Finding Nature Along the Crooked Road
Above photo: Built by Edwin Boston Mabry around 1910, Mabry Mill is a historic grist mill along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The mill is just a 25-minute drive from Floyd, Virginia.
Story and photos by Joe Rogers
Joe is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Denver, Colorado.
Explore the trails of Southwest Virginia with easy day hikes.
Southwest Virginia is known for the Crooked Road — a 531-kilometre stretch of twisting two-lane byways that link travellers to towns where bluegrass music is played on front porches, in theatres and along street corners. The region also has a reputation for being home to some of the best trails on the East Coast. Enjoy the lush vegetation, forested slopes, wildlife and incredible views during a casual day hike and you’ll understand why. As a Crooked Road traveller with a few spare hours before the next nightly jam session, I welcomed the opportunity for fresh air and outdoor adventure.
Grayson Highlands State Park is a true gem located halfway between the towns of Galax and Abingdon.
The park features 10 hiking trails. The Rhododendron Trail is 4 kilometres round trip and the most popular trail. After leaving the Massie Gap parking area and hiking up a small hill, you’ll reach a hillside clearing where a herd of wild ponies comes into view. A well-worn trail leads directly through the herd, but the animals don’t pay much attention unless hikers get too close. For a different vantage point of the park, I scrambled up a small outcropping of rocks 182 metres farther up the trail. From here, I could see the landscape rolling toward the horizon all the way to the North Carolina mountains. Virginia’s highest point, 1,746-metre Mount Rogers, is visible to the north. Look down to see the grazing ponies and various trails branching off into the distance. I spent an hour taking it all in.
If it’s a hot and humid day, the best option is to take Cabin Creek Trail. Unlike the exposed Rhododendron Trail, this 3-kilometre loop sends hikers through an entirely different world. Rosebay rhododendron, mountain laurel and bigtooth aspen surround hikers as the trail parallels Cabin Creek, ultimately leading to a picturesque 7.6-metre cascading waterfall. This is a good place to relax and dip your feet into the cold water.
Just two hours east of Grayson Highlands and a short drive south of Floyd, Rocky Knob Recreation Area offers much of the same scenery. Over a century ago, this area, particularly Rock Castle Gorge, was home to thriving farms. Heavily forested slopes now dominate the landscape, and a wonderful looping trail system shows it all off.
The Rocky Knob Picnic Area Trail is a pleasant place to birdwatch during the nesting season and an enjoyable 1.6-kilometre hike through native trees at any time of year. Black Ridge Trail is a 5-kilometre loop that starts at a small visitor area along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The hike passes through the second-growth forest with wonderful views to the north. The Rock Castle Gorge Trail is a more strenuous 17.4-kilometre hike but offers many scenic highlights. The most memorable part for me, though, was standing among a herd of deer grazing in the wet grass after a rainstorm had passed.
The Blue Ridge Music Center hosts concerts and an interactive exhibit, but it also features nearby day hikes that are wonderful.
The High Meadow Trail is an easy 2.17-kilometre walk. The trail passes through the surrounding forest, a wetland blooming with springtime wildflowers, and a hayfield alive with birds and deer early in the morning.
The 3.69-kilometre Fisher Peak Loop Trail is just down the road from the music centre on State Route 612. The trail winds through pine, maple and oak trees then follows a creek.
The Southwest Virginia landscape is another reminder why bluegrass and old-time country music were born in this region. The music rolls, sways, soars and meanders just like the rushing waters, gently sloping hills and beautiful valleys that helped inspire it.
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