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Southern charm and wild beauty in the Blue Ridge Mountains

An essential guide to the important places.

  • 17
  • 13:31
  • 731 mi
  • $120

Created by Corey Wolfenbarger - June 13th 2016

I think everyone has places, moments, maybe even people, that they would do just about anything to get back to.

I spent three and a half years of my life living in Central Virginia. It was my second time moving far away from home by myself. New friends, new town, new everything. It was here, like most rambunctious twenty-somethings that I experienced adventure, heartbreak, growth, and all the things that come with growing up. Needless to say, these were the good ole' days.

When the opportunity arose to pack a car full of friends and road trip to some of our favorite spots in Central Virginia, it wasn't hard to say yes. With 48 hours and conversations fueled by nostalgia, we were off, trying one last time to remember why The Old Dominion is an important place.

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(Seriously, do you need any more convincing that Virginia is magical?)

Knoxville, Tennessee, United States

But the trip starts back in Knoxville, Tennessee. Knoxville is my home. I've traveled far and wide, but there is something special about the Heart of the Valley. We met up after work in the parking lot of my tiny downtown loft, packed the car to the ceiling with our outdoor gear, and started our drive just as the sun began its descent.


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After a couple stops at some very southern gas stations, a little good conversation, and a bit of bad food, we arrived in Roanoke in the early morning. The Holiday Inn furnished for us was honestly a great hotel. The staff was overly friendly and helpful, our room was very spacious, and the pool made for a great cool off after our hikes. After the long drive, it was a great place to call home for the weekend.

I lived an hour away from Roanoke for a good portion of my life, but I never took the time to truly get to know the city. After one morning in the downtown district, I realized this was a huge mistake. Energy and character are always the two things I look for when exploring a new city. For character, I look for things that the city has to offer that are unique and only they would have. Energy is just as important; can I get excited or encouraged by the people and atmosphere by just walking around? On this Friday morning, Roanoke had both. I was sold.

Taubman Museum of Art

When you're with a group of photographers, the eagerness to break your cameras out of your bag can be a bit overwhelming-- we were all ready to start capturing the soul of Roanake. It wasn't long before we drove by an incredible-looking building... something about it just stopped us in our tracks. My friend ran in, confirmed we could take photos inside and we parked the car. It turns out that it was the Taubman Museum of Art, and it's the definition of quaint: every bit as unusual as it is beautiful. You can walk through the whole museum in less than an hour, which is great if you're on a time budget (as I usually am.)Pro tips: it's free, the staff gives great fun facts as you're walking through, and there is a giant chess board in the main lobby that will turn anyone into a kid again!


Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea

Coffee. Do I really need to say more? At 23, I now know two things about growing up - 1. Sometimes it is hard, and 2. I need coffee right now. After the museum, our bodies reminded us that we had driven late into the night and that we hadn't sleep that long. We started asking around about coffee and were pointed in the direction of Mill Mountain. Needless to say, it did not disappoint. After some espresso shots and a bit of conversation with locals in the shop, we were fully recharged. Good thing, too, because next on the agenda was packing our bags and driving out to the mountains! It was finally time for the main attraction of Virginia.


Catawba, VA

Nature is my realm, if you will. I spend most of my free time outside, exploring every creek and trail I can find.

The Appalachian Trail runs from Georgia to Maine, spanning approximately 2,200 miles. People come from all over the world to hike the AT. Out of all the scenic overlooks, waterfalls, and mountain peaks, McAfee's Knob is the most photographed spot on the entire Appalachian Trail. To say it is special would be an understatement. No matter who you are, I'd bet you just about anything that you couldn't keep a smile off your face when you're watching the sun set over Catawba Valley from the Knob.

With backpacks packed and vivacious attitudes, five of us set off for the four-mile climb. We met many strangers at the top, but by the time the sun went down, they had become new friends. Drinks were shared, stories were told, and perspectives were shifted. The good conversation continued as we walked back down the mountain in the dark. When we got back to our cars it was a hard goodbye. Almost like saying goodbye to an old friend.


The Historic City Market

If you're a Southerner, you know the magic that is a local farmer's market. I had planned the trip based mostly around two big outdoor activities, but I really wanted to get breakfast downtown one morning. We didn't even know we were going to get to experience a farmer's market, but man, am I glad we did! The thing that really stood out at The Historic City Market were the people. Whether it was the farmer trying to sell you fresh vegetables or the woman trying to sell her honey, everyone was greeting you with a big smile and authentic Southern charm. The Historic City Market definitely takes the cake for the diamond in the rough of our road trip. It's the little surprises like this that make a road trip so special.


Thelma's Chicken & Waffles

After a few laps at the market, we were starving. We had about a three hour trek back into the mountains for our final stop, so a good meal was essential. When I'm on a road trip I have one strict rule concerning food: Always eat local if at all possible... no chain restaurants. After a couple of conversations (and a bit of research), we found our place. Thelma's Chicken & Waffles puts the "soul" in "soul food." Our waiter, GiGi, was legendary. Most of the reviews we read online specifically mentioned her, so I was so stoked she was our waitress. I think she loved us too, because when she saw all of our cameras, she demanded a photoshoot.


Grayson Highlands State Park

I cannot say enough about Grayson Highlands State Park. It's close to the border of Tennessee and North Carolina in Southern Virginia. Grayson Highlands is probably one of the more popular state parks in the South, and for good reason. "What makes it so special?", you might ask. The answer: Ponies. Yes, ponies! At Grayson, there are wild ponies roaming all over the mountains. There is nothing like walking along the trail with beautiful views as a pony decides he wants to stroll along with you. Grayson Highlands State Park gets my highest recommendation!

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This trip was a whirlwind. Going back to Virginia for me is like going to see an old friend. The memories I have of the mountains there will be with me when I tell stories to my grandkids on my porch one day.

When we pulled back into Knoxville after a crazy 48 hours, I finally was able to soak it all in. I'm glad I can now call Roanoke a great city. I'm glad that the Blue Ridge Mountains were still there, waiting with new memories. I'm glad that I took this trip. The Old Dominion will always be home to me. But, it's comforting to know that she'll always be there, ready for the next time I decide I need a road trip.

Corey Wolfenbarger

I am a photographer based out of Knoxville, Tennessee. While there are many beautiful places in the world that I have been privileged to explore, I believe it's important to stay connected to your roots. My main purpose is to showcase the sights of the land that raised me - the South.

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