June 16, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

Fresh Discoveries Await in Southwest Virginia

9 min read

Travelers who venture to Blacksburg, Christiansburg and the surrounding countryside find plenty to see and do. This corner of Appalachia is full of surprises.

The combination of school colors—maroon and orange—seems a bit jarring at first, but they kind of grow on you after a few days of exploring the Virginia Tech campus and pleasant college town of Blacksburg. And you soon become comfortable with other places in Montgomery County and the New River Valley, an inviting blend of pretty scenery and small-town life in the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains of southwestern Virginia.

The 147-room Inn at Virginia Tech, on the edge of campus, provides the perfect base for first-time visitors to this neck of the woods. From my spacious fourth-floor guest room I had views of the grassy backyard and stately clock tower of the limestone-block hotel and conference center.

The Inn at Virginia Tech. (Photo credit: The Inn at Virginia Tech)

Like almost every other building on campus, the inn is constructed of gray dolomite stones quarried locally. In fact, the school (formally the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) owns two quarries and employs its own stone masons. All new central campus buildings must bear the distinctive limestone, an architectural element that lends the beautiful, tree-shaded grounds a pleasing uniformity.

Chefs at the inn’s farm-to-table restaurant, Preston’s, prepare their regionally inspired dishes with seasonal ingredients and Southern flair. At our group’s first dinner there, I savored the Fish and Grits, a delicious entree featuring rainbow trout with cheddar grits and pickled forest mushrooms. Others raved about the Fig Balsamic Skirt Steak. Starters were crab hushpuppies with red pepper aioli and the Hokie Board, a charcuterie ensemble of Virginia shaved country ham, pimento cheese, house chow chow and lavosh, a crunchy cracker bread. For dessert we shared Preston’s Signature Bread Pudding and Molten Chocolate Lava Cake.

Exploring the Virginia Tech Campus

As followers of college sports know, the nickname “Hokie” refers to Virginia Tech students, athletic teams and fans. It comes from the word “hoki” in a school spirit cheer that rang out in the 1890s. The HokieBird mascot, a turkey-like character, rouses up crowds at 66,000-seat Lane Stadium, one of the loudest stadiums in college football. Teams once were known as the Fighting Gobblers. Maroon-and-orange Hokie gear, from plush HokieBirds to caps, T-shirts and sweatshirts, makes the perfect souvenir and is sold at the inn’s gift nook and other shops in Blacksburg. Artist-painted HokieBird statues around town provide great photo ops. The limestone blocks that face campus buildings are called, you guessed it, Hokie Stones.

Blacksburg’s 15,000 permanent residents are outnumbered by the 30,000 students who attend Virginia Tech. The campus counts 221 buildings across 2,600 acres. Best known as a center for cutting-edge technological research and programs in engineering and natural sciences, VT also offers liberal arts studies. Its students pursue more than 250 degrees.

The university’s impressive Moss Arts Center, a hot spot for the performing and visual arts, welcomes the general public as well as students. For the 2024-2025 season, its Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre will showcase entertainment as diverse as the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and Bela Fleck, considered the world’s premier banjo player. Touring Broadway shows include The Book of Mormon and Dear Evan Hansen. The stage hosts School of Performing Arts productions, too.

Perhaps the most peaceful spot on campus is Hahn Horticulture Garden, where students bring hammocks to chill out. Favorite features of the teaching and display gardens include:

  •  A pond with koi and goldfish
  •  A vegetable garden
  •  An open meadow with native plants
  •  Trident Maple Allee with its cathedral-like canopy for shade-loving perennials and shrubs

Virginia Tech’s iconic Burruss Hall and the April 16 Memorial. (Photo credit: Montgomery County VA Regional Tourism)

Among other points of interest at the home of the Hokies are The Pylons, a war memorial saluting every VT student or graduate who has made the ultimate sacrifice since WWI, and the April 16 Memorial, whose 32 engraved Hokie Stones honor each victim murdered in the 2007 mass shooting at a VT residence hall and classroom building.

Shopping in Downtown Blacksburg

Adjoining the campus, downtown Blacksburg abounds with fun shops and eateries. On Main Street, bookworms flock to Blacksburg Books, a quirky independent bookstore that promotes local authors and sells locally made goods like soaps, chocolates and honey. Of special note is the Appalachian Appreciation section, where you’ll find titles like:

  •  Talking Appalachian
  •  The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cooking
  •  Birds of Appalachia and the Southeast
  •  What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

For my brother, an avid birder, I was tempted to buy The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of the Whole Stupid World. The store’s “Blind Date with A Book” rack displays bargain-priced books wrapped in plain brown paper with a hand-written description of the subject matter but no clue to the title or author. On the first Saturday of the month, Typewriter Poetry sessions involve an instructor from the VT Fine Arts Department who will type out a custom-composed poem after ascertaining your interests.

Sugar Magnolia’s gift shop. (Randy Mink Photo)

Down the street, I connected with Sugar Magnolia, a shop that specializes in paper goods, gifts, chocolates and ice cream. I had a sundae made with Hokie Tracks, a flavor that consists of salted caramel ice cream with dark chocolate-covered pretzel chunks. I forgot to ask for a sample of Michigan Pothole, a chocolate ice cream with ribbons of “thick, black-tar fudge” and chunks of “chocolate asphalt.” The large gift shop had some artistically designed wall plaques in maroon and orange, plus some other Hokie-influenced pieces.

A Historic Theater and Farmers Market Worth a Visit

Another downtown magnet is the Lyric Theatre, just steps from the VT campus. Built in 1930, it was the third theater in Virginia designed for sound movies and the first air-conditioned building in Blacksburg. Renovated in 1998-1999 after a period of sitting empty and then serving as VT classroom space, the 477-seat auditorium shines with the original 1930s tapestries and replica hanging lanterns fashioned after the originals.

The Lyric shows first-run movies 364 days a year, plus art, international and children’s films. It also hosts concerts, speakers and community events. Movie tickets are $6-$8, a large popcorn only $3.50. Group tours are available.

Downtown’s Market Square Park stages the Blacksburg Farmers Market year-round on Saturdays and on Wednesday afternoons from April to November. Nearly 40 vendors purvey everything from baked goods and produce to flowers, jewelry and alpaca socks. All food items are grown within a 50-mile radius.

Bring Your Appetite to Downtown Blacksburg

Southern comfort food is one of my favorite ways to indulge, and Blacksburg Tavern didn’t disappoint. Occupying an 1892 house on Main Street, the restaurant pays tribute to southwestern Virginia with a menu of hearty dishes and soundtrack playing old-time and bluegrass music in the Appalachian tradition.

Our group’s family-style meal featured platters of fried chicken and sliced, slow-roasted beef brisket accompanied by cornbread, buttermilk biscuits, and bowls of mashed potatoes and succotash (a medley of lima beans and corn). The finishing touch was a slice of scrumptious blueberry pie with vanilla bean ice cream.

Baked ham and meatloaf are the other two meats served at Blacksburg Tavern. Next time I might try The Huge Hokie, a bowl of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, chicken gravy, green beans and pimento mac ’n’ cheese.

Blacksburg Tavern is decorated with framed historical photos of Virginia Tech and Blacksburg along with murals depicting local history and landscapes. The wall art was done by Virginia McLaughlin, the great aunt of tavern owner Daniel Riley, when she was 91 years old, and her son. She painted similar murals for the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in northern Virginia.

For Mexican food on Main Street, head to Cabo Fish Taco, where our group ate on the large outdoor patio. I rated the blackened mahi mahi taco a 10-plus, while others raved about the Epic Tuna Burrito and Banging Baja Taco loaded with beer – battered shrimp. Cabo Fish Taco offers one of the largest tequila menus in Virginia, with 13 specialty margaritas to choose from.

Beer flight at Eastern Divide Brewing. (Randy Mink Photo)

Craft Beer Fans Make a Beeline to Innovative Breweries

Montgomery County boasts a robust beer culture. We sampled three brewpubs, including the largest, Eastern Divide Brewing Company in Blacksburg. In the cavernous, steel-frame building with a friendly beer hall atmosphere and lots of plants lending a refreshing touch of greenery, I washed down a grilled pimento cheese sandwich with a flight of six beers that included:

  •  Los Mas Mexican Amber Lager, infused with lime puree
  •  Blackbear Sour Ale, flavored with blueberries and blackberries
  •  Coconut Migration Porter, with strong hints of coconut and vanilla (my favorite)
  •  Hive-mind Honey Wheat, sweetened with Virginia honey
  •  Righteous Chardonnay Aged Belgian Tripel, aged one year in French chardonnay barrels
  •  Commerce Street Kölsch, a light-bodied German ale

Others enjoyed the non-alcoholic cherry limeade and ginger beer.

In a male-dominated industry, Moon Hollow Brewing stands out. The Blacksburg brewery, in the kindergarten room of a former elementary school, is female-run and -staffed. Moon Hollow is best known for its fruited sours, like Lavender Fields, a Belgian-style saison made with black currants and lavender blossoms. Craft sodas include the ginger beer and strawberry pink peppercorn.

The patio at Moon Hollow faces a barn and pasture with grazing cows. The beasts are friendly and, through the fence, seem to like interacting with brewery guests.

At Iron Tree Brewing Company in Christiansburg, owner and brewhouse manager Seth Locklear says the James Blonde, an easy-drinking blonde ale, is the most popular beer, followed by Hazy River, a New England-style IPA. Adventurous patrons try the Duck Pond Water, a smoked Scottish ale that Locklear says “smells like a campfire when I’m making it.” Fun seasonal flavors have included gingerbread, fruitcake, peppermint and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Iron Hollow also makes root beer and a margarita-flavored hard seltzer. Guests can bring their own food, and some days a food truck is stationed outside.

Shop and Play in Christiansburg

A highlight of my visit to Christiansburg was rummaging around a place called Cambria Station Antiques and Old New River Books. Located in a former general store in a historic district that once was the town of Cambria, it abounds with special finds, from used books and records to vintage clothing, furniture and advertising memorabilia.

Our group got a look at brand new Christiansburg Huckleberry Park, an innovative facility with an all-inclusive playground featuring equipment designed for children with social, emotional, cognitive, physical, hearing or visual disabilities. The park also has tournament-ready playing fields, a dog park and paved trails.

Beliveau Farm, set among the rolling hills of Montgomery County, Virginia, offers both wine and beer tastings. (Randy Mink Photo)

Communing with the Countryside in the New River Valley

On the edge of Montgomery County, 12 miles from downtown Blacksburg, resides Beliveau Farm, a destination winery with vineyards overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains. At 2,300 feet, it’s one of the highest vineyards in Virginia. The tasting room and patio at the hillside Sugar Shack afford views of the rolling green hills that once were part of a cattle farm.

The estate’s brewery produces gluten-free beers, including the Tree Tapper Maple Ale flavored with syrup from the farm’s 250 tappable maple trees. Also made on-site are grape-based jams, including clove, pineapple jalapeno and lemon lavender.

Our group got another taste of Montgomery County’s scenic countryside at a location in Jefferson National Forest just 10 minutes from Blacksburg. We took the one-mile loop trail that traverses wetlands over bridges and boardwalks at Pandapas Pond. A 26-mile network of trails branches off from the eight-acre pond, which is stocked with walleye and trout.

On a hot summer day, there’s nothing better than a lazy downstream float on the New River. At New River Junction, a family-run campground and tubing center now in its 43rd year, you can rent an inner tube for as little as $14 day for unlimited one-mile rides to the rapids. A shuttle bus takes you back to the starting point.

Tubing on the New River in Montgomery County, Virginia. (Photo credit: Montgomery County VA Regional Tourism)

Most of the forest-lined river is less than three feet deep. The water temperature in August reaches into the 80s. At the end of the run, Big Falls Park has grills, tables, plates and plastic utensils for tubers who pack a picnic lunch. Offering cabins along with tent and RV sites, New River Junction is 13 miles west of Blacksburg.

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Lead photo – HokieBird mascot. (Courtesy of Montgomery County VA Regional Tourism)

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