Jack Cooksey travels to the New River Valley for some outdoor adventuring, but finds even more to enjoy in this ruggedly stunning part of the state.
Siblings Jillian and Andrew Simpson, who enjoy hiking Bald Knob near Mountain Lake resort in Giles County.
Photography by Sam Dean
The memory of my first childhood visit to the Virginia mountains remains a misty, golden fantasy, like a Maxfield Parrish painting. Whether it was spring, summer or fall in the early 1970s, I couldn’t say, except that it must have been a perfect day for a picnic in the hinterlands. My parents loaded the wagon with most of us six kids and set course for the Blue Ridge. I remember a doe and her fawn coming near to us, maybe for some food, and being close enough that my siblings tried to pet them. I recall mistaking the fawn’s spots for honey drops on its back. On the way home, descending Afton Mountain, there was the sweeping view and the afternoon glow as my parents led us in a chorus of mountain-themed songs, one about a bear and another one that I thought also might be about a bear named Smokey. I wasn’t sure. It seems like a dream to me now, and maybe it was.
Yet that childlike sense of wonder reignites almost anytime I head west in Virginia, where the terrain begins to run about as rugged and as beautiful as you’ll see it in this state. And so it was late in the summer when my wife Lisa and I pointed our car toward the New River Valley for a weekend exploring Blacksburg and Christiansburg in Montgomery County and neighboring Giles County.
Since my wife and I met in 2002, we’ve had a handful of excursions to the “ridge and valley” province of the Appalachian range, including trips for backpacking, day hikes, bed and breakfast stays and more. But despite some short trips to Southwest Virginia, the New River Valley still felt undiscovered for us.
This feeling of crossing into a new frontier is fitting for anyone who hasn’t spent much time in the region. Southwest Virginia, after all, was one of the first colonial gateways to America’s westward expansion and one of the last regions of the state to be settled. Its early economy largely rested on tobacco farming, logging, and eventually coal mining and manufacturing. Shifting realities hit the region’s economy hard in recent decades.
But the New River Valley, comprising Montgomery, Giles, Pulaski and Floyd counties and the city of Radford, still banks on its natural resources, of course, but more so for the mother lode of outdoor adventures in its hills and the river. The New River is rare among North American waterways. It flows north and is the second-oldest river on the continent; the high cliffs at spots along the river are formed by that ancient geology.
Planning our itinerary, it quickly became clear to me there would be much more recreation than even a younger me could handle in one weekend—this trip, I thought, would turn out to be a reconnaissance mission.
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The Main Street Inn
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The Social House in Blacksburg is a favorite area eatery.
We began in Blacksburg, arriving Friday night around 8:30 and checking into the Main Street Inn, right in the center of downtown. Hungry from the road trip, we immediately walked about a block to grab some Mexican food at Cabo Fish Taco. A collegiate hangout, it was casual and comfortable, and we enjoyed the night air out on the patio while letting our heels cool from the long drive.
After our dinner, we took a stroll up and down Main Street just to catch the vibe. Obviously, the thing with the greatest gravitational force in this town is the sprawling campus of Virginia Tech and the school’s house of holy, Lane Stadium, where its ACC football team serves as possibly one of the biggest draws to this area.
It was a bright and not overly hot morning when we checked out of our hotel the next day and got back on the street to see Blacksburg in the daylight. We meandered over to Market Square, just a block away, to check out that morning’s farmers’ market. On our travels, I have found the farmers’ market is always a great place to get a sense of a community.
There, a local band played slowed down cover tunes from bands ranging from U2 to the Allman Brothers. Pardon the pun, but we made a bee line for the Birdsong’s booth—an apiary on the other side of the Appalachian Ridge—where its proprietor, Deano Chlepas, served me a cinnamon and honey iced coffee. Lisa picked up their special tropical turmeric iced tea, and Chlepas talked to us about his farming and beekeeping practices. Not even in town for 12 hours yet, I started to notice a theme—most of the people we talked to were relaxed, kind and helpful, even earnestly so.
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Constantine “Deano” Chlepas of Birdsong Farm sells honey and beeswax products at the Blacksburg farmers’ market.
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Produce for sale at the Blacksburg farmers’ market.
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Peaches for sale at the Blacksburg farmers’ market.
Down the line of booths, a local café had set up only steps away from its brick and mortar storefront. There, we picked up a couple of very healthy (and homemade) granola snack bars and stopped briefly to see another vendor’s jewelry as well as some functional art from another nearby family farm run by two brothers and a sister.
But our big ticket for the morning was to walk about a quarter-mile to the Moss Arts Center on the Virginia Tech campus.
In all honesty, if my only aim had been to rush out and find some really challenging trails to hike or mountain bike, I likely would have driven right past the arts center without more thought than simply to admire the building, which, with its sleek glass and concrete façade, is pretty spectacular.
Opened in 2014 after 10 years in the making, the 150,000-square-foot facility comprises a state-of-the-art performance venue, three exhibition galleries and a four-story multi-purpose space for research and other creative uses.
The center shows how the Southwest Virginia community has creatively approached the economic shift that has tested its region. It also demonstrates the university’s role as a catalyst for the area’s movement into conceptual frontiers of its own.
On the day of our visit, there were two particularly engaging art exhibits. One was a sculpture and painting exhibition in the Ruth C. Horton Gallery by Virginia Tech alumnus Joe Kelley. Kelley creates colorful wooden sculptures, many of them incorporating found items like old piano parts. The other was a show of paintings by the center’s namesake herself, P. Buckley Moss. I learned the artist’s own captivating story—she’s a Staten Island, New York, native, whose early challenges with dyslexia channeled her to art school. Later, her first marriage brought her a long way from home to Waynesboro in the mid-1960s. This made me fall in love with her art even more. Moss is a rural landscape painter whose arresting colors and flowing lines could mesmerize and trap you in the gallery for hours as you absorb the peace and the poetry of her spectacular vision.
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The Moss Arts Center features a performing arts center and gallery spaces
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Joe Kelley exhibition at the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech.
We hated to leave that exhibit, but we had arranged for a picnic lunch and were due to pick up our baskets several miles away at Hethwood Market, a family-owned operation. We took our overstuffed baskets several miles away to Pandapas Pond, a small park in the vast George Washington National Forest where we followed a short trail to a picnic table and dug in.
The park itself connects to an extensive trail system. In a place like Montgomery County—even on a Saturday during the summer—it seems not very difficult to find a peaceful space somewhere to yourself. Lisa and I walked the rows of the garden taking in the buzz of life and the colorful blooms all around.
Careful not to let any moss grow under us, however, we made tracks next into Giles County. Our visit to the county was not our first time—we had taken a winter getaway several years ago to Mountain Lake Lodge in Pembroke during an icy, snowy weekend. So we were excited to explore the place in warmer times.
We checked into our rental cabin at Walker Creek Retreat—a property with two cabins and a lodge house situated by the creek, making for easy tubing or fishing access—before we doubled back up the road toward Mountain Lake for active time.
Walker Creek is owned and operated by Britt and Leigh Stoudenmire, who also own the New River Outdoor Company, which offers guided fishing experiences on the New River, as well as kayak and canoe rentals. When we showed up at the outfitter’s office to check in, Leigh was running the shop solo as Britt was out on the water (a top smallmouth and musky guide, he leads roughly 130 trips each year). Other than cornering the market on cute, the couple’s young daughter and the sturdy family lab, Hoover, were not much help with the rush of business at the moment we arrived.
Cora Gnegy, tourism director for Giles County, told me later that the adventure guide and equipment rental niche has steadily grown as recreation-hungry tourists have been drawn more and more to the New River Valley over the last 15 years. Like Montgomery County, Giles has taken steps to beef up its presence and its outreach so that its natural gifts won’t be overlooked by adventure seekers. She was hired several years ago to push a pretty powerful branding of the 37-mile stretch of New River that runs through Giles. Bearing a trademark, they now call it Virginia’s Mountain Playground.
If you make the rounds like we did that day, you’ll do a lot of driving, but it will be softened by the wonderful topography you cross. Nevertheless, we were antsy to get moving and get back up to Mountain Lake Lodge. The resort has a deep history (beyond it serving as the location for the film Dirty Dancing), and the lake itself is a fascination, partly because the water level ebbs and flows so drastically that it is periodically closed. At the moment, it’s still at a historically low level, but working its way back.
When we got there, I wanted to see how I could stand up against some of the trails on the 2,600-acre Mountain Lake Conservancy property that adjoins the lodge. So I got one of the many rental bikes available at the gift shop and took a short—but constantly climbing—ride up the jungle trail, looping back around and leaving me adequately worn out. Lisa explored the rhododendron trail around the lake: There’s challenging foot work on that trail, but also a measure of solitude that is comforting when it’s free of fellow tourists.
The hour or so of activity made us eager to shower up for dinner. I blame it on our jam-packed agenda that we spent only a blink of time at the Conservancy, although now I know exactly where to go when we return, especially if I want to pack a family gathering into one of the resort’s many lodges.
Our dinner reservation that night was about six miles away from our cabin’s driveway, although it felt a lot more like 15 on windy, hilly Route 622. Barely a car passed us on the way, but when we made it to the intersection of River Road and 622, we found a lot full of cars outside the Palisades Restaurant. Still, there wasn’t that much activity outside in the modest strip of old buildings.
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Shaena Muldoon, owner of Palisades Restaurant in Eggleston.
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The cheese plate at Palisades along with a frenched pork chop with Caribbean jerk marinade, pickled peaches and crispy onions.
We got a kick out of our first entrance into the place. Outside, it felt secluded and peaceful, but when we opened the door it was like walking into a speakeasy pulsing with conversation and laughter. The restaurant is a big winner in the region. Located in a former general store, it’s owned by a native of the area, Shaena Muldoon. I enjoyed medium-cooked beef medallions with Chimichurri sauce, and Lisa a gluten-free brick oven pizza. When I asked Muldoon how long the restaurant has been open, she gave me the age to the day: “We will have been open 7 ½ years as of tomorrow.” Her attention to detail and commitment was obvious.
Our mantra for the weekend had been to keep busy and to try new things. So, after an appropriately short night of sleep, we packed up Sunday morning, signed the guestbook to our cabin and drove back to Pembroke to check out Tangent Outfitters for our first experience doing stand-up paddleboarding. It has been the rage not a mile from our house in Richmond, but I had never been brave enough to try.
The company’s owner, Shawn Hash, founded a mountain biking adventure business with his brother back in 1991, freshly graduated from Virginia Tech. Hash says it didn’t take them but a few years to realize the business model was a bit misdirected. That’s when he got into the equipment rental business, helping folks get into canoes and kayaks out on the New River. Today, Tangent also includes a café tucked into the back of the shop, serving breakfast croissants, sandwiches and more—good fuel for a day on the water.
Attentive and funny, friendly and totally enthusiastic about the biggest part of his business these days, which is guiding people on fishing excursions, Hash told me he has clients “coming to us from all over the United States.” When I mentioned that fishing and hunting are not quite in my comfort zone, Hash charged up even more, speaking passionately about stewardship and responsibility, and understanding the cycle of life and how species depend upon one another.
When we got out on the water, Lisa and I pointed our boards into the gentle flow of Pembroke Pond, which connects to the New, just under a rock formation called Castle Rock. We both experimented with balance, initially feeling pretty inept. Before long, though, we had enough confidence to get out into the flow and paddle up and down the current. In the midst of trying a new trick, my wife pinwheeled and plunged. Not a few minutes later I took my own backward fall of desperation into the water.
Earlier that day, I had told Hash that I fished with my father up until my teens. We would take trips to the Chesapeake Bay and to a lake in Chesterfield County. But I found sports in high school and never looked back.
At breakfast later at Hash’s shop, I knew I’d likely be back to chase another personal frontier.
And Hash said as much too: “You’re going to have to grow up and fish,” he said, and we laughed.
If You Go...
Thinking about exploring the area yourself? Here are some resources to get you started. Plan Explore the New River Valley ExploreNewRiverValley.com Giles County Tourism VirginiasMtnPlayground.com Montgomery County Tourism GoToMontVa.com Stay Main Street Inn, Blacksburg HotelBlacksburg.com Mountain Lake Lodge and Mountain Lake Conservatory, Pembroke MtnLakeLodge.com Walker Creek Retreat, Pembroke WalkerCreekCabins.com Do Moss Arts Center, Blacksburg ArtsCenter.VT.edu Blacksburg Farmers’ Market, Blacksburg BlacksburgFarmersMarket.com New River Outdoor Co., Pembroke iCanoeTheNew.com Tangent Outfitters, Pembroke TangentOutfitters.com Eat Cabo Fish Taco, Blacksburg CaboFishTaco.com Hethwood Market, Blacksburg HethwoodMarket.com Palisades Restaurant, Eggleston ThePalisadesRestaurant.com