Illustration by Scott DuBar

Martinsville used to build chairs. Now the town builds trails. The former thriving furniture and textile hub once had the highest rate of per capita millionaires in the country. But with industry moving abroad, the small city in Southern Virginia’s Blue Ridge foothills is now focused on utilizing the vast natural beauty that surrounds it.

“We now have a clean slate,” says resident Brian Williams, member of the Dan River Basin Association, who’s helping to spearhead recreation development. “We have a perfect opportunity to reinvent the way we do things here.”

The former furniture mecca and NASCAR hotbed is getting a new reputation for outdoor recreation. A 44.5-mile section of the Smith River bisects Henry County, as it travels from the 3,000-acre Philpott Lake (Virginia’s largest Smith Mountain lake is actually Virginia’s largest lake) down to the North Carolina border. Williams has helped develop multiple access points for paddling and a growing accompanying trail system.

Town culture is also changing. Part of Martinsville’s 15,000-person population now visits uptown coffee shops and lives in loft apartments. An arts scene is budding at Studio 107 and the Piedmont Arts Association. There are bluegrass shows and independent movies at the Rives Theater and plays at the Black Box Theater.

“People here are starting to realize how much potential there is with community arts and our natural surroundings,” adds Williams.

Williams’ Outdoor Picks:

Paddle the Smith River Henry County has eight easy access points to get onto the Smith River. A popular class II stretch is the 6.5-mile run from Philpott Dam to Bassett. A quiet flat stretch is the 3.5-mile run from Merribone to Mitchell Bridge. The town celebrates the river every August with the Smith River Festival.

Rail Trail Recreation Locals have been taking advantage of the new Dick and Willie Passage, a rail trail that’s popular for running and cycling. The six-mile out-and-back Fieldale Trail offers a more wooded riverside stroll with seasonal spring rhododendron blooms. Both of these trails are part of the growing Smith River Trail system, which will eventually run for 45 miles down to the North Carolina border.

Hiking at Fairy Stone Nearby Fairy Stone State Park has a range of hiking options, including five miles of footpaths in the Stuarts Knob trail system and 13 miles in the Little Mountain trail system.

Ride the Roads Martinsville has an active road cycling scene led by the Henry County Bike Club. The club leads open 25-mile group rides on the idyllic country roads around Martinsville every Tuesday and Thursday evening. For a longer ride, complete the 60-mile course of the former Tour de Scholar metric century.

Jamison Mill Singletrack
Mountain bike clubs in surrounding counties recently banded together and added newly constructed singletrack to the Jamison Mill Recreation Area around Philpott Lake, giving fat tire freaks a rolling six-mile wooded maze to spin their wheels.