Winter Adventures in the Blue Ridge

Just because the sun is setting earlier doesn’t mean it’s time to hibernate.

Layer up and head out on a winter adventure in one of these Blue Ridge destinations. Whether it’s hiking through the crisp mountain air or cross country skiing over a blanket of snow, there’s something for everyone. Please check with destinations prior to travel to determine how best to have a healthy and safe experience.

Frozen Little Stony falls, photo by Brad Deel

Explore Tunnels, Frozen Waterfalls, and More in Scott County, Va.

Thousands of visitors have traveled to southwest Virginia and the rural region of Scott County in search of the Devil’s Bathtub. This winter, discover for yourself all that Scott County has to offer beyond the bathtub.

It’s home to the Clinch River, one of the most biodiverse rivers in the world, second only to the Amazon. The Clinch is the largest depository of rare and endangered freshwater mussels, as well as an excellent spot to get in some cold weather fishing for largemouth, smallmouth, spotted, and rock bass. It’s home to the Carter Family Fold, the true birthplace of country music. It was here that A.P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter put together the tunes that would start the evolution of country music. Today, the Carter Family Fold pays homage to the Carter Fold every Saturday night with a concert of acoustic, old-time music.

It was through this rugged terrain that Daniel Boone and his 30 axemen forged the Daniel Boone Wilderness Road that opened the region to thousands of migrants who would pass this way on their western excursion. It’s home to Creation Kingdom Zoo, one of the few breeding zoos for endangered species in the country. It’s home to one of the tallest and longest tunnels in the world, Natural Tunnel, which is also a state park complete with numerous amenities for the outdoor enthusiast.

In addition to these wonderful attractions, Scott County offers pristine natural surroundings with several hikes that make for a great winter escape. Little Stony Falls, built by the U.S. Forest Service, follows Stony Creek and crosses multiple footbridges with plenty of scenic variety to keep any hiker entertained, including three waterfalls easily accessible along the trail. This is part of the Chief Benge Scout Trail that runs 19 miles from High Knob to Hanging Rock Recreation Area. Kane Gap takes hikers along portions of the famed Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail and offers a glimpse into the hardscrabble trail pioneers accessed when making their journey westward.

Start your adventure off right with a hearty breakfast at Campus Drive-In, and make sure to visit additional iconic restaurants like the Hob Nob, Teddy’s, and Virginia’s best bakery, the Family Bakery. For a good night of rest, Appalachian Mountain Cabins provide a great winter escape with Jacuzzi tubs and fireplaces. All cabins at Natural Tunnel State Park also offer great winter views and cozy fireplaces.

Photo courtesy of Virginia State Parks

Find Your Adventure in a Virginia State Park

Get outside this winter and experience the wonder of a Virginia State Park. Whether you are looking for a mild coastal adventure or snowy mountain climb, there are 39 parks that will undoubtedly fit your desired adventure. Pack the car, layer up, and head out to a new destination this season.

With over 90 miles of trails, visit Pocahontas State Park for a variety of outdoor activities to get you moving this winter. Located 20 miles southwest of Richmond, this park is easily accessible from a number of East Coast cities. Hike through the forest, past the lakes and streams, and over rolling hills as you take in the natural beauty. Mountain bikers of all skill levels will enjoy riding more than 25 miles of mountain bike only trails featuring a variety of terrain, tight twists, and flowy singletrack. When you are done for the day, unpack your warm sleeping bag and pitch a tent at one of over 100 camping sites or treat yourself to a stay in one of the camping cabins featuring a porch and two sets of bunk beds. 

Winter scene at Pocahontas State Park. Photo courtesy of Virginia State Parks

An hour westward, Bear Creek Lake State Park offers a quiet getaway to Cumberland State Forest in Central Virginia. With limited cell service, it is the perfect place to disconnect and soak up the scenery. Go for a stroll around the lake or cast a line for largemouth bass, crappie, and bream from the universally accessible fishing pier. Trails within the park connect to an additional 16,000 acres of surrounding state forest. Outdoor enthusiasts of all speeds will enjoy the magic of winter on the 14-mile Cumberland Multi-Use Trail open to hikers, bikers, and equestrian riders. Cozy up at one of the cabins, campsites, or lodge to extend your stay in the area.  

The waters and mountains of southwest Virginia offer a stunning backdrop at Fairy Stone State Park. Just minutes from Philpott Reservoir and the Blue Ridge Parkway, you will be surrounded by endless outdoor adventures. Hike miles of trails for overlooks and a waterfall, plus blooming wildflowers in the spring. Get in some winter fishing on Fairy Stone Lake or the reservoir as you cast your line for panfish, largemouth bass, walleye, and more. During your visit, keep an eye out for the legendary fairy stones found in the area. Relax and warm up by the fireplace in your cabin after a day exploring the park, featuring a full kitchen, heat, and shower. 

Nearby New River Trail State Park is the perfect place for a multi-day trip by foot, bike, or horseback. You will cross countless bridges, trestles, and two tunnels as you travel the 57 miles of old railroad bed from Galax to Pulaski. Three primitive campgrounds located just off the trail provide a place to rest your head before you continue on the next day. Additionally, the trail parallels the New River for 39 miles, with three boat ramps to access some cold freshwater fishing for trout, perch, crappie, and more. Watch the forecast for snow as the trail makes for some excellent cross country skiing through the Blue Ridge Highlands under the right conditions.

From the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay to the peaks and valleys of the Blue Ridge, reconnect with family and friends as you spend some time outside reveling in the winter season. Discover what makes Virginia State Parks so special, no matter the season.

Cover photo courtesy Getty Images

Walk or ride the new section of the Mendota Trail, a 12.5-mile rail trail project that starts in Bristol. Photo courtesy of Discover Bristol

Discover Trails, Music, and Top Speed Thrills in Bristol, Va./Tenn.

Straddling Virginia and Tennessee, Bristol provides the perfect winter getaway for adventurers of all kinds. Whether you’re looking for miles of scenic trails and trout waters, thrilling racing, toe-tapping music, or mouthwatering cuisine, the Twin Cities have it all for a safe and socially distant trip. 

Start your visit with a walk, run, or bike ride on the Mendota Trail. With 6.2 miles currently open for recreation, this gravel and natural surface trail is fun for the whole family. You can even break out your cross country skis if the area gets enough snow. When completed, the rail trail will run 12.5 miles from Bristol to Mendota, Va., connecting the two towns and taking visitors past rolling hills and scenic waterways.

Anglers should make their way to South Holston Lake, an excellent spot for catching smallmouth bass. With much of the shoreline bordered by Cherokee National Forest, the lake provides a scenic spot for boaters and hikers alike. You could spend days fly fishing the South Holston River, a world class trout fishery, for native brook, brown, and rainbow trout. 

A number of local parks offer a variety of ways to get outside in the winter. Sugar Hollow Park features an 18-hole disc golf course, miles of trail, and 75 camping sites. Mountain bikers of all skill levels will enjoy riding the network of singletrack trails through the park. Just across the state border, visit Steele Creek Park for 24 miles of trail through 2,000 acres of forested knobs and along the shore of a 54-acre lake. Make sure to stop in the nature center to learn about the natural history of the Southern Appalachians through exhibits and an interpretive arboretum. Follow the Lakeside Trail to Rooster Front for scenic picnic areas along Beaver Creek. 

Head over to Mountain Sports Ltd. for all of your outdoor needs while you are in town. From an in-shop bike mechanic and camping gear to fly tying classes and a wealth of local knowledge, these outdoor enthusiasts carry a wide range of brands and products to keep you safe and warm on any outing this winter. 

Get out of the cold and explore the rest of what Bristol has to offer. Head underground into the Bristol Caverns, where the ancient Underground River carved out vaulted chambers over millions of years. Each room highlights stunning displays of natural stone formations like arches, columns, cascades, and draperies. Temperatures inside remain constant throughout the year, making it the perfect adventure no matter the weather.

Dive deep into the history and evolution of country music at The Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Photo courtesy of Discover Bristol

A visit to the area wouldn’t be complete without a stop at The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, celebrating the iconic 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings and their lasting impact on country music today. The museum achieved Healthy Business Certification from the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry for its disease prevention plan to keep visitors safe while visiting. Plan a return visit in September for the 20th annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, featuring more than 100 of Appalachia’s best artists over the course of three days.

The whole family will love visiting Bristol Motor Speedway. This winter is the perfect time to take in the Pinnacle Speedway in Lights show running from November 13 to January 2, a fun socially distanced activity. Explore more than 250 displays illuminated with over 2 million lights around the Speedway. The route will take you for a spin around the iconic half-mile banks of the speedway and down the legendary Thunder Valley dragstrip. Make sure to stop by the Christmas Village for local vendors and a light show set to music or reserve tickets for some time on the Tri-Cities Airport Ice Rink. 

Stay Awhile

When it comes to kicking back and refueling, Bristol offers a range of dining options to keep you happy and energized. Blackbird Bakery has something for every meal, from doughnuts and scones for breakfast to tarts and cupcakes for dessert. Get your day started with hot coffee, a smoothie, and homemade granola from Bloom Cafe & Listening Room. A few doors over, Bristol Bagel & Bakery serves up delicious breakfast sandwiches, baked goodies, and daily soups. 

For that classic diner feel, complete with mouthwatering burgers, chili cheese fries, and milkshakes, Burger Bar has been a local staple since 1942. Bristol Gardens & Grill combines the flavors of their smoked meats with fresh produce and herbs, including smoked chicken salad and barbecue. Swing by Eatz on Moore Street for those comfort foods you’ve been craving like cornbread, fried chicken, and collard greens.

Located in a restored 1850 Victorian home, J Frank specializes in top notch seafood, steaks, and craft cocktails with a unique ambiance. Or sit down for a family style meal at Taste, Wood-Fired Kitchen, an open-air establishment that shows off the beauty of Nicewonder Farm & Vineyard and the surrounding area. Stop by The Southern Churn for a post dinner sweet treat, including homemade ice cream and kettle cooked fudge. 

Finish off your day at one of the craft breweries or Lost State Distilling, the hottest new distillery in the area. Elderbrew has found their niche, producing small batches of hand-crafted ales and lagers. For the casual beer drinker interested in a little bit of everything, State Street Brewing Co. is a great post-adventure hangout for everyone. Grab a seat in Bristol’s historical bus station for one of Bristol Station Brews & Taproom’s refreshing drinks or try The Cascade Draft House for a rotating list of over 40 brews, ciders, sours, and seltzers that are sure to hit the spot. Voted the 2020 Best New Craft Distillery by USA Today, the spirits drinker will find a bourbon, gin, rum, vodka, or Tennessee whiskey to enjoy from Lost State Distilling. 

Settle in for the night at one of the area’s award-winning hotels. The Bristol Hotel, named a Top Ten City Hotel by Travel + Leisure and Top Pet Friendly Hotel by USA Today, features cozy rooms and a rooftop bar with views of the mountains. Since opening in the summer of 2020, The Sessions Hotel has quickly become a top destination for the country music lover with onsite music venues and a day spa. Both hotels are located in the heart of downtown with easy access to dining options and cultural amenities. 

Discover all of this, and more, when you visit Bristol on the Tennessee and Virginia border.

Places to Go, Things to See: