Aside from a good traveling companion, what else do you need for a great road trip?
How about scenery so beautiful that simply seeing it from your car window makes you want to pull over, get out of the car, savor every moment and even capture it in a photo to be remembered forever? Or, how about authentic places to explore with interesting stories of real people and their achievements, history, struggles and legacies?
West of the Shenandoah Valley, tucked against the border with West Virginia, is a four-county region that is just enough off the beaten path to count as an adventure. The counties of Highland, Bath, Alleghany and Craig make up Virginia’s Western Highlands. This is the story of an epic road trip through one of the most beautiful sections of Virginia.
A Sprawling Four-county Region
Virginia’s Western Highlands is a dream come true for modern-day explorers. The region’s only interstate highway is I-64, which bisects the region running east-west through Covington, Virginia. All other travel is on state routes and local roads. Some of them are officially designated as Virginia Scenic Byways, but every road in the region offers some kind of charm. Naturally, some routes offer the stunning mountain views that you would expect in a region whose name includes highlands; others are peaceful, tree-lined roads; still others lead into one of the region’s many small towns.
The Journey Begins
Our road trip begins at the northern end of Virginia’s Western Highlands in Highland County. Arriving in Highland County includes a beautiful drive along Route 250 from Staunton, Virginia. The first stop is McDowell, where the Highland Historical Society runs The Mansion House Museum. The museum and the historical society’s website are the official source of information on the 100th anniversary of the classic silent film Tol’able David, which was filmed in Highland County in 1921 and featured local residents as extras.
As the least populous county in Virginia combined with an off-the-beaten-path location in the mountains, you would expect outdoor adventures to be abundant in Highland County. You will not be disappointed. The fishing in the cool, clear rivers and streams is world-class. Hiking and biking is exceptional, with breathtaking views at practically every turn. After all, the county is sometimes referred to as “Virginia’s Little Switzerland.” Try climbing over 100 steps on the restored Sounding Knob Fire Tower just outside of Monterey.
Highland County’s main claim to fame is its maple syrup heritage. For two weekends in March, visitors flock to the Highland County Maple Festival, which was voted the Best Food or Drink Festival in the region by the readers of Virginia Living Magazine. In 2020, the county launched the Virginia Maple Syrup Trail. Now, year-round, visitors can take a personal tour of eight unique sugar camps, get a passport stamped and receive a free gift after experiencing them all. It’s a sweet deal!
Warm Springs and Hot Springs
South of Monterey, Route 220 is known as Jackson River Road. After about 20 miles as you cross the county line, it becomes Sam Snead Highway in honor of the legendary pro golfer and Bath County native. Snead’s legacy lives on in other ways besides the highway that bears his name. A fantastic restaurant called Sneads 1912 is located on Main Street in Hot Springs. It has been a part of the community for 30 years, but recently the ownership has overhauled the menu and returned it to its original tavern style atmosphere. Stop in for great barbecue, a craft cocktail and a toast to “slammin’ Sam,” winner of 82 PGA Tournaments.
Before arriving in Hot Springs, you’ll pass through the Village of Warm Springs. The village is named for the natural mineral springs that once lured visitors to Bath County to “take the waters.” Although the Jefferson Pools are currently closed for renovation, the village exudes extraordinary warmth in the form of charm, hospitality and history. Three exceptional inns offer visitors a cozy place to call home during a visit — Anderson Cottage, Inn at Gristmill Square and Inn at Warm Springs.
One of the memorable stops you’ll enjoy in Warm Springs will be Troddenvale Cidery at Oakley Farms. You’ll learn about old-world methods of producing great cider. Tours and tastings are by appointment. If you’re fortunate enough to be visiting on a Friday during the summer months, you’ll get to experience Foodlore Fridays at Oakley Farms. It’s a unique event that includes cider tasting, plus a pop-up market supporting local farmers and a guest chef cooking up something spectacular with fresh-from-the-farm products. It’s a celebration of farming, food and community.
A few minutes drive south on Sam Snead Highway will put you in Hot Springs, famous as the home of the Omni Homestead Resort. The Homestead has been welcoming guests since 1766. The manicured golf course and massive brick building is impossible to miss as you approach downtown. Directly across from The Homestead is the inviting and pedestrian-friendly Main Street, where visitors can find a tasting room for Rock Roadhouse Winery, craft brewery Bacova Beer, shops and restaurants including the acclaimed Les Cochons d’Or run by chef Kyle Krieger and sommelier Crystal Krieger.
Two exceptional outdoor treasures are shared by Bath and Alleghany Counties. Douthat State Park is one of the original six parks in the Virginia State Park system and still one of its most popular. The park features a small lake with a public beach, a restaurant, an equestrian camping area and miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. The counties also share Lake Moomaw, a man-made impoundment on the Jackson River. There are lakefront camping areas in both, trails to hike and bike and lots of undeveloped shoreline to explore. The fishing on the lake, as well as upstream and downstream of the dam, is exceptional. Fly fishers come from all over to pull trophy trout from the Jackson and its tributaries.
See what is Uniquely Alleghany
Rolling south of Hot Springs on Sam Snead Highway is a scenic drive past farmlands and unspoiled mountains. Within 20 miles you depart Bath County and enter Alleghany.
You’re immediately greeted by one of the most stunning roadside views in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Falling Spring Falls is an 80-foot waterfall that Thomas Jefferson once described as “a remarkable cascade.” It’s an appropriate welcome to a destination filled with natural beauty, historic sites and two charming downtowns.
Before reaching Covington on Route 220, you’ll want to stop at the Intervale Trailhead of the Jackson River Scenic Trail. Like other multi-use trails on old railroad lines, this one has exploded in popularity in the last few years. At 14.4 miles (with additional expansion planned), it’s not as long as other similar trails in Virginia, but it more than makes up for it in scenic beauty. The views of the river and the mountains make it worth the time to walk, jog or bike this gem. If you want to ride, bikes can be rented from Alleghany Outdoors, which is conveniently located at the Intervale Trailhead. During the summer months it’s possible to ride the trail in the morning and follow up with a refreshing float in an inner tube or kayak on the Jackson River courtesy of the same outfitter.
If a river trip isn’t your thing, you can immerse yourself in the friendly vibe of the two downtowns of the Alleghany Highlands. With fewer than 4,000 people, Clifton Forge may be a small town, but it’s vibrant with energy. It was once a booming railroad hub that has transformed itself into an entrepreneurial and artistic center, with highlights like the Historic Masonic Theatre, Alleghany Highlands Arts & Crafts Center, Clifton Forge School of the Arts, Jack Mason’s Tavern and Brewery, and shops and galleries galore. A few miles away in Covington, you’ll find more restaurants, shops, a farmers’ market and several buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Depart downtown Covington by heading west on Route 60. In about three miles you’ll pass one of the great icons of the region. Humpback Bridge is the oldest remaining covered bridge of its design in the country. The five-acre wayside park is a great spot for a picnic and a photo opportunity with one of the most unique LOVEworks displays in Virginia.
The Road to Paint Bank
It’s a relaxing 45-minute drive from Humpback Bridge to the charming unincorporated town of Paint Bank in Craig County, the southernmost county in Virginia’s Western Highlands. Its location at the junction of two scenic byways makes Paint Bank a favorite spot for motorcycle riders as well as families taking a scenic drive through the mountains. Instead of a covered bridge, here you will find a swinging bridge — inside the popular Swinging Bridge Restaurant. The restaurant shares space with an old-fashioned general store. Before or after your meal, stroll the grounds and take a look at the waterwheel at the historic Tingler’s Mill.
A unique way to explore Craig County and see its amazing beauty is by following the Barn Quilt Trail. More than 30 of the colorful quilt squares adorn barns around the county. Driving the trail will take you through some of the most spectacular and unspoiled scenery in Virginia’s mountains. As a bonus, the trail will take you through the county seat of New Castle. If it feels like a quintessential frontier town, that’s because it once was and retains that historic charm to this day. A recent must-see addition is the LOVEworks display in the town park.
On Your Next Visit
If this sounds like a busy road trip, it’s because Virginia’s Western Highlands has much to see and do. This road trip could be done in a long weekend or it could be an entire week-long journey. You should explore at your own pace. After you visit once, you will definitely want to return. Hike more trails. Sample more food, beer and wine. Attend a local festival. Take in a live performance. Enjoy everything that this vast four-county region has to offer.