As I pored over online regional maps and dug into local Facebook groups for suggestions, I was surprised to turn up photos of natural wonders reminiscent of our Western national parks and public lands, like textured sandstone slot canyons, a massive rock cave filled with an acre of beach-like sand and the deepest canyon east of the Mississippi River — Breaks Canyon.
They were all closer than I realized, too: In Southwest Virginia, less than a day’s drive from my home. I rang up David Woodard, the executive director for the Heart of Appalachia Tourism Authority, which includes seven counties and Norton, a small independent town, in the westernmost slice of the state.
“We have a newfound appeal. It’s one we didn’t have a year ago because of where we are,” Woodard said. “You’re not all crammed together with a lot of other people.” This allure inspired the creation of the Great Appalachian Road Trip in June, a marketing campaign to promote the less well-trodden region’s outdoor adventures and raw beauty, such as Breaks Canyon.
I felt a new appreciation for my home state. We have all that’s great about the West right here. I set out to see it, visiting four natural and geologically wondrous sites that wouldn’t seem out of place in Arizona or Utah. I returned uplifted. Even if the pandemic allows Western travel next year, these sites are worth a visit.
Breaks Interstate Park
About seven hours southwest of Washington, this wildly mountainous 4,500-acre state park that straddles Virginia and Kentucky is home to the “Grand Canyon of the South.” Breaks Canyon is a five-mile long, 1,650-foot-deep gorge formed by the once-raging Russell Fork River, creating a break in Pine Mountain.
More than a dozen hiking trails criss-cross the park for unparalleled access to the park’s geological wonderland brimming with rock scrambles, hidden springs, small caves and cliff overhangs. Hike into the gorge by way of the Camp Branch Trail for a look up at the park’s crown jewel, the Towers.
I checked into the park’s Goldenrod Lodge. Then I ambled over to Towers Overlook, for postcard-perfect views of the exquisite Hershey’s Kiss-shaped rock formation surrounded by the river. I’m not the only person who has driven hours to appreciate its beauty.
“There has been a noticeable shift toward out-of-town visitors,” said Austin Bradley, park superintendent for Breaks Interstate Park. “Visitation through the gate is up 12 percent from this time last year. We’ve been seeing a lot of people from Central Virginia, Northern Virginia.” Outdoor adventures, like hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding and geocaching, as well as ogling the massive canyon, have begun to draw out-of-towners.
Another attraction of the park is herds of elk, who are also non-natives: Hunters killed off the once-populous eastern elk by 1880. In 2012, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation began introducing Rocky Mountain elk, a close cousin to eastern elk, to the region, and today, nearly 300 stately elk roam the rugged landscape of Buchanan County, inhabiting a 2,600-acre elk restoration zone on a reclaimed strip mine site.
Bradley spearheaded the effort to introduce highly regulated elk viewing tours in 2013 to help drive tourism and economic development to the struggling former coal region. Three-hour guided elk tours ($35/adult, $20/child 12 and under) set off up to two nights a week from March to mid-May and late-August to October, including the fall elk rut or mating season, which runs from late-September to early-October.
After Bradley shared a brief history of elk in the region, I climbed aboard a white 32-passenger school bus with one other masked couple for the meandering 35-minute drive to the elk habitat. Our driver, Avery Rose, inched along the pothole-laden gravel roads in search of elk.
After two hours without a single elk sighting, Rose disembarked to survey the area on foot, wildly gesturing moments later for us to join him. Steps away was a raucous herd of more than 70 elk.
The majestic elk herd captivated our little group; none of us dared utter a sound, lest the herd move on from this grassy pasture. We watched for 15 minutes in silence, gazing at the dominant bull with sizeable antlers and his doting cow harem.
Every few moments, there were vociferous grunts and clashing horns as male elk tussled in tenacious displays of dominance. The distinct sound of bugling bull elks reverberated across the hills. I could hardly reconcile that I was in Southwest Virginia, just hours from my home.
Utah may have wild Moqui Caverns, gorgeous light-filled sand caves in Kanab, but sand mining created them in the 1970s. Virginia has its own sand cave a scenic two-hour drive southwest of Breaks Interstate Park, and it’s all natural.
Located on the far east side of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, a remote trailhead within the Civic Park area invites for a nearly four-mile climb along dirt trails to reach the 100-foot-tall cave, a remarkable geological wonder deep within a leafy, deciduous forest. From this same trail, visitors can scramble to the top of White Rocks, wide sandstone cliffs once used as a guidepost for westward-bound settlers in the late 1700s.
The 250-foot-wide half-domed Sand Cave, nestled amongst rhododendron thickets and colossal hemlock pines, was once a massive sandstone rock. Over millions of years, the wind painstakingly eroded the sandstone, resulting in a stunning tract of beach-like sand inside a rock cave, accented by a trickling waterfall.
Wilderness Road State Park
Drive 10 miles from Sand Cave, and you’ll be greeted by a sight common in the West: a small group of mighty buffalo, fenced into a pasture steps from the entrance to the 310-acre state park that lies astride the famed Wilderness Road, a westward path doggedly trudged by early settlers through the notch in Cumberland Mountain.
The park offers outdoor living history exhibits, including cabins and a fort, as well as multi-use trails. In the visitor center, I was schooled on westward expansion, frontiersman Daniel Boone and his role in carving out the Cumberland Gap, the primary route west by way of Kentucky. Many years before Daniel Boone, however, buffalo ruled the land, forging the great buffalo migration path to the bluegrass of Kentucky that many years later became an asphalt car-carrying thoroughfare: U.S. Route 58.
The Great Channels
Slot canyons, curious narrow gorges, are a hallmark of the American West. But a three-mile, mostly uphill, hike along the gravelly Brumley Mountain Trail in Channels State Forest will deliver visitors to the Great Channels, a tantalizing labyrinth of slot canyons set high atop rugged Clinch Mountain.
The secluded nature preserve, about six hours from Washington, is known exclusively for its peculiar slot canyons. Geologists believe the 20-acre sandstone maze was created during the last ice age, which ended some 11,700 years ago. Permafrost and ice wedging created large crevices that began as tiny cracks in the soft sandstone.
Navigating the other-worldly slot canyons is more than a casual exploration. Come prepared to climb giant sandstone formations, squeeze through tight passages and duck under exposed overhangs. Taxing obstacles and thwarting dead-ends lurk around every ill-lighted corner.
A couple of warnings: There are only 10 parking spaces, so plan to arrive early. And be aware that it’s easy to become disoriented in the maze. Take a page from the couple who showed me the way out: They had set a backpack at the entrance to serve as a marker should they get lost.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an inaccurate time estimate for the last ice age. This version has been corrected.
If you go
Breaks Interstate Park
627 Commission Circle,
Breaks Interstate Park is a 4,500-acre park situated on the border of Virginia and Kentucky. The park is home to the “Grand Canyon of the South,” a five-mile, 1,650-foot-deep gorge formed by the Russell Fork River. The park has a visitor center, restaurant, zipline, water park, boat launch, horseback riding stables, hiking trails and various lodging options. The park also offers seasonal elk-viewing tours. $2 day-use fee per car.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (Civic Park)
Route 724, Ewing, Va.
Cumberland Gap has more than 80 miles of hiking trails for all levels, including the eight-mile loop hike that includes the 250-foot-wide sand cave, as well as White Rocks, impressive sandstone cliffs that guided westbound settlers in the late-18th century. The Civic Park area has a vault toilet and a picnic shelter at the trailhead. Free admission.
Wilderness Road State Park
8051 Wilderness Road Trail,
Wilderness Road State Park is a 310-acre state park that educates and celebrates the westward expansion path through the Cumberland Gap known as Wilderness Road. The visitor center rents bicycles and there is a playground and picnic shelter. $5 day-use fee per car.
The Channels Natural Area Preserve
4250 Hayters Gap Rd.,
The Great Channels, a 20-acre labyrinth of curious sandstone boulders, is located within the 721-acre Channels Natural Area Preserve. The state forest and preserve are both open for public exploration of the high-elevation forests, sandstone cliffs and rocky outcrops. Free admission.