob at milepost 167 has sweeping views down into Rock Castle Gorge and a network of trails for hiking in the Blue Ridge mountains, including one to a rustic shelter that used to be part of the Appalachian Trail, before the trail was relocated.
Mabry Mill at milepost 176 is the photographic highlight stop with a working mill that ran from 1910 to 1935. The drop-dead gorgeous mill is reflected in a pond and surrounded by a blacksmith shop, cabin and work buildings, all just a short walk from a restaurant serving downhome country food. On Sundays, there is often live music and dancing. If you see a postcard or photo of the Blue Ridge Parkway, nine times out of ten, this will be it.
When the Morrisette family opened this in 1978, it was the first winery in Virginia. Today, there are more than 300 wineries, but this may still be the prettiest. Located at 3,500 feet elevation, just down the road from Mabry Mill, it has views of Buffalo Mountain and a timber frame building that looks like it snuck out of France.
There is gorgeous outside seating in a park-like atmosphere, winery tours, wine samples, and a gift shop bursting with mustards and vinegar made from their own wine. This is a huge production that turns out more than 75,000 annual cases of Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, and whites ranging from Chardonnay to Viognier. You might think you’re in France until you hear the sweet Southern accents of the staff.
The Republic of Floyd
In a region known for cute country towns, Floyd stands out. It’s a strange little place of music, art, tie-dye fashions, beer, moonshine, and fun.
In 2010, a long-haired hippie fond of Hawaiian shirts named Tom Ryan opened a shop called the Republic of Floyd selling, as they proudly said, “oodles of neat stuff that has no intrinsic value or is just plain bad for you!”
Namely beer and chocolate. Down the block is the Floyd Country Store, where there’s authentic Appalachian music and dancing on the weekends and good food and local crafts.
Between Friday night Jamborees and Honky-Tonk Thursdays and a whole assortment of boutiques, art galleries and restaurants, this is both the modern, fun, craft-beverage Blue Ridge Mountains of the 21st century and a “Twilight Zone” stop back to the ‘60s of folk-rock, long hair and chillin’ out.
Worth a stop and a stay. And there’s river rafting, hiking, and all that stuff nearby.
Then There’s Bedford
And then there’s Bedford. The downtown is all Southern charm. Quaint streets filled with old buildings are now gentrified (in a good way) with hip restaurants, shops, galleries, an occasional church steeple, and friendly people.
You can’t find a better town for lunch and a bit of shopping. But looming over the town is a sad history. Bedford suffered more casualties per capita on D-Day in World War II than any other town in America.
Why here, out in the mountains of Virginia, of all places? From past experience in the Civil War and WWI, the army didn’t like putting people from the same town together in battle because of the bad publicity created by high casualties from one area. But Bedford slipped through the cracks.
On June 6, 1944, 37 young men from Bedford were in the first wave to land on Omaha Beach, Normandy. Their boat hit an obstacle and sank, drowning five of them. Some 26 made it to the beach where 16 were killed and four wounded in minutes. Before the day was over, 20 of what came to be known as “the Bedford Boys” were fatalities.
D-Day Memorial in Bedford
One of the survivors, John “Bob” Slaughter, founded the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, which has grown into a massive and very moving place honoring the 5,000 ships, 11,000 aircraft, hundreds of thousands of men, and of course, 9,000 casualties of D-Day.
You arrive at a massive water feature where life-size statues of troops are heading to a beach, while simulated machine gun bullets break the water around them. There are troops climbing cliffs, as they did at Normandy, and battle maps, statues, planes and history of every moment of the battle.
Yes, it’s a little bizarre to see this in the mountains. Especially if you’ve been to Omaha Beach in Normandy, where the coast is the dominant feature.
But there’s nothing else like it in America remembering the sacrifices of so many to free Europe. Especially the sacrifices made by a small town in Virginia.
Roanoke has had good fortune. The largest town in the mountains of Virginia, it was a rail hub and industrial city for a time that later fell into decline along with the railroads.
But unlike so many small American cities, instead of abandoning the old downtown of brick buildings, Roanoke has embraced them, restored them, and filled them with fun restaurants, shops, galleries, museums, and bars with live music to create a lively, walkable city center.
Located in a spectacular river valley with mountain views, Roanoke has also attracted young, creative, outdoorsy people, who like nothing better than mountain biking, river rafting, craft beer, live music, and high-calorie food.
And why not?
Mountain pork, no matter how you cook it, is special. Damn the calories and full speed ahead in mountain activities in the morning.
A Local County Fair in the Blue Ridge
Attending a local county fair, it was simply amazing to see the size of some of the dishes, with an order of French fries arriving as big as a basketball. And strangely, here in the mountains, you soak the fries in vinegar.
Roanoke is perhaps best-known today as the location of the reality TV show, “Salvage Dawgs,” and there are two Black Dog Salvage warehouses of antiques, architectural salvage, home & garden stuff, and arts and gifts.
There are 143 episodes of the show, which is essentially a treasure hunt where the Salvage Dawgs crew go to abandoned buildings to reclaim, reuse, and repurpose architectural salvage.
As a tourist, you may not want to go home with a 10-foot-high wrought iron gate made in China in the early 1900s, but it’s still a trip to tour their 40,000-sq.-ft. warehouse and grounds, which also have live music and events. And much smaller cool stuff to take home.
Roanoke: A Classy Little City
And make no mistake. Pork, mountain music, and salvage dogs aside, Roanoke is a classy little city with a knock-out Taubman Museum of Art, the O. Winston Link Museum of historic railroad black & white photos, a museum of rail transportation, a mountain top zoo, and the half-timbered, Tudor-style, 1882 historic Hotel Roanoke.
The hotel is connected to the city center over a pedestrian bridge that crosses the massive old rail yards. Everything downtown is walkable, and once you park at the hotel, it’s drink up and have some fun.
And then there’s their gigantic, 88-foot-high star that sits on top of Mill Mountain overlooking the town with 2,000 feet of neon tubing (so bright, it can be seen 60 miles away from the air). It’s a hoot, and a wonderful place to be at sunset before heading down into the walkable historic center for drinks, food, and music.
Natural Bridge State Park
Like the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty, the Natural Bridge of Virginia is an image you have probably seen in photographs so many times and is so familiar, you might wonder, is it worth going out of the way to see it in person?
Easy answer. Yes! Once owned by Thomas Jefferson of all people, this amazing natural landmark has been a tourist attraction to Daniel Boone, Sam Houston, George Washington, and so many others.
Pictures cannot possibly capture the amazement as you walk down a couple of hundred stairs (from a frightful gift shop) turn a corner, and then see it in person.
The bridge is 215 feet high and 90 feet wide. It’s bigger than many small city skyscrapers.
Most interesting of all is when your mind tries to wrap around, how did I get here, and then you suddenly realize – I drove over the bridge to get here!
Yes, if you’re coming from the interstate (which everyone will) there’s a four-lane road “over” the bridge to get to the massive parking lot.
Yes, it’s touristy. But like Niagara Falls it is one of those things you just have to see in person to appreciate.
Mountain Towns and Waterfalls
The Blue Ridge Mountains are packed with wonderful small towns, raging waterfalls, hiking trails, historic sites and views. The best way to discover them is to drive around on your own. For me, I stayed in a historic B&B, the
Anchorage House, in Buchanan as a base to see things like Falling Springs Falls, Clifton Forge, Fincastle, and so many others.
It’s more fun to drive a back road and discover a place on your own than to follow suggestions from others. You’ll know you’re on the right road when you reach the sign that says “Don’t trust your GPS past this point. They don’t work here.”