Drive a Crooked Road
Drive A Crooked Road: Virginia's Cascade Highlands
The Cascade Highlands of Virginia is located in southwest Virginia and does incorporate a part of the "Crooked Road", which is a marked tour through the southwestern section of Virginia focusing on the musical heritage of the region. The driving route through the Cascade Highlands of Virginia also has close ties with bluegrass music, but there are also great opportunities for outdoor recreation, cozy places to stay, and excellent food. Plus, most of the roads are crooked.
The Cascade Highlands is composed of nine counties in North Carolina and Virginia. The purpose of this group of counties is to tie together their common and abundant outdoor recreation, music, arts, wineries, and events. And this piece will only tour the Virginia portion of the Cascade Highlands.
The counties of Smyth, Grayson, Carroll, and Patrick are included in the Virginia section and all have activities worthy of a visit. Interstate Highway 81 clips the northwestern section and passes through Smyth County. The major town is Marion. The north-south I-77 goes through Carroll County, the largest towns of which are Hillsville and Galax.
The best routes in the Cascade Highlands are on portions of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which bisects the area, and the east-west US 58/221. The north-south highways of SR 16 in Smyth County and US 52, which parallels I-77, are also good scenic drives.
This section in the Cascade Highlands of Virginia has the Blue Ridge Music Center at milepost 213. The center has permanent and rotating exhibits on the area's musical heritage, but mainly focuses on bluegrass. There are daily mid-day performances by local and regional artists throughout the season. An evening show is added on Saturdays.
Two other musical venues include shows at the Historic Rex Theater in Galax and at the restored Lincoln Theatre in Marion. "Blue Ridge Back Roads Show" is a regular Friday evening event in downtown Galax. The musical concerts are one of the nation's last remaining live radio broadcasts. They are carried on station WBRF-98 into five states and streams on the internet.
The Lincoln Theatre in Marion is a restored 1929 500-seat auditorium that has state of the art sound and lighting. It does a regular series for PBS called "Song on the Mountains", which are bluegrass concerts featuring regional performers. There are also theater touring groups that do shows.
Practically next door to the Lincoln Theatre is the General Francis Marion Hotel. Of the some 300 guest rooms in the town of Marion, the 36 at Francis Marion are probably the nicest. This newly renovated 1927 boutique hotel and conference center has the Black Rooster Restaurant, Gallery, and Lounge, and provides excellent service.
One of the best restaurants in the Cascade Highlands is the Galax Smokehouse, an award-winning barbecue restaurant. The restaurant participates in the contests conducted by the Memphis Barbecue Network and has an outstanding record for wins in the associated competition. Try the ribs and banana pudding.
For outdoor recreation there are few places better for the variety than in the Cascade Highlands. There are three state parks, three major trails systems, the New River, and a national recreation area. The state parks include Hungry Mother, Grayson Highlands, and the New River Trail. Mount Rogers National Recreation Area has the highest peak in Virginia and offers visitors opportunities for hiking, fishing, hunting, horseback riding, camping, and of course, scenic riding.
Grayson Highlands State Park has the second highest mountain in the state. Little Pinnacle is just over 5000 feet in elevation. A good hiking trail along Wilburn Ridge provides an opportunity to see wild ponies, which are part of a herd introduced here a few years back. Horseback riding trails cross the Wilburn Ridge trail. In addition, the Appalachian Trail passes through Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.
Hungry Mother State Park in Smyth County near Marion has many amenities from a lake for fishing and boating to a beach area. There are cabins for rent and camping facilities. Activities for kids keep the little ones entertained. A lodge with a restaurant and gift shop are also on the park grounds. At the beach area, SR 16 continues upward for an exciting ride to an overlook that allows great views of Rich Valley below. The ride back down is even better.
Paralleling the New River, a fifty-seven-mile linear park provides trails for bicycling, equestrian, and hiking. Also camping along the river, fishing, tubing, and boating are activities available at New River Trail State Park. The park office rents horses, bicycles, canoes, and kayaks.
Ironically, the New River is considered one of the oldest rivers in the world, according to geologists. It has its origin in Ashe County, North Carolina, and flows northward through Virginia and into West Virginia, where it merges with the Gauley River to form the Kanawha, which flows into the Ohio. In West Virginia, it passes through the New River Gorge, providing some of the best whitewater action east of the Mississippi. But in the Virginia section, the New River flows more gently and still is popular for floating and tubing. Trout and other fish species are plentiful along portions of the New. Watch for my blog upcoming on the New River Gorge.
Within the Cascade Highlands is a town with an interesting history -- Saltville, which is located in Smyth County, west of Marion. It does not fit into any of the previously mentioned categories as having a great restaurant, or as having outstanding outdoor activities, or having a musical heritage such as Galax. But it is unique in that it is situated on huge actively producing salt wells. Excavations have recovered several well preserved skeletons of now extinct species dating back to the last ice age, according to archaeologists. During the Civil War, Saltville was one of the Confederacy's main sources for salt and was considered vital to the Confederate war effort as the salt was used to preserve meat for Confederate soldiers and civilians. Because of that, the town became a target for Northern forces intent on capturing the salt supplies and removing the town from Confederate control. There were two major Saltville battles in 1864 and eventually the Union army gained control of the town and the salt. The loss of Saltville was considered a major blow to the Confederacy's shrinking resources.
Saltville is home of the Museum of the Middle Appalachians. It is in the center of town and presents an excellent view into the past history of the town and region. It has numerous exhibits regarding the town and its geologic past, the Civil War, and the Indians that inhabited the area before the white man.
There are several routes that could cover the Virginia portion of the Cascade Highlands. The main east-west route would be along US 58, which is a portion of the Crooked Road. Stops at Grayson Highlands State Park, the towns of Galax and Hillsville, would give an overview of the countryside and would allow time to take in some of the area's culture, music, and food. Then, to conclude the trip, it would proceed eastward to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
A worthwhile north-south ride would be SR 16 from US 58 near Grayson Highlands across I-81 to Marion. Stopping over to see the Lincoln Theatre and maybe nightover at the General Francis Marion Hotel would also allow some soaking up of the culture. From Marion, head north to Hungry Mother State Park. Then to SR 42 and west to Saltville.
Along either of these scenic drives, take time to stop and enjoy some good barbecue and bluegrass music. It will be worthwhile.
**Following the link to the photographs will take you to a page where you may see many other images of Virginia's Cascade Highlands.
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