Southwest Virginia’s Philpott Lake is a hidden gem for outdoor lovers. The 3,000-acre lake spreads into Franklin, Henry, and Patrick counties, backlit by the mountains of the Blue Ridge and surrounded by nearly 20,000 acres of mixed hardwood forest. A landscape left largely wild and undeveloped, the area around the lake is peppered with recreation areas, nature preserves, and the iconic Blue Ridge Parkway, providing a smorgasbord of trails for hikers, bikers, runners, and paddlers.
Even better, the region surrounding the lake is also sprinkled with wineries, breweries, and distilleries, offering an abundance of après adventure libations. Here are eight great ways to explore them both.
1. PHILPOTT LAKE BLUEWAY AND TWIN CREEKS DISTILLERY
One of Philpott Lake’s premier trails is on the water. A collaboration between the Army Corps of Engineers and the non-profit Dan River Basin Association, the 25-mile Philpott Lake Blueway rings the entire lake, connecting beaches, boat launches, and natural wonders along an extensive flatwater paddling trail. Brian Williams, project manager for the Dan River Basin Association, recommends excursions like the short-but-sweet trip to the color-banded Calico Rocks, or the day-long paddle to Fairy Stone Falls, a flume created by the tumbling waters of Fairy Stone Lake.
Post-paddle, go from water to whiskey at Twin Creeks Distillery, just 10 minutes away in Henry. Owner Chris Prillaman has deep roots in Franklin County, a place dubbed the “Moonshine Capital of the World,” during the dry days of Prohibition. Sip spirits steeped in local lore, like the no-longer illicit 1st Sugar Moonshine or the smooth blackberry brandy.
2. SMART VIEW RECREATION AREA AND 5 MILE DISTILLERY
Spread along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Smart View Recreation Area offers several leisurely, leg-stretcher hikes on the Smart View Trail. Keep an eye out for cerulean warblers, white-tailed deer, and red fox while traipsing beneath towering pines on the 2.6-mile loop. Pause at the 18th- century cabin built by the aptly named Trail family. The cottage’s location was chosen, in part, for the Piedmont vistas afforded by the panoramic perch.
Post-hike, make the 15-minute trip into Floyd to continue exploring the region’s history with a moonshine tasting at Five Mile Mountain Distillery. Housed in a restored public works building from the 1940s, the distillery produces small-batch spirits using timeless methods, relying on age-old recipes and copper stills. Sample the distillery’s quintessential Sweet Mountain Moonshine or sip offerings like the vanilla plum moonshine.
3. MOUNTAIN LAUREL TRAILS AND MOUNTAIN VALLEY BREWING
Local landowner Bob Norris has spent over a half-decade creating a leafy paradise for mountain bikers in Henry County, resulting in one of the region’s most expansive singletrack systems: Mountain Laurel Trails. Pedal the series of stacked loops providing off-road enthusiasts nearly 12 miles to explore, with trails for riders of all skill levels.
After a day of rolling through rock gardens and along ridgelines, relax in one of the locally made hammocks at Mountain Valley Brewing, about 25 minutes away in Axton. The region’s only farm brewery, owners Peggy Donivan and Herb Atwell employ a “dirt-to-glass” concept, using local ingredients and seasonal fruits and herbs to craft small-batch beers. The pup-friendly brewery pours seasonals like the Summer Sweet Raspberry Wheat and the Fireflies in the Valley, a pale ale crafted with Citra hops for a refreshing grapefruit finish. However, the beer of the moment is the Kooky Rooster, a cream ale infused with toasted coconut. The brewery regularly hosts live music, food trucks, and arts and cultural events in partnership with the library, Piedmont Arts, VMNH, and other local organizations.
4. FAIRY STONE STATE PARK, STANBURN WINERY
Named for the ancient, staurolite crystals hidden in the hills of Patrick County—dubbed Fairy Stones—Fairy Stone State Park is steeped in local legend. The lake-studded park is among the oldest in Virginia, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the midst of the Great Depression. Wander woodlands once tasked with hiding illicit moonshine stills on the 4 miles of trails braiding Stuart’s Knob, or explore the 10-mile Little Mountain Trail system with a trek to Little Mountain Falls.
Plan a relaxing Saturday evening at Stanburn Winery in Patrick Springs during “Stanburn Stompin Saturdays.” Listen to a band and sip delightful award-winning wines under the stars. Some of their offerings include the Big A Red, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin, the name of which comes from the winery being in the Big A section of the county. Bull’s Blush is a semi-sweet wine containing Chambourcin rosé, Cabernet Franc rosé, and Vidal Blanc, and its name is a reference to Bull Mountain that’s visible from the vineyard. The Highfly is a semi-sweet blend of Vidal Blanc and Traminette, named for one of Civil War General J.E.B. Stuart’s battlefield horses.
5. GRASSY HILL NATURAL AREA PRESERVE AND HAMMER & FORGE BREWING
Spread over a forest-tufted ridgeline overlooking Rocky Mount, the Grassy Hill Natural Area Preserve is braided with 6.6 miles of trails, ideal for hikers and runners. The footpaths wind through mixed forests of oak and hickory, showcasing a landscape once peppered with prairie-like meadows, possibly the result of wildfires. Established as a protected area nearly two decades ago, the preserve’s magnesium-rich soil also harbors a host of rare plant communities and a handful of old-growth trees.
After a ridgetop trail run, head over to Hammer & Forge Brewing, just 15 minutes away in Boones Mill. Savor traditional ales like the Elder Mountain IPA or funky, fruit-forward sours like the Lupulin Comrade Apricot. The brewery also hosts weekly events, including trivia on Thursdays and live music on Fridays.
6. JAMISON MILL AND CHAOS MOUNTAIN BREWING
Nestled along the northeast corner of Philpott Lake, Jamison Mill Recreation Area features 6 miles of singletrack crafted specifically with mountain bikers in mind. Link the recreation area’s interconnected trails to create a circuit featuring leafy forest track, stretches of lakeshore, and subtle traces of the historic homesites once located around the mill.
Go from singletrack to suds at Chaos Mountain Brewing, perched beside Cahas Mountain, about 30 minutes away in Callaway. Choose from a tap list including everything from easy-sipping Belgian blondes like the Cheeky Monkey to robust brews like the 4 Mad Chefs, a Belgian Quadrupel with hints of caramel. The brewery also features live music and food trucks every weekend during the summer, and it hosts events like pool tournaments and trivia nights.
7. ROCK CASTLE GORGE AND VILLA APPALACCIA WINERY
Stashed away in the Rocky Knob Recreation Area, the Rock Castle Gorge Trail is the quintessential Blue Ridge sampler, declared a National Scenic Trail in 1984. Hike the 10.8-mile loop showcasing the quartz-studded gorge, which meanders through rhododendron groves, along ridgelines, through mountain meadows, and past former homesteads. The challenging route features 1,872 feet of elevation gain, topping out at the 3,572-foot Rocky Knob, but shorter loops can be crafted using the Black Ridge Trail.
Post-hike, spend the afternoon sipping wine on the terrace at Villa Appalaccia Winery in Patrick County, just 6 miles from the trailhead. This winery, located close to Floyd and Stuart, Virginia, has been a staple of the region for 27 years. You’ll find stunning views of of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a relaxing environment, and wines that feature predominantly Italian grape varietals, including Sangiovese, Primitivo, Pinot Grigio, Malvasia, Cabernet Franc, Aglianico and Corvina. The vineyard is one of the only ones in the state that has planted its grapes on shale (not clay), providing them with a truer link to their Italian heritage.
8. SMITH RIVER BLUEWAY AND HAMLET VINEYARDS
Slicing through Franklin and Henry counties on the way to North Carolina, the Smith River provides some of the best trout waters in Virginia. But, the waterway also has plenty to offer both flatwater and whitewater paddlers. In Henry County, the Smith River Trail System feature both terrestrial and aquatic trails, including a blueway for paddlers, scattered with 10 access points. Brian Williams, owner Smith River Outfitters and author of An Insider’s Guide to the Smith River in Virginia and North Carolina, admits his favorite run is the 7-mile stretch between the Philpott Dam and the town of Bassett. “Near the dam you feel like you are in a remote gorge,” Williams says. “Hills are steep and rocky but covered in mountain laurel and rhododendron.” Morning and evening paddlers are also treated to what Williams calls the “Smith River fog banks,” providing paddlers the exhilarating sensation of hearing approaching rapids before seeing them.
Follow whitewater with wine at Hamlet Vineyards, in nearby Bassett. Snack on fresh bread and gourmet spreads while sampling offerings like the Old Virginia Red or the crisply refreshing 2016 Pinot Gris (which medaled in the 2016 Virginia Governor’s Cup). In fact, the vineyard hosts Wine and Water Wednesdays throughout the summer, which feature a 90-minute float down the Smith River followed by a casual dinner with wine. Guests meet at the vineyard and then are transported to the launch site.
Then, be sure explore the historic property of Eltham Manor, built in the 1930s. The home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. It was commissioned by W.M. Bassett, who would head the family business, Bassett Furniture Industries, which became the largest wood furniture producer in the world. The company was instrumental in the growth of both futurinture and textile industry in the region. Architect Roy Wallace designed Eltham Manor as a classic Virginia river house, with the home overlooking the Smith River. It’s an impressive sight—especially when enjoying the vineyard’s offerings.
Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated Media in partnership with Patrick County.
Featured image provided by Franklin County Tourism/Matt Ross