Communing with nature in the newest recreation area in Wytheville, Virginia

Tent camping overnight in the woods of Southwest Virginia wasn’t initially my favorite idea for an anniversary celebration.

My husband, Bruce, and I celebrated my way last year—in a grand bed and breakfast with glittering chandeliers, gourmet meals, steam showers and beds fit for royalty. From the south windows of Trinkle Mansion in Wytheville, Virginia, we could see nearby Sand Mountain.

This was Bruce’s year to choose. He promised me the “top of the world” and his best soothing massage if I gave the new Crystal Springs Recreation Area, also in Wytheville, a chance. Of course, I’d have to climb a mountain to earn both. Bruce was confident I could do a nearly five-mile out-and-back trail to High Rocks Vista from our campsite. I wasn’t so sure. It had been a couple years since I’ve thought of myself as “in shape.”

We found our campsite along a blissful mile up Vernick’s Run in the Crystal Springs Recreation Area. Our spot sat waiting for us at the base of the same Sand Mountain of which we had such wonderful views last year. The trail lay pink with rhododendron petals and late-blooming violets, with a stream gurgling through rocks in an enchanting natural melody. Pine trees provided welcome shade.

Wytheville offers two primitive campsites with nearby outhouse facilities, and five backcountry campsites absolutely free—we just had to register with the town recreation department.

On the drive up, we came across a small waterfall cascading from the remnants of an old reservoir. The spicy scent of some fragrant, hidden lily cast a spell on us as the flutelike call of a nearby wood thrush greeted us. The little brown bird has a double voice box, so it can emit notes simultaneously from each side. They blend as ethereal, harmonious tones, making our outing seem like a magical occasion right from the start.

Hitting the trail for high rocks

Luckily, the forest continued to present lovely diversions so I could pause and catch my breath as we made our way into the aforementioned hike—indigo buntings darting across our path, soft mosses resembling miniature forests and clumps of wild bleeding heart flowers that seemed to cheer us on from the trailside.

We turned left off the double-track onto the orange-blazed High Rocks Trail and began what Bruce called “a more serious climb.” We switched back through mountain laurel thickets for about a mile and a half until we reached a well-placed stone bench. High Rocks’ gleaming quartzite cliffs lay straight ahead.

“We made it!” I said.

“Top of the world, honey,” Bruce answered.

The 180-degree view from High Rocks was the most dramatic spot around. Not only could we see Big Walker Mountain and the purpling ridges fading off into West Virginia, but all of Wytheville spread out 1,400 feet below us in the intricate detail of a model-train diorama. A group of black vultures swirled languidly in the warm updrafts from the valley.

The 4.5 miles from the recreation area parking lot to High Rocks is the most recent of the nine easy-to-moderate trails Wytheville blazed on its 1,800-acre Crystal Springs preserve. We could have hiked the easier Salamander Meander or Woodpecker Run. Or mountain biked around the Crystal Springs Loop. Instead, we climbed to the top of the world. We were proud.

To celebrate, we decided to go out on the town—after I’d gotten my massage, of course. In a continuing run of mountain-magic luck, Wytheville turned out to be in the midst of its annual Chautauqua Festival.

Eight days of fun at the Chautauqua Festival

Each summer for the past 34 years, the Chautauqua Festival has begun with a parade on the third Saturday of June. If we had been up on High Rocks the previous Friday evening, we would have seen the balloon glow, a gaggle of hot air balloons lit up like giant colored lightbulbs marking the unofficial start of Chautauqua Festival.

For eight nights following the balloon glow, Chautauqua Festival features a free main-stage concert including regional and national talent in the downtown park. Beach music is popular, as are bluegrass, rock, 50s, country, and folk. We listened to a Celtic group, one of our favorites, and were entertained by street clowns and musicians before the show.

Even before the music started, the festival offered plenty to do. We strolled Wytheville’s brick Main Street, exploring shops and admiring historical buildings, including the birthplace of First Lady Edith Bolling Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson.

We’d missed the pet and flower shows, but we could still enjoy the photography, art and needlework exhibits while looking forward to a car show the next morning. We snacked on samples handed out by contestants in the chili cook-off before seriously settling down with a tasty barbecue and homemade sorbet from food vendors.

We also enjoyed talking up some of the many artisans, including a fantasy weaponry and costume genius named Chris, who persuaded us to return for Wytheville’s Zombie Run in October. Running through the town’s pretty streets dodging terrifying zombies dressed by Chris sounded like fun to us, especially since there were prizes.

Of course, that means we’ll have to keep climbing those hills and stepping up our pace to stay in shape. But getting active and setting challenges is actually much more fun than I thought it would be. Our getaway in Wytheville introduced us to new adventures and set us on a great course of keeping fit together. What better way to celebrate an anniversary!

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