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Monday, February 26, 2024

Blacksburg Beauty

Experience agritourism, culture, and Tech life in Virginia

Photo provided by Montgomery County VA Regional Tourism

I was a teenager when I first heard the lore and legend of Blacksburg, Virginia. My husband’s cousin Rick was a civil engineering graduate of Virginia Tech University, which calls Blacksburg home, and to me, “Tech” was a mysterious place. I envisioned Blacksburg as a tiny college town set in a mountain valley; the male students all would wear beards (like Cousin Rick), have nicknames (Rick’s is “Buck,” acquired at the VT Sigma Nu fraternity house), and be outdoorsy types, dressing in flannel shirts and boots. I thought Tech would look nothing like my alma maters, Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and the University of Southern Indiana.

Photo by Kristen K. Tucker

In November, I finally had the chance to visit Montgomery County, Virginia, home to Blacksburg and Virginia Tech, and its small-town neighbor, Christiansburg. My perception was not exactly accurate, though I did see plenty of beards, flannel, and boots. My stay was timed with Tech’s away football game with the University of Louisville. Hokie football is big — the whole town turns into a tailgate, I was told — and it’s not likely Blacksburg would accommodate travel writers on a football weekend. Ironically, the weekend I visited, the Hokies boarded a plane west to play ACC rival, University of Louisville, where my son is a senior sport administration major. In fact, I was able to check out the Cardinals’ opponents when our group saw the Hokies’ offensive line loading up on ribs and “game day mac and cheese” at Bull & Bones Brew Haus & Grill on Main Street.

Blacksburg, Virginia, may be a college town, but I immediately sense it’s much more than just a temporary students’ home. If you’re looking for a weekend of outdoor excursions, Blacksburg is the ideal retreat. Nestled between the Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains, set along the banks of the New River, Blacksburg is near various points on the Appalachian Trail, including the famed McAfee Knob, as well as a variety of walking, hiking, and biking trails.

Here are the spots you won’t want to miss in Montgomery County, Virginia.

Accommodations

When I visit a college town, I like to stay in the “union,” if such accommodations are offered. At Virginia Tech, that would be The Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center, the only hotel offered on the VT campus and the only full-service hotel in Blacksburg. Plan your trip around football games and Tech family weekends, when rooms fill up fast. If you find that’s the case, there are name-brand hotels within eyesight of the union, just off campus.

Wine and Dine

The Blacksburg Wine Lab was borne from owners John Boyer’s and Katie Pritchard’s vision for an educational enjoyment component in wine tasting. Drawing from John’s tenure as a Virginia Tech geography professor where he devised an extremely popular course, Geography of Wine, the Blacksburg Wine Lab focuses on demystifying wine and wine consumption and using it as a learning tool. Today the course is offered online, and each spring, it has more than 1,500 students. At the Wine Lab, the owners seek to shine a light on lesser-known wines. Flights focusing on geography also are offered. I sampled my way through New Zealand whites and reds.

Photo of tinned fish by Kristen K. Tucker

Taking a cue from restaurants throughout Italy and Spain, the Blacksburg Wine Lab offers tinned seafood. It’s a trend that is reaching our shores, with “seacuterie” plates showing up on menus on the East Coast. Visitors to the Blacksburg Wine Lab are greeted with a beautiful wall display of tinned fish and chocolates for purchase.

For dinner, dine at The Blacksburg Tavern, a historic gem tucked into Main Street in the town’s oldest house, circa 1892. Proprietor Daniel Riley writes on the eatery’s website, “When this home was built, Main Street was a dirt road where horses pulled wagons and picket fences kept milk cows from roaming.” Virginia Tech then was known as Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College with a total student enrollment of 135. Our group was served a traditional farmer’s feast family style with classic choices of country ham, beef brisket, meatloaf, fluffy biscuits, macaroni and cheese, and vegetables.

Photo by Kristen K. Tucker

Bottom of Form at Beliveau Farm & Winery, Yvan, a retired Virginia Tech architecture professor, and Joyce Beliveau, a VT graduate with a master’s degree in counseling who held several leadership roles in Blacksburg during her career, purchased 165 acres of land and the 1900s farmhouse-turned-barn that sat upon it in 2001. By 2009, the first grapes were planted, and the winery opened in 2012. A brewery was added in 2019 to produce gluten-free beers, currently Virginia’s only gluten-free suds. According to Joyce, the secret to their award-winning wine is they are committed to making Virginia wine and not trying to be California. Accommodations are offered at Beliveau Farm at The Manor House bed-and-breakfast.

Rising Silo Brewery & Farm is a farm-based brewery using exclusively organic malts and water from the farm’s well. I tried a flight consisting of Beet Drop Saison, Ginger Hare Carrot beer, Rising Silo Festbier, and an Apple Atcha cider. The crew also runs Farm & Forage Kitchen with a seasonally directed menu that rotates weekly. The pizza oven is fired up usually every evening.

Iron Tree Brewing, in Christiansburg, came to be from three friends (and here the story repeats — they all are Tech graduates) with a passion for tasty beer. After much practice at home brewing, the trio acquired the site of a former furniture store in downtown Christiansburg, retrofitted it as a brewery, and hosted its grand opening in May 2021.

Outdoor Adventure

Photo of Pandapas Pond by Kristen K. Tucker

So great are the opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, it is impossible to list them all here. Some hikes require a degree of technical proficiency and scrambling. Come prepared!

Set within the Jefferson National Forest is Pandapas Pond and parts of the Poverty Creek Trail system, which spans 17 miles across the New River Valley. A popular spot for walkers, birders, and photographers is the one-mile loop trail encircling the eight-acre Pandapas Pond and wetlands over boardwalks and bridges. Stiles Falls at Alta Mons is a stunning 40-foot waterfall at the apex of an easy three-mile round-trip hike. The trail features multiple crossings over Purgatory Creek before reaching Stiles Falls, with occasional steep inclines and rock hopping.

Attractions

Photo provided by Montgomery County VA Regional Tourism

At the Moss Arts Center, the heart of Virginia Tech’s artistic community, performance and visual arts converge under a single roof. Located at the crossroads of VT and downtown Blacksburg, the center operates as both a presenting organization and a 147,000-square-foot, top-caliber arts center.

Explore nearly six acres of teaching and display garden on the campus of Virginia Tech at the Hahn Horticultural Garden and the Peggy Lee Hahn Pavilion. Located adjacent to Tech’s baseball stadium, English Field at Atlantic Union Bank Park, and across the street from the football arena, Lane Stadium, the gardens are open from dawn to dusk every day of the year. Director Scott Douglas reports several spots within the gardens are popular places of respite for students and professors grading papers.

Photo of Sugar Magnolia by Kristen K. Tucker

Like most college towns, Blacksburg offers plenty of shopping opportunities — mostly small, locally owned boutiques and specialty shops. For all things Hokie and a cold, sugary treat, visit Sugar Magnolia. Here, hand-dipped ice cream is served up inside a charming boutique offering plenty of “burnt orange and Chicago maroon” — VT’s colors selected way back in 1896 because no other college was using that combination at the time.

Eight miles south of Blacksburg lies Christiansburg, the quieter part of the county. Here, we visited the Montgomery County Museum and Sinkland Farms. As the region’s steward of art and history located in a historic bank building, the Montgomery County Museum takes pride in inspiring and educating through cultural programming. Agriculture, coal mining, rail service, and the establishment of Virginia Tech were important factors in the county’s growth since its inception in 1776, and all are presented in the museum.

Train service again will impact Christiansburg in 2025 when an Amtrak stop is added there as part of the Transforming Rail in Virginia initiative.

Photo provided by Montgomery County VA Regional Tourism

Agritourism is a mainstay in western Virginia, and Sinkland Farms demonstrates that in a big way. Set on 125 acres of rolling hills, verdant meadow, and gardens reminiscent of the French Provencal countryside, Sinkland Farms is a renowned wedding venue and home to many events including a sunflower festival and the annual Pumpkin Festival held over a 6-week period each fall. We visited the last weekend of the Pumpkin Festival — and so did the Governor of Virginia, Glenn Younkin.

Now that you are itching to plan a trip to Blacksburg, Virginia, what is a Hokie? For that, we turn to public art. In summer 2006, Blacksburg was adorned with creatively decorated Hokie Bird statues as part of the Gobble de Art initiative, aimed at fostering community engagement and appreciation for the visual arts. Although the originally painted statues have found their forever homes, the legacy of Gobble de Art endures with approximately two dozen sculptures on public display, alongside a continuous offering of related merchandise.

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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