When people think of planning a Virginia vacation the first thing that comes to mind is miles of beaches, ocean life, and historic battlefields.
While these are awesome things to do in Virginia, I think a lot of people forget about the lush parks and natural wonders that Southwest Virginia holds.
The last time I was in Virginia I was 18 and on a day trip from Washington D.C to visit George Washington’s house. It was all I saw of Virginia and I haven’t been back since. So when we were asked to visit Southwest Virginia to discover the outdoors and adventure on offer, we didn’t even hesitate.
We uncovered so many incredible things that we didn’t know existed and based on the response we got from our photos on our social accounts, few others know about either. Boy, did that surprise us.
Awesome Things to Do in Southwest Virginia
You could fill weeks with hiking, fishing, biking, horseback riding and a multitude of other adventures in Southwest Virginia. It’s that good and it’s incredibly untouched. It could be the best-kept secret of the East coast.
We realized quickly that 5 days would never be enough to experience it all but we did the best we could and we’re hoping it’s enough to inspire you to plan your own road trip.
1. Marion & Hungry Mother State Park
Flying into Roanoke, we picked up a rental car and headed for Marion, Virginia to begin our road trip through Southwest Virginia.
Home to the Hungry Mother State Park, Marion is the definition of small-town USA. It’s the type of place that people yearn to see when they visit the USA from foreign countries.
Built upon a single main street, American flags hanging from the buildings, historical buildings and friendly locals deliver warmth and pride when you arrive in Marion.
The slogan for the town is literally ‘America’s Coolest Hometown’ and they are so right.
One of the main draws to Marion is the famous Lincoln Theater, where you can see live performances of Song of the Mountains; legendary Bluegrass at it’s finest. People come from all over the country to take in the once a month performance.
The other main draw is the 3,334 acres Hungry Mother State Park. The entrance is just on the outskirts of Marion and a place that draws people for camping, hiking, and swimming.
The park boasts a 108-acre lake as the ideal place to cool down on those hot summer days in Southwest Virginia.
Some of the most popular hikes in Hungry Mother State Park include Molly’s Knob, Clyburn Ridge Loop, Raider’s Run and Lake Trail.
With all hikes, be sure to let someone know where you will be hiking, take adequate amounts of water with you, pack some snacks for energy and be bear aware.
Black bears frequent the area and it is not uncommon to run across them when you get away from the busy areas of the park.
2. Hike The Channels
This is literally Virginia’s best-kept secret and one of the coolest and most unique hikes we have ever done. The Channels area has only recently been discovered; think less than 10 years since it was first accessed.
It’s part of a Virginia State Natural Area Preserve and efforts are being made to mark trails and raise awareness of this hiking trail.
Visiting the Channels is like stepping back in time and feeling like an explorer. The hike up is along an old access road before branching off and sending you way up to the top of the mountain at 4,000 feet in elevation.
At the top, you’ll find an old homestead ruin, a radio tower and tucked-away access to the rock formations that make the Channels.
This natural phenomenon was formed during the last ice age but the sandstone itself is over 400 million years old and was formed by ocean sediment from erosion of the massive mountains that once stood there.
It’s not uncommon to find brachiopod and trilobite fossils during your hike.
There is a small parking lot at the trailhead and the road that starts the hike is clearly visible, beyond that the trails are not marked well. The hike up is steep and long but incredibly rewarding once you reach the Channels at the top.
3. Virginia Creeper Trail
From the minute we arrived in Southwest Virginia, we were told that we couldn’t leave without biking down the Virginia Creeper Trail, which is was one of the absolute best things to do in Virginia.
While we were skeptical at first, the afternoon we spent on the trail was not only fun but also beautiful.
The entire trail stretches 34 miles from Abingdon, through the town of Damascus ending at the Whitetop Station at the Virginia-North Carolina border.
Originally a railroad track for the US expansion project in the 1880s and then for moving iron ore, the trail follows the Whitetop Laurel Creek with many bridge crossings along the way.
We opted for the 17 mile stretch of trail from the top at Whitetop Station down to Damascus. Most of this trail is downhill, starting at 3,500 feet at the top ending at 1,900 feet when you reach Damascus.
This makes the trail insanely fun as you coast and pedal to the sounds of nature.
We rented our bikes at the Sun Dog Outfitters shop that intersects the Virginia Creeper Trail when it enters Damascus. They provided us with a shuttle up to the Whitetop Station.
The bikes were in meticulous condition, well maintained, adjusted to fit perfectly before we left and a bottle of water placed in the holder.
The trail typically takes 2.5-3 hours but many people choose to stop and swim along the way. We made multiple photos stops so it took us around 4 hours to complete.
4. Virginia Highlands Horse Trail & Grayson Highlands
I’m a horse girl, through and through, so whenever I get the opportunity to hop in the saddle on our travels I take it.
This time, we were in for a backcountry trek through the Mount Rogers Recreation Area along the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail in search of the wild ponies that reside in the Grayson Highlands.
Our day was spent on a guided trail ride with Tommy Billings of Billingsway Farm Rustic Retreats and his fantastic horses. I can’t stress the importance of well-behaved horses when it comes to trail riding.
Not only are you getting on a strange horse, but riding in an area that you have never been to, so it’s really important that the horses be well-trained and behave with new riders.
Tommy’s horses are some of the best horses we’ve sat on in our travels and because of that, we had the most amazing day riding up the mountain through the forests of Southwest Virginia.
The ride took us approximately 5 hours to the top and back with a stop for lunch and some light searching for the wild ponies.
Unfortunately, we didn’t come across the wild ponies on our ride but the intense forests on the way up until the opening to beautiful green meadows at the top more than made up for it.
If you like horses and adventure, this day trip is highly recommended by us and without a doubt one of the top things to do in Virginia.
5. Hiking on the Appalachian Trail – Woods Hole to Pearisburg
We simply could not visit Southwest Virginia without putting our boots on the infamous Appalachian Trail.
Stretching just over 2,200 miles, spanning 14 states it’s one of the most celebrated thru-hikes in the world and part of the illustrious Triple Crown of Hiking in the United States.
Not getting too ambitious on our short trip, we decided to hike a small portion of the trail, just over 10 miles, from Woods Hole to Pearisburg.
This part of the trail is very picturesque following the ridgeline of the mountains through thick, lush forests before descending.
The entire experience was classic, starting with humid weather turning to torrential downpours, we feel we got a true experience while hiking on the Appalachian Trail.
Yes, we were soaking wet by the time we reached Pearisburg but it was one heck of an adventure.
More information on the 544-mile section of the Appalachian Trail that runs through Virginia can be found at Virginia is for Lovers – Appalachian Trail.
6. Bass Fishing on the New River
Growing up fishing on the lakes and rivers of Northern Wisconsin, we both were intrigued when we learned that the New River has world-class bass fishing.
Turns out people from all over the country will come to Pembroke and spend weeks camping and fishing the oldest river in North America.
Tangent Outfitters, the supreme choice for fishing trips on the New River, runs a fantastic operation and experience in Southwest Virginia.
Shawn Hash, owner, and the guide showed us a fantastic morning on the river and it was clear that not only is fishing his job but his passion.
He knew everything about the way the river moves and how the fish react to it. If we weren’t pulling fish out of the water within seconds of casting, it was on to another spot.
We caught well over 20 smallmouth bass that morning and a couple of rock bass for good measure. We had a friendly competition going for who could catch the biggest fish and David won when he landed a 19-inch Smallmouth Bass. My biggest fish was 15 inches.
The New River is catching and release for anything under 21 inches, so we threw everything back.
When we weren’t reeling we were taking in the mountain views all around us, even spotting a tower on top of the mountain where we had stopped the day before when hiking on the Appalachian Trail.
People enjoy a wide variety of water activities on the New River including rafting, kayaking, boating, swimming and paddle boarding in addition to fishing.
It’s a great place to relax, be in nature and just take in the great outdoors of Southwest Virginia.
7. Hike to Cascade Falls
Located on the same road as Tangent Outfitters, is the access road to the Cascades National Recreation Trail.
A visit here wasn’t part of our original plan but after numerous people asked us if we had been to Cascade Falls, we decided to see what all the fuss was about.
This park features a 4-mile loop trail that navigates a rocky path through bright green forests along a rushing river that ends at a 66-foot waterfall, aptly known as the Cascades.
The trail was absolutely stunning and we’d say it was mild to moderate. We encountered several families and a wide variety of ages navigating the trail and enjoying the park during our hike.
The trail is well marked with several access points to the river, meaning you can go for a swim at any time you get too hot or want to take a break.
We pushed straight through on the trail, stopping only for photo breaks along the way. We were eager to reach the falls and see what all the hype was about.
Not only was the trail rewarding but the falls were as incredible as people had described. Starting at the top with a steep drop that is caught halfway by a protruding rock that creates a fanning of water to the bottom, the falls are worth the walk.
You can swim in the pool at the base or hand out on the surrounding rocks. It’s a great hike with high reward.
Note: Parking costs $3.00 at the trailhead and you need exact change. It is self-moderated but park rangers are moving in and out of the park regularly. We saw several issue tickets to cars that had failed to complete the parking paperwork.
There is access to running water toilets and picnic tables at the trailhead as well.
Tips for Planning A Southwest Virginia Road Trip
Southwest Virginia Road Trip Route
Of course there are a number of different routes to pursue in this region, but we’re going to highlight the one that we did for planning purposes.
Our trip started by flying into Roanoke, Virginia. Here we rented a car and headed for Marion.
The route took us deeper into the southwest in both Abingdon and Damascus. We then made our way towards Woods Hole, Pearisburg and Pembroke. Ultimately ending back at the airport in Roanoke.
Places to Stay in Southwest Virginia
It’s important that you not only choose good accommodation during your travels but also places that are in good locations.
There are several options in Southwest Virginia however, these are the properties we stayed at and recommend from our first-hand experience.
THE COLLINS HOUSE (MARION)
Located on Main Street in Marion. The house touts numerous awards as a luxury bed and breakfast and the owners are passionate about their property and your experience.
The rooms are gorgeous, clean and all include an ensuite bathroom. The house is huge and certainly gives you the feel of what old America was like. There are even ghost tales to accompany your stay if you dare to listen.
Check prices and book your own stay at The Collins House
DAMASCUS OLD MILL INN (DAMASCUS)
Located right in downtown Damascus, this hotel is steeped in history and located on the banks of the Laurel Creek.
The mill overlooks the grist mill waterfall giving you fantastic views while relaxing on the back deck area. The rooms contain beautiful period furniture, which is clean and comfortable.
Check prices and book your own stay at Damascus Old Mill Inn
WOODS HOLE HOSTEL (PEARISBURG)
An institution to Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, this mountain retreat is a refuge for hikers and outdoor seekers in Southwest Virginia.
Discovered in 1939 and built into a backcountry haven over time, this rustic retreat is basic, quirky and the epitome of away from the crowds. It’s also a great place to meet thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
Check prices and book your own stay at Woods Hole Hostel
MOUNTAIN LAKE LODGE (PEMBROKE)
If you loved the movie Dirty Dancing then you’ll love the opportunity to stay at the place where they filmed the movie. We had so much fun running around the property and reliving the movie moments.
The lodge still resembles the film site in many ways in addition to being a relaxing mountain retreat set in the woods. Spoiler alert: the lake you see in the movie no longer exists.
Check prices and book your own stay at Mountain Lake Lodge
Places to Eat in Southwest Virginia
We came, we ate and we’re ready to share our favorites with you. Again, there are a lot of restaurants on offer and you’ll find no shortage in selection but these are the places we visited and enjoyed during our road trip in Southwest Virginia.
- Wooden Pickle (Marion): As quirky as the name sounds, this little bar-restaurant is located right on Main Street in Marion and is a great place to meet locals, sample some of Virginia’s great craft beers and enjoy classic southern cuisine.
- Hey Joe’s (Damascus): We loved this little burrito spot. Owned by a local family, all ingredients are locally sourced and items are handmade fresh, including the salsa, guacamole and cheese dip. Tip- order a burrito, they are fantastic.
- Damascus Old Mill Inn (Damascus): It’s all about the views here, overlooking the Grist mill waterfall, this restaurant is located inside the lobby of the Inn. They offer a big menu with a variety of southern favorites to choose from. Tip- order a craft beer from the Damascus Brewery, you can’t get it anywhere else.
- The Palisades (Eggleston): Located in what used to be the Pyne’s General Store, this restaurant screams Southern charm and serves borderline gourmet food. Which surprised us, in the best way you can imagine. The interior retains the look of the old general store and the walls are lined with relics from the past. Worth the trip for a meal.
- Harvest (Pembroke): Located in the lobby of the Mountain Lake Lodge, have a seat in the very place the dining scenes were filmed for Dirty Dancing. The menu offers up a variety of Southern and classic American favorites. If you can, grab a seat on the patio that overlooks the grounds.
- Riviera Mexican Grill (Pembroke): Classic Mexican restaurant located just across the street from Tangent Outfitters, a great stop to fuel up between your fishing trip and a hike at the Cascades.
Our Final Thoughts on Southwest Virginia
If you like hidden places, hiking, outdoors and adventure you should absolutely head to Southwest Virginia at the next opportunity you get.
The area is preparing itself for a boom in tourism and they’re ready to get the word out about their world-class natural wonders.
Our road trip opened our eyes to Virginia as more than a beach destination and a place with much more history than the Civil War. We’d definitely like to return and dive a little deeper.
Disclosure: Our Southwest Virginia road trip was hosted by Visit Virginia. All opinions, as always, are 100% mine.
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