‘Fall’ in Love with Smyth County
While any month of the year is a good time to head to the picturesque mountains around Smyth County, Virginia, the fall holds a special appeal. There is no denying the county in the southwestern part of the state amps up the colors from late September to early November.
“That time of year is peaceful and beautiful, especially with the colors, and you just cannot help but like fall here,” says Alexandra Veatch, assistant park manager at Hungry Mother State Park. “It’s just different to be in the mountains at that time of year. To be out during the day and be comfortable, and then at night get to bundle up and sit near a campfire, is special.”
Plenty of parks, plenty of beauty
The area in and around Smyth County offers many great spots to take in the leaves as they switch from green to shades of bright yellow, flaming orange, and radiant red.
Places such as Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area are perennially popular with visitors. At Grayson Highlands, driving and hiking trails lead to overlooks that showcase thousands of acres of forest that light up each fall. Head out on walking paths that range from a family-friendly loop trail to challenging backcountry routes deep in the woods.
In addition to being home to Virginia’s two highest peaks—Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain—the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is known for its towering rock formations and abundant spruce-fir forests. The park is easily accessible from Interstate 81, as you can take exit 45 at Marion or exit 35 at Chilhowie. A drive along the Mount Rogers Scenic Byway, which winds through different sections of the recreational area, offers a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding valleys and peaks and trees.
The Back of the Dragon Trail is a bucket-list attraction for motorcyclists and classic car enthusiasts because of its miles and miles of serpentine turns. The tree-lined road following Highway 16 goes from Marion to Tazewell and is another good option for fall colors.
“A lot of visitors are going to take Highway 16 both ways off I-81,” says Veach. “If you stay between the two state parks—Grayson Highlands and Hungry Mother State Park—you are going to get some great views. Whether you are south going toward Mount Rogers or north toward Tazewell, it’s going to be gorgeous.”
One of Veach’s favorite hikes in the area is Molly’s Knob in Hungry Mother State Park. “The summit of Molly’s Knob is one of the best for foliage viewing,” she says. “It is a strenuous trail, about two miles each way, but when you get to the top, that view is totally worth it and is really spectacular in the fall.”
If you are looking for the best place to stay during your autumn leaf viewing excursion, Marion is the place to be. “I hear people say all the time, ‘Oh, I had no idea there were this many great restaurants, I had no idea there was a brewery, I had no idea there was a distillery,’ ” Veach says. “It always surprises people how much there is to do here.”
The city is a gem for leaf lovers, too. Veach continues: “The downtown area is tree-lined, and you can get out and do some shopping and dining and smell the fresh air. The Waterlily, which is in the General Francis Marion Hotel, has a balcony where you can sit and have a craft cocktail and see the leaves along Main Street.”
Smyth County also allows you to follow a section of America’s most famous walking route, the Appalachian Trail. The trail winds through the meadows and valleys in Sugar Grove, just south of Marion.
Accessed from Saltville, the Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area has no shortage of scenic spots. This area of the Virginia Highlands, which has elevations that vary between 1,600 and 4,700 feet, is home to steep valleys and densely forested terrain.
Just south of Chilhowie at exit 35, small Skull’s Gap Overlook packs a mighty punch. With a peak that reaches more than 3,000 feet, Skull’s Gap opens allows you to check out the brightly colored fall leaves and is also a notable spot for bird watching, as October brings migrating hawks to the area.
“You are going to come for the fall foliage and leave thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, we need to plan another trip here.’ ” adds Veatch.