A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Jesse and Stephanie Heady knew about the pair of bald eagles nesting around the five-mile mark of the New River. But it wasn’t until last year, when some of their

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Jesse and Stephanie Heady knew about the pair of bald eagles nesting around the five-mile mark of the New River. But it wasn’t until last year, when some of their

Wild Ponies, Mountain Creeks, & the New River

Jesse and Stephanie Heady knew about the pair of bald eagles nesting around the five-mile mark of the New River. But it wasn’t until last year, when some of their New River Campground guests heard chirping coming from up on the ridge, that they realized there were babies. “Shortly after that, we could see the juveniles,” he says. “The eagles hunt the river, all the way down to the campground and back, but you know the environment’s good if they’re [also] breeding in the area.”

That environment — the clean, clear waters of the second-oldest river in the world, flowing north through Virginia’s portion of the Appalachian Mountains — led the Headys to settle in Grayson County two years ago. Jesse was working as a traveling ICU nurse and Stephanie was a retired K-through-8th-grade principal. Driven by their love of the camping culture, they had been traveling the country, each day a new adventure.



“But we found this place, and it was just so beautiful — an unknown gem,” Jesse says. They bought the New River Campground so they could share their experience with kindred spirits interested in nature and ecology.

Like the Headys, many outdoor enthusiasts are drawn to Grayson County, some making their homes here and others returning year after year for a breath of fresh air. The New River is just one of the natural wonders with rejuvenating qualities and endless opportunities for adventure. Read on for a few good reasons to plan a summertime visit to this mountainous Virginia destination, just north of the state line.

 

Set out in a kayak and cast a line in a lake, river, or creek. Photography courtesy of Grayson County Tourism

Fishing

Between the New River, Hale Lake, and Grayson County’s three creeks, anglers of all skill levels have plenty of places to drop a line in the area.

Fall is one of the best times of year to fish on the New River, thanks to the cooling water temperatures. Plan to start early morning or late evening, when the fish are feeding. Bait your hook with a nightcrawler, and look forward to the nibble of a walleye. Fishers also regularly catch catfish, plus smallmouth, largemouth, striped, and rock bass.

At Grayson County’s Hale Lake, it’s not unusual to run into families with young fishers. The lake is relatively small — a half-mile loop circles around the mountainside waters — so children are almost guaranteed to leave feeling like pros.

Brook trout and rainbow trout dart and hide in the deep, cool pools of Big Wilson Creek, which experienced anglers claim is one of Virginia’s best-kept secrets. You’ll also find rainbow trout in Elk Creek — check out Foxwood Farm, which stocks more than a mile of the creek and offers guided fishing trips. And Chestnut Creek, surrounded by beech, birch, and maple trees anchored by native wetland grasses and sedges, promises bird sightings while you wait for the big one to bite.

 

Whitetop Station is a pedal away from the start of the Virginia Creeper Trail. Photography courtesy of Grayson County Tourism

Biking

Not for the faint of heart, the Grayson Gravel Traverse has landed on the bucket list of many experienced bikers. You’ll feel like an explorer as you wind along the 72-mile gravel trail, much of which feels wild and undiscovered. The combination of challenging climbs, well-maintained roads, creeks, and valleys keeps every mile interesting. Fall foliage peaks in October, and toward the end of fall, snowfall is possible on the trail’s higher elevations. When bikers reach the end of the traverse, they’re rewarded with a beautiful view of the New River.

For ideas for overnight accommodations or stops for restaurants, food, and water, visit the trail’s Trip Planning website. Here, you’ll also find one-and-a-half-, two-, and three-day itineraries.

 

Take a hike at Grayson Highlands or Mount Rogers and admire the beautiful fall foliage. photograph by Grace Crooneberghs

Hiking

Straddling the northwest border of Grayson County, Mount Rogers is the highest elevation in Virginia. Because it’s home to one of only six remaining high-altitude spruce-fir forests, the lush, verdant summit doesn’t promise a view. Still, the nine-mile round-trip hike starting at Massie Gap through Grayson Highlands is considered to be one of the state’s most scenic.

With a background of wilderness vistas, the hearty wild ponies of Grayson Highlands roam, feasting on a buffet of native hawthorn and thorny shrubs. While they may come close enough to touch, it’s against park policy to pet or feed the ponies.

Doug Cregger, known by many locals as the “horse whisperer,” has been taking visitors through Grayson Highlands on horseback for years through his Appalachian Horse Adventures out of Fairwood Stables in Troutdale. The Rhododendron Gap Trail, which is also your start if you decide to climb to the summit, is one of his favorites. If you want to hike it, start from the Massie Gap parking area and follow the winding old wagon road up the hill.

See wild ponies as you hike through Grayson Highlands. photograph by Tim Pennington

After you pass tranquil meadows dotted with wild blueberries and wildflowers — and ponies, of course — you’ll run into the Appalachian Trail, which leads to Wilburn Ridge and Rhododendron Gap. Keep going, and you’ll come to the rustic Thomas Knob Shelter, which has served as a haven for thru-hikers since it was built in the early 1980s. “The further you go, the better it gets,” says Cregger. “When you get to the top, you can see forever. The whole country is beautiful.”

Want to cool off with the splash of a waterfall? Ask any local for their favorite Grayson County waterfall, and “Peach Bottom Falls” near the town of Independence will likely come up. Its official name is Powerhouse Falls. For this one, no hiking is necessary — you can even see it from Powerhouse Road.

 

The Fries Mill Dam on the New River is a perfect spot to paddle out. Photography courtesy of Grayson County Tourism

Boating

The New River flows for 46 miles through Grayson County, and Jesse and Stephanie like to help people explore it via tubes, kayaks, or canoes.

Tubing is often the boat of choice for families and friends looking for a lazy and restful way to spend an afternoon. Trips run about two and a half miles, and they start southwest of the campground — don’t forget, the river runs north.

“I like tubing because it’s relaxing. You really don’t have to worry about anything; just float down the river enjoying nature,” says Jesse, who advises people to pack some sandwiches and drinks in a cooler, and stop and have a picnic along the way. “It’s a very pretty area — mostly large plots of private land, so it’s fairly untouched. You’ll see stretches of grassy pastures with natural stone mountain structures.”

If you’re hoping to play more of an active role in the boating experience, consider a five- or 10-mile canoe or kayak trip. Let the Headys know your appetite for adventure, and they can help you determine your route and vessel. “If you want to fish, I think the canoe is the way to go because you’re in a seated position and you have a place to keep all your gear,” Jesse says. “The current in the New River helps carry you down, so it’s not like you have to paddle vigorously. You can steer the boat and cruise along.”

Intermediate or advanced kayakers prefer the 10-mile trip, which starts at Mile 1 of the river and passes through Class I, Class II, and Class III rapids. Plan for four to five hours of paddling time, plus a stop for swimming, fishing, or picnicking.

Whether you’re exploring the New River with the help of an outfitter or on your own, download Grayson County’s recently developed New River Float Calculator to plan or prepare for your trip — and to use while you’re on the river. Not only can it calculate float times from point A to point B, factoring in flow rate, water levels, and even the type of vessel, but it can also give you tips on things like safety, where to buy a fishing license, and alert you to safety hazards. There’s even a reminder to reapply your sunscreen.

No matter your route or your vessel, the New River promises a beautiful, adventurous day in the mountains.

This story was published on Sep 01, 2023

Robin Sutton Anders

Robin Sutton Anders is a writer based in Greensboro.