I’m the kind of person who likes to live vicariously through other people’s adventures while also planning my own. (If you read this blog regularly, you probably know what I mean!) Not long ago, my aunt Kristi posted this video on her YouTube channel about a hike she did just outside of Wytheville, Virginia. On the hike, she came across a Massive rhododendron bush that I instantly wanted to see in person (and pose with in a fancy dress). My mom and I had been talking about a weekend hiking trip, so this decided for us where to go. And while that rhododendron bush was not actually in full bloom on this visit (and therefore requires me to go back), my mom and I still had a great time on our day around Wytheville!
Despite it’s rather convenient location along I-77 and I-81, I’d never actually stopped in Wytheville before this, and I had no idea what to expect from the town. But when I started doing research, I discovered that Wytheville actually has a lot to offer, and we didn’t even get through everything I wanted to do. It’s definitely a place I want to explore more in the future, but for now, here’s a bit about what we did while there!
History of Wytheville
Located in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Highlands, Wytheville and the surrounding area are a center of Appalachian culture in Virginia. The Appalachian Trail even passes by just outside of Wytheville, and like many Appalachian communities, Wytheville has a deep respect for its history and local traditions. The Blue Ridge Highlands were an early frontier for American settlers, and Wytheville was established as an important location in the area when it was founded in 1790 under the simple name “Wythe Court House.” Like Wythe County, of which it is the seat, Wytheville ultimately takes its name from George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who is also known as “the father of American jurisprudence.” However, from 1792-1839, Wytheville was actually called Evansham after prominent local citizen Jesse Evans. Following the fire in 1839 that led to (the very orderly) reconstruction of much of the town, it received its current name of Wytheville.
In the 1800s, Thomas Jefferson Boyd and his wife Minerva French Boyd rose to prominence in Wytheville. Mr. Boyd was a leading politician and businessman, and both Boyds placed a high value on education. Their influence is still apparent in Wytheville, and the main history museum in town is named after Mr. Boyd and includes an exhibit on the family’s legacy. Wytheville also had a prosperous mining industry for many years and has a claim to fame in the Civil War as it was actually under attack twice (once in 1863 and once in 1865). While the Civil War is not my favorite part of history, it was interesting at the Big Walker Lookout to see their sign on the 1863 battle while overlooking the terrain on which it occurred. Wytheville features on Virginia’s Civil War Trail, so if you are interested in the Civil War, it may be an appealing place to stop.
In 1950, Wytheville made national news as it had the largest polio outbreak in the nation at that time. In one summer, 184 people, mostly children, in Wytheville contracted polio and 17 died. Given that many who lived through this are still alive and in some cases still suffering from post-polio syndrome, the history of this epidemic is still felt and its impact on the community is clearly seen in the exhibit about polio in the local history museum.
Since 1985, Wytheville has hosted its Chautauqua Festival during the third weekend of June. The festival features live music, arts, crafts, lots of food, and hot air balloons. These balloons inspired the decoration of the town’s water tower, which is probably the most iconic Wytheville landmark today. While I was not here at the right time of year for the festival, if you happen to visit in June, you can stop by Elizabeth Brown Memorial Park to enjoy the fun and games!
Our Wytheville Itinerary
As a preface to this little itinerary, this is simply what my mom and I did while visiting Wytheville. We didn’t plan the trip in too much detail and ended up changing things around as we pleased. There were several restaurants that were either closed or open at the wrong time for us, and I will discuss that a bit later. We were also mainly interested in hiking and outdoorsy things while we were here, but Wytheville has a lot of other great things to offer that I would love to experience (and write about) on a future visit.
We started our trip to Wytheville on Friday morning after leaving Fayetteville, WV, where we stayed the night before. We reached the outskirts of Wytheville around 9 but ended up driving around for a bit and figuring out our plan, so we got to the High Rocks trail head at 11 am. Since we changed some of my initial scheduling, we saw all the main things I wanted on Day 1 and ended up being pretty tired the next morning. Since it was also cold and rainy, we had breakfast, walked a little bit on the Appalachian Trail, and headed home early. So although the trip was shorter than intended, we still had a lot of fun, and I’ll discuss both what we did and didn’t do in the rest of the post.
- High Rocks Trail
- History Museum
- Big Walker Tower Lookout
- An evening by the campfire
- Breakfast/Search for donuts
- A little bit of the AT
- Drive home
High Rocks Trail
This was the reason I wanted to come to the Wytheville area, so it was our number one stop that we couldn’t miss. Initially, I’d planned to do this on Day 2 of our trip, but to make sure we were able to do the trail while we had good weather, it became the first stop of the day. Given how rainy it was the next day, this was definitely a good decision, and we were also able to spend most of our energy on this trail instead of getting tired from other activities first.
The High Rocks Trail is located in the Big Survey Wildlife Management Area, which in total covers over 7,000 acres of forest. Reed Creek and Cripple Creek both flow through the area and are tributaries of the New River (the same one as in WV). On a hike here, you will see an abundance of oak, hickory, and yellow pine trees. More importantly though, the sandy soils of these mountain ridges also provide fertile ground for rhododendrons and azaleas. While we only saw a few flowers on our hike, a trip in May would certainly be full of color! I definitely want to come back here in the future when all the flowers were in bloom because this trail was lined with rhododendron bushes, and it must be gorgeous later in the spring.
The High Rocks Trail that we did is about 2.8 miles in total; however, you should double check All Trails or whatever you are using for directions that you don’t end up on the High Rocks Spur Trail, which is closer to 9 miles (unless of course, you want to do that one). From the top of the High Rocks Trail, you’ll find one of the best views of the Wytheville area, and as I love panoramic views, this was why I desperately wanted to eat lunch from this summit. Parts of the trail were pretty steep, and it was definitely a hike up here! It was entirely worth the climb though, and I was really glad that we were able to do this trail.
I also knew that I would be tired and hungry at the top and loved the idea I had in my head of eating lunch with this view, so we grabbed food before hiking and had lunch on the summit. Our picnic was cobbled together from some very high quality food from Sheetz, but I really enjoyed my Southwest salad and cheesecake cup. I also grabbed some grapes and cheese to eat specifically because I wanted to imagine myself as a character in a Studio Ghibli movie. Because if I can’t wear my fancy dress in front of the giant rhododendron bush, I can at least pretend to be Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle!
Thomas J. Boyd Museum
After leaving High Rocks, we headed back into Wytheville. One of the main things on my original to-do list was a downtown walking tour, but having already walked a lot, we opted for a nice indoor museum. Wytheville currently operates three museums with a fourth Homestead Museum set to open very soon. The Thomas J. Boyd Museum provides a general history of the main events of Wytheville’s history, while The Haller-Gibbony Rock House Museum focuses on daily life in the 19th and 20th centuries. The smallest museum is the Great Lakes to Florida Highway Museum, which commemorates the time when Rt. 21 was the main corridor from Ohio to Florida (and which is now on my road trip to-do list). I’d seen the Great Lakes to Florida Highway Museum from the road and was most interested in that one, but the tour guide was unavailable that day. Since I still wanted to learn a bit more about the town’s history, we walked through the Thomas J. Boyd Musuem and learned some of the facts I included in the beginning. All the museums are operated by the town, so you can purchase tickets for one or more of them all at once. One museum is $4 per person, two museums is $7, and you can visit all three for $11. Standard hours are Wednesday-Friday from 10-4.
Big Walker Lookout
This was my second most important destination in Wytheville, and it did not disappoint! I’d originally wanted to visit at sunset or sunrise, but because there’s a fee to climb the tower (and probably to make sure someone is around in an emergency), there are set times to climb it. Climbing the tower is $8 per person and it is open from 10-5 every day.
Like High Rocks, the 100-foot tall Big Walker Lookout tower is an excellent spot for some views of the area. Being on the other side of Wytheville however and on Big Walker Mountain, you can’t actually see the town. The views are still really nice though, and you can see into West Virginia when you look the right way. First built in 1947, the tower has been continuously operated by the Kime Family, who also run the general store at the tower’s base (where you buy tickets). In addition to lots of trinkets, the store also has ice cream, fudge, and hot dogs, along with other candy and drinks. We chose some fudge and then ventured out to find dinner.
On leaving Big Walker Lookout, I narrowed down our dinner options to a few top choices, but since my first choice was closed, we defaulted to that always-excellent stand-by: A mid-price Mexican restaurant. We had a great dinner at El Puerto, where I tried their specialty baked potato fajitas, which was a baked potato covered in fajita meat and veggies. It was very filling but after so much walking and climbing stairs, it was just what I needed.
We had originally planned to camp at Stony Fork Campground and even had our tents set up, but it turned out that we forgot kind of a lot of camping gear that we would have liked to have with us. And on discovering just how rainy and cold it was going to be that night, we decided to head to a motel instead. But since we were already at the campsite and had firewood, we stayed to watch our fire until it got dark and tested out the Campfire Colors that I’d picked up at the New River Gorge out of curiosity. And I’ve got to say, they were very cool to watch and something I will be buying again!
Day 2: A Quick stop on the Appalachian Trail
The plan for Saturday morning was to do the downtown walking tour, maybe buy some donuts or other goodies, and do a little bit of the AT. Well, it was cold. And rainy. And our legs hurt (or at least mine did). So we went to Waffle House for breakfast. The donut shop I’d wanted to visit was closed, and the other cafe I was interested in wouldn’t open for a few hours. Not really wanting to walk miles around the downtown, we instead just went to the Appalachian Trail. The weather had cleared a bit by the time we arrived, so we walked a little ways on the trail to see the interstate down below. And then we got on that interstate and headed home (with a brief stop by Tamarack). So, it was a very short stop on the trail and not an especially busy sightseeing day, but it was still a lot of fun. And I took some good pictures, so I had to include this part somehow!
Food and Lodging Additional Info
Food and lodging were sort of the pitfalls of our little trip, so I wanted to add just a bit more here and mention some of the restaurants that I am hoping to visit on another trip. First, I highly suggest checking out Visit Wytheville’s website because they have answers to just about all your questions and even have the nice page (linked above) that is just an easy list of every single restaurant in town.
Probably the top-recommended option is The Log House 1776 Restaurant, but due to a recent fire, they are currently closed for renovations. Some others that I would like to try eventually include Skeeter’s (hotdogs), Chau’s Corner Bakery (Vietnamese food and some other treats), Graze on Main (Southern classics), and the Olykoek Shoppe (donuts). While we didn’t stop by any of these, I will say that El Puerto and Waffle House both served delicious meals, and I have no regrets about either of those choices.
For lodging, the Wytheville area has several campsites and boondocking locations available. Many of the campsites have options for electricity and water hook-ups as well. Stony Fork, where we intended to stay was a very nice campsite overall but surprisingly crowded. During the off-season, sites are first-come, first-serve, and you may want to claim your spot early to make sure you get one. In the summer, of course, you are able to (and should) reserve in advance. Wytheville also has an assortment of your standard hotels, and the Sleep Inn was very good for us while we were there. There are also a few nicer hotels such as The Bolling Wilson Hotel, which is named for President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith Bolling, who was a native of Wytheville.
While I was only in Wytheville for a short time, it was a great trip, and I had a lot of fun visiting this town that had a surprising amount to offer! This was certainly not my last trip to the Wytheville area, and I look forward to going back in the future and making a slightly more detailed plan now that I know more of what I’d like to see around the town! So, all in all, if you happen to be driving along I-81 or I-77 and are looking for a fun and relaxing place to visit, this is a great option!