Road Trip: Discover the Treasures of Southwest Virginia

We are beckoned to Virginia and charmed by its natural beauty and its culture (and jamborees). Here are the best places to go on a Southwest Virginia road trip.

Southwest Virginia Road Trip
Southwest Virginia is calling - time for a road trip. Credit: Shutterstock

There are Amazing Things to be Found in Southwest Virginia. Let’s Road Trip

They say Virginia is for lovers. I believe Virginia is for road trip lovers. Natural beauty abounds here, with the Allegheny Mountain range in the west and the rounded peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east. History lives on through innumerable sites across the state.

Country roads wind through fabulous landscapes in this comely state. Small towns beckon with an abundance of charm. And, when you’re ready for a break from the road, plenty of outdoor adventure keeps you entertained, including biking, hiking, and paddling. So, if you’re up for new discoveries in a land filled with artisans, musicians, and friendly folks, pack up your vehicle and head to Virginia for your summer road trip!

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Southwest Virginia Road Trip
You can visit the Roanoke Star on your southwest Virginia road trip. Credit: Terri Marshall

Everything Changes When You Exit the Interstate

In recent years, my travels through Virginia typically involved a speedy road trip from New York City to Chattanooga to visit my parents. After making it through New Jersey to Pennsylvania, I’d hop on Interstate 81 through Virginia. As I passed exit signs for Roanoke, Wytheville, Abingdon and towns in between, I paid no attention unless there was a Starbucks handy with a venti iced tea waiting on me.

Occasionally, my husband and I would detour off I-81 toward the east and pick up the Blue Ridge Parkway or venture into Shenandoah National Park along the Skyline Drive for some fresh mountain air and maybe a short hike or two – all of which I highly recommend! But as for the Southwest corner of Virginia, I had no idea what this region rich in Appalachia history had to offer until I slowed down, exited I-81 and drove beyond Starbucks.

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Southwest Virginia Road Trip
The Virginia Museum of Transportation is a cool place to go on a road trip. Credit: Terri Marshall

Day 1: Roanoke, Where Art, Nature and Trains Collide

Start your road trip adventure in Roanoke – also known as “Star City” for the iconic Roanoke Star that overlooks the city from its position atop Mill Mountain. A drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway above the city takes you to the star and there’s no better time to be there than at sunset. You can also hike from downtown to the Roanoke Star on the Star Trail – a 3.7-mile out-and-back hike with an elevation gain of 800 feet. Don’t worry, your breathless moments will be rewarded with captivating views of the city below.

While in town, learn about the region’s rich railroad heritage at the Virginia Museum of Transportation. Be sure to step outside to explore the collection of locomotives. For art lovers, the Taubman Museum of Art is a must-see. World-class art is displayed in the museum’s 11 galleries set in a venue purposefully designed to honor natural elements from the region including a 77-foot glass peak in the atrium representing the Roanoke Star. At Black Dog Salvage, browse the bounty of upcycled designs or take in a show at the Dog Bowl – an outside music venue. A collection of eclectic shops and tasty eateries await downtown.

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Where to Stay:

  • Step back in time at the Tudor-style Hotel Roanoke built by railroad magnate Frederick J. Kimball in 1882. The city’s centerpiece, Hotel Roanoke retains its 19th-century charm with all the modern amenities of today.
Southwest Virginia Road Trip
It wouldn’t be a road trip through Southwest Virginia with a stop at the Floyd Country Store. Credit: Shutterstock

Day 2: Floyd, Where Toe-tapping Music Reigns Supreme

From Roanoke, drive south on US-221 to Main Street in Floyd, Virginia. A favorite stop on The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Music Heritage Trail, the Floyd Country Store has hosted the Friday Night Jamboree for 40 years. Housed in an old-fashioned general store located in a one-stoplight town, the Floyd Friday Night Jamboree attracts music lovers from around the world. It’s good clean fun set against a backdrop of bluegrass, jam sessions, toe-tapping and dancing. Everyone’s welcome from overall-wearing farmers to tie-dye-clad hippies. Join the fun and be sure to get some ice cream while you’re there.

While in town, get a taste of Floyd’s down-home flavor in local restaurants and browse the shops and galleries highlighting the work of local artisans.

Where to Stay:

  • In the heart of town, Hotel Floyd is an ideal place to rest up after a night of country dancing.
Southwest Virginia Road Trip
New River Trail State Park is a Southwest Virginia road trip destination. Credit: Shutterstock

Day 3: New River Trail State Park, Where Nature Beckons

Every road trip needs a stop for outdoor recreation, and in Southwest Virginia, there’s no better place than the New River Trail State Park. This 57-mile linear park parallels the historic New River as you bike, hike or ride horseback along an abandoned railroad right-of-way.

The park’s Foster Falls area provides bike and canoe rentals along with a horse arena and a gift shop. If you packed your fishing poles, try a little fishing on the banks of the New River.

Where to Stay:

  • If you choose to make a day of your outdoor adventures, the Inn at Foster Falls provides a lovely boutique lodging option. Near the river’s edge, this two-story brick building features 10 well-appointed boutique rooms and inviting wrap-around porches.
Southwest Virginia Road Trip
Stop at Skeeters World Famous Hotdogs in Wytheville on your next Virginia road trip, Credit: Terri Marshall

Day 4: Wytheville, Where Hidden Gems Entice

Located 30 miles from New River Trail State Park, Wytheville delivers a surprise at every turn. First, there’s Main Street where the can’t-be-missed “Big Pencil” extends from a Wytheville Office Supply store. Then, there’s nostalgic-filled Skeeters serving up “World Famous Hotdogs” since  1925. In another surprise, Edith Bolling Wilson, the only First Lady from Appalachia grew up in the residence above – which is now a museum.

When you’re not on the road, enjoy dinner at the 1776 Log House Restaurant with a storied history and the most unusual gift shop I’ve seen anywhere. Meandering through the many added on log cabin structures that comprise the 1776 Log House is much like exploring a museum. When you’re ready to dine, I recommend the “Blue Ribbon” – a ribeye steak topped with bleu cheese and sauteed mushrooms. Delicious.

For entertainment, head to the historic Mildwald Theatre on Main Street. Originally built in 1928, the theatre was recently restored and boasts a variety of shows from music to movies to live theatre.

Where to Stay:

  • Make yourself at home amid luxury at the Trinkle Mansion Bed and Breakfast. Innkeepers, Patti and Bernie Pizinger make you feel right at home in this 19th-century beauty. You’ll also awake to a 3-course breakfast – just the fuel you need to start the day.
Southwest Virginia Road Trip
The Back of the Dragon Sign can be seen on a Southwest Virginia road trip. Credit: Shutterstock

Day 5: Dragon Trails, Where White-knuckle Driving Takes the Wheel

Wytheville sits at the heart of The Claw of the Dragon – a 350-mile drive wildly popular with motorcyclists. The Claw loops through portions of seven counties intertwining with numerous other not-for-the-faint-of-heart driving routes.

Unless you’re a hard-core adventure driver, you may want to break this beast up with a few less intense sections. Start your day with a drive south on US-11 to Marion, VA. From there pick up Highway 16 North to Tazewell. This 32-mile two-lane stretch of road known as the “Back of the Dragon” crosses three mountain ranges as it snakes around 300 hairpin curves. An ideal drive for sports car fans, but even those in an SUV can enjoy the fun…just hold on tight.

From Tazewell, meander south again to Highway 52 for a less intense scenic drive to Big Walker Lookout. Known as Virginia’s oldest privately-owned scenic attraction, the onsite Big Walker Country Store hosts regional musicians and artisans every weekend from May to October. Big Walker Lookout is also home to a 100-foot observation tower boasting a view of five states on a cloudless day. Reward yourself for the climb to the top with a big scoop of hand-dipped Virginia Homestead Creamery Super Premium Ice Cream. Trust me on this.

Southwest Virginia Road Trip
An Abingdon artist at The Arts Depot. Credit: Terri Marshall

Day 6: Abingdon, Where Artists and Chefs Abound

Located approximately 30 miles south of Wytheville lies another charming Southwest Virginia town I passed over for years. Abingdon exudes an artsy vibe and with good reason. The town is home to The Arts Depot – a non-profit community-based fine arts center supporting local artisans. Abingdon also supports performing arts, especially at the Barter Theatre. Celebrating 91, the theatre opened with an admission price of 35 cents or an equivalent amount of produce earning it the moniker of “Vegetable Theatre.”  The Barter Theatre features world-class shows across a broad spectrum of genres.

After spending the past five days road-tripping along country roads, Abingdon chefs will be happy to feed you…and then feed you some more. For a small town, the selection of dining options is mind-blowing. I can’t pick a favorite, but I must confess, sake-based cocktails at Foresta on Main Street were amazing. I was fortunate to wrap up my trip by dining on the rooftop at Summers Roof and Cellar to the sounds of live Appalachian music. Hard to top that.

Where to Stay:

  • Fountain Inn on Main sits in the heart of Abingdon. If your family or friends are along for your road trip, this is an ideal vacation rental to share. It’s a stunner and you’ll have a full kitchen should you decide to cook. If not, you can reheat those delicious leftovers from all the incredible local restaurants in the microwave.
Southwest Virginia Road Trip
Love From Abingdon. Credit: Terri Marshall

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Terri Marshall grew up road-tripping around the country. Her love for the open road remains strong today. A travel... More about Terri Marshall