A Runner’s Guide to Southwest Virginia
One of the nice things about running is you can do it just about anywhere. Lace-up a pair of running shoes and start exploring. Of course, it helps when the place to explore is surrounded by tree-covered mountains, scenic waterways, and an abundance of trails. Southwest Virginia has just what runners need for an escape from their every-day routes of sidewalks and running paths. This corner of the state is filled with small towns, historic inns, and natural beauty that make it the perfect option for a weekend getaway. Enjoy morning runs and then spend the rest of the day taking advantage of the sights and amenities that draw people from all over the country—from traditional music and native art to craft breweries and farm-to-table restaurants. From small town races to world-famous trails, Southwest Virginia offers runners an experience they won’t soon forget.
Southwest Virginia includes more than two-dozen counties along the Appalachian Plateau, bordered by West Virginia to the north, Kentucky to the west, and Tennessee and North Carolina to the south. It’s a diverse area that includes a wide variety of mountain towns and a large swath of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, as well as the state’s highest peak. It’s an area known for its love of heritage music, and The Crooked Road Trail highlights performance venues where you can experience old-time string bands, a cappella gospel, blues, bluegrass and more. You’ll find scenic creeks and rivers throughout the region, historic sites from the both the colonial and civil war era, and a friendly, welcoming culture that is increasingly focused on encouraging people to explore those stunning natural resources.
Runners will find a myriad of options throughout the region, but to see the best of Southwest Virginia, you’ll want to hit the trails. Start with the 34.3-mile Virginia Creeper Trail, which is one of the most highly regarded rail-to-trail projects in the country. Named for the steam engine that once lumbered through these mountains, the trail stretches from Abingdon to Damascus and then up to the top of Whitetop Station in the Blue Ridge Highlands.
The half of the trail from Whitetop to Damascus (about 17 miles) is nearly downhill the entire route, and you’ll find shuttle services to take you to the top if you want to run downhill the entire way. It’s a very popular spot for cyclists, and the three-covered trail is about a scenic as it can get, crossing wooden bridges back and fourth over Whitetop Laurel Creek. The section between Abingdon and Damascus is much flatter, featuring more gently rolling terrain. Hope on the trail in either city for an easy out-and-back run.
The Appalachian Trail is the other major footpath through this section of the state. Stretching from Georgia to Maine, the trail is known more for hiking, and its singletrack nature means that it’s best for those comfortable with technical trail running. You’ll also discover, as thru-hikers will surely tell you, that it features a lot of climbing. Be prepared to work, but you are rewarded with some stunning views.
The nearly 58-mile long New River Trail is another former train line that’s been turned into a spectacular running path. New River State Park is a linear park that parallels the New River, passing through four counties in Southwest Virginia and the town of Galax. Along the way you’ll pass through two major tunnels (135 and 193 feet long), three major bridges, and more than 30 smaller bridges and trestles. The route is mostly flat and tree-tree covered, making it an excellent option in the warm summer months and a must-do in the fall.
At Breaks Interstate Park, which straddles the Virginia and Kentucky border, you’ll find more than 25 miles of trails to explore in this relatively remote section of the state. Here you’ll find what’s been dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the South,” a quarter-mile deep, five-mile-long chasm in Pine Mountain that was carved by the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River. It’s the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi River, and it’s just one of the natural wonders that make the 4,600-acre park worth exploring. A trip to the Breaks could also include camping, fishing, and whitewater paddling.
Like sticking to the roads? Consider one of Southwest Virginia’s more unique geographic formations: Burke’s Garden. From far above, this section of Tazewell County looks like a meteor crater—a large indentation surrounded by mountains. In reality, it’s a bowl-like cove that developed due to the collapse of limestone caverns ages ago. From the ground, what you’ll see is lush farmland (often compared to New Zealand) surrounded by scenic mountains. There is only one way in and out of the valley, so you get very little traffic. In fact, you’re probably as likely to see a horse and buggy as a car. The circular road creates about a 12 mile loop in the valley, which is a great way to see it. You can also access the Appalachian Trail from Burke’s Garden—but it is a steep climb up to the ridgeline.
Nothing brings runners together more than races, and Southwest Virginia has several options to put your skills to the test. The Virginia Creeper Marathon is typical of races in the area, which tend to be small, low-cost community events that reflect the region’s character. The Virginia Creeper Marathon, which is limited to 100 participants each spring, starts in Abingdon and is run mostly on the Virginia Creeper Trail.
The Varmint Half Marathon and 5K in June is a good excuse to check out Burke’s Garden. The 200-person includes a half-marathon that completes the loop through the valley. The High Knob Hellbender 10K is an extremely challenging race that starts in Norton, Virginia, and takes runners up a 2,000 foot climb over about six miles to the observation tower at the High Knob Recreation Area, where on a clear day you can see five states.
Smyth County, Virginia, hosts both a Color Run (a fun run where participants are doused with paint along the route) and Super Hero 5K, a more traditional road race, well, except you’re welcome to dress up as your favorite super hero. You’ll find many other community events, particularly in the spring and fall, in towns like Wytheville, Salem, Wise, and Tazewell.
But even if the timing doesn’t work out to find an organized events, runners won’t be disappointed with the Southwest Virginia offerings that they can find on their own.