Climb to an elevation of 4,223 ft. atop High Knob before descending 2,800 ft. into the scenic valleys below for 100 miles of smiles.
Sure to elevate your heart rate, this route covers some of the most scenic, curvy elevation changing roads in Wise and Lee Counties with arteries taking you through our bordering neighbors of Kentucky’s Letcher and Harlan Counties. It’s also where our Appalachian Backroads project got its start back in 2012 when a small group of Appalachian back road motorcycle lovers met at the Holiday Inn to brainstorm how to share the scenic treasures of the coalfields in SW Virginia. The independent City of Norton is at the geographic heart of Wise County making it the perfect start to your adventure.
Norton is located at the northernmost crossroads of US 23 and US 58A at an elevation of 2,150 ft. and hemmed in by the steep mountains of Wise County and making it an ideal hub. For immediate gratification, follow US 23/58A, follow VA Rt619 south toward High Knob about a half mile to Legion Park on the right. Benge’s Rock, also on the right, is at a switchback about a quarter mile past the park. Chief Benge led raids on settlers during the late 1780s and 90s where he reportedly captured women and children and kept them to live amongst the tribe. Stories handed down through generations suggest Benge often meditated at a sharp rock outcrop high above the flats below; Benge’s Rock provides a sweeping view of the Stone Mountain area. Benge was reported killed by a group of men led by Lt. Vincent Hobbs in April, 1794 near Norton at Benge’s Gap.
Continuing on VA Rt619 toward High Knob about 1.5 miles delivers you to Norton’s Flag Rock Recreation Area. The entrance is on the left leading to a small parking lot. A short few minute hike affords a breathtaking view of the City from 1,000 ft. above. More information may be found by checking out our back roads arteries, dubbed “Woodbooger Run” and “Benge’s Revenge.”
High Knob is a trek less than 2 miles further, and a climb of another 1,000 ft. before a left turn on USFS 238 to the High Knob Tower access road. Prepare to be wow’d by the view from 4,223’ above sea level and the sky is the limit! Truthfully, you can easily spend an entire day exploring these few miles. And should you decide to explore the city, check out Country Cabin II for old-time music, take a walk down Park Avenue, check out the artisan gourd-works at Vic’s decorating, and stop in Home Hardware for your Woodbooger T-shirt and other unique finds!
OK, back to Norton and the 100 miles of smiles… from Norton, you can head northeast toward Wise, on to Coburn and down to Big Stone Gap or take the opposite direction to Appalachia, Keokee and to Pennington Gap.
Wise is the county seat. Known as Gladesville when it was incorporated in 1874, it was the county’s “courthouse town” and mail was delivered to “Wise Court House.” When the post office dropped court house from its name, the town became known as Wise but it wasn’t until 1924 that Wise became the official name of the town. Today, Wise is the epitome of a College town, home to the University of Virginia’s College at Wise (UVa-Wise), steeped in a rich history of old-time mountain music, coal mining, railroad heritage and uniquely Renaissance-revival architecture of the 1890s buildings on Main Street. A must see while in Wise is the newly restored Inn at Wise! MountainRose Vineyards is another treasure, boasting its birth “from mines to wines” and is a popular stop on our Backroads rides… check out the “Corkscrew,” “Cliff Rider,” “Flyboy” and “Grapevine” arteries!
Coeburn is the namesake of W. W. Coe and William E. Burns, partners in the Coeburn Land and Improvement Company. Located at the intersection of VA Rt72 and US 58A, is the home of Lay’s Hardware, a stop on The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Music Heritage Trail and the Lonesome Pine International Raceway, members of NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series stock car racing circuit. The Guest River runs through Coeburn and the 5.8 mile Guest River Gorge Trail is a hiker’s dream.
Big Stone Gap, tucked into a rugged gap in Stone Mountain, is the southernmost incorporated town in Wise County. With beginnings in coal mining, lumbering and iron ore, Big Stone Gap is dotted with huge Victorian homes once owned by the tycoons who controlled the rich natural resources. The Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park occupies one of the largest of those homes and showcases the hand-carved woodwork and hand-chiseled stonework commissioned by the original owner, Rufus Ayers, as his summer retreat in the late 1800s. Other note-worthy estates to visit include the Harry W. Meador, Jr. Coal Museum, John Fox House, and the June Tolliver House which is home to Virginia’s Official Outdoor Drama, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, adapted from John Fox Jr’s semi-fiction novel. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Adriana Trigiani’s #1 Best Seller book turned movie, Big Stone Gap! On US23/58A, between Norton and Big Stone Gap, is the renowned Powell Valley Overlook. It is one of the most photographed locations in all of southwestern Virginia.
Dryden is at the crossroads of VA Rt726 and US 58A in eastern Lee County. Don’t be surprised should you spy flocks of wild turkeys as you travel through the area as this quaint community was once known as Turkey Cove!
Pennington Gap is where the Stone Face Chase and the Elevate’r routes intersect and is the largest of Lee County’s towns. Cave Springs Recreation Area lies just outside Pennington Gap in the Jefferson National Forest in Stone Mountain. If camping and hiking are on your agenda, this is your dream spot! While in Pennington Gap, a stop at the Lee Theater is a real treat. This historic venue opened in 1947 and entertained movie and performance lovers from near and far until closing in the 1970s. The theater was completely renovated and reopened in 2013 to the delight of locals and visitors alike.
Keokee earned its present-day name from Keokee Monroe Henderson Perin, the wife of Charles Perin who developed coal-mining operations in the early 1920s. Previously known as Upper Crab Orchard, the area was rich with crabapple trees growing wild throughout the valley where the town is located. Lake Keokee Recreation Area is accessed off of VA Rt606 on VA Rt876 and the 92 acre lake is a favorite fishing spot in the Jefferson National Forest.
Appalachia in its hay day thrived as a coal-mining commerce center and gateway to outlying coal camps in the region. The town is rich with Appalachian railroad and coal history. In fact, they celebrate their railroad heritage the first weekend each August with their Railroad Days festival. Beware, Appalachia’s Pine Street, at the center of town, includes no less than five sets of railroad tracks to cross. The circa-1900 Bee Rock Tunnel, just southwest of downtown Appalachia, earned its spot in Ripley’s Believe It or Not as the shortest railroad tunnel in the United States! It may be viewed (best in winter when foliage is leafless) from US 23 business route, between Big Stone Gap and Appalachia directly above the Appalachia corporate limits sign. If you have the opportunity, there’s a wonderful model railroad museum that takes up the entire basement of Appalachia’s Cultural Center. It’s owned and operated by the Lonesome Pine Model Railroad Club and if you’re interested check out this link: http://www.wcyb.com/news/railroading-in-miniature/27232432