Enticing attractions and lovely scenery abound along this magnificent stretch of land

The 325 miles of Virginia’s I-81 passes through multiple scenic regions, from Shenandoah Valley in the north, Blue Ridge Highlands in the south and the Virginia mountains in between. Here are a few of our favorite stops along the way.

ABINGDON

Arriving in Abingdon, it takes visitors about 10 seconds to realize this is a really cool small town. That’s just the beginning. Plan to spend a few days and you’ll become immersed in the history, culture, diverse landscape and hospitality of Southwest Virginia.

The perfect first stop for an understanding of exactly where you are is Southwest Virginia’s Cultural Center & Marketplace.

The area has a rich musical heritage and it’s on full display at the center. Home to The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail and the starting point for exploring that heritage, exhibits tell the story of how this roots music was born in the area and still flourishes. Regular concerts in the performance area provide both entertainment and an opportunity to talk with musicians.

A highlight of any visit to the center is the Marketplace. Here, you’ll find the most significant collection of art from the area’s leading artisans. Viewing all media types, you’ll discover items from clay and jewelry to glass and wood.

The Barter Theatre

The historic Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA. Copyright 2012 Jason Barnette

One of Abingdon’s oldest attractions began in 1933 during the midst of the Great Depression. The Barter Theatre, the State Theatre of Virginia, began on Robert Porter’s basic idea that patrons could pay with produce to support local actors. Area farmers were unable to sell their produce and local actors were literally starving artists. The plan worked.

Today, the theater is attracting more than 160,000 yearly visitors featuring outstanding comedy, musicals, drama and new Appalachian plays. Over the years, Barter Theatre has been the launching pad for the careers of many entertainment giants and continues that tradition today.

Located directly across the street is the four-star Martha Washington Inn & Spa. A member of Historic Hotels of America, it was built in 1832. In addition to its first use as a residence, it has served as a women’s college, Civil War hospital and residence for visiting actors of the Barter Theatre.

Just 17 miles south of Abingdon is Bristol, Virginia and The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate. The story is told of the 1927 Bristol Sessions and explores how today’s musical heritage has been influenced by technology. Through artifacts, interactive displays and multiple theater experiences, the story of the Sessions is shared.

Join a local historian and learn about Abingdon history at the Abingdon Muster Grounds. This is the original mustering grounds of the Virginia Militia for the Revolutionary War. Men and women in period costume share the challenges and mountain spirit that drove these Virginians. This is the northern trail-head of the 330-mile-long Over-mountain Victory National Historic Trail.

The historic downtown features traditional and contemporary dining options, plus plenty of unique shopping, including Holston Mountain Artisans and Art Depot. Tastings at the Abingdon Olive Company feature numerous varieties of their Ultra Premium extra virgin fruit olive oils. Stop by Wolf Hills Brewing, Co and sample its craft beer.

A visit to the William King Museum of Art is a must. It showcases outstanding visual arts and is the premier facility in Southwest Virginia. Located in a former school, fine art exhibits from contemporary and heritage change frequently, enhancing the museum’s impressive permanent collection.

The Virginia Highlands Festival

People enjoy live music at the Street Dance Party during the 2012 Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon, VA. Copyright Jason Barnette

The Crooked Road Heritage Musical Festival features numerous events and venues throughout Southwest Virginia. The Virginia Highlands Festival, which takes place July 24-August 2, 2020 in Abingdon, is a tradition.

The Virginia Creeper Trail begins in Abingdon and is a gentle grade for bicyclists and walkers of all ages. Channels State Forest is one of Virginia’s best-kept secrets, and Grayson State Park’s wild ponies are a calling card. visitabingdon.com

WYTHEVILLE

Approaching this crossroads of Interstates 77 and 81, you’re impressed with the spectacular landscape of this small town. Rolling hills and magnificent mountains are just the beginning of what Wytheville has to share.

A visit to Wytheville is only complete with dinner and a show at Wohlfahrt Haus Dinner Theatre. Broadway-style professional productions are presented year-round with a four-course meal customized to fit the production’s theme.

How many of us remember the Great Lakes to Florida Highway? Back in the day, Route 21 was the main route from Ohio to Florida. The Great Lakes to Florida Highway Museum, housed in a restored 1926 Texaco station, tells the story of the development of Route 21 and later I-77 with original artifacts, newspaper clippings and exhibits.

To dig deeper into Wytheville’s history, a visit to the town’s first resident physician is in order. The Haller-Gibboney Rock House Museum was built in 1832 for Dr. John Haller, a country doctor, coroner and delegate to the Virginia Legislature. A Registered Historic Landmark, the museum features more than 1,400 artifacts and period furnishings. The Thomas J. Boyd Museum is adjacent to the Haller-Gibboney Rock House. Known as the Father of Wytheville, Boyd was an attorney, town mayor, surveyor, hotel developer and Virginia legislator.

The Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum is the birthplace and childhood home of a descendant of Pocahontas and the only Appalachian-born First Lady. One of just eight historic sites dedicated to the interpretation of a First Lady, the museum has an interesting life timeline and highlights her contribution during a critical time of World War I.

Mansion at Fort Chiswell has been restored and is now a private residence listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and as a Virginia State Historic Landmark. The good news is the proprietor is ready to share. Key Ingredients Restaurant takes pride in its locally sourced menu.

Step back in time to the 1500s and experience Native American life at the Wolf Creek Indian Village and Museum. The village was re-created based upon a 1970 archeology report. Guides are available to escort groups through the village and give a glimpse into the culture of Eastern Woodland Indians.

With a good understanding of Wytheville history under your belt, it’s time to step outside. Begin at Beagle Ridge Herb Farm and Flying Flowers at Beagle Ridge. If you’ve never been to a lavender farm, you’re in for a fragrant treat. This is Southwest Virginia’s premier one and is joined by 14 theme display gardens with herbs and perennials. Alpacas are a South American species related to llamas, but you don’t have to go to the southern hemisphere to interact with them. Cobb Hill Alpaca Farm has taken care of that issue.

Visitors to this family-owned and -operated farm will see 18 alpacas. The Fort Chiswell Animal Park is a must stop on any itinerary. On 45 acres, there are animals from six continents at Southwest Virginia’s largest zoo.

A stop at the Henley Mountain Berry Farm promises to be a sweet memory to take home. Pick your own blueberries mid-June to September, or take home a variety of blueberry products.

West Wind Farm Vineyard and Winery

West Wind Farm Vineyard and Winery

Winery and vineyard visits are a must when spending time in Wytheville. Rural Retreat Winery & Vineyards features a wide selection of full-body reds and lovely whites. West Wind Farm Vineyard and Winery offers a broad selection of wines from reds and whites to sweeter offerings. A welcoming tasting room, a magnificent view and a wide array of soaps, candles, unique home gifts round out a relaxing visit. visitwytheville.com

Just 1.5 hours north is the largest city on Virginia’s I-81, Roanoke. With the community’s rich rail history, stops at the History Museum of Western Virginia & O. Winston Link Museum and the Virginia Transportation Museum are a must.

Further north is charming Lexington. History is abundant at the Stonewall Jackson House, George C. Marshall Museum & Library, Caverns at Natural Bridge and the Lee Chapel & Museum on the campus of Washington and Lee University.

STAUNTON

This pleasant community is a rare combination of delightful shopping options, a vibrant culinary culture, world-class performance and visual arts and rich history. Welcome to Virginia’s Queen City and its scenic setting in the Shenandoah Valley.

Blackfriars Playhouse by Lauren Parker

Blackfriars Playhouse by Lauren Parker

The historic downtown is a logical place to start your visit. A compact, walkable community features history-rich architecture and numerous dining options with many featuring locally sourced menus. However, it’s the Main Street style of shopping that attracts the locals and visitors alike. More than 60 merchants offer everything from jewelry and home décor to antiques, books and everything in between. Staunton’s theater scene begins at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse. This re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor London theater presents a year-round offering of up to 14 performances of Shakespeare’s plays and contemporary works.

Sears Hill Bridge_Downtown Staunton by Warren Faught

Sears Hill Bridge, Downtown Staunton by Warren Faught

The Heifetz International Music Festival attracts gifted violin, viola and cello students to the campus of Mary Baldwin University for six weeks in the summer. ShenanArts produces plays and musicals for participants of all ages. In Staunton, home of the Statler Brothers (who can forget “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You.”), the music never stops. The city’s nightlife is lively and a pair of music festivals is each worth a visit. Red Wing VIII Roots Music Festival will be July 10-12, 2020 with a dozen performers scheduled. The Staunton Music Festival offers brilliant chamber music performed by world-class musicians. This year’s festival in August 2020 will share 29 concerts at historic venues over 10 days.

The Beverley Street Studio School, in addition to providing high-quality art instruction, has a gallery with rotating exhibits throughout the year. Also located on Beverley Street in downtown Staunton, the CoArt Gallery exhibits local artists’ originals in various media. Presenting art for almost 60 years, the Staunton Augusta Art Center features changing and permanent exhibits. The annual Art in the Park event during Memorial Day weekend showcases quality fine arts and crafts.

Glassblowing demonstrations, unique art and one neat festival each come from the artisans at Sunspots Studios.

Get up-close and watch a glassblower demonstrate his art, or have one assist you in creating your own piece. Virginia’s Hot Glass Festival attracts area glass artists over Memorial Day weekend. The Frontier Culture Museum tells the story of immigrants to America and their descendants. Structures from 1700s England, Ireland, Germany and West Africa have been constructed.

Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum

Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum. Zak Suhar Photography

Staunton was the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson and you can learn about our 28th president at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum. A guided tour takes groups through seven galleries exploring Wilson’s early years and his presidency including women’s suffrage, prohibition and World War I. visitstaunton.com North on I-81, Harrisonburg, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, has numerous attractions and a fantastic farm-to-fork culinary scene. It’s on to Winchester with its rich Civil War history, Patsy Cline Historic House and the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival.

By Dave Bodle