From almost anywhere in Wytheville, Va., you see mountains. In autumn, they flare up in gold, maroon, and orange. In fact, fall is a wonderful time to roam this southwest Virginia area, sampling wine, visiting the exotic animal park, touring the reconstructed 1500s Indian village, taking in authentic old-time music, and hiking in the hills.
Trails to magnificent views lie within minutes of downtown Wytheville and I-81 (about four-and-a-half hours from Washington, D.C.). Sand Mountain, nestled up against south Wytheville like a protective mother animal, rises 3,721 feet just beyond town limits. The town recently developed a former mountain reservoir into 1,800-acre Crystal Springs Recreation Area. The 180-degree view from its cliffs, called High Rocks, is one of the best around. Hikers and mountain bikers have 13 miles of trail and a small waterfall to explore, as well as free camping at several primitive and more developed sites.
Critters and craft wines
Fort Chiswell Animal Park is only a few miles off I-81, but an outing there feels like a flash trip to another continent — although with wallabies, wildebeests, camels, ostriches, and other exotics, it’s hard to determine which continent. Owner Jeff Archer converted a cattle farm to “outback” for at least 70 roaming animals. Visitors board a striped bus, feeding the critters that poke their heads through open windows for “zoo chow.” Expect to touch camels, water buffalo, bison, ostriches, wildebeest, and zebras. Zookeeper Heidi Crosky gives a running commentary with little asides such as “keep fingers away from the buffalo” and “the wildebeests have charged our bus,” that keep the trip interesting.
Nearby West Wind Farm Winery uses age-old methods to craft small batches of wine that win awards every year. The combination of soil, climate, and drainage makes it an excellent spot for pinot gris and Cabernet sauvignon, but the white Riesling is the most popular. Sweeter wines, a blackberry and a peach, are also available.
“We try to cater to everyone, from those trying their first wine to connoisseurs,” said owner Paul Hric. The winery is open daily for tastings and holds concerts the first Saturday of the month.
Highland history and vistas
North of Wytheville, the Wolf Creek Indian Village and Museum at Bastian gives a glimpse of earlier history. The archaeological remains of a village from about 1500 were unearthed during the construction of I-77. A re-created village, costumed interpreters, and a museum explain camp life from that time, including cooking and chores.
If you take scenic Route 52 to Bastian, you’ll pass over Big Walker Lookout, a panoramic overlook at 3,405 feet. For $5, you can climb another 100 feet up the observation tower, where the wind is always blowing. If you prefer terra firma, hike the short trail to Monster Rock Overlook. Lookout General Store sells soap, preserves, needlework, and crafts by 30 local artisans as well as “tower high” ice cream cones daily. Owner Ron Kime ensures that apple butter simmers in a copper kettle over an open fire on fall weekends. Toe-tapping Crooked Road music and craft demonstrations entertain visitors here every weekend through October.
Tour, eat, shop
The 1840 Fort Chiswell Mansion, perched serenely above the I-77/I-81 junction, boasts three levels of sumptuously furnished rooms, accessed by a central staircase. After the tour, lunch is farm-fresh food, cooked or pickled in the winter kitchen and grown locally, often by owner/chef Chris Disibbio.
Wythe County’s antique malls make this the spot to furnish your own mansion, whether it be with 18th-century German furniture, lace curtains, or watermelon kitsch. A $29 mink hat, $38 rose tea set, and $150 handmade wedding quilt are a few of the finds at Snooper’s Antique Mall and Old Fort Antiques, located along I-81 near Fort Chiswell.
The Farmer’s Daughter in downtown Wytheville is a find in itself. This magical boutique, decked out in silk and parasols, is the place to get designers’ samples for ultra-low prices.
Owner Tracy Holliday invites everyone to play her art-object piano in the center of the store.
Follow Wytheville’s live music trail for true-to-its-roots bluegrass and old-time toe tapping tunes. At Wohlfahrt Haus Dinner Theatre, the rock ‘n’ roll era lingers, interspersed with country and gospel. Music, dancing, fabulous costumes, and tasty regional fare served by actors make the theater a magical evening or afternoon — a perfect cap to a magical weekend in mountain country.
Wytheville Tourism: visitwytheville.com
Wytheville’s Wilson connection
Edith Bolling Wilson brought her common-sense Wytheville upbringing to Washington and then to the White House when she married President Woodrow Wilson 100 years ago, on Dec. 15, 1915. You can visit her birthplace and museum in Wytheville and learn more about her business acumen and how she aided her husband in running the country after he suffered a debilitating stroke while in office. (edithbollingwilson.org)
The Wilson connection is also celebrated across the street at the Bolling Wilson Hotel, a boutique hotel in a historic building that has a definite contemporary flair and beds that visitors praise as the best they ever slept in. The hotel features a rooftop area with great views and the Graze on Main restaurant. (bollingwilsonhotel.com)