Virginia Road Trip: Exploring the State Along I-81

As a near life-long Northern Virginian, I know there’s a lot to love about Virginia (I mean hello, Virginia is for Lovers). I also know that most visitors, and in-state residents, give a lot of love to the east side of the state, like Williamsburg, Richmond and Virginia Beach.

I can tell you, however, that the west side deserves its fair share of love. In April, we took a week-long road trip along I-81 from Northern Virginia to Abingdon (a few miles from the Tennessee border). There were waterfalls, wild ponies, trail towns and intensely scenic views.

Day One

We started our adventure in Natural Bridge, home to one of Virginia’s newest state parks, Natural Bridge State Park. Once owned by Thomas Jefferson, Natural Bridge stands 215 feet tall and is basically a limestone gorge carved out by the creek below.

It’s not a big park. There are three trails, but really, the one most visitors traverse is the out-and-back Cedar Creek Trail that’s just 1.6 miles round-trip. It’s short, sweet and the payoff is a waterfall at the turnaround point. There’s also a Monacan Village along the trail, a replica of sacred land once owned by the Monacan Indians in the late-1700s.

We stayed literally across the parking lot at the Natural Bridge Historic Hotel. It was quite a beautiful hotel with two restaurants, which was perfect for dinner, then breakfast the next day. On Saturdays, you can buy a s’mores kit for roasting at the fire pit at 7 pm. Fun.

Day Two

Our next stop was the drive-through Virginia Safari Park. So much fun. It takes about an hour to drive through the safari park, including time to feed the llamas, buffalos and emus that pop their heads into your car windows. Be sure to buy some feed when you buy your tickets.

It was raining a bit when we arrived at the safari park, so we had our windows closed much of the time, at least when we weren’t feeding the animals. Still, animals would approach and peer in, breathing heavily on the windows, waiting for us to roll them down and place our feed buckets out the windows.

I’m certain these animals worked in teams too. We couldn’t drive more than a few dozen yards before approaching another group whose leader would center himself in front of our car while his cohorts immediately positioned themselves on either side of our vehicle. We basically couldn’t move forward until they let us move forward (after we fed them, that is). Very clever.

From here, we drove a short distance to downtown Lexington for a tour of Stonewall Jackson House.  Interestingly, this tour is not about Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, but rather Jackson’s pre-war life as a professor at Virginia Military Institute before he became known for his role in the Civil War. He was also an avid gardener. I felt a bit duped, but it was still quite interesting.

Our next stop was Washington & Lee University for a quick stop in the chapel where Robert E. Lee is buried. Then it was time to go since there was a tornado watch. C’est la vie.

We ate dinner at the Pink Cadillac Diner in Glasgow, about halfway between Lexington and Natural Bridge. There aren’t a lot of restaurants in the area, but this one is a favorite. There’s also an ice cream shop, so yes, it’s a must stop. Yum.

If you get a chance, a couple of other cool stops in Natural Bridge are the Natural Bridge Zoo and Dinosaur Kingdom II. Unfortunately, we were about a month too early for a visit to see dinosaurs and other wacky sculptures.

Day Three

From Natural Bridge, we slowly made our way to Roanoke. I originally wanted to go paddling in nearby Buchanan, but poor weather made it not to be. It was cold and blustery, so we made a quick stop for the 366-foot-long Buchanan Swinging Bridge. Not the best idea on such a windy day, but still a fun spot. I mean really, why not.

Next, we made our way onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. Umm, gorgeous. Also, windy. It was so beautiful in April, even when so little was in bloom. I can only imagine how scenic it must be when the leaves are changing colors in the fall. WOW.

I’m pretty sure I stopped at at least a half-dozen viewpoints. The kids got out of the car at the first one or two, then realized that yes, they all do look pretty much the same. Eventually we made it to the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center near Roanoke. It was worth a stop for some cool topographic maps.

As we rolled into Roanoke, it was lunchtime, which meant Texas Tavern. It’s a longtime Roanoke establishment that sells burgers and bowls of chili for less than $2 each. Then there was the Cheesy Western. It’s a burger patty, an egg, a slice of cheese and pickles and/or relish (I’m not sure which). Let’s just say it was very awesome.

After lunch, we hiked the Star Trail at Mill Mountain Park. It’s kind of a must-do when in Roanoke. It’s a 3.7-mile out-and-back trail to reach the Mill Mountain Star, the world’s largest man-made star that stands 100 feet tall. The hike was mostly uphill, so my kids weren’t excited about every moment of the hike, but it was still worth doing while in Roanoke.

At the top, there’s also a small parking lot and restrooms, so you can drive to the top to take in the views of downtown Roanoke down below. The views were nice at mid-day, but I imagine they’re even more spectacular at sunset. Maybe next time.

That night, we were all about baseball. As in, minor league baseball. The Salem Red Sox play not 20 minutes from Roanoke. It was chillier than we would have liked, but we made it through four innings and that was plenty. We also got to snap a few pics with team mascot, Mugsy.

Day Four

Visitors to Roanoke are fortunate that the city has Center in the Square, which houses several different museums in one building, including the Science Museum of Western Virginia and the Roanoke Pinball Museum. There’s also a children’s museum called Kids Square.

We started the day at the Science Museum, which occupies the fourth and fifth floors of Center in the Square. Here you’ll find loads of hands-on exhibits, like a Healthy Bodies Gallery that teaches kids about blood cells and human organs. Meanwhile, Toy Joy has a super-sized Lite-Brite and LEGO bricks. There are also race car track pieces so you can build your own track.

Our next stop was the Roanoke Pinball Museum on the second floor of Center in the Square. There were lots of old school pinball games with signage noting the year of the game and the designer, but this was definitely more pinball than museum. There were at least two dozen pinball games. One entry fee lets you play all day (you can even leave and return).

While in Roanoke, we stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites Roanoke-Downtown. Just a block or two from Center in the Square, the location could not have been more perfect. It was also an easy walk from lots of restaurants, boutiques and a historic farmers market.

Maybe the best thing about this particular hotel – at least according to my kids – is the game room. It was lucky that no one else wanted to play video games because my kids were in there playing FIFA nearly every moment we weren’t doing something away from the hotel.

Speaking of being away from the hotel, I knew my kids weren’t up for another hike just yet, so I took off to hike the nearby Buzzard Rock Trail at Read Mountain. This 3.6-mile out-and-back hike was also incredible thanks to sweeping views of trees and mountains off in the distance. I kind of enjoyed being on my own for this one. It was so good for the soul.

Day Five

The next day we were off to Abingdon, but not without first making a stop at Grayson Highlands State Park to see the wild ponies along the Appalachian Trail. I’d been looking forward to a stop here since I started planning this trip and it did not disappoint. There were wild ponies aplenty, many just steps off the trail.

Grayson Highlands State Park is about 2.5 hours by car from Roanoke. Much of the route is south along I-81, but then you may want to pop the Dramamine. The last hour of the drive is along small, winding roads. The scenery is beautiful, but I was ready to get out of the car.

Hike along the Appalachian Trail to Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in Virginia. I so wanted to do this, but it was about four miles longer (round-trip) than my kids were willing to hike. Oh well. Another day, for sure.

Day Six

Abingdon is fairly well-known for the Virginia Creeper Trail, a 34-mile rail trail that travels through Damascus (aka Trail Town USA) and on to White Top Station. While 34 miles does seem daunting, particularly when you need to return, there is a secret.

We knew we wanted to bike the Virginia Creeper Trail, but we weren’t up for a 68-mile round-trip ride and weren’t totally sure where to pick up the trail and where to turn around. I was glad to find the Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop when planning out our trip on Google.

I had always planned to rent bikes, but had no idea there was a shuttle service, which was completely perfect, making for a 17-mile all downhill bike ride that day. The shuttle loaded up our bikes and hauled us to the trailhead at White Top Station. It was about a 45-minute drive in the van (again, windy roads), but then we were off and riding down the hill.

It took maybe two hours to go 17 miles to Damascus where there were a handful of good lunch spots to choose from before meeting the van for the short drive back to Abingdon. If you get a chance to bike the Virginia Creeper Trail, this is definitely the way to go.

The plan was for all of us to go hiking at Hungry Mother State Park the next day, but major rain showers were in the forecast, so I dropped my husband and kids back at the Comfort Suites in Abingdon and drove an hour to the state park. Trust me, they were more than happy to spend the afternoon in the hotel pool while I went off for yet another hike.

Hungry Mother State Park is a beautiful state park and I was set on hiking the Molly’s Knob Trail. It was just under four miles and rated as difficult. It wasn’t long after I set out that I whole-heartedly agreed with their rating. It was very steep, increasing 1,000 feet in elevation over the course of the hike.

However, the payoff was huge. As in, 180-degree scenic views. It was easily one of the most beautiful overlooks I’d hiked to, so I was so glad I didn’t miss out on this one. I’m definitely eager to return to this park too for hiking, swimming and boating. There’s even a sandy beach for simply playing and relaxing.

Once I made it back to the trailhead, I got back in the car for Abingdon, but not without a quick stop in Marion to snap a photo of the town’s LOVE sign, of course.

Day Seven

On the last day of our road trip, the rain fell as expected, which is too bad since we’d hoped to go to the small town of Tazewell to see Burke’s Garden. Also known as God’s Thumbprint, this lush valley is supposed to be quite breathtaking. Given the pouring rain, I thought a visit would have to wait another day.

Instead, we got back on I-81 and headed north, making one short stop at James Madison University to walk around and explore the campus. It was a nice place to get out and move around. They even had a Starbucks in the library. Nice.

Have you explored Virginia by on a road trip? I’d love to hear about your favorite, must-do activities. Please let me know in the comments section below.