Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on Appalachian state and national parks. The first episode was about parks in northeast Tennessee. Almost anywhere in Southwest Virginia you will find a state or national park.
In the pristine landscape of the Appalachian Highlands, the diversity of scenery is quite impressive, and the parks are one of the best ways to get out and enjoy nature.
Here is an overview of most state and national parks in our immediate area.
The Cumberland Gap is often considered the first great gateway to the West. You can follow the paths of buffaloes, Native Americans, longhunters and pioneers. All traveled this route through the mountains in the Kentucky wilderness in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
Modern-day explorers and travelers marvel at this grand gateway and the many miles of trails and scenery found within the park.
You can access this national park either through Lee County in far southwestern Virginia, following the Wilderness Road, or by driving north to Morristown and passing through Harrogate.
There are over 80 miles of hiking trails in the park, ranging from short, easy 1/4 mile hikes to the 21-mile Ridge Trail.
History and the natural world come alive throughout the park. A multitude of historical sites can be seen in the park including: Civil War fortifications, ruins of an old iron furnace, hand hewn cabins and split rail fences at Hensley Settlement.
Wildlife is abundant in the park and includes: deer, beaver, fox, bobcat, bear and over 150 species of birds.
You can learn more about one of the most accessible national parks in our immediate area by visiting https://www.nps.gov/cuga/index.htm.
Wilderness Road State Park in Ewing, Virginia offers picnicking, hiking, nature, and living history programs. The Visitor Center houses a theater showcasing an award-winning docudrama, “Wilderness Road, Spirit of a Nation.”
The center also has a border museum and a gift shop offering unique regional gifts. The park includes the reconstruction of Martin’s Station, an outdoor living history museum depicting frontier life in Virginia in 1775.
Guests also enjoy the park’s picnic shelters, 100-seat amphitheater, ADA-certified playground, sand volleyball court, and horseshoe courts. Visitors can hike, bike, or horseback ride the 8.5-mile Wilderness Road Trail connecting the park to more than 80 miles of trails in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
SWVA HISTORICAL MUSEUM
A National Historic Landmark in Big Stone Gap, the museum is housed in an 1890s Victorian stone mansion with an original oak interior. The museum’s collection includes more than 60,000 exhibits and state-of-the-art exhibits telling the story of exploration and development in Southwestern Virginia, from the pioneer era of the 1700s through the of the “boom and bust” of the late 1800s.
The museum also offers many interpretive and special events. The gift shop offers unique items representative of the region’s history and craftsmanship made by regional artisans.
The park offers facilities for meetings, weddings and other special occasions, and the charming Poplar Hill Cottage is available for overnight guests.
Over 850 feet long and 10 stories high, the natural tunnel was naturally carved through a limestone ridge over thousands of years. William Jennings Bryan called it the “eighth wonder of the world”. Other picturesque features include a wide chasm between steep stone walls surrounded by several pinnacles or “chimneys”.
Facilities include two campgrounds, cabins, picnic areas, an amphitheater, visitor center, camp store and gift shop. You’ll also find the Wilderness Road Historic District, a pool with a 100-foot waterslide, and a chairlift to the tunnel floor.
Guests can enjoy cave tours and canoe trips on the Clinch River, as well as the Cove Ridge Center, which offers environmental education, conference facilities, and overnight dorms.
The Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Interpretive Center in Duffield is a satellite facility of this park. The center has a museum, library, lecture hall, gift shop, and outdoor classroom.
This park is currently under development, with the Sugar Hill unit in St. Paul open for hiking, biking, and fishing. Sugar Hill currently has 8 miles of hiking trails, a picnic shelter, over two miles of river frontage, and significant cultural and historical attributes.
The property contains remains of an 18th century French colony. There is a public boat launch available for boat access to the Clinch River at Artrip in Russell County.
Once developed, Clinch River State Park will showcase the natural, historic and recreational resources of the river. This will be the first Blueway State Park in Virginia. It will consist of several smaller anchor properties (250-400 acres) linked by multiple canoe/kayak access points along a 100 mile stretch of the Clinch River.
Some of the access points will be part of the state park, while other partner agencies and localities will have additional launch access points.
Near Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain – Virginia’s two highest peaks – Grayson Highlands offers panoramic views of alpine peaks over 5,000 feet high.
It’s about an hour and a half drive from the Tri-Cities in the great wilderness, but well worth the trip.
Facilities include a visitor center, campgrounds, and hiking trails to waterfalls and viewpoints. Scenic horse trails and a horse camping area with electric and water hookups, stables and trailer parking are available.
The park offers year-round access to the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail. There is much more that can be explored in the recreation section of the website at https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/grayson-highlands#recreation.
One of Virginia’s premier six state parks, Hungry Mother has long been a favorite. It is known for its beautiful woods and peaceful 108-acre lake in the heart of the mountains.
The park has a sandy beach with public baths, boat rentals (canoe, kayak, pedal boats and paddle boards), a boat launch and a universally accessible fishing pier. Guests also enjoy campgrounds, cabins, yurts, gift shops, a visitor center, a six-bedroom family lodge, and hiking and biking trails.
The Hemlock Haven Conference Center, which is available for retreats, conferences, and special events, is also located within the park.
Millions of years ago, in an area that now crosses Kentucky and Virginia in rural Buchanan County, a vast inland sea retreated, leaving in its wake a veritable cradle of botany. Meanwhile, the river that is now Russell Fork set out to carve out a huge and spectacular gorge, reputed to be the largest east of the Mississippi. Here, fractal ferns, galax, coltsfoot, tea berries and a profusion of species of fungi and mosses dot an undergrowth of rich greens with their bright yellows, oranges and pinks.
Hikers, prepare to catch your breath as you look up from the delicate landscape beneath your feet to the wonder of a raptor soaring above you. Boaters, rafters, riders, take a moment to rest in awe of these timeless mountains, as their undulating profiles dissolve into ever fading shades of blue in the distance.
Whether you’re biking, hiking, horseback riding, or rafting through the park, you’ll find yourself exploring, just like those who came here first. Passing through the ancient hunting grounds of the Shawnee and Cherokee, one might as well follow the 18th century legend of John Swift’s lost silver mines.
The park is open to visitors year-round, but the restaurant and some activities are unavailable during part of the low season.
Over 20 miles of hiking trails criss-cross the park, varying from easy to difficult. Most are less than a mile long, but the interconnecting trails give hikers a good choice of longer routes over varying terrain. Maps with descriptions of each trail are available at the Visitor Center.
For more information, visit http://www.breakspark.com/ and don’t forget to visit the five-mile gorge that plunges over 1,600 feet, often referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the South.”