Wytheville is a charming town in the Blue Ridge mountains of Southwest Virginia worth exploring for its wildflowers, lavender farm, and many attractions that will easily make you agree with the Wytheville motto “there’s only one.”
Wytheville (pronounced WITH-ville) was founded in 1792 and named after the first signer of the Declaration of Independence for Virginia, George Wythe. As luck would have it, this town is the only one in the world named Wytheville. But it’s also unique in its array of attractions for gardeners and those who are drawn to the outdoor setting of the Blue Ridge mountains. Sure, there are many mountain towns, but Wytheville offers a fresh experience in the Blue Ridge region.
For a spectacular view of the Appalachian mountains here, there is no better place to start than at the Big Walker Lookout & BW Country Store just a 20-minute drive from downtown Wytheville.
As the road twists and turns to the top of Big Walker mountain at 3405 feet, you are greeted with views of untouched wilderness punctuated with small idyllic farms across this elevated landscape. The Seven Sisters peaks rise in the distance.
The Kime family originally built this place at the top of the mountain in 1947 as a beer joint when Bland county across the road didn’t allow alcohol but Wythe county, the location of the store, did allow it. A few years later they added a lookout tower as a way to draw in tourists who traveled in the area. You can climb to the top of the 100-foot-tall lookout tower (fee charged) to take in a 360-degree view of the stunning landscape below. This is Virginia’s oldest privately-owned scenic attraction and it is still operated by the Kime family.
Inside the country store is a mix of local artisan crafts, foods, and treats, including local favorite Homestead Creamery ice cream. On weekends from May through October, they host free outdoor music concerts (bluegrass and country), along with artist demonstrations of their skills.
The Crystal Springs Recreation Area is nestled in the foothills of Sand Mountain on the south side of downtown. These 1800 acres owned by the city of Wytheville offer hiking and biking trails and numerous places to see wildflowers in bloom.
The town purchased the land in the early 1900s to put in a reservoir for drinking water but it wasn’t dependable as a primary source for the city. Over the years, the town turned the focus of the land to recreation.
There are several trails that traverse the area, including the popular Crystal Springs Loop Trail, an easy hike up the ridge to where the old reservoir was located.
The landscape along the trails, especially in spring, includes many types of wildflowers, Rhododendrons – catawba (Rhododendron catawbiense) and rosebay (Rhododendron maximum) – and native flame azaleas (Rhododendron calendulaceum) higher up the mountain. If you are up for more adventures and more wildflowers, the area is connected to another 7800 acres managed by Virginia Wildlife Resources.
The New River
The nearby New River has been a lifeblood of this area of the Appalachians for generations. In the early years, iron ore mining and industry hugged the banks of this wild river in Virginia that flows from North Carolina into West Virginia. When the last iron ore processing furnace left the New River Valley region, the landscape and economy changed to tourism and recreation.
The New River State Park was created as a 57-mile linear park along an old railroad right of way and offers hiking, biking, and water activities on the New River.
It is also a great place to see wildflowers along the trails, starting with spring ephemerals like rue anemones, dutchman’s breeches, trilliums, and bloodroots. In summer and fall, these are replaced with more flowers including dwarf iris, rosemallow, coneflower, and goldenrod.
A park entrance at the former iron industry town of Foster Falls is less than a 30-minute drive from Wytheville. Here you can picnic, enjoy the river, and rent kayaks and bicycles in warmer months.
There are more than wildflowers nestled into these Blue Ridge hills. The Beagle Ridge Herb Farm offers a variety of experiences for nature lovers and gardeners.
Though the name says herb farm, the owners Ellen and Greg Reynolds specialize in growing lavender. The bulk of these are Phenomenal and Sensational varieties, though they also have more than a dozen types including culinary lavender. While all lavenders smell like lavender, Ellen will quickly tell you the culinary version is the only one that tastes like lavender.
Their success at growing what can be a finicky plant is giving it the conditions it likes. The plants are grown in “dirty rock” using unclean gravel from a quarry. They are careful to not add fertilizer and to restrict the amount of water on the plants.
Ellen offers periodic lavender academies where she helps educate new lavender growers, along with a season filled with classes ranging from essential oils to attracting butterflies to your garden. You can pick your own lavender here in late June. The gift shop offers a range of lavender products from soaps and oils to décor.
The only walk-through butterfly house in Southwest Virginia is at Beagle Ridge. A labyrinth of lavender leads to the butterfly house – a screened-in structure with up to 11 varieties of butterflies, depending on the season. The chrysalis nursery gives the farm a steady supply to restock the butterflies. In September, they host a monarch tag and release event, where for a small fee you can tag a monarch and then track it online as it makes its journey to Mexico.
There are a number of other gardens on the property, including a formal walled herbal display garden, a cottage garden, a Japanese meditation garden, a Mediterranean garden, and a tea garden. The outdoor tea room hosts events including making your own cocktails using products from the farm.
Don’t miss the giant LOVE sign at the back of the garden, one of three in Wytheville. The others are in downtown and at Big Walker Lookout.
Cobb Hill Alpacas was created out of happenstance. When the farm’s owners moved to this idyllic farm with rolling mountain pastures they had a desire to raise something.
Alpacas seemed a natural as they only need shearing once a year. Once sheared, the owners mill the fleece into yarn, which they sell in the small gift shop on the property, along with socks, apparel, and other fine yarns. Visitors can tour the farm by appointment for a small fee. Or you can stay on the farm overnight through the Harvest Hosts network.
A Museum Town
When you are done touring gardens and taking wildflower hikes, you can check out the interesting museums in town.
There have been 53 First Ladies in the U.S. but there are only eight historic sites dedicated to them. One of these is in Wytheville. Edith Bolling Wilson, the second wife of President Woodrow Wilson, was born in the building on East Main Street that houses the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum. The interesting displays document Edith’s life before, during, and after her role as First Lady.
Of interest to gardeners is the jade plant here – a cutting from the one Edith had in the White House. The couple also had a connection with orchids. When Woodrow courted Edith after the death of his first wife, he gave her a fresh orchid every day. In their honor, several Cattleya orchids have been named for the president. The first one for Edith, the true orchid lover, was named for her in 2017. There is a 100-foot-long mural in downtown about the life of Edith.
More museums worth visiting include the Thomas J. Boyd Museum honoring this “father of Wytheville” with a focus on local history from mining and milling to the 1950 polio epidemic that created a “summer without children” in the town. The Haller-Gibboney Rock House Museum is the former home of the town’s first resident physician Dr. John Haller.
When You Go
The Bolling Wilson Hotel is a landmark building turned into a lovely boutique hotel with 30 guestrooms. Throughout the hotel are nods to Edith Bolling Wilson including orchid photos to her later taste for fine bourbon.
While downtown you can learn about the city on the Historic Walking Tour that guides you to homes and businesses important in local history. The charming downtown features shops, antique stores, galleries, breweries, and restaurants.
Another downtown landmark is the giant pencil – 20 to 25 feet tall – hanging above the Wytheville Office Supply.
The country gardens behind the Log House 1776 Restaurant in the downtown house an eclectic mix of antiques and sculptures set in colorful plantings.
This is a garden wonderland that you should visit while in town. You can also shop and dine in this local restaurant favorite. Another local dining favorite is High Plains BBQ for slow-smoked meats served up Southern style.
The Wohlfahrt Dinner Theatre was started in 1999 by resident Peggy Sutphin who loved dinner theaters. Only musical productions are featured here along with a three-course meal served before the curtain rises.
A little further out of town is the West Wind Farm Vineyard & Winery. This fourth-generation farm became a vineyard about 15 years ago and today makes award-winning small-batch, family-crafted wines.
The tasting area offers flights of the 11 wines available for purchase, and the gift shop is well stocked with a selection of wine-themed products and décor. Grab a picnic lunch in town – Boundless Boards offers a lovely assortment – then buy a bottle of wine here to enjoy outside on the lovely patio overlooking the vineyard.
Start your day at the Wytheville Farmers Market for locally grown vegetables, fruits, honey, and other foods plus crafts, cut flowers, and potted plants. Live music and free weekly events create a festive atmosphere.
If you visit in late June, the nearby Elizabeth Brown city park hosts the eight-day Chautauqua Festival that brings in entertainment and fans from across the region for this free event.
To learn more about Wytheville, check out www.VisitWytheville.com.
Beverly Hurley is the editor of Triangle Gardener magazine in North Carolina. When she is not gardening, she loves to travel.