National Forest Fun

“To travel is to live” – Hans Christian Andersen

There is so much lovely terrain right in our backyard, in the state of Virginia.  So my better half and I decided not to waste our beautiful Saturday on boring things like house work or yard work or household projects, and instead ventured out to enjoy the beginnings of the autumn colors in our region.  If you are ever visiting southwest Virginia, this day trip is a wonderful way to spend a day.

First I am going to tell you how to get there.  And make sure you eat before you go, because it is a bit of a drive.  On a previous trip to the area, I was starving, and the drive over two mountains made me a little car sick, so this time I made sure we ate breakfast right before leaving.  But I digress.  If you are in the Roanoke, Virginia area, leave Interstate 81 by Exit 141 and go west until you reach a traffic signal.  Turn right at the light onto 311.  This will take you over the first mountain pretty quickly.  After the first mountain, you will pass the Homeplace Restaurant on the left.  Sidebar – if you’ve never visited the Homeplace, you are missing out on a fantastic family-style meal.  Do yourself a favor and try it out!

Back to the directions – after passing the Homeplace, you will drive for 12 or 13 miles and then drive through the small town of New Castle, Virginia.  Keep on driving.  After an additional 16 miles of curvy roads while crossing over another mountain, you will reach the little crossroad known as Paint Bank.  Currently Paint Bank offers up a general store/restaurant combination, a lodge, and a gas pump.  There’s not much to see right at the crossroad, but what is there is very quaint.

Two story red brick building with two story porches on front and waving American flag with hanging flower baskets
Paint Bank General Store and Swinging Bridge Restaurant

The Paint Bank General Store, pictured above, also hosts the Swinging Bridge Restaurant in the rear of the building.  But we will come back to that later.

old train depo turned into a lodge that is two story grey building with metal roof and bikes in front
Paint Bank Depot Lodge

I’ve never stayed at the Depot Lodge, but this building is not the only accommodation available in the area.  In addition to the lodge, there is an amazing caboose, two “glamping” tents, two cabins, an airstream trailer, a house, a cottage, and “coming soon” the Lemon Hotel.  You can check out all of the lodging available at The Depot Lodge.  Seems like it would be a great place to host an extended family get-together.

Country road street corner with Waiteville Rd street sign, State Road 600 street sign, trees in background and metal guard rail

The picture above is what you will see immediately after the General Store.  Make a left here onto 600, or Waiteville Road. As you drive along, you will probably see buffalo grazing in one of several pastures along the left hand side of the road.

Green grass, buffalo in the distance against backdrop of autumn trees and mountains behind

Drive about 10 – 11 miles, and you will see a small sign on the left that says Hanging Rock.

Rural road green grass and autumn leaves in background with sign pointing the way to Hanging Rock

Turn right here onto Limestone Hill Road.  It is a lovely drive up this winding, curvy road.  We saw some beautiful leaves along the way.

rural road surrounded by trees with autumn leaves

Stay on this very narrow, paved road for almost 4 miles and you will come to the parking area on the left.  You’ve arrived!

One of the great things about this trail is that the small parking area is never crowded, at least not when we have been here.  We had passed by the trail heads of several other well-known hikes in southwest Virginia and they were packed out, but not here.  And it was a beautiful October day.

Okay, so now that we are here, it’s time to secure our valuables in the trunk, grab the backpack with water bottles and light snacks, and hit the trail!  The trail is probably rated as moderate, at least that’s what I think.  It is short and has some steeper areas, but also some flat places.

Smiling man in blue shirt standing at beginning of trail to Hanging Rock Observatory with tree with yellow painted square

Follow the yellow marks on the trees!  One of the steepest parts of the trail is right at the beginning, but it’s not bad.

Wooden sign for Allegheny Trail marking distances to Hanging Rock Lookout, Appalachian Trail, and Sugar Camp Farm

We’re headed for the hanging rock lookout.  I think the sign says it is .6 miles.  So, 1.2 miles round-trip.  Not very long!

Man in blue shirt walking ahead in rocky area in the woods on a trail

There are some rocky stretches along the trail, and in a couple of areas we will need to do some scrambling over rocks.  We keep walking until we get to this sign:

Wooden sign in the woods pointing the way to Allegheny trail and the fire tower and raptor tower

If we stay to the right we will join the Allegheny Trail, and if we go left, we will reach the fire tower.  Just a little farther and we will be there!

Wooden sign with blue backpack hanging on it in the woods and a trail leading upwards

When we reach the top, there’s a fire tower to the right and the hanging rock to the left.  In the past, we’ve only been up in the tower, so I wanted to try to take a selfie from the rock.  It would have been so nice to have a selfie stick in this situation!  None of our selfie pictures worked out.  Oh well!  But I did get a couple of shots from the rock, including this one:

Blue sky with puffy white clouds, wooden building with windows, and angled rock slabs with autumn trees
The Hanging Rock and the Fire Tower Observatory

Next, it’s on to the fire tower.  The views are amazing from up here.  You can see mountain ridges for miles and miles.

Deck railing with sign that says EL 3812 with mountains in the distance and blue skies with white clouds

Man in blue shirt standing in shadow at deck railing looking over colorful trees and mountains in the distance with blue skies and white clouds
Looking Over Miles of Mountains

Woman in blue leaning against deck railing with mountains in the background, autumn leaves, and blue skies and white cloudsMountains in the distance, blue skies, lots of white clouds and tops of trees in the foreground

Here’s a panoramic:

Panoramic picture overlooking tops of mountains and autumn trees, blue skies and white clouds

If you are a bird-watcher, this is the place to be.  The tower is right along the flight path of predatory birds.  Unfortunately, we forgot our binoculars this time but we’ve seen several bald eagles in the past without binoculars.  Red-tailed hawks and other large birds are known to pass by.  The tower is at an elevation of 3812 feet.

I failed to mention earlier, that not long after leaving Paint Bank, we crossed into West Virginia.  Most of the area we are looking over is West Virginia.  It sure is scenic!

Squinting man and woman in blue facing camera on deck of fire tower with tops of mountains, trees, and blue sky with white clouds in background

By this time, despite the little snack we brought with us, I was getting really hungry!  After filling our eyes with wonder, it was time to think about filling our bellies with delicious food!  So we grabbed our pack and headed back down the trail.  The return trip was a lot easier, with the exception of a little bit of knee strain.  We passed some young families with several young children who were heading up.  This trail can be trekked by just about anybody, as long as they have no mobility issues.

We got in our car and drove back to Paint Bank, arriving at around 3 p.m.  We were relieved to be able to walk right in to the Swinging Bridge restaurant and get a table.  The last time we had visited, there was a two hour wait!  Wow!  The restaurant does not take reservations unless your party has 8 or more people, and I think that sometimes large tour buses come with huge groups, but that’s not what we encountered this day.

In the picture below you can see the bridge crossing over the dining room:

Inside of open two story building with bridge across the middle of room, a christmas tree, taxidermy animals, old Texaco signs, people sitting at tables, log walls
Inside the Swinging Bridge Restaurant

The restaurant had a steady flow of customers but it wasn’t crowded.  The Swinging Bridge offers a varied menu, with buffalo options.  We decided on the ribs.  We saw them cooking outside on the smoker earlier and they smelled so good!  We also had baked potatoes and side salads and they brought a basket of rolls and cheesy cornbread to the table.  Every time I have eaten here the food has been very good.  We split the apple crumb pie with a generous scoop of ice cream for dessert.  We both had drinks (non-alcoholic) and our tab came to around $42 (we had plenty of left-overs to take home).

After our late lunch, we explored around the gift shop upstairs, the general store, and outside for a bit.

Then it was time for the long-ish drive home.  It was a fun and scenic adventure and we were glad that we put off the things we needed to do at home to enjoy a warm October day in the mountains.  It was time well spent.

Until next time, happy traveling!

 

 

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