The 15 Best Things to Do in SWVA (Southwest Virginia)

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Virginia is a phenomenal state to explore for anyone who appreciates the wilderness, as well as those who enjoy delving into US history and Appalachian culture.

Top-flight sightseeing in VA is never far away, and the list of things to do in Virginia seems limitless.

Virginia is home to the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive, and an award-winning system of state parks with 41 different sites and over 500 miles of hiking trails.

The map of Southwest Virginia stretches from around Roanoke west to the Kentucky and Tennessee borders, tucking nicely underneath West Virginia.

This corner of the state is the perfect place for exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as Virginia’s best lakes, wildest forests, and most interesting mountain towns.

Rather than trying to tackle the whole of sightseeing in Virginia in one fell swoop, we’ve decided to focus on the best things to do in Southwest VA (or SWVA, as it is widely known).

Read on for our in-depth guide to the must-see attractions and must-do activities in the area.

READ MORE: The 15 Best Things to Do in Roanoke VA

Things to Do in SWVA (Southwest Virginia) Guide

  1. Abingdon VA
  2. Appalachian Trail
  3. Birthplace of Country Music Museum
  4. Blue Ridge Parkway
  5. Breaks Interstate Park
  6. The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail
  7. Floyd VA
  8. Grayson Highlands State Park
  9. Hungry Mother Lake
  10. Mount Rogers Scenic Byway
  11. Natural Tunnel
  12. New River Water Trail
  13. Roanoke VA
  14. Virginia Creeper Trail
  15. Virginia Vineyards

 

Best Things Southwest Virginia -Abingdon
Abingdon VA, photo by eek the cat is licensed via CC BY-ND 2.0

1. Abingdon VA

Abingdon VA has deep roots in US history. The Southwest Virginia town (population 8.376) dates back to the mid-1700s, when the area was known as Black’s Fort.

Daniel Boone passed through this area on his way west, and of course it was home to Native Americans long before that.

The Abingdon Historic District encompasses some 20 blocks, with nearly every building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The town includes sites from both the Revolutionary War and Civil War, including the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail and the Abingdon Muster Grounds.

Other must-see landmarks on the list of things to do in Abingdon VA include the Barter Theater, Virginia Creeper Trail, Martha Washington Inn & Spa, and Abingdon LOVEworks.

READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Luray VA (Gateway to Shenandoah)

Roanoke McAfee Knob - The Famous Photo at McAfee Knob
The author at McAfee Knob, photo by Emma Gallagher

2. Appalachian Trail

Virginia has more miles of the Appalachian Trail than any other state.

Over 530 miles of the AT (nearly a quarter of it) are in Virginia, with another 25 miles stretching along the border between SWVA and West Virginia.

So it should come as no surprise that some of the best spots along the Appalachian Trail can be found in Southwest Virginia, including the section that climbs Virginia’s tallest mountain, Mount Rogers.

One of the most popular spots along the entire Appalachian Trail is the McAfee Knob Hike, which is near Roanoke, the largest city in the Blue Ridge region.

The trek can be done as an Appalachian Trail day hike, with sunrise being the optimal time to tackle it.

McAfee Knob is also part of a trio of famous peaks, which are collectively referred to as the Triple Crown.

READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Waynesboro VA (Augusta County)

Birthplace of Country Music Museum Performance Theater.
Concert at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, photo by Billie Wheeler

3. Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Located in Bristol VA, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute. It’s an homage to the 1927 Bristol Sessions, which created a country music boom.

Permanent exhibits tell the history of the 1927 Bristol Sessions (which included the first recordings of future country legends Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family) and the inner-workings of Radio Bristol.

There’s also a temporary exhibit space that covers a wide range of topics, including Appalachian culture, science, and regional arts and crafts.

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum plays host to numerous events and festivals throughout the year, but the most famous is the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. 

The venue (which boasts 20 outdoor stages) attracts huge musical talent, including artists such as Old Crow Medicine Show, Steve Earle & the Dukes, Buddy Guy, Bela Fleck, and Lucinda Williams.

READ MORE: 20 Best Things to Do in Boone NC (Blue Ridge Parkway MM 291.8)

Groundhog Meadow Overlook VA (Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 189)
Groundhog Meadow Overlook in VA (BRP Milepost 189), photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

4. Blue Ridge Parkway

The world-famous Blue Ridge Parkway is divided relatively equally between North Carolina and Virginia.

It connects Shenandoah National Park in northwestern Virginia with Great Smoky Mountains National Park in southwestern North Carolina.

On its 469-mile journey, the BRP runs right through SWVA, passing by some of the best tourist attractions in the region.

Of course, the Parkway itself has always been a premier tourist attraction, and in fact it is the #1 most visited unit of the US National Park Service.

The section of the BRP between Roanoke and the VA/NC border is known as the Plateau Region.

It’s a great drive that can include tastings at local wineries, visits to cultural and historical museums, stays at family-friendly campgrounds, and spectacular vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

READ MORE: The 20 Best Blue Ridge Parkway Overlooks in NC & VA

Best Virginia State Parks - Breaks
Breaks Interstate Park

5. Breaks Interstate Park

One of only two “interstate” parks in the nation, Breaks Interstate Park straddles the state boundary between Kentucky and Virginia.

The park loosely belongs to both states’ park systems, but it also operates as an entity with its own regulations.

The park is named for a disruption in the Pine Mountain ridge line, an otherwise continuous ridge that spans through Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Once hunting grounds of the Shawnee and Cherokee, this pass was famously “discovered” by Daniel Boone, who gave it the name “The Breaks.”

The park has amazing geology, a gorge that has been deemed “the Grand Canyon of the South,” and lots of amenities, including water parks, boat rentals, cabins, a campground, etc.

There are also biking, horseback riding, and hiking trails, as well as a couple of lakes and streams.

READ MORE: The 10 Best Virginia State Parks in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Blue Ridge Music Center - Roots of American Music
Blue Ridge Music Center, photo by Emma Gallagher

6. The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail

The Crooked Road is a 330-mile journey through Southwest Virginia, with a particular focus on the traditional music of the region.

The journey includes several noteworthy historical sites, museums, and operating music venues.

The most popular spots on Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail include the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol VA, the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Carter Family Fold (part of the Carter Family Memorial Music Center), and the Floyd Country Store in Floyd VA.

Appalachia is known for its deep musical roots, particularly in the Blue Ridge Mountains of SWVA and North Carolina, which can largely be traced back to Scots-Irish origins.

For fans, The Crooked Road offers days of musical bliss. For newbies, it’s a great glimpse into the soulful heart of the region.

READ MORE: The 20 Most Beautiful Wildflowers in Virginia (& Where to See Them)

Best Things Southwest Virginia - Floyd
The Floyd Country Store, photo by richardrichard via CC BY-ND 2.0

7. Floyd VA

A progressive, hippyfied town with a country feel, Floyd VA has become one of our favorite places to visit in Southwestern Virginia.

It has all the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding it, and a good slice of traditional SWVA culture at its heart.

The Floyd Country Store is a favorite place for shopping and catching some local music, while the 5 Mile Mountain Distillery is fun for those interested in moonshine.

County Sales—which offers a huge selection of bluegrass and old-time music—is the place to get the soundtrack to go along with it. The small town of around 700 residents also has a great farmer’s market.

Floyd is located less than an hour from Roanoke, Blacksburg, and Christiansburg, as well as the Rocky Knob Recreation Area and Fairy Stone State Park.

The Blue Ridge Music Center is an hour away, and the trip to it puts travelers on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

READ MORE: The 8 Best Breweries in Roanoke VA, the Heart of Virginia’s Blue Ridge

Grayson Highlands State Park Wild Ponies
Wild pony in Grayson Highlands State Park, photo by Dawson Tozier

8. Grayson Highlands State Park

Grayson Highlands State Park is famed for its high-altitude meadows, which offer up stunning views of Virginia’s two highest mountains, Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain.

The park was originally called Mount Rogers State Park, and it still offers access to trails for climbing it.

Grayson Highlands Park has a couple of nice campgrounds, one of which is reserved for equestrian enthusiasts (and their animals).

Massie Gap, which is at the center of the park, is a great spot for spreading out a blanket. The trails from it offer chances to see the famed “wild ponies” of Grayson Highlands.

The top hiking trails explore the park’s two highest points (Twin Pinnacles Trail), stunning waterfalls (Wilson Creek Trail, Cabin Creek Trail), and highland meadows (Rhododendron Trail).

The park also features a great visitor’s center and a huge picnic area.

READ MORE: Camping and Hiking in Grayson Highlands State Park, VA

Best Virginia State Parks - Hungry Mother
Hungry Mother State Park

9. Hungry Mother Lake

Hungry Mother Lake is a 108-acre reservoir at the center of Hungry Mother Lake State Park, which has nearby campgrounds and cabins for rent as well as great hiking trails.

The lake is open to fishing (with a valid Virginia fishing license), and is home to crappie, carp, bluegill, and several species of bass.

Channel cats, hybrid striped bass, walleye, and muskies are stocked annually. Non-gasoline-powered boats are permitted on the lake, and there’s also good shore fishing to be had.

Canoes, kayaks, paddleboats, and paddleboards are available to rent near the visitor’s center and main entrance.

There’s also a swimming area with a sandy beach and diving platform, the 5.7-mile Lake Trail Loop, and picnic shelters dotting the shoreline.

READ MORE: The 15 Best Lakes in the Virginia Mountains to Visit

Grayson Highlands State Park
Bouldering at Grayson Highlands State Park, photo by Dawson Tozier

10. Mount Rogers Scenic Byway

Swerving and curving through Jefferson National Forest, the Mount Rogers Scenic Byway offers 45 miles of picturesque roads that weave through the Southwest Virginia highlands.

The byway cuts right through the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.

The first section of the byway uses Virginia Highway 603, stretching from Troutdale to Konnarock.

The section passes the Mt. Rogers and Appalachian Trail Loop and the Blue Ridge Discovery Center. There are also two equestrian campsites, with one at each end.

The second section of the byway takes US-58 from Damascus, doubling back towards Konnarock, and on to Volney.

This section passes Green Cove Station, Grayson Highlands State Park, and the Grayson Highlands General Store & Inn. It’s a picturesque way to explore the region, especially when fall colors begin to peak! 

READ MORE: The 10 Hiking Essentials Packing List for the Blue Ridge Mountains 

Best Virginia State Parks - Natural Tunnel
Natural Tunnel State Park

11. Natural Tunnel State Park

The formation of Virginia’s Natural Tunnel began over a million years ago, with acidic groundwater seeping into rock crevices and dissolving limestone and dolomite.

Then, Stock Creek was diverted underground to continue the work. The tunnel is now 10 stories high and 850 feet long.

Though it was naturally formed, the tunnel has had a railway running through it for over a century. It first began being considered for a train route back in the 1850s.

In 1890, the South Atlantic & Ohio Railroad opened a line through it. The route has changed hands several times in the last 130+ years, but trains still pass through it today.

Visiting Natural Tunnel State Park is one of the most exciting things to do in Virginia for kids. There are cool train exhibits, as well as a chair lift to carry visitors down to and back from the tunnel.

The park also has campgrounds, a pool, old cabins, and a spot where Daniel Boone once stayed.

READ MORE: Camping and Hiking in Natural Bridge State Park, VA

Best Virginia State Parks - New River Traill
New River Trail State Park Trestle

12. New River Water Trail

The New River is one of America’s Heritage Rivers, and it is widely considered to be the second oldest river in the world.

Its headwaters begin near Blowing Rock, North Carolina, and from there it flows northward through Virginia and West Virginia.

In Virginia, the New River Trail State Park is a 57-mile linear park that stretches from Galax past Dora Junction, with 39 miles along the New River itself.

The New River Water Trail starts just south of Giles County and goes to the West Virginia border, traversing the Jefferson National Forest.

The New River Water Trail has several boat landings for getting in and out of the river, as well as opportunities for hiking, biking, fishing, and camping.

Along the route, travelers can see the Palisades Cliffs, Whit Riverbend Park, Bluff City, Camp Success, the Appalachian Trail, and Glen Lyn Town Park.

READ MORE: The Best Restaurants in Lexington and Natural Bridge VA

Mill Mountain & The Roanoke Star - The Mill Mountain Star at Star City
The Mill Mountain Star at Mill Mountain, photo by Emma Gallagher

13. Roanoke VA

Though it is easily the largest city in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Roanoke is still relatively small in the city sense of the word.

Roanoke’s population is around 100,000 (slightly larger than that of Asheville NC), and it’s just as well-known for the natural beauty that surrounds it as it is for the urbanity within its borders.

In addition to the Virginia Museum of Transportation, there’s a fantastic collection of museums and entertainment (including the Roanoke Pinball Museum, Harrison Museum of African American Culture, Science Museum of Western VA, and more) at Center in the Square in Downtown Roanoke.

The Historic Downtown is walkable and packed with good restaurants, breweries, open-air market stalls, and the Roanoke River Greenway.

Roanoke also has a collection of amazing natural Virginia attractions nearby. Lexington and Natural Bridge aren’t far north. McAfee Knob and the Appalachian Trail are just south on the I-81.

Carvins Cove, a 12,000-acre nature reserve with a 630-acre reservoir, is within the city limits. And the Blue Ridge Parkway passes right by the city’s famous Mill Mountain Park and Roanoke Star.

READ MORE: The 10 Best Restaurants in Roanoke VA

Best Things Southwest Virginia
Virginia Creeper Trail, photo by Graylight via CC BY-NC 2.0

14. Virginia Creeper Trail

The Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail is a rail trail that connects Abingdon VA to the Whitetop Community, near the Virginia-North Carolina border.

The trail is 33.4 miles long, and it’s open to hiking, biking, and horseback riding.

The VCT was originally a Native American footpath, which Daniel Boone later used for his pioneering. It was then turned into a railway for transporting lumber, iron ore, and passengers.

In fact, the “Virginia Creeper” name comes from the slow motion of the steam locomotives that once made the 1600-foot ascent.

The trail is now 100% dedicated to recreation, with 50+ trestles and bridges along the way.

Much of the Virginia Creeper Trail runs through private land, with only an 80-foot right-of-way. But the trail does go through the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area. 

READ MORE: Visiting Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock NC

Chateau Morrisette Winery in SWVA
Chateau Morrisette Winery in SWVA, photo via Virginia.org

15. Virginia Vineyards

Virginia has over 300 wineries. They’re widely distributed throughout the state, which has a great climate for cultivating grapes.

Local vineyards are all over the map of Southwest Virginia, and they are located in some of the most beautiful places in VA.

Over a dozen well-established wineries dot the region, from Abingdon to Roanoke and Giles County.

Some of the wineries have been around for decades, such as Chateau Morrisette (near Floyd VA).

Newer vineyards, like Giles Mountain Vineyard and Whitebarrel Winery, are leading the charge for growing and producing “green” wines. –Jonathon Engels; lead image of Grayson Highlands by Dawson Tozier

 

Leave No Trace logo

We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Trace principles of responsible environmental stewardship. 

Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore. 

Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.

When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!

After visiting the Western North Carolina for the first time, Jonathon Engels and his wife Emma spent two years looking for a few acres of property there to establish a permaculture homestead. During that search, he explored the Blue Ridge Parkway, surrounding towns, and parks. He has taught at both Blue Ridge Community College and Surry Community College, is a member of a long-established land conservation community near the town of Dobson, volunteers at the Surry Old Time Fiddlers Convention, and continues to explore the Blue Ridge, a place he now lovingly calls home.