Tricia Pearsall takes us on a journey to Hungry Mother State Park in Smyth County where she discovers the pleasure of wild hog backstrap and the cure for being “skunked,” and delights in the surprising sylvan luxury and splendid beauty of this, one of Virginia’s six original state parks.
Hiking Molly's Knob in Hungry Mother State Park.
Photo courtesy of Virginia State Parks.
Deer grazed along the driveway as we pulled up to Cabin 9 in Hungry Mother State Park, and continued nibbling unfazed as we unloaded our few things, mostly groceries, on this mild fall evening. When Pi, our flat coat retriever, bounced out of the car, however, doing her I want to play with the ungulates, please, please dance, they leapt into a thicket, waving high white tail salutes.
The curled leaves on the rhododendron beside the cabin porch drooped, a sign that temperatures had recently dipped below freezing, but that definitely was not happening on this gorgeous weekend.
This made a second visit to Hungry Mother for my husband and me, but the rustic weatherboard cabin was an upgrade from the tent we stayed in a couple of years back. That time, Pi took off in the middle of the night still attached to the tent pole, trailing a piece of tent behind her.
Inside, the fieldstone fireplace that welcomed us oozed with the warmth and artistry of skilled stone masonry. This same quality of workmanship was evident in the patchwork fieldstone porch that wrapped around the cabin, built in 1935, to a wooden deck overlooking Hungry Mother Creek. What luxury—a honey-colored pine-paneled bedroom adjoining a bath with complimentary soaps, shampoos and body washes. This was doing a weekend escape right—having our hike and indulgences, too.
Located in Smyth County just outside of Marion, about five miles off I-81, Hungry Mother State Park encompasses 3,000 acres, of which only about 170 are developed. One of Virginia’s six original state parks, which were launched as one system in 1936 and this year celebrate their 80th anniversary, Hungry Mother hosted the opening dedication ceremony that year on June 13th with speeches, concerts, a water pageant and a bathing beauty contest. Today, the park is on the National Register of Historic Places. (Virginia was the first state to open a system of six parks in one day.)
Since the federally-funded Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—the public work relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942 as part of then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal—provided labor and materials, and most of the land was donated to the state, it cost Virginia only about $100,000 to build the park system (which now comprises 36 parks). At a commensurate value of approximately $5 million, some have called it the biggest bargain of the New Deal era.
Hungry Mother State Park opening day in 1936.
Photo courtesy of Virginia State Parks.
Today, the original cabins, upgraded with modern amenities, continue to welcome visitors to Hungry Mother, along with the CCC-era lodge, restaurant, ranger houses, boathouse, picnic shelters, grills and numerous other structures. The historical pièce de résistance at the park consists of several CCC-crafted stone parking lot medians configured in the shape of hand tools used in park construction, such as a spade and a pick.
“Hungry Mother is really the iconic Virginia State Park,” says Park Manager Nate Clark, “it’s set in the natural beauty of the mountains of southwest Virginia. It’s got folklore, history and historic buildings. It’s got a small quaint lake where you can go paddle-boarding, swimming and fishing. It’s got hiking trails, cabins, a restaurant and conference center. It has a bit of everything.”
And the name, Hungry Mother? Well, one story goes—and there are multiple variations—that Indians destroyed an outpost along the New River to the south where a woman named Molly Marley and her child lived. They were taken captive, but escaped into the mountains, foraging for berries until Molly collapsed. The child made its way down to the creek and was eventually discovered by a search party, but could only spit out the words, “Hungry Mother.” The party finally found Molly dead at the base of the mountain. The mountain was then named Molly’s Knob (3,270 feet), and the stream, Hungry Mother Creek. Fact or fiction? “I expect it’s a little of both—a little legend, a little truth,” says Clark.
A cabin at Hungry Mother State Park.
Photo courtesy of Virginia State Parks.
But we did not have legends on our minds as we prepped for our first evening meal. We had brought a wild hog backstrap—procured from a cousin who had emptied his freezer in anticipation of a bountiful bow season—along with just-dug sweet potatoes and kale. For us, food is an essential element to adventure. In no time, the backstrap, that coveted narrow strip of tenderloin or filet along the boar’s back, was seasoned with garlic and rosemary, scarcely braised and succulent, and the sweet potatoes were baking in the oven alongside a cranberry, raspberry and blueberry galette. Wild mushrooms were rehydrating, waiting to be sautéed. Kale washed. The evening feast was on; served as the sun settled behind the mountain.
Jack O'Lantern mushrooms.
Photo courtesy of Virginia State Parks.
After dinner on the porch, watching the full moon rise through the dense leafless forest, and conjuring up quixotic camp lore, from Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy’s Indian Love Call to Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom—a little wine may have been involved—we decided to take a stroll to the lake.
We got only two cabins down the road, when a low-riding black fluffy critter, tail upright,
streaked in front of us. Pi bolted, leash and all. I saw her jump back, bury her nose in the dirt and roll. Too late. Our dog had been introduced to Pepé Le Pew; she’d been skunked. Back in the cabin, our sylvan stroll interrupted, Pi and I shared a shower with the hope that dishwashing liquid would help abate some of the stench. No luck, so we put her in the bathroom, closed the door and decided to avoid further action until morning.
Along about 4:00 a.m., I heard a racket coming from the front of the cabin like someone rummaging through bags, so I slid out of bed like a stealth ranger. Nothing seemed disturbed around the fireplace, but then I turned the light on in the kitchen. High atop the toaster in the corner, head up like a king on his throne, sat a field mouse. He’d chewed through the corners of a couple of plastic bags of fresh herbs (but only consumed one walnut brownie). Later, we read in the cabin logbook that this wee nocturnal gadfly was the permanent landlord, eluding capture by mousetrap with even the finest cheeses. Food secured in cabinets, I put my earplugs in and went back to bed.
The next morning we were off to Marion to find hydrogen peroxide, more dishwashing liquid and baking soda—the magic potion for expunging skunk spray. Success! We had planned a day hike in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, but started second-guessing that decision when we checked out the crazy number of cool opportunities in the region.
In Marion, one can learn to make moonshine at Virginia Sweetwater Distillery or sample the best of bluegrass at the Lincoln Theater—home of the Song of the Mountains PBS series. In Abingdon, only 25 minutes away, we could bike a portion of the Virginia Creeper Trail, see a play at the Barter Theater or enjoy an exhibit or concert at Heartwood.
Sticking to the plan, though, we chose to approach Mount Rogers through Grayson Highlands State Park, about an hour southeast. Lucky for us, we got the last parking spot at Massie’s Gap.
The trail led us into a fir-spruce forest, which gradually opened onto the windswept barren highlands. At one point, the path was blockaded by a herd of indigenous wild spotted ponies feasting on trail grass. After a few cautious nudges, we were able to get by, including Pi, who this time seemed in awe of these looming large creatures. Once out of the state park boundary, we took the Wilburn Ridge trail, scrambling up and over rock outcroppings with commanding
360-degree vistas on this incredibly clear, warm day. After lunch at Rhododendron Gap, we decided not to summit Mount Rogers (the highest mountain in Virginia), but rather took a long lazy route back via part of the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail.
The 68-mile trail from Elk Garden, Route 94, passes through to Hiawatha-
like fir forest—thick and sunless, smelling like Christmas—where we discovered ice at the base of rock clefts and bushwhacked our way into deep run-offs to explore the springs.
With 300 miles of trails in this area, and endless opportunities for long multi-day backpacking loops, we knew then that a return to Hungry Mother is definitely in the offing.
Hiking with Pi at Mount Rogers.
Photo by Tricia Pearsall.
Back in Grayson Highlands, we bade the sun goodnight over the smooth rolling Appalachians, finding it difficult to imagine these balds and bogs covered with virgin red spruce, hemlock and Fraser fir. I’ve read that it took only 12 years to clear these forests, with one acre producing more than 100,000 board feet of lumber, enough to build as many as 30 houses.
But Pi didn’t care about the history of the place as she sprawled exhausted—smelling mostly of pine and sweet stream water, only a hint of skunk if you Eskimo-kissed her nose—on the weathered deck of the cabin, dreaming of chasing deer and squirrels.
If You Build It, They Will Come
How the state parks came to be.
Virginia establishes the State Commission on Conservation and Development, the state’s first agency charged with managing its natural resources. William E. Carson is appointed chairman.
Dec. 17, 1929
Representatives of the Virginia Academy of Science, the Garden Club of Virginia and the Izaak Walton League hold a meeting in Richmond and adopt a resolution in support of creating state parks, which is presented to Governor-Elect John Garland Pollard.
The State Commission on Conservation and Development studies existing state park systems in the east. R. E. Burson, a landscape engineer, travels to several states to look at their approaches to state park development, operation, maintenance and administration. His recommendations guide much of the early development and management of Virginia’s system. The blueprint of the National Park System, established in 1916, is also used as a model for the creation of public parks in tandem with landscape architect and wildlife conservationist Frederick Law Olmstead Jr.’s California state park survey, which sets the standards and procedures for planning a diverse park and recreation system over a large and geographically varied area.
Burson completes preliminary plans for a park system to serve all regions of the state. Chairman Carson meets with President Roosevelt at Camp Rapidan (formerly Camp Hoover) in the mountains of Shenandoah National Park and tells him that, though the “CCC boys” are doing good work on federal lands, it might be better to utilize them in the development of a state park system. Roosevelt says he will provide the necessary CCC men and funding if Virginia “demonstrates what such a system of parks would mean to the state.” Less than a year later, the Commonwealth acquires the land via gift and purchase.
June 15, 1936
Virginia is the first state to open a system of six state parks on the same day: Douthat, Fairy Stone, Hungry Mother, Seashore (now First Landing), Staunton River and Westmoreland.
In Which State Park Can You...
- Camp at designated primitive sites behind the beach dunes along the Atlantic Ocean, visit an old Coast Guard Station and the ruins and cemetery of a former settlement of shipwreck survivors? False Cape State Park, accessible only by foot, bike, boat or the Terra Gator and home to a population of razorback or feral hogs.
- Walk through a naturally formed limestone tunnel that is 850 feet long, as tall as a 10-story building and has a train track running through it? Natural Tunnel State Park, which lies in Scott County in the far western tongue of the state near the Tennessee line, also provides a chairlift to the tunnel floor.
- Observe a farm in operation since 1619? Chippokes Plantation State Park, located across the James River from Jamestown outside of Surrey, is one of the oldest continuously farmed plantations in the country. Features a farm and forestry museum and hosts the Pork, Peanut and Pine Festival each year in July.
- Enjoy the most visited state park in Virginia, which also happens to be where the first Jamestown settlers landed in 1607? First Landing State Park (originally named Seashore State Park) located at Cape Henry in Virginia Beach.
- Explore a state park that’s home to one of the largest concentrations of American bald eagles? Caledon State Park, situated in King George County on the shores of the Potomac River, also offers primitive paddle-in campsites.
- Take tours of a gold mine site and pan for gold? Lake Anna State Park, at the Goodwin Gold Mine site, Gold Hill, a productive gold mine in the early 19th century. The park also has a boat launch, beach and cabins with views of one of Virginia’s most popular lakes, Lake Anna, in Spotsylvania County.
- Stay in a yurt on the Eastern Shore side of the Chesapeake Bay? Kiptopeke State Park, also a great place to go fishing and view migratory birds.
- Hunt for staurolites, or so-called fairy stones? Fairy Stone State Park. These cross-shaped stones are a combination of silica, iron and aluminum, which crystallize at 60- or 90-degree angles and are found in rocks in this area, which was once under great heat and pressure. Located northwest of Martinsville, the 168-acre Fairy Stone Lake adjoins the Philpott Reservoir.
- Ride the new Gateway trails designed by the International Mountain Biking Association? Pocahontas State Park, located only 20 miles from downtown Richmond, has a loop for beginners and disabled bikers using hand-cycles. It is also home to the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum honoring the Depression-era workers who built the state park system.
- Join a star party? Staunton River State Park, located 18 miles east of South Boston, is Virginia’s only International Dark Sky Park. Staunton River is one of only 31 parks worldwide designated as having an exceptional quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that specifically protects its scientific, natural and cultural heritage and public enjoyment.