Can you imagine yourself on a safari bus exploring the wilds of Wytheville?
“We never laughed so hard when the camel stuck his head through the window and stole the cup from my son. He is still laughing about it,” said one visitor.
That’s just one of the thrills at the Fort Chiswell Animal Park, a fun place for family outings. Since the animals are free-ranging, every ride through the 45-acre outdoor zoo is different. Bison? Zebras? Water buffalo? Antelopes? Potbellied pigs? Alpacas? Yep, they got ’em — and more.
Walk through the petting zoo and feed smaller animals, such as fallow deer and goats, and encounter a giraffe, monkeys and birds up close.
A road “safari” to this region in the Blue Ridge Highlands of southwest Virginia offers a multitude of activities — many of them outdoors, where social distancing is easier.
“Wytheville is the perfect small-town getaway for the whole family; there’s truly something for everyone,” said Shane Terry, of Visit Wytheville. “Our homegrown attractions are a must-see, we have great restaurants and shopping and our natural beauty and outdoor adventures are top-notch.”
Wytheville (pronounced With-vil) is located at the intersection of interstates 81 and 77, less than a five-hour drive from Washington D.C.
Two roadside attractions that are easy to spot give early clues that this is an interesting place. A rainbow-striped hot-air balloon painted on a water tower is an eye-catcher. Drop by Wytheville’s smallest church, a 12-by-16-foot prayer chapel that seats just eight people. Outside is a bell tower and a cute garden.
Another valuable stop for travelers is the Wytheville Convention and Visitors Bureau off Interstate 81 at exit 70, where you can find information on attractions, restaurants and accommodations. Signs direct you to the nearby downtown area.
Around and About
For a big-picture perspective, climb the 100-foot observation tower and swinging bridge at Big Walker Lookout, part of the Big Walker Mountain National Forest Scenic Byway.
“No photo can quite capture the breathtaking view from the summit,” raved one visitor.
Besides a panoramic look at the surrounding mountains, you can hike, bike, bird-watch, browse among the crafters at the country store and enjoy weekend concerts.
Still more outdoor adventures are found at the 1,800-acre Crystal Springs Recreation Area, with a mountain stream, hiking trails of different distances and challenges, biking, picnicking and camping opportunities.
Walk through the amazing butterfly house at the kid-friendly Beagle Ridge Herb Farm, which has 14 display gardens.
Downtown Wytheville has its own quirky charms. The kids will clamor for selfies at the catchy LOVEwork sign and the 30-foot “Big Pencil” suspended from Wytheville Office Supply.
Take a stroll to discover boutiques, antique stores, bookstores, historic buildings and museums. One standout is the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum. Some called the first lady “the secret president” when a stroke in 1919 incapacitated Woodrow Wilson during his second term.
There are many dining options, but the youngsters might especially go for Olykoek Shoppe’s homemade doughnuts; Skeeter’s World Famous Hot Dogs; Moon Dog Brick Oven’s pizza; or Crepe House & Creamery’s artisan pops.
For evening entertainment, there’s the 200-seat German-themed Wohlfahrt Hause Dinner Theatre, with four-course meals customized to fit the Broadway-style productions.
Summer promises special events, such as July 4 festivities (to be held July 3) on Main Street, featuring classic cars, bands, craft beer and fireworks. On July 24, the Wytheville Wine Festival will be held in Withers Park. The Chautauqua Festival, an eight-day family-oriented music and arts festival, normally held in June, is scheduled this year for July 24-Aug. 1 (wythe-arts.org).