Located in the mountains of western Virginia are thirteen State Parks and five Natural Area Preserves.
Virginia State Parks
Sky Meadows State Park – Clarke & Fauquier Counties
With rolling pastures and woodlands, the park boasts beautiful vistas of the foothills and access to the Appalachian Trail. Its rich history is shaped by the development of agriculture and the impact of the Civil War.
- Raymond R “Andy” Guest Jr. Shenandoah River State Park – Warren County
The rolling, mountainous land features steep slopes and is mostly wooded. In addition to meandering river frontage, the park offers scenic vistas overlooking Massanutten Mountain to the west and Shenandoah National Park to the east.
- Douthat State Park – Bath & Alleghany Counties
Douthat is one of the original six Virginia State Parks that opened June 15, 1936. It’s nestled in the Allegheny Mountains and features some of Virginia’s most outstanding scenery. In addition, a 50-acre lake offers swimming, boating and seasonal trout fishing.
- Claytor Lake State Park – Pulaski County
Located on the 4,500-acre, 21-mile long Claytor Lake in the New River Valley of southwestern Virginia, Claytor Lake State Park offers a wide variety of activities for water and land enthusiasts.
- Fairy Stone State Park – Patrick County
Fairy Stone State Park, the largest of Virginia’s six original state parks, is home to its namesake “fairy stones.” These rare mineral crosses and the park’s scenic beauty, rich history and ample recreational opportunities make it a local and regional favorite. The 4,537 acres that make up the park were donated by Junius B. Fishburn, former owner of the Roanoke Times, in 1933. The Civilian Conservation Corps originally created the park, its lake and many structures still in use there.
- Shot Tower Historical State Park – Wythe County
Overlooking the New River, Shot Tower was built more than 150 years ago to make ammunition for the firearms of the early settlers. Lead from the nearby Austinville Mines was melted in a kettle atop the 75-foot tower and poured through a sieve, falling through the tower and an additional 75-foot shaft beneath the tower into a kettle of water. For a small fee, guests may ascend the tower which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
- New River Trail State Park – Grayson, Carrol, Wythe & Pulaski Counties
New River Trail State Park has been designated an official National Recreation Trail by the U. S. Department of the Interior. The park parallels 39 miles of the New River, which is one of the world’s oldest rivers and among a handful of rivers flowing north
- Two tunnels: 135 feet and 193 feet long
- Three major bridges: Hiwasee – 951 feet; Ivanhoe – 670 feet; Fries Junction – 1,089 feet
- Nearly 30 smaller bridges and trestles
- A shot tower used more than 200 years ago to make ammunition
- Grayson Highlands State Park– Grayson County
This mountain park is next to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in the Jefferson National Forest. Grayson Highlands State Park was originally named Mount Rogers State Park and was established in 1965.
- Hungry Mother State Park– Smyth County
Much of the land for Hungry Mother State Park was donated by local landowners to develop a new state park in Smyth County on Hungry Mother Creek. The park is one of six original Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) parks in Virginia that opened in June 1936.
The Legend of Hungry Mother
Legend has it that when the Native Americans destroyed several settlements on the New River south of the park, Molly Marley and her small child were among the survivors taken to the raiders’ base north of the park. They eventually escaped, wandering through the wilderness eating berries. Molly finally collapsed, and her child wandered down a creek until the child found help. The only words the child could utter were “Hungry Mother.” The search party arrived at the foot of the mountain where Molly collapsed to find the child’s mother dead. Today that mountain is Molly’s Knob, and the stream is Hungry Mother Creek.
- Natural Tunnel State Park-Scott County
Natural Tunnel, called the Eighth Wonder of the World by William Jennings Bryan, has been attracting sightseers to the mountains of southwestern Virginia for more than 100 years. Today it is the focal point of Natural Tunnel State Park, a park which offers visitors not only spectacular sights but also swimming, camping, picnicking, hiking, a visitor center, an amphitheater and interpretive programs.
- Breaks Interstate State Park – Dickenson County
4600 acres. A 5-mile gorge, plunging to 1650 feet, in this “Grand Canyon of the South.”
Bountiful nature, as richly colored as our mosses underfoot, our mountains on the horizon, and our sky overhead.
Rivers to raft, heights to scale, camping, birding and porches to be sat on…while smiles form lazily upon contented faces.
- Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park – Wise County
The museum is housed in a mansion built in the 1880s by Rufus Ayers, a Virginia attorney general. The museum was bequeathed to the commonwealth in 1946 by C. Bascom Slemp, private secretary to President Calvin Coolidge and a member of the U. S. Congress. The museum was officially dedicated by the state in 1948. It features a collection comprised of more than 20,000 pieces, about one third of which is on display at any given time. The museum chronicles the exploration and development of the region during the 1890s coal boom, as well as the pioneer period. It offers activities for kids, scout and school programs, workshops, an annual Festival of Trees program, a quilt show, a music festival and outdoor exhibits. The museum sells archival supplies and offers the opportunity to have pictures of collection pieces copied, as well as copies of reference files.
- Wilderness Road State Park – Lee County
Wilderness Road State Park was purchased in 1993. The park is about 310 acres that lie astride the Wilderness Road, a route carved by Daniel Boone in 1775. The route, which followed a buffalo trace, opened America’s first western frontier.
Virginia Natural Area Preserve
- Goshen Pass Natural Area Preserve – Rockbridge County
Goshen Pass is Virginia’s oldest state-managed natural area. Located in Rockbridge County, about 10 miles north of Lexington, the Commonwealth first acquired the property in 1954 to help protect the spectacular views of the 3.7-mile long gorge along the Maury River. More recently a number of biological treasures were discovered on the property. Among them are outstanding examples of chestnut oak forest, pine-oak-heath woodland, rocky riverside scrub communities, a state-rare damselfly called the Appalachian jewelwing, and several rare plants. The preserve, which encompasses the southwest face of the gorge, was dedicated as a State Natural Area Preserve in 2001.
- Poor Mountain Natural Area Preserve – Roanoke County
In autumn, the forest slopes and ridgetops of Poor Mountain are brightened by the brilliant yellow foliage of piratebush. Poor Mountain Natural Area Preserve protects the world’s largest population of this globally rare shrub, which is restricted to only a handful of sites in the mountains of Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The mountain is named for its impoverished soils derived from metamorphosed sandstone bedrock. The ridgetop, 3,000 feet in elevation, is predominantly a xeric Table Mountain pine and oak woodland. Piratebush is a dominant understory shrub in this community along with huckleberry and blueberry. Piratebush is also found with mountain laurel in the hemlock ravines and mesic pine forests of the lower elevations.
- Grassy Hill Natural Area Preserve – Franklin County
Grassy Hill is a prominent landmark on the west side of the Town of Rocky Mount. The site is characterized by rocky slopes forested with hardwood species and scattered patches of Virginia pine. Shallow, basic, heavy-clay soils predominate and outcrops of magnesium-rich bedrock are common. These unusual soil and rock substrates provide habitat for rare woodland communities. Several rare plants grow in small grassy openings near the hill’s summit. As suggested by its name, there is evidence that this community type once dominated much of Grassy Hill. For example, open-grown oaks with low spreading crowns are found amidst younger, closely spaced trees. Fire scars on some trees indicate that fire may have played an important role in keeping Grassy Hill open. With the advent of effective wildfire suppression during the twentieth century, the open, grassy woodlands slowly transformed into forest and dense woodlands with a continuous canopy.
- Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve – Floyd County
Buffalo Mountain is one of the most significant natural areas in Virginia. It boasts an amazing 13 rare plant occurences, 3 rare animal occurences, and 6 significant natural communities. The combination of high-elevation (3,971 feet), wind-exposed openings at the summit, and magnesium rich soils make it unlike any place else in the Commonwealth.
On the treeless summit, strong winds and boreal climate support subalpine vegetation including three-toothed cinquefoil and Rocky Mountain woodsia. The south face of the mountain contains grassy, prairie-like openings composed of wildflowers and native warm-season grasses more typical to the Midwest than to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Wet, magnesium-rich seeps along the base of the mountain support globally rare grasses and wildflowers such as bog bluegrass and large-leaved grass-of-parnassus.
- Pinnacle Natural Area Preserve – Wise & Scott County
Towering cliffs, sheer limestone ledges, and waterfalls are but a few of the spectacular features of this preserve. Located near the confluence of the Clinch River and Big Cedar Creek, the topography of Pinnacle NAP has been modified by the forces of weather, water, and time to create this dramatic landscape. Towering above Big Cedar Creek is an impressive rock formation, the Pinnacle, from which the area derives its name. Cut from dolomite, the Pinnacle rises 400 feet above Big Cedar Creek. The Preserve’s unique habitats support at least nine rare species and two rare natural communities.
This is just a start in exploring the area. I will be devoting more posts in the future on each of these Parks and the areas surrounding them…