The Southwest Highlands are great for getting outdoors and experiencing nature, especially if you're into hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Mount Rogers National Recreation Area (NRA), one of Virginia's prime locales for backcountry activities, runs for 60 miles along the mountaintops south of I-81 between Wytheville and Abingdon. Adding to the allure are two old railroad beds turned into excellent biking-and-hiking trails on its northern and southern flanks: the New River Trail State Park to the north and the Virginia Creeper Trail to the south.
Camping -- In addition to the horse camps mentioned below, the recreation area has several other campgrounds, all open from mid-April through December. A limited number of sites can be reserved in advance by calling tel. 877/444-6777 or going to www.recreation.gov.
On S.R. 603 between Troutdale and Konnarock, Grindstone serves as a base camp for hikers heading up Mount Rogers. It has 109 sites with campfires, drinking water, a .5-mile nature trail, and weekend ranger programs during summer. Beartree Recreation Area, a popular site 7 miles east of Damascus on U.S. 58, features a sand beach on a 12-acre lake stocked with trout for fishing. Both Grindstone and Beartree have flush toilets and warm showers. Grindstone has electric and water hookups; Beartree does not. Fees range from $3 to $19 per night.
High-Country Hiking -- Almost two-thirds of the area's 400 miles of trails are on these routes: the local stretch of the Appalachian Trail (64 miles), the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail (66 miles), and the Iron Mountain Trail (51 miles). Many of the other 67 trails connect to these main routes, and many can be linked into circuit hikes.
You can walk for days on the white-blaze Appalachian Trail without crossing a paved road, especially on the central stretch up and down the flanks of Mount Rogers between S.R. 603 and S.R. 600. A spur goes to the top of the mountain. The blue-blaze Mount Rogers Trail, a very popular alternate route, leaves C.R. 603 near Grindstone Campground; a spur from that track heads down into the pristine Lewis Fork Wilderness before rejoining the Appalachian Trail.
Running across the southern end of the area, the Virginia Creeper Trail offers a much easier, but no less beautiful, hike (and bike ride). This 34-mile route follows an old railroad bed from Abingdon to White Top Mountain.
Horseback Riding -- Riders can use 150 miles of the area's trails, including Iron Mountain, New River, and the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail, which connects Elk Garden to Va. 94. Horse camps are at Fox Creek, on Va. 603; Hussy Mountain, near Speedwell; and Collins Cove, about 4 miles east of Cripple Creek. They have toilets, and drinking water for horses (but no water for humans).
Top Scenic Drives
You can enjoy the scenery without getting out of your car. From Marion on I-81, take Va. 16 south 16 miles to the country store at Troutdale. Turn right on S.R. 603 and drive 13 miles southwest to U.S. 58. Turn right there and drive 20 miles down Straight Branch -- a misnomer if ever there was one -- through Damascus to I-81 at Abingdon.
An alternative route is to continue on Va. 16 south past Troutdale and turn west on U.S. 58. This will take you past Grayson Highlands State Park. After the park, turn right on S.R. 600 north. This road climbs almost to the summit of White Top Mountain. Up there, a dirt track known as Spur 89 branches off for 3 miles to the actual summit; it's the highest point in Virginia to which you can drive a vehicle and has great views. S.R. 600 then descends to a dead-end at S.R. 603; turn right there and drive down to U.S. 58, then west to Damascus and Abingdon, as described above.
The Virginia Creeper Trail
The fabulously beautiful Virginia Creeper Trail is a 34-mile hiking, biking, and horseback-riding route following an old railroad bed between Abingdon and White Top Station, at the North Carolina line on the southern flank of White Top Mountain, just inside Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. The name comes from the fact that steam locomotives had such a slow time on the grade that they became known collectively as the Virginia Creeper. If you can ride a bike, this is one of Virginia's top outdoor excursions.
The trail starts at an elevation of 2,065 feet in Abingdon, drops to 2,000 feet at Damascus (11 miles east on U.S. 58), then climbs to 3,675 feet at White Top. No one I know is about to ride a bike up that mountain, so the idea is to stay in Abingdon, take a shuttle bus to the top, and mostly coast for 17 of the 23 gorgeous miles downhill to Damascus.
Beginning 2 miles east of Damascus, the stretch between Green Cove Station and Iron Bridge crosses High Trestle (about 100 ft. high) and has swimming holes in the adjacent stream. Green Cove is a seasonal Forest Service information post with portable toilets and a snack bar. It was at Green Cove that O. Winston Link took one of his most famous photographs, of a mare bowing her head as the Creeper crawled past. It's on display at the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke and the Abingdon Passenger Train Station in Abingdon.
Outfitters in Damascus renting bikes and operating shuttles to the top of the trail include Blue Blaze Bike & Shuttle Service (tel. 800/475-5905 or 276/475-5095; www.blueblazebikeandshuttle.com) and The Bike Station, 501 E. 3rd St. (tel. 276/475-3629; www.thebike-station.com). They are on Laurel Avenue (U.S. 58) in Damascus. In Abingdon, Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop (tel. 888/245-3648 or 276/676-2552; www.vacreepertrailbikeshop.com) is on Pecan Street near the trail head. All charge about $13 per person for the shuttle; or $37 for both shuttle and rental. Reservations are advised, so call ahead.
For more information contact the Abingdon Convention & Visitors Bureau or the website of the Virginia Creeper Trail Club, P.O. Box 2382, Abingdon, VA 24212 (www.vacreepertrail.org).