Thousands of votes poured in to our 7th annual Top Towns contest sponsored by Blue Mountain Brewery. These three mountain towns were your favorites.
You’d think it would be hard for locals to miss High Knob, the 4,233-foot mountain that looms far above the streets of Norton, Va.
Yet for years the small city—actually Virginia’s smallest independent city, as well as its westernmost—was so focused on serving the dominant coal industry that it overlooked the potential of the mountain and its accompanying fishing, hiking, trail running and mountain biking opportunities.
These weren’t potential tourist draws, residents thought.
Anyone with even a passing interest in national economic news can probably guess what happened next. Big coal became much smaller. And Norton’s business and political leaders, seeking a financial lifeline, finally took notice of High Knob and the surrounding wilderness.
“Our economy has been struggling in this region, as you know,” said Norton City Manager Fred Ramey. “It’s caused a lot of us to look at our assets and see what we can capitalize on, and it’s caused us to focus on this beautiful mountain that we have.”
“Mountains, lakes, streams and trails—all these things have long existed, but they were local recreational facilities,” said Mark Caruso, owner of an outfitter in Norton, Pathfinders Outdoor Adventures. “We started to see that the assets we liked so much, other people might want to visit, too.”
Once this mindset took hold, the people of Norton started to realize just how much they had to work with.
The city is at the crossroads of two four-lane national highways, U.S. 23 and U.S. 58, meaning it is both accessible and well stocked with hotel rooms — 350 of them in four hotels. Built mostly for travelers passing through town, they are increasingly used by people who want to stay.
Norton is served by a regional tourist development organization, Heart of Appalachia.
“(Nearby) counties are all in the same boat and all pulling together and working together,” Caruso said.
But the town of 4,000 also has a distinct identity built partly on the memorably named Woodbooger, a legendary, sasquatch-like creature who supposedly roams the surrounding mountains.
“Some people wondered if we wanted to go down that path, but we’ve embraced it,” Caruso said.
And it has the most crucial assets of all: natural beauty and range of options to explore it.
High Knob, which rises 2,000 feet from downtown Norton, is capped with a recently rebuilt observation deck that offers views of five states. Its flanks are home to the Flag Rock Recreation Area, with an eight-mile trail network that has received rave reviews from mountain bikers and that, with the help of a crew of AmeriCorps workers, will eventually be expanded to 30 miles.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous up there,” said Jane Sandt, 58, a lifelong Norton resident, who walks the trails daily with her rescued Labrador retrievers.
“A lot of people say, ‘I can’t believe you do this every day,’ but every day it’s a new experience.”
The city reservoirs in Flag Rock are not only scenic spots for paddleboarders and kayakers, but offer first-rate bass fishing within minutes of downtown. Flag Rock’s cliffs are also attracting a growing contingent of rock climbers, one of whom recently told Caruso, “You don’t have just a local or national rock climbing venue here. You have an international rock climbing venue that hasn’t been discovered yet.”
On the other side of the mountain is one of Virginia’s most famous swimming holes, a crystalline, waterfall-fed pool called Devil’s Bathtub. Also within an easy drive from the city: kayaking on the Clinch River, mountain biking in the Jefferson National Forest, and hiking and trail running at Breaks Interstate Park.
These assets have not yet rescued Norton’s economy. The unemployment rate of surrounding Wise County is still well above the statewide rate, and the average household income far below it. But the vibrancy that outdoor recreation has brought to Norton could clearly be seen on one weekend in October when the city hosted three big outdoor events: 10K race from downtown to the top of High Knob; a celebrated series of trail runs, including a 100-miler; and Norton’s annual Woodbooger Festival.
Even more important is a new, year-round change in the way people look at their town and at High Knob.
“There’s just a special excitement in the air,” he said. “People are really thrilled to be welcoming people to our community and sharing the mountain in a way they haven’t shared it before.”
At the Holiday Inn. Norton is home to four motels owned by national chains, but only this one is downtown, within walking distance of a planned visitors’ center at Flag Rock Recreation Area.
1051 Park Ave.
At the Wood Booger Bar and Grill. It not only embraces a local legend, but serves a hamburger platter that is a legend in its own right. “It’s huge and it’s just tremendous,” Caruso said.
921 Park Ave.
At the Country Cabin, a historic, 80-year-old community center and events venue that showcases Appalachian history, art and music.
6034 Kent Junction Rd.