I’m fortunate to live in Central Virginia where the rolling hills of the Piedmont act as an artificial border between the eastern and western portions of the state. It’s less than an hour drive to the Blue Ridge Parkway or Shenandoah National Park and a little over a two hour drive to the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach, with tons to explore in between and beyond. I’m an avid biker (motorcyclist) so therefore, by default, I enjoy road trips. I use the bike more as a tool than I do as a toy, so I can explore and see different parts of the state. I’m a pilot by trade and both offer unique opportunities to view Virginia from above.
I’m more of a mountain man than a city slicker, which is a little contradicting since I spend a few days a week in busy airports and big cities. I appreciate the fact that Virginia has some of the best of both. There are beautiful mountains that please the eye and soul and great cities with so much to do. Whether riding on meandering, winding blacktop along the peaks and ridge lines of mountains or looking down from 30,000 feet inside the cockpit, I’m constantly in awe and reminded of how fortunate I am to live in such a wonderful location. Some of the sights I see might not necessarily be unique to Virginia, but I still wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
Most people don’t realize how expansive Virginia really is. From the Easten Shore on the Atlantic Ocean to the far western reaches of Appalachia in Southwest Virginia is a distance of over 400 miles. Depending on what route you take, there are just five states between Virginia and California. When flying on an arrival in Washington, D.C. or New York City from the southeastern states, oftentimes we fly right over Buckingham County, the geographical center of Virginia. In the winter months when the cold, dense air allows for almost unlimited visibility, at night you can see the lights of Cape Charles to the east and pinkish-orange lights on the ski slopes at Snowshoe, West Virginia simultaneously. In other words, you can see across the entire state of Virginia, and beyond. Just by the lights, I can pick out Blacksburg, Charlottesville, Culpeper, Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, Norfolk, Richmond, Roanoke, Staunton, Waynesboro and dozens of other towns. I can touch them all with my fingertip from a single location.
Have you ever witnessed two sunsets? The sunsets over the Blue Ridge make magical moments for anyone watching from their backyard, office, or a plane. One evening, while taxiing out of Charlottesville for our departure to Chicago, the sun slowly dropped below the Appalachian Mountains, casting a shadow on everything to the east. The sun had set. A few minutes later, we took off and as we climbed the sun reappeared on the western horizon before dipping below the Allegheny Mountains, which were now directly in front of us. The sunrises can be equally dramatic. Early morning departures out of Newport News, Norfolk, and Richmond or Washington, D.C. when eastbound provide vivid pastel hues in the sky while the first rays of sun hitting the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay flicker like thousands of shimmering specks of gold.
Flying over the Chesapeake Bay between the mainland and Eastern Shore is a trest itself, no matter the time. The constantly shifting sandbars give birth to different depths of water before they’re washed away and rebuilt in a different location. The changes in the water’s coloration is sometimes more reminiscent of what one would expect in the Caribbean. Deep and light blues are mixed in the greys and purples with the yellow and white sand. After heavy rains, the flooded rivers that deposit their dirt, mud, and silt into the Bay turn it an ugly brown, but by nature’s design, it will soon return to its pristine image worthy of a wall-mounted canvas.
Speaking of muddy waters, have you ever seen a single river that runs as two? The Meeting of Waters (Encontro das Aguas) is the confluence where the Rio Negro runs into the Amazon River in Brazil. For several miles, the black and brown river waters do not mix and the rivers appear to flow as separate bodies of water. The same is true after heavy rains affect one of either of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. The confluence of these two rivers is in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia where downstream the Potomac forms the border between Maryland and Virginia all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. When one river is running red with mud and the other is clear, below the confluence the rivers seemingly run as two distinct rivers, rather than the one it actually is. It’s quite a sight to see.
Virginia is home to several medium and large-sized recreational lakes. During the warmer months and especially around holidays, the hundreds or even thousands of people on the waters of Claytor Lake, John H. Kerr Reservoir, Lake Anna, and Smith Mountain Lake can easily be seen from a high cruising altitude. With a sharp eye, at lower altitudes, one can pick out brightly colored canoes, kayaks, or rafts floating down slow-moving rivers. On clear days in Virginia, you can truly understand how watersheds work. Flying over Central Virginia, if you know where to look, you can locate Beautiful Run. Beautiful Run empties into the Robinson River, which runs into the Rappahannock River, which runs into the Chesapeake Bay, before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean north of Virginia Beach. In the western portion of the state Camp Creek dumps into Little River, which empties into the New River, which becomes the Kanawha River at the confluence with the Gauley, before merging with the Ohio, ending up in the Mississippi, and thus its terminus in the Gulf of Mexico. How crazy is it to think that a drop of water from a small creek in southwest Virginia can end up in the Gulf of Mexico?
While we’re still on the topic of water, did you know Virginia has several ferries? Ferries don’t often come to one’s mind when they’re contemplating how to get around some of the water communities of Virginia. The Jamestown-Scotland Ferry has two boats that run continuously. Tangier Island Cruises and the Tangier-Onancock Ferry will transport you from the Eastern Shore or the Northern Neck to the tiny fishing island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. You can drive in a tunnel under the water, or take a ferry across the Elizabeth River between Norfolk and Portsmouth. White’s Ferry, just north of Washington, D.C. crosses the Potomac River, guided by cables. The Potomac Water Taxi in Alexandria gives tours around D.C. One of the reasons I love flying into New York City on a nice day is to see all the boats and ferries, including the gigantic orange Staten Island Ferries, darting to and fro with long lines of wake zig-zagging into each other. While obviously not as dramatic in Virginia, I still enjoy watching all of the boats out in the water.
One of the neatest things to witness is the arrival or departure of a fleet of Navy ships coming in or going out of Norfolk Naval Station, the largest naval base in the world. It gives me goosebumps to think of the mighty power of an entire carrier group sailing. While the carrier is the crown jewel of the fleet, amphibious assault ships, combat ships, destroyers, landing ships, patrol ships, and transport ships make up the entire group. The whitewater wake churned up lasts for miles. More often than not, Seahawk helicopters are flanking the convoy on most sides. One of the most awesome sights I’ve seen while flying occurred just off the coast of Virginia. Flying down to Norfolk from New York one night, the Navy was engaged in live-fire exercises. Red tracers were shooting high into the sky and we could see orange bursts on the horizon line, which we assumed were the large deck guns being fired. For the passengers, it was certainly a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness that type of show.
Flying above Virginia is kind of like a virtual pass to your own contour map of the state. It develops a greater appreciation for the hills, mountains, rivers, and the geological forces that have created this great place. Burkes Garden is a place that you can read about, but if you haven’t been inside of it, or flown over it, it’s difficult to actually grasp the features of the surrounding terrain. Sometimes I spend quite a bit of time looking out of the window trying to find places on the ground I’ve been or places I want to explore. I’m always looking for new locations to go for a bike ride, camp, fish, float a kayak or canoe, or hike. I’ve even scoped out distilleries, orchards, pumpkin patches, and wineries I didn’t know existed. All from simply looking out of the window. When I hike to the top of places like Old Rag Mountain, the summit of Bearfence Mountain, or the face of Stony Man Mountain, it puts the accomplishment into greater perspective when viewed from above.
Taking off out of Charlottesville, Roanoke, Tri-Cities, or even Richmond and D.C. headed westbound on foggy mornings gives you the feeling like you are on top of the world, which in a sense you are when flying. Since fog layers are usually just a few hundred to several hundred feet thick, you rapidly pop out on top leaving the rest of the world out of view, except the magnificent hills and mountains which are clearly visible. It’s quite a sight to behold and when atmospheric conditions are perfect for the formation of fog in the valleys, it’s one of my favorite views. Sometimes I’ll leave at first light on a bike trip up to the Blue Ridge Parkway or Skyline Drive when it’s foggy at home. Sure, the bike gets trashed from the mixing of the water vapor and road grime, but it’s 100% worth it when riding on top of the fog under a clear, sunny sky.
We’re lucky in Virginia to have four distinct seasons. I’m even luckier because I get to witness the changes each season brings from an aerial perspective. It’s a toss up between fall and spring if asked what my favorite season is. I love mid-October through mid-November when the leaves across the state are changing. When I was a Flight Instructor at Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, each year a sorority from UVA would come out for aerial tours of the Blue Ridge when the leaves on the mountains were at their peak. For two days straight I’d do nothing but fly over the mountains. On a flight from Washington-Dulles to Roanoke one November, I amended our final altitude to less than half as high as we usually flew. Our standard filed route took us right over Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway most of the way. We flew low and a little slow just to take in the scenery. Have you ever done a corn maze? There are several in Virginia every year and some, such as Liberty Mills Farm in Somerset, carve out a different themed design every year. Is it cheating if I take a picture from the air and then go try it?
In the winter, after a heavy snow, if I’m lucky enough to fly over when the skies have cleared and a full moon is out, the reflection of the snow lights up the ground almost as clear as the sun during the day. Snow and ice capped trees at the higher elevations, whose cold air keeps the winter precipitation lingering when it has melted below, reminds me of the Rockies, whose snow can often be seen year-round. If you like Christmas lights, they’re even better from the air!
In the spring, as crops grow, the Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley become a patchwork quilt of colors. In the southeastern portion of the state, fields of white indicate the cotton bolls have bloomed. The mountains burst with pink, purple, and white flowers. Spring turns to summer too quickly for me, but who doesn’t love fireworks? You know what makes them even better? Watching them from the sky. Flying around the Fourth of July is reminiscent of an active battlefield. For as far as you can see in every direction there are mini explosions and flashes of every color of the rainbow.
I grew up in the country, yet I find myself in cities all the time for work. Cities are their own wonders of engineering feats with tall skyscrapers and fancy architectural marvels, which I thoroughly enjoy staring at in amazement. Flying over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, the Sears Tower of Chicago, or by the Washington Monument in D.C. never gets old. Notice I said “by” the Washington Monument. The airspace over Washington, D.C. is prohibited to enter by anyone other than authorized military personnel and woe to the wayward pilot that violates that! But… I still live in and love the rural areas of Virginia. Flying over rural parts of the state almost makes me feel as though I’m not at work, but still close to home, which in a sense, I am. In the spring, it’s easy to spot flocks of snow white sheep in bright green fields. In the evening, long lines of cows can be seen heading back to the barns. The rectangular housing of chicken and turkey farms can be easily visible for fifty miles. Cut rows of hay and combines harvesting corn remind me even in the sky, I’m still connected to the land.
In contrast to all the beautiful things to see over Virginia, nature’s devastation can be amazing in its own way. I’ve flown over the state after hurricanes have dumped copious amounts of water causing the rivers to swell well beyond their banks. Viewing fields, houses, streets, and everything in between under water from the air gives greater understanding of powers that humans can not hold back. I’ve seen paths tornadoes have cut through woods. Several years ago, while climbing out of D.C., I flew over a forest fire in the central section of Shenandoah National Park where fire crews were having difficulty gaining the upper hand. It was a clear day and the burn area was clearly visible, minus what the smoke was covering. I took some pictures and sent them to the park and they were very grateful, telling me they would be using them for the next command briefing.
There are so many things I haven’t touched on; Civil War battlefields, plantations on the James River, mile long coal trains hugging the New River, and much more. If you’ve ever lived in Virginia, you’re already aware of everything it has to offer. If you’re simply flying over Virginia, you’ll probably see something that will pique your curiosity. If you’ve never done either, you don’t know what you’re missing!
What are you missing out on by living in the city or an otherwise suburban setting? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Sure, you can take a crowded metro or subway, rideshare bus, or gridlocked interstate to and from work everyday, but at what price? We’re not simply talking about dollars. What kind of toll does it take? On your body, mind, and general sense of well-being. There’s a reason big CEOs have quit their six or seven-figure jobs, purchased farms, and worked it themselves. There’s also a reason why psychologists and therapists prescribe nature therapy to their patients.
Welcome to the country, where you’ll find exactly what you might not even realize your soul craves. Don’t worry, you don’t necessarily have to move to the middle of nowhere, but those places are good too. Many rural areas in Virginia are close to beaches on lakes, campgrounds, diverse culinary experiences, hiking trails in federal and state parks, museums, rivers, and ski resorts. Some places even have the internet. Or so I’ve been told. There’s no need to completely change your life if that’s not what you’re looking for, but rather, the fields, forests, and mountains of the Blue Ridge in Virginia are a place to change your pace of life.
What will you find out in the countryside? Stargazing with the naked eye as light pollution fades the further away from the city you go. With just a pair of binoculars you can easily see the contours and depth of the craters on the moon. Walking down a moonlit path or through a field is an experience hard to come by in the city. It’s much easier and more pleasant to enjoy the four seasons Virginia offers when you can smell the spring flowers, take a dip in the summer water of lakes and rivers, breathe in the rustic musty smell of fall leaves, and watch the snowfall where it isn’t marred by plows that turn it black with road grime.
Take advantage of the wonders in the wild as nature abounds. Watch squirrels leap from limb to far limb, and if they fall, squirrels always land on their feet. Walk so close to deer you can almost touch them. Stop and help a box turtle cross the road, but always in the direction they’re headed. If you’re lucky and spend enough time in the woods you may catch a quick glimpse of a fleeting bobcat on a hike or a black bear pouncing on a felled tree looking for grubs. If the trail crosses or parallels a creek or stream, stash a bottled beverage to pick up on your way back for a cool refreshment. Go on a camping trip and be the first one up and on the trail. Otherwise, who would clear the spiderwebs? You can find luscious green moss beds as soft as carpet. When you find a large patch of wild blackberries or raspberries, well, some secrets are best kept to yourself. Set your canoe or kayak in the waters of a river and explore what’s around the next bend with ease. Be sure to take a fishing rod because the smallmouth bass and trout fishing are excellent.
The foothills and mountains of the Blue Ridge offer a remoteness that also seemingly isolates you from any or all of the world’s problems. The peaceful atmosphere and slower way of life elicit a calming effect and peace of mind. If you’re looking for a change, whether permanent or temporary, there’s no need to look anywhere else than right here in Virginia.
There’s nothing quite like going for a drive without a particular destination. There’s more than plenty to see in downtown cities and neatly manicured suburbs. Skyscraper office buildings and high-rise apartments are technological marvels that are beautiful in their own way. Patterned streets with square lots holding pastel colored houses are pleasing to the eye. However, when I have a craving for sights and sounds that somehow simultaneously excite my heart and calm my soul, I drive out to places that many consider nowhere, or at least in the middle of nowhere.
Robert Frost’s most famous quote is certainly, “Two roads diverged in the wood, and I- I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” The road less traveled often opens unseen opportunities, and opportunities abound in the rural country and mountainous regions of Virginia. Truth be told, with a few exceptions, one can almost divide Virginia along the I-95 corridor. The further west you venture from I-95, the more likely you are to come across scenes reminiscent of The Andy Griffith Show, Into The Wild, or Old Yeller.
I’ve taken many drives and rides over the past two decades, with the intent on reaching a destination and sometimes not. In fact, just the other week I took a trip to the western portions of Virginia over the Shenandoahs, beyond the Massanutten Valley, and toward the Alleghenys. Eventually, I ended up in McDowell, Virginia heading south on Bullpasture River Road. I knew it turned into a gravel road, but it was a gravel road I had yet to explore. The road changed from pavement with a double yellow line, to a paved road with no paint, and finally to gravel. Shortly after I was on the gravel I thought I was going to have to engage the four-wheel drive because new gravel had been laid down so thick to repair a recent washout from the close creek running parallel to the road, the tires were hesitant to push forward.
Bullpasture River Road is lined with farms and forest in its entirety. Like many river valleys such as the James and Shenandoah, I would assume it’s fairly fertile and thus the reason for so many thriving farms. I couldn’t help but notice several Bluebirds and Goldfinches perched on wooden fence posts while the restless ones were darting through the trees of the forested sections. By what must have only been foreshadowing when reflecting on the day, I soon came upon two gentlemen walking on the side of the gravel road and one had what was probably the largest telescopic lens I had ever seen. In the country, people treat each other as if they’re no stranger. I stopped and rolled down my window. Believing me to be a local, the gentlemen with the camera introduced himself and asked if I knew the owners of the small green house I had just passed. He had once lived in the valley and knew the previous owners from decades prior, who no longer lived there. He and his friend were birdwatchers and looking for a specific type of Warbler. I informed him of the Bluebirds and Goldfinches and found out he was currently living in New York City and taking a several day trip back to the mountains of Virginia. We chatted for a few more minutes and wished each other a good day before I continued on.
I rounded a curve into an open field of tall pale green grasses gently swaying in the breeze. In contrast to the pale green, at the edge of the tree line was a Whitetail doe with her very new auburn and spotted fawn which was standing underneath its mother curiously watching me. I stopped and stepped out, slowly approaching the two for a picture while respecting their space. They allowed me within fifty feet or so before the doe signaled it was time for her and her fawn to move on. I continued to watch as they took a drink from a stream before disappearing into the thick leaves. Shortly after my deer encounter I came across a Black Snake stretched out sunning itself in the middle of the road. I once again got out and moved in for a closer picture. However hated they may be, snakes serve an important part in the ecosystem. Some farmers will curse them for the eggs and baby chicks they steal, but others are thankful for the rodents kept at bay. I got my picture and continued driving as it started to sprinkle.
At the crest of a small hill a two-story white farmhouse with a wraparound porch sat about twenty yards off the road to my right. An elderly couple were sitting in rocking chairs. In the country, porch sitting is about as close as you can come to claiming to be an active participant in professional sports without leaving your own home. My grandparents, especially my grandpa, loved to sit on the swing and watch cars or count the train cars as they rattled by. I threw up my hand, knowing they would be watching and they returned the wave. As I crossed in front of their dirt driveway a Beagle gave chase and ran with me for close to half a mile before giving up and heading home, most likely to await the next vehicle which would have the same fate.
I suppose now is as good a time as any to talk about the people. Country and mountain folk may seem unfriendly to the untamed eye, but quite the opposite is true. Many of them are reserved and don’t see the need to converse over what they determine to be eccentric and non-essential. Expensive fancy items aren’t quick to catch their eye. But you know what? They’re some of the friendliest people that will literally give you the shirt off their back if you require it. Status matters not to many in the country. Character, ethics, and morals are the backbone and kinship, whether by blood, neighbor, or friendship and that’s what you may consider the social fabric out there. If you need a safe haven, head out to the less inhabited parts of the state where you will find there’s really no need to lock your doors. Still not convinced? While I may be getting a little sidetracked, here’s the proof in the pudding.
Two caring and courteous occurrences happened to me while riding my bike. My one and only (fingers crossed) bike incident happened near Eagle Rock, Virginia. I was a new rider on a back road trip meandering along to visit my parents on a sunny fall afternoon, just a few days after a storm system brought significant flooding to the region. In the middle of a hairpin turn of a blind curve, a gravel driveway had washed out. My rear tire lost traction and long story short I ended up in the ditch full of leaves, miraculously uninjured save some bruises, and my bike fared the same thanks to the two food bed of thick leaves washed into the ditch. I couldn’t get a 600 pound bike out by myself. Along came a truck and the gentleman stopped and he and his friend immediately asked if they could help. Within five minutes my bike was out of the ditch, on the road, and they refused to accept anything for their efforts. Another time I was riding in the bitter cold and stopped on the side of the road to heat my hands up from the exhaust. A passing car pulled behind me and asked if I needed help. When I explained what I was doing he asked if I wanted to sit in his car for a few minutes to warm up. I politely declined his offer, for only my hands were numb.
On a drive filled with history lessons from a family friend sitting in the passenger seat, I found myself in Burkes Garden, Virginia. If you look at satellite imagery Burkes Garden appears to be a crater in the mountains from a possible large meteor impact, but it’s actually a collapsed ocean bed from millions of years ago. There’s one paved road and one gravel road on opposite sides and those are the only way in and out by vehicle. On the gravel approach I spotted what I thought was a Black Bear in the middle of the road. Upon closer inspection we realized it was a cow that had little interest in moving when we approached. I stuck my hand out and rubbed the cow as we very slowly passed, taking note of the tag on its ear. Down in Burkes Garden we pulled into and drove down the long gravel driveway of the first residence we came to. The front door of the white house was open and there was a long line of laundry hanging out to dry. We got out and knocked on the door. No one answered. My friend opened the screen door and walked in. A minute later he came out with a woman in tow who had her head wrapped in a towel. She was washing her hair in the kitchen sink and didn’t hear the knock. We informed her of the cow and she told us her neighbor had been having trouble with that cow escaping. She invited us in for tea and told us about how she and her husband had lived there for close to 50 years and he would continue farming until the day he died. Moral of the story: only in the country can you walk into a stranger’s house and they invite you in for tea.
Back to my most recent drive. I continued heading south and west, coming to Big Valley. I passed a church with a grass parking lot and operational outhouses for bathrooms. I saw a caution sign that said “Draft Horses.” Then I began thinking. This is all about going back to the basics, and something that everyone should have an opportunity to experience. Moses spent forty days in the wilderness, as did Jesus. Removing oneself from too many worldly things has to be good, right? I drove by waving fields of wheat and a patchwork quilt of fertile and fresh colors. I stopped at a clear stream and marveled at the blue, gray, purple, red, and sandstone colored rocks in its bed.
The land and nature is, in fact, the alluring force that pulls us to the mountains and fields. Maybe you’re answering the inner organic farmer in you. It’s amazing what just a single acre of land will produce. Or are you interested in chopping your own firewood for the woodstove in the winter and opening up windows, allowing the fresh clean air to circulate and cool a house in the spring? One doesn’t need to be 100% self-reliant to understand the benefits that self-reliance has for mental and physical health. If you’ve learned your entire life by reading, here’s an opportunity to learn by doing.
Go for a dip in a swimming hole in the creek or float a canoe or kayak down the river. Catch some trout to cook over an open flame in a firepit in your front yard. Explore hiking trails where you can quietly perch yourself upon a high rock field in the forest while you watch bucks chase after does or bears saunter by looking for a meal to fatten themselves before hibernating. Make sure you bring binoculars to witness mass bird migrations taking place a thousand feet above your head. The stars. Have you ever truly been somewhere with little to no light pollution?
You may just find exactly what you’re looking for in the middle of nowhere as well. Think peace of mind and peace for family. Chances are you’ll meet new friends you’ll soon call family for life. Think in terms of dollars. Land and taxes are far cheaper in rural areas than large populated metropolises where you may have one thousand or more people living above your head. Whether it be a farm tucked into a hollow or on hundreds of acres of rolling hills, or prime dense forest in a secluded location where you want to build a weekend or retirement home, the only way you’ll find that perfect piece of property you’re desiring is if you get in your vehicle and go for an exploratory drive to destination nowhere.
Fishing and Fossil Hunting Virginia
Teddy Roosevelt was a fisherman, hunter, naturalist, outdoorsman, and proprietor of exploration to a dangerous degree, by any standard. Take, for example, Candace Miller’s The River of Doubt. I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with Roosevelt on many of his exploits. Of that, I have no doubt. I also immensely enjoy outdoor recreation, and thus, I found myself the planner and leader of an expedition into the western mountains of Virginia. The chances of us being swept away in the Jackson River, or the Maury River as it rapidly twists and turns through Goshen Pass, were rather low. It was true there may be wildlife, but the most likely injury we would incur would probably be a scrape on our elbows or knees while scraping the ground to uncover a fossil. A Boy Scout is always prepared, and I had made the necessary preparations to ensure we’d have the best time possible on our two day excursion.
I poured over the paper maps for hours, looked through online articles and books for cross-reference, and narrowed the trip to Alleghany, Augusta, Bath, Highland, and Rockbridge counties. I wanted access to the limestone, sandstone, and shale from the Mississippian-Devonian and Silurian-Ordovician periods of the Paleozoic era to hunt for brachiopods, tubes, and trilobites. I didn’t happen to just know this, but through my research learned exactly what I was looking for and where to try and find it.
What I did know, however, were the good stretches of water for Rainbow Trout and Smallmouth Bass fishing. A cold front had moved through two days prior and the river levels were already slightly higher than normal, but not so high as to prevent wade fishing. The forecast was sunny and highs in the seventies and lows in the fifties. Perfect weather for fishing, fossil hunting, and camping for the night. The first day we’d hit the Bullpasture and Jackson rivers followed by the Cowpasture and Maury the second day on our circuitous route back. I ensured my fishing vest was loaded with Joe’s Flies (which I always cut off the treble hook), homemade wooly buggers from a friend, and a supply of 1/64 ounce jig heads that I paired with my single-tail one inch grubs.
We were on the road just after 7AM. Just under two hours of driving west brought us to our first stop, Fort Edward Johnson and the Shenandoah Mountain overlook. Fort Johnson is an old line of trenches still intact from the early years of the Civil War. It’s a short but steep trail with interpretive signs that stretched our legs before we got back in the car for a short continued drive on Route 250, just west of Head Waters, Virginia. There, we spent about 45 minutes fossil hunting and came away with a sizable rock with embedded crustaceous shells. We should have done a little more research about depths to find what we were looking for. No cellular reception in those parts, however.
Without much to show, we mutually agreed it was time to head south to Williamsville and on to Bullpasture Gorge. The Bullpasture wasn’t high, but the flow was exceptionally strong for early summer and the water had a little tinge to it from the heavy rain two days prior. The still cool water meant the trout were active and we caught some smaller rainbows and one beautiful, fat fourteen inch rainbow. The sun was supposed to shine all day but just before noon some clouds moved in from the west and produced a constant light rain for an hour. Becoming sweaty after wearing our rain jackets for an hour, we packed up and headed to Monterey, towards our next fossil hunting location.
Just south of Monterey is Big Valley, where Bolar Run carves a meandering shallow indentation. Near there was the spot we were looking for. It took quite a bit of digging online to find a few good fossil hunting sites. Unfortunately, this one had become overgrown with plants and vines, which made the ground surface difficult to access. We did the best we could for a little while and came up with a few brachiopods and spirals.
Just off Route 220, Poor Farm Road takes you into Ned Hollow where the Jackson River runs right at the base of two small ridges, leaving room for nothing but the potholed gravel road and the river. The entire time we fished not a single vehicle drove by so the only noises we heard were natural; the branches blowing in the wind, the birds, and the water. The summer sun kept us comfortably warm when waist deep in the cool mountain water. After we fished here for a while we headed a few miles south to Hidden Valley Recreation Area, where we’d fish another stretch of the Jackson and set up camp for the night.
Hidden Valley, as the name suggests, is tucked into a narrow valley cut by the Jackson River with a high ridge line on Back Creek Mountain to the west and slightly lower ridge line on Cobbler Mountain to the east. From the trail parking area, there’s a handful of trails leading downriver, upriver, or into the mountains. We decided to head downriver and take the Hidden Valley West Trail back since it stayed closer to the river, providing easier access. The Jackson River Gorge Trail would actually take us back to Poor Farm Road, but it would be a six mile hike or so. We wade-fished a stretch of river approximately half a mile long mixed with small rapids and slower pools and had fair success, but nothing spectacular.
We walked the trail back to the parking area and it was a little after dinner time when we got everything packed away for the half mile drive to the campground. Our evening of camping was rather anticlimactic. The rigors of the day and time consuming activities left us with little energy or time for a fancy campsite setup. My eight person tent is the bulkiest, heaviest tent I’ve ever owned, but all the pieces stay together so it can be set up and taken down in five minutes. I had some older MRE’s that I wanted to rotate out for newer stuff, so those were our main course. We flipped a coin and I won chicken and dumplings and Nick ended up with chili and macaroni. I’ve eaten almost gourmet type meals on camping trips before, but this was not one of them. To be fair, MER’s aren’t terrible.
We were asleep not long after dark and were up before 6AM. We had another long day. Dunlap Creek in Covington was the first stop. When you’re on the water by 7:30AM and there’s not another soul in sight, you get a feeling it’s going to be a great day. Turns out, that feeling was going to be correct. Dunlap creek is more of a small river in this location and doesn’t produce big fish, but it’s still a great Smallmouth Bass fishery. Cast after cast we were reeling in fish. Once you’re comfortable with yourself as an experienced fisherman, it’s just as fun to watch other people catch fish too so I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Nick having a great time catching a fish or cursing when one jumped and threw the hook.
This was also a run and gun day where we couldn’t spend too much time at a single location since we had several places to go. For me, I sometimes get more out of the trip from experiencing many different places, as opposed to staying in one place for a lengthy period of time. After we waded Dunlap Creek for a little over an hour we drove about fifteen minutes to explore a cave that was about 500 feet in length. I’ve found trilobites and spirals in a cave in West Virginia. We found several large spiders and camel crickets, but no fossils. It was still fun to explore the cave with headlamps and flashlights. When you just sit and listen, the silence in a cave can be deafening. It’s also the darkest place you can ever go; absolutely pitch black with your eyes wide open.
It was a short drive from the cave to Nicelytown, where we got on the Cowpasture River, just above Iron Gate, right before the sun rose above the high cliffs on the southeastern side of the river providing us with the second sunrise of the day. The fishing was slow here and I only caught a single Chub, but it was worth the stop because the riverbed had some of the most beautiful and colorful stones of any stretch of river I’d fished in Virginia. It was a picturesque setting, but we moved on fairly quickly.
Nick lived on the edges of the Great Dismal Swamp on the opposite side of Virginia, so he didn’t get to the western portions often. In fact, neither one of us had been to Douthat State Park, which consists of three campgrounds, dozens of cabins, numerous trails, and a lake with a swimming beach. It was in the general direction we were heading for our next fishing stop so we planned to make the little detour to check it out. I’d definitely come back to vacation here. We didn’t fish any, but we did hike along Flat Run Trail which parallels Wilson Creek. It was starting to get a little warm close to lunchtime so we decided to head on up to Goshen Pass to get in the Maury River.
Fishing in Goshen Pass can be tricky, and if you don’t know your limitations, even dangerous. There are class II, III, and IV rapids inside of the gorge. The rough trail we took to access the river was very steep and narrow. At one point, we had to use the root structure of a tree as a ladder where the trail was a six to seven foot vertical drop. It was worth the effort. The stretch we fished had deep water pools right against the southern bank of the gorge with soft, shallow rapids in the middle. The action was nonstop. We caught dozens of Bluegill, Redeye Bass, Smallmouth Bass, and Sunfish . We had planned to fish another section of the Maury in Rockbridge Baths next. I had fished it before, but it wasn’t near as scenic as the gorge, so we decided to stay and fish longer since the fish were so very active.
We had originally planned to fish one other stretch of the Maury between Lexington and Buena Vista, but not being quite as young anymore, both of us were rather worn out. We decided to end the trip on a high note and hiked, or climbed, back out of the gorge to pack up our fishing gear and drive back home. Nick and I considered our trip a complete success, even if we didn’t find as many fossils as we had hoped, because the fishing on the second day far exceeded our expectations. On an even higher note, just a few days later at the lake I live on, I reeled in the biggest Largemouth Bass I’d ever caught, at twenty inches and six pounds. Make sure you get outside or you won’t know what you’re missing.
Exploring Counties Series: Staunton
The independent city of Staunton (pronounced stan-ton) in Augusta County, Virginia was called “A seat of culture in the Shenandoah Valley” by Southern Living magazine in 2020. Nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Allegheny Mountains, Staunton is your last significant sized community heading westbound before you enter the Virginia Highlands. Because Staunton is located at the junction of I-64 and I-81, the city of Charlottesville is just 45 minutes away, Harrisonburg 30 minutes, and Lexington 40 minutes. The proximity to each of these makes Staunton an ideal place to reside if you’re looking for a mix of outdoor rural life with a yearning for refined city tastes. We’re glad you found us and are reading our Exploring Counties Series: City of Staunton.
With roughly 25,000 people, a cost of living almost 20% below the national average, dozens of large employers, several post-secondary education institutions nearby, a historic downtown district with art galleries and independently owned restaurants, sprawling outdoor spaces including public parks and golf courses, and national forests, Staunton is a great city for young families, professionals, and retirees alike. Whether finances allow for the purchase of a home under $150K or nearing the $1M threshold, you will be able to find something that meets your criteria. With a median age of 40 years-old, Staunton has a fairly even spread young, working age, and retired citizens. Along those lines, there are several high and low skill jobs available from the top employers including Western State Hospital, Staunton City Schools, Mary Baldwin University, Walmart, Fisher Auto Parts, and Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).
Staunton has three primary elementary schools, and one middle and high school. Several private preschools and primary schools are also located within the city’s limits. Shenandoah Valley Governor’s School, which offers more advanced curriculums in arts and humanities or sciences for gifted students, is just a few miles away in nearby Fishersville. While Mary Baldwin University and the highly specialized Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind are just a few blocks away from downtown Staunton, Blue Ridge Community College, Bridgewater College, Eastern Mennonite University, James Madison University, University of Virginia, Virginia Military Institute, and Washington and Lee University are all within a 45 minute drive.
What’s there to do in and around Staunton? If you want to stay local or go for a drive, prefer to be outside or need to stay inside, or want to be active or lazy, you’re in luck! Residents of Staunton have lived there for decades and have not yet experienced everything the area has to offer. Architect Thomas Jasper Collins designed nearly 200 buildings downtown during the Victorian era, thus simply walking down the sidewalk on a warm spring day and admiring the various complicated, asymmetrical shapes, decorative trim, steep roofs, and towers is a pleasure. Other popular outdoor activities in Staunton include a day at the Frontier Culture Museum where you can tour farms from three different continents as they were in the 17th through 19th centuries, spending an afternoon in Gypsy Hill Park where you can catch a concert at the pavilion, feed the ducks, swing with your children, swim in the pool, and walk or ride the 1.3 mile circular paved road, and on your way home, make a stop at the Staunton Farmers’ Market to purchase hand-picked local valley produce.
If you’re looking for a change of scenery, go underground at Grand Caverns in Grottoes (pro tip: it’s a great way to beat summer heat) or take a drive on farm-lined backcountry roads to Natural Chimneys Park where you can listen to a concert or attend Natural Chimneys Jousting Tournament, what’s lauded as the “oldest continuously held sporting event in North America.” Sherando Lake Recreation Area is tucked away in a hollow, below the infamous Blue Ridge Parkway. Several trails, two lakes, and bathroom, camping and picnic facilities make the ideal mountain setting for a day trip or long weekend. The popular Shenandoah National Park and the Appalachian Trail are a mere 20 minute drive. If you’re looking for a sweet treat and don’t mind a scenic drive with hairpin turns, sweeping curves, and switchbacks, each spring the small mountain town of Monterey hosts the Highland County Maple Festival where you can sample and purchase anything maple related.
If the weather is not cooperating, Staunton has breweries, galleries, museums, restaurants, shops, and theaters for entertainment and relaxation. If history is your forte and the local Civil War battlefields are soggy, the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum details the life of the United State’s 28th president and more. Blackfriars American Shakespeare Center is a historical re-creation of Shakespeare’s playhouse offering performances of Shakespeare’s and other playwrights’ masterpieces. If you’re looking for a unique piece of local art to highlight a newly decorated room, check out the Potter’s Daughter studios. Landscape and portrait oil paintings and earthy colored clay pottery from a wood-fired kiln are the owner’s specialty. Bonus: before you go, make an appointment for a deep tissue, hot stone, or relaxation massage. The Virginia Made Shop has apparel, consumables and decor from around the state including peanuts from the Tidewater, stone ground corn, flour, and grits from nearby Wade’s Mill (which you can also visit and watch the process), and pancake syrups from the orchards in the Shenandoah Valley.
When it’s time to grab a bite to eat, why settle for run of the mill mass-produced chow when there are fresh, locally-sourced, made to order independent eateries and watering holes? For a full farm to table meal, Zynodoa Restaurant serves brunch and dinner. Executive Chef Luke Dodwy and General Manager Jessica Goode gather their ingredients and menu items from sources across the state. Just a few of the purveyors are Apocalypse Brewery in Forest, Critzer Farm in Crozet, Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, and Planet Earth Diversified in Ruckersville. Newtown Baking and Kitchen uses only organic flour, and locally-sourced dairy and free-range eggs in their products which include artisan breads, pastries, and homemade pizzas baked in a wood-fired oven. Shenandoah Valley Brewing serves up nothing but beer. Catch a game on television or play one of their stocked board games with friends while you drink a fresh-poured cold brew. Some of their flagship beers are Glenhaven Scottish Ale, First Brigade IPA, and St. Mary’s Porter. If you’re more into wine, Ox-Eye Vineyards has a tasting room in Staunton’s historic Wharf district. There, you can try more than a dozen white, red, and seasonal wines.
Staunton truly is a sophisticated small city that happens to be Western central Virginia. It offers activities and education for the young, job opportunities for families, and an enriching environment for the retired. We want to find exactly what’s right for you, so be sure to read some of our other Exploring Counties Series!