If you are just trying to get from point A to point B, nothing is more efficient than the interstate. But sometimes life demands a little slower pace. For this very reason scenic byways were created. The 16-mile stretch of US 52 in Wytheville, VA, also known as Big Walker Mountain National Forest Scenic Byway is a prime example. In the late 1940’s US 52 was a new highway, which brought along with it the essential signs of progress – the roadside attractions to convince families to stop and hopefully drop a few dollars into the local economy as they were passing through town. As the years passed and interstates I-77 and I-81 were built, the winding mountain road lost the battle of personality over speed and traffic on US 52 began to decline. Over time, the lack of travelers began to impact businesses along the route and some eventually disappeared all together. Fortunately, today there are still a few standing reminders of the bygone era and there is even a hint of a revival along the route.
One attraction that has withstood the test of time is Big Walker Lookout. This 100-foot tower, located on the highest point on the Big Walker National Scenic Byway, offers spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains below. The tower and swinging footbridge opened for business in 1947 and is still in operation today. For a nominal fee, visitors can climb the rows of stairs for their own private view of heaven. For those who are willing to trade the stability of solid ground beneath their feet for a slightly lower view, there is an observation platform across the street that also offers a wonderful scenic view of the valley below with a lot less swaying beneath your feet. Also located on site is a country store offering local crafts, souvenirs and even sandwiches.
If you would like to get a little closer to nature while visiting Big Walker Lookout, a brief hike along Monster Rock Trail might be just what you are after. The trail begins behind the tower and is 1/4 mile in length. Though fairly short, the trail is of moderate difficulty so wear the appropriate clothing. The trail is marked with yellow blazes and though not heavily traveled, it offers several overlooks into the countryside below. At the end of the trail you will find Monster Rock from which you can have your own private view of the Jefferson National Forest.
Located just 3 miles from Big Walker Lookout, is Virginia City & Gem Mine. This attraction was originally known Dry Gulch Junction, a recreation of a booming 1870’s frontier town. In its hey day, Dry Gulch Junction drew such famous entertainers as Johnny Cash. Unfortunately, in 1980 the town became yet another victim of the interstate and the owners decided to close down permanently. For 20 years Virginia City became a true ghost town. However, over the last several years, new owners are working hard to revive the town - initially beginning with the sluice mine and then renovating the Town Hall, whose walls once again echo with the sound of music on Friday nights. A visit to Virginia City today is to see a work in progress. It offers a unique opportunity to see a “recreation of a recreation”. If you would really like to immerse yourself in the experience, the entire town is available to rent for weddings and other special events.
In a mere 16-mile span on US 52, you can get a bird’s eye view of the mountains, search for treasure and go back in time. Whether it’s a scenic drive or seeking new heights, Big Walker Mountain National Forest Scenic Byway is definitely a route in which its future is its past.
Directions to Big Walker Mountain National Forest Scenic Byway:
From either I-77 Exit 47 or I-81 Exit 70, take Hwy 52 N. Or, from I-77 Exit 52, take Hwy 52 S
For more information on Big Walker Lookout visit: www.scenicbeauty-va.com
Cost: $4.50 adults, $3.50 children
Open: Mon – Sun 10:00AM – 7:00PM from April – October
For more information on Virginia City & Gem Mine visit: www.vacity.com
Cost: No charge to visit the town but donations are accepted. Charge for mining buckets
Open: Mon – Sun 10:00AM – 6:00PM from April – October