Springtime in Southwest Virginia is particularly flashy—fields and valleys are filled with scarlet and gold wild flowers, while towering oak and maple trees display soft green buds on their gnarly branches. Towns like Abingdon in Southwest Virginia are experiencing a renaissance thanks to their embrace of visitors drawn here for the world-class country music and abundant outdoor activities. They’ve infused rural Appalachian culture into their brewpubs and farm-to-table restaurants. If you crave small-town friendliness and adventures in the great outdoors, there’s no better time to explore this vibrant region. Here are ten ways to enjoy a trip to Southwest Virginia this spring.
1. Bike the Virginia Creeper Trail!
The Virginia Creeper Trail is a 34-mile, rails-to-trails bicycle path that travels from the town of Abingdon to Whitetop Station, Virginia. The well-maintained path offers a shady ride on a warm day, and in some places you’ll ride through a tunnel of mountain laurel bushes. You can rent bikes in Abingdon and take a shuttle to Whitetop Mountain. From there it’s mostly downhill for 17 miles as the trail crosses Whitetop Laurel Creek over historic trestles.
2. Explore South Holston Lake
Mountain ridges and thick forest make up the undeveloped shoreline of South Holston Lake. It’s a popular place to rent a pontoon or kayak and spend the day enjoying pristine scenery. Experts at the Virginia Creeper Fly Shop rent fishing gear and lead guided excursions chasing catfish, bluegill, or bass. You’ll find water sports gear for stand-up paddleboarding and jet skiing at Sportsmans Marina. Pitch a tent at one of the well-equipped campgrounds and relax under the star-filled sky.
3. Scale the rocky heights of Backbone Rock Recreation Area
Backbone Rock Recreation Area is part of the Cherokee National Forest that straddles the border of Virginia and Tennessee. The most notable feature is Backbone Rock, which features a 20-foot long hole that was blasted through it to make way for the railroad back in the early 1900s. Today there’s a road that passes through the black shale with a hand-chiseled archway. At its highest, Backbone Rock is more than 100 feet above ground. It’s sight to see, and while you’re there, try rappelling on the sheer cliffs or hike to Backbone Falls, an impressive 45-foot high cascade of water.
4. Visit the Wild Ponies at Grayson Highlands State Park
The biggest attraction at Grayson Highlands State Park is its wild ponies, which were first introduced to the park in 1974 to graze on the grassy balds. During the spring you’re most likely to see foals taking their first steps while the mares look on protectively. To find them, follow the Rhododendron Trail up to Wildburn Ridge where the ponies feed. Along this trail, you’ll take in some breathtaking views. Situated between the peaks of Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, this peaceful park is popular for backpacking, bouldering, and hiking. Nicknamed Virginia’s Land of High Peaks (with elevations around 5,000 feet), the Highlands may turn cold and windy quickly. Be prepared and wear layers. Other points of interest include a 200-year-old pioneer cabin and a waterfall. After Memorial Day, visitors can sign up for a six-hour guided canoe trip through lush woodlands and soaring cliffs.
5. Enjoy Springtime Blooms
Roads through this neck of the woods are winding, but you’ll be glad for the slower pace thanks to the eruption of color on either side. White and pink laurel and magenta rhododendron grow to enormous heights here. Look for the yellow lady slippers in the orchid family. Dwarf crested lilies stretch their stems sideways toward the sun. Honeysuckle blossoms fill the air with the smell of sweet candy. Along hiking paths look for Canada violets, fleabane from the daisy family, wild red geranium, and the showy dwarf crested iris. Flowering azalea bushes come in many colors, including crimson, purple, and ivory. The most graceful of trees, the flowering dogwoods, have white and pink flowers growing on their delicate branches. The combination is dizzying in its beauty.
6. Day Hike the Appalachian Trail!
The storied Appalachian Trail covers a 167-mile stretch of Southwest Virginia. Abingdon is an official AT Community partner, and some hikers on the AT take the 12-mile detour to visit the town where they’re welcomed with a variety of lodging options, access to outfitters, and lots of friendly restaurants. You’ll find several trailheads located in Southwest Virginia’s portion of the AT, including the town of Damascus. Plus you can visit Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia at 5,729 feet. Follow along for a few miles with these hardy thru-hikers as they face the challenges and rewards of hiking the 2,180-mile footpath across the Appalachian Mountains.
7. Paddle the North Fork of the Holston River
The Class I/II rapids make for a relaxing ride along a remote section of this scenic river flanked by rocky bluffs. The launching point is under a swinging rope bridge. The boating season kicks off in May, and it’s the perfect setting to learn kayaking techniques—kids as young as eight can navigate the river on their own. For experienced kayakers with their own boats, there’s an alternate course upriver with more vigorous rapids created from a rock dam. Pack your water shoes and book a trip with Adventure Mendota, a locally owned outfitter with a focus on customer service.
8. Mingle with Locals at the Abingdon Farmers Market
Open from the third week in April until Thanksgiving, the Abingdon Farmers Market sells local produce, meats, cheeses, and wine directly to the consumer. At the corner of Remsburg Drive and Cummings Street in downtown Abingdon, this market has vendors who’ve sold their wares here since the Great Depression. Today, you’ll find nearly 100 vendors in addition to entertainment in the form of local music, cooking demonstrations, crafts, and events like the TomatoFest and SquashtoberFest.
9. Music and Festivals
Southwest Virginia is filled with places to listen to live music. Wolf Hills Brewing features musicians performing on Friday and Saturday nights, in addition to various events during the week. Spring is also the start of festival seasons. The annual Earth Day celebration, organized by Sustain Abingdon, is held at the Fields-Penn House and features food, kids activities, and other fun centered on environmental issues. The Virginia Creeper Fest at the end of April features a wide variety of outdoor activities surrounding the area’s most famous trail. You’ll find yoga in the park, kids games, bike rides, scavenger hunts, stand-up paddleboard demos, food trucks, and live music throughout the day. It’s a great opportunity for outdoor enthusiasts to discover everything that the area has to offer.
10. Eat at a Farm-to-Table Restaurant
Avid readers know Barbara Kingsolver for her many bestselling books, but she and her husband Steven Hopp are also advocates for the local food movement. The couple opened The Harvest Table restaurant after moving to a farm in Southwestern Virginia. Kingsolver wrote Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: A Year of Food Life, which focused on her family’s pact to only buy food raised in their own neighborhood or grown in their own garden for one year. The Harvest Table, located in Meadowview, Virginia, sources nearly all its ingredients from nearby farms, including its own. The menu changes daily based on what’s in season or has been “put by” or canned. Spring menus often feature lettuces, asparagus, strawberries, and spinach.
Written by Renee Sklarew for RootsRated in partnership with Abingdon.
Featured image provided by Harvest Table Restaurant