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Virginia serves up a big bunch of outdoor fun for families hugging the borders of its pie-shaped tip in the southwest part of the state. Mountain adventures are wedged in between Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and a bit of North Carolina. People here call their fun-loving outdoors the Heart of Appalachia.
The writer was hosted.
Virginia is a horizontal state — and becomes an arrow point or maybe a compass tip at its southwest end. Get to that tip and turn around to experience even more grand views of peaks, ridges and valleys, and play on trails and backroads in Appalachia.
This is not the Blue Ridge Parkway and not the Appalachian Trail but a partner to both, and clearly a place to find more than one highest point!
Trails are strenuous for hikers who like that, or meandering and vista-filled for everyone else.
Coal mining families honor their heritage, care for their aging retired fathers and embrace the lead of a new generation repurposing the land for family outdoor adventures.
Daniel Boone kept going west from southwest Virginia. and the Blue Ridge Parkway veers south from Roanoke instead of reaching this gorgeous region.
Consider a tiny community named Floyd as a jumping off point on a road trip to veer from the Blue Ridge Parkway and Blue Ridge Mountains to immerse in the Heart of Appalachia.
Floyd‘s eastern border is 31 miles of the Parkway with the iconic Mabry Mill at Milepost 176. Sunday afternoons there’s always music and dancing at the watermill, and a trail to walk.
Music Is Everywhere
Every day and into the evenings old time mountain music reverberates throughout the Heart of Appalachia — often scheduled and lots of times a surprise pick-up group. The Ralph Stanley Museum in Clintwood is another high point.
Watch for signs declaring The Crooked Road because Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail figures abundantly in this region.
Road trippers here suffer no interstate highway woes. Two lane roads with grand views every which way are the norm.
The only Heart of Appalachia interstate isn’t one——it’s a state park named Breaks. Two in America have “interstate” as part of their name only because they share borders with two states. The other one is Palisades Park in New Jersey, partnering with New York.
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State Parks as Destinations
Cabins, yurts, RV spaces and camping sites are often the best choice in this pie-shaped region to settle in for outdoor adventure and for day trips to other delights.
Names to know are:
- Breaks Interstate Park
- Natural Tunnel State Park
Reservations fill up fast, just like all state parks.
Breaks Interstate Park
Kentucky and Virginia share the interstate part of the name; Daniel Boone discovered the only “break” to pass through the mountain range. Pine Mountain stretches 125 miles.
Life was easier for me than for Boone’s axemen trailblazers. My Breaks Interstate State Park log cabin had a hot tub on the back deck, waters just below to kayak, canoe, pedal boat or water bike, and fish waiting to be caught right off that deck.
A round yurt sleeps three in a cozy, round configuration.
Trails to hike and bike wind 25 miles through the park, and zip lines stretch over the far-as-you-can-see vistas.
This is so popular that certified zipliner is a job title at Breaks. Class 5 whitewater rafting in October calls for skills too.
TravelingMom Tip: Snag some time at any of the park’s eight grand overlooks. 250 million years of erosion, a rim-to-river descent of 1,000 feet and a swinging bridge soon to be constructed at Potters’ Field below the Tower Overlook are just the start of inspiration.
Elk like the Heart of Appalachia too. No need to travel far west to observe them in the wild. Random sightings and dinner-included scheduled options start here.
Read More: The Best Family Resorts in Virginia
Natural Tunnel State Park
Walk if you must to see this 850-foot long natural tunnel, but the chair lift is more exhilarating. Six minutes of pure bliss, slow and steady down, down, down in lush hillsides.
Trains pass through the tunnel, trout swim in the roaring waters and park staff built smooth, wide boardwalks for easy meandering.
The first Saturday each July trains stay away and visitors can walk through the 100-foot-wide tunnel. Since it curves into the mountain, seeing through to the other side is impossible from either end.
TravelingMom Tip: The chair lift is lighted for night rides on the last Saturday in May through October. Christmas bulbs light the tunnel, walkways and the chair lift in November and December.
State Park Lodging
Cabins, yurts, camping and RV spaces make Natural Tunnel State Park a comfortable destination for Scott County day trips to hiking trails, skyline drives, music events and a hot springs known as Devil’s Bathtub.
Two of the four yurts are handicap accessible, as are several cabins.
Carter Family Fold is 20 miles away—a Saturday night spot for traditional. bluegrass music shaped on the traditions of the Carter family. Felt like a mini version of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to me bursting with music, and welcoming people of all ages having fun dancing with each other or solo.
Just watch if you prefer with tiered seating for 800.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and Wilderness Road State Park invite camping, and many day trip experiences.
Get To Know Daniel Boone
The Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Interpretive Center in Duffield actually introduces the children, women and men who followed the trail that he and men with axes opened up. This is a place to talk with kids about family life when parents forged into unknown lands.
Reality checks are startlingly clear at the Wilderness Road blockhouse. That’s where families gathered and organized their supplies right before heading out.
Thoughtful mention is made of interactions with Native Americans, including differing opinions among the Cherokee and the Shawnee about whose land this was. One exhibit addresses “real estate deals” in 1775 and suggesting the crown considered them illegal.
The Center is interactive and attractive, really feels like being outdoors. It’s a satellite location of Natural Tunnel State Park and one of many options in Scott County.
What About The Elk?
Elk used to roam the south, and Virginia invited some back in 2012. Their silhouettes on ridge tops as dusk approaches is startling, even when finding them was the point of a trip to Grundy in Buchanan County.
Partnerships made this herd reintroduction possible, with local landowners, Southwest Virginia Sportsmen and the Nature Conservancy among the players sharing access.
The land where the elk now roam, and visitors wander to see them, is a creative, collaborative reality too. This used to be coal mining territory, now re-envisioned with land, water, grazing spaces and viewing areas also welcoming deer, wood ducks, hundreds of bird species.
TravelingMom Tip: Book a guided tour which includes an abundant picnic dinner through Southern Gap Outdoor Adventure. Spring and fall, reservations required.
Other Adventures through Southern Gap
Elk gazing isn’t the only outdoor adventure on repurposed coal mining land at Southern Gap. Starry sky gazing is too. Cabins sleeping up 10 people, pull-through full hookup RV sites and primitive camping provide access to night skies.
The star gazing chart free in the Southern Gap Visitor Center simplifies identifying constellations, planets and other cosmic wonders.
Off road adventures are a big deal at Southern Gap, a trailhead for the Coal Canyon Spearhead Trail. Experienced adventurers come equipped with bikes and vehicles.
Curious travelers can rent ATVs or four-wheelers to seat one or two riders, or Utility Terrain Vehicles (UTVs) for four. Southern Gap Outdoor Adventure will provide outfitter contacts.
Thank goodness trails are clearly marked and rated for for the high-adventure experienced and the tentative family. Think green trail exploring with the little kids.
What About The Coal?
Pocahontas Exhibition Mine and Museum opened my eyes to family realities in the underground darkness . This walking tour defined for me the lifelong challenges for so many.
The history is not just the men, the miners. Little kids and their mothers went into the mines too, with unpaid jobs.
The opportunity that lured many to the mines from their Ellis Island arrival? “A job and a house.”
If the miner died, the woman had one week to marry another miner or take a bus ticket and leave.
TravelingMom Tip: Storyteller Michelle Crigger shares the history with respect and honor toward all who toiled in the mines. The history she outlines adds to the narrative cropping up all around the Heart of Appalachia – the facts need telling, the lives lived and lost deserve dignity and the new uses of the land present engaging ways forward.
Resort Means Trailhead Instant Access
The Heart of Appalachia gives new meaning to the notion of “resort.” Think cabins and cottages where you bring your own sheets and laundromat facilities to shed bunches of mud your ATV ride churned up.
And think endless laughter — delight at the adventure of riding the Original Pocahontas Trail in the Spearhead system. Even hold-on-tight first timers laugh while they gasp how much fun this is.
Experienced off roaders starting out at Trailhead ATV Resort on Miner’s Park Lane in Bluefield also take the regular road six miles to the Hatfield McCoy Trail.
Real McCoy Cabins offer another lodging option — ATV friendly with rustic luxury and a restaurant.
Burke’s Garden and the Appalachian Trail
Hikers and backpackers on the fabled Appalachian Trail can take a look at Burke’s Garden, a different twist to seeking the highest peak.
This lush space at 3,000 feet is the highest mountain valley in Virginia.
Road trippers from Trailhead ATV Resort can take state road 623. Some call this God’s Thumbprint, a mountain-ringed bowl of fertile farmland.
Since roads and their grand views really play a big role in the Heart of Appalachia, some tips in TravelingMom Cindy Richards reporting about post-pandemic changes in the Great American Road Trip might be helpful.
Where Else To Sleep?
State park lodging qualifies as a destination experience on its own but travelers preferring neighborhoods in the Heart of Appalachia can seek out AirBnBs in the several dozen little communities in this wedge of southwest Virginia.
I stayed in a three-story inn in the vibrant town of Wise. Local people believe “Virginia starts here” and they’re quick to show strong bonds forged during the coal mining era. Today those bonds fuel their forward-thinking projects.
The Inn at Wise has 49 rooms, several are double queens and families can also book king bed rooms with pull out sofas for the kids.
St. Paul is another intriguing town with large lodging—-the Western Front Hotel. Big plus here: walk to many of the outdoor adventures while still living in downtown.
TravelingMom Tip: Some of the Western Front Hotel’s 30 rooms and suites meet family needs with king beds and bunk beds, plus pull-out sofas. Repurposed wood and local art add regional charm, but the glass walk in showers are inviting too.
Expectations and Distinct Differences
Virginia declares itself the state for lovers, and encourages communities to erect larger-than-life size art of the word LOVE. Each one compels a pull off to the shoulder on a road trip to pose with the letters.
They abound in the Heart of Appalachia, far from western Virginia and the state capitol in Richmond. The LOVE sculptures stand tall in the beauty of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.
These woodlands and vistas expanded what I thought I knew meant Virginia beauty such as the Shenandoah Valley or Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
The first footstep in Georgia’s Springer Mountain is still an exhilarating portion of the Appalachian Trail, but here I discovered different kinds of access — to offroad ATV trails.
Sharp-top mountains I’ve seen; here I l discovered new outdoor adventures on mountains rounded by coal extraction.
Sure, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park lures lots of travelers to Tennessee, but this southwest Virginia experience opens up all sorts of new outdoor love.