Elizabeth A.S. Brooke

Crafting, traveling and everything in between.

Natural Tunnel State Park

Our final romping around the state on Memorial Day Weekend ended at Natural Tunnel State Park. You can read about our other hikes here.

The park is located near the Virginia-Tennessee border and we stopped in Kingsport, Tenn., on our way home for supper.

Next to Fairy Stone State Park, this may be one of my favorite Virginia parks for camping. We didn’t camp here, but I wish we had. The campsites were nice and the trails and views were great.

The park is also building new cabins that should be open soon. If they’re anything like a cabin we saw from the trail, they’re huge and beautiful!

On the trails we saw a woodpecker (maybe a hairy or downy) and heard many other types of birds. We hoped to see grouse, but could only hear what we thought was one. A sign in the park said grouse sound like drumming.

We also found what might be an orchid. It’s the small plant with two oval leaves in the middle:

(All photos by E.A. Seagraves or Christopher Brooke. Do not use without permission.)

Most of the trails are short and there’s one that is 2.8 miles. We walked most of the trails, walking around the valley’s ridges to get better looks at the trains and valley below:

There’s a train track that runs through the park and is still used to haul coal. Visitors frequently take photos of trains coming through the tunnel. You can either snap pictures from above or below in the valley.

You can get to the valley by walking a short (0.25 mile), steep trail or taking a chair lift. At the bottom is a boardwalk that runs along the train tracks and a creek.

Chris tried to take pictures of what might have been cave swallows, but wasn’t successful.

We also had a surprise while waiting for the swallows and another train to take pictures — a snake! It must have fallen from the rock wall above or was dropped by a bird. You can kind of see what might be gore on the snake’s head here:

All I know is the snake wasn’t there when I looked in that spot a few seconds before and I found it after hearing a thump. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack or pass out. Can you imagine what it would be like if a snake fell on you?
I know next time I’ll take an umbrella with me. : )

A friend who looked at the photo of the snake believes it was a harmless garter snake, but it was pretty angry when we found it. Another friend said she’d be angry too if she were dropped several hundred feet. Yeah, I suppose so.

Here’s some more photos:

This is called “The Carter Cabin.” It’s in the valley below and sits beside the creek on the other side from the tracks.

A shot of another, shorter tunnel trains travel through.

Here’s a sign posted on the boardwalk explaining the history and use of the Natural Tunnel.

I’m not sure what this little fella is, but he’s cute, right?

I tried to get a picture of the train coming through Natural Tunnel, but didn’t get a clear shot. So this picture of the train going through the smaller tunnel will have to do.

I think this lizard looks pregnant. On our way up the first trail we saw at least 3 of these lizards.

Chris took a picture of this pretty view of The Wilderness Road Blockhouse.

Here’s some history on the Blockhouse.

This is a garden behind the Blockhouse. Chris said it reminded him of the gardens around Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

Photos from New River Trail — Byllesby and Buck Dams

Before Chris had to cover the Hillsville 4th of July parade for The Gazette, we took a walk on the New River Trail State Park at Byllesby and Buck Dams. Here’s some photos I took during the walk

Chris sitting on a boat launch, waiting to snap photos of dragonflies
(Photos by E.A. Seagraves/Please do not use without permission)

Some type of pea

A honeybee on a pea blossom

I believe this is some type of yarrow

The New River


A fritillary butterfly on a bergamot, or something like that.

And here are some shots taken as I tried to be “creative.”

Buck Dam

A structure found at Buck Dam beside the New River Trail

Another shot of Buck Dam

Pine cones, obviously

Oh, look! More pine cones!

And, because I’m so proud, check out Chris’ dragonfly photos from the same walk. He has snapped thousands of butterfly and flower photos and he’s now branching out to include dragonflies and damselflies.

You can tell the difference between dragonflies and damselflies when they land. Dragonflies don’t fold up their wings; damselflies do.

I believe there are all dragonflies: (Photos by Christopher Brooke/Please do not use without permission)

Weekend activities — May 22, 2010

There’s lots going on this weekend. If you’re in the area, plan on stopping by one of these spots:

Wildflower Walk, Whitetop, Va.
The Blue Ridge Discovery Center (which is a group, not a place) is going wild flower hunting in the Whitetop Mountain area tomorrow.

A description of the hike, found on the group’s flyer, says the hike will begin in “Spruce-Fir forest and descend into rich forests of birch, maple and oak.”

To reserve a spot, contact Carol Broderson at carol@ls.net. She is a longtime hiker, discovery center volunteer and Mount Rogers Recreation Area trail maintainer.

The meeting location will depend on weather, the flower bloom status and, hopefully, should be settled on by now.

Arts Festival, Carter Home, Hillsville, Va.
The Historic Carter Home, Main Street, Hillsville, will host an art festival from noon to 8 p.m. tomorrow.

I don’t know too much about it, but heard lots of local artists would have their wares on display. Patty at the Time Factory told me about it.

If you go toward the end of the day, you’ll be able to catch Hillsville’s first summer concert of the year.

Hillsville Concert and Classic Car Cruise-in
The town has added even more concert dates this summer. This one snuck up on me. I thought the summer concert series would start in June.

I’m excited that The Embers are kicking off the event this year. The Embers usually end the concert series in late summer.

And, as always, the streets will be parked with hot rods, classic cars and some motorcycles. People come from all over to hang out and check out other’s rides. It seems to grow every year. My favorite last year was a car made completely of wood. So cool!

The event also includes children activities, food and beverages.

The concert is 5:30-9:30 p.m.

The remaining concerts of the year are:
June 26 — The Entertainers
July 24 — Craig Woolard Band
Aug. 21 — Jim Quick and Coastline
Sept. 11 — Mark Roberts and Breeze
And, unrelated, here’s some photos from our yard. The plants are looking great this year and we even got a peony bloom!

(From front to back) Coral bells, hosta and catmint./Photos by E.A. Seagraves
Please do not use photos without permission. Thanks!
(From front to back) Weigela and mock orange.

Peony . . . the only one we have and the first time they have bloomed.

Flowers in bloom

Last weekend, Chris and I made, what’s becoming an annual Easter trip, to the Austinville end of the New River Trail State Park.

Like last year, we recorded the flowers we saw and the number and type of butterflies and birds we saw.

On Sunday we saw:

Flowers —

Cut Leaf Toothwort

Rue Anemone


Dutchmen’s Britches

Fragrant Sumac (or, possible, Spicebush)


Butterflies — 4 blues, 4 morning cloaks, a painted lady, a question mark (or comma)

Morning Cloak

Question Mark (or a Comma)

Birds — kingfisher, cardinal

Mount Airy’s (N.C.) Emily B. Taylor Greenway

My husband, Chris, often says, “Everybody wants a trail nowadays.” And it seems like that’s true.

Seems like every town is discussing ways to become more walkable and offer passive recreation to residents.

That’s a good thing, in my opinion. I don’t think I ever want to live in a place that doesn’t have miles of trails. I’ve gotten quite spoiled with the wide variety of trails in Southwest Virginia since moving here five years ago.

One of the trails we frequent is the Emily B. Taylor Greenway, located in nearby Mount Airy, N.C. It’s proved useful during the past couple of months since we’re still covered in snow here in Virginia.

This trail is paved, which must contribute to how quickly the snow disappeared on most of the trail, allowing walkers and bikers to take advantage of it during the winter weather. Most of our trails in Hillsville are mulched, dirt or gravel and are still holding onto snow.

Of course, we’ve gotten more snow so that’s most likely the cause. We haven’t seen the grass in our yard, except for a week last month, since before Christmas.

Anyway, back to the greenway. The Emily B. Taylor Greenway is 2 3/8 miles of a paved trail that follows along a creek and U.S. 52 from Worth Street to West Lebanon Street.

Each quarter mile is marked with a granite marker, courtesy of Mount Airy Granite.

Although the photos above are nice areas of the trail, most of the scenery is the highway, industrial buildings and restaurants. And it’s visited by a lot of people. So it’s not that peaceful.

But that doesn’t mean you won’t see wildlife. Below are two pictures I took on a recent walk. On the left is a belted kingfisher and the right is, of course, a white-tailed deer.

Sorry for the quality of the photos. If I had taken Chris’ camera and zoom lens I might have been able to snap closer, clearer and better pictures. Actually, I’m surprised these turned out as well as they did.
We also often see robins, blue birds and sparrows.
Occasionally we’ve seen a heron (I think a great blue). On a walk last year, a friend swore she heard a yellow warbler, which she said is hard to spot and hear because the bird is usually very shy.

Mount Jefferson State Natural Area, N.C.

Another park Chris and I discovered recently on a day trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway was the Mount Jefferson State Natural Area in Jefferson, N.C.

We stopped by there yesterday on our way to search for North Carolina’s New River State Park.

Driving up the mount, you wind through a middle class neighborhood. Toward the summit, the homes give way to an oak-chestnut forest.

There are two overlooks on the way up the mountain providing views of North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Although hazy, I could just pick out the outlines of Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, the two tallest peaks in Virginia, located in Grayson County.

The road ends in a long parking lot. Off of that a path winds through a large picnic area, which includes one covered and one handicap accessible picnic areas.

Following the path through the picnic area leads visitors to the park’s hiking trails: Summit Trail, Rhododendron Trail and Lost Province Trail. There’s also an outcrop of rock, called Luther Rock, that gives a view of the valley below on three sides.

The trails are listed as moderate to strenuous and you should except a work out, although the trails are no more than 1.1 miles. The Summit Trail is 0.3 miles, Rhododendron Trail is a 1.1 mile loop and the Lost Providence Trail is a 0.75 mile loop off of the Rhododendron Trail.

It seems that the park is a popular picnicking area for the locals. The parking lot and picnic tables were full of families. We also met lots of people along the trails and on Luther Rock.

Common plants seen along the trail are rhododendron, laurel, oak, chestnut, birch, soloman and false soloman seal, bloodroot and jewelweed.

We also discovered a few new plants we’d never seen before — a type of coreopsis we’ve never seen before, whorled loosestrife and purple-flowering raspberry.

This is a type of coreopsis.

Whorled Loosestrife
Purple-flowering Raspberry

There was plenty of wildlife to see too. We saw a groundhog, a bird that looked like a Northern bobwhite and a large chipmunk.

We met a couple who were peering through binoculars at a bird singing in a tree close to the Rhododendron Trail. I couldn’t see it, but it sounded like a towhee, a black and orange bird. According to several bird guides, towhees sound like they are saying, “pick up your tea,” with the second syllable stressed and the fourth syllable trilled.

Butterflies we saw included morning cloaks and frittilaries.

I think this would be a perfect place to go for a picnic and a short afternoon walk. But parts of the trails are strenuous. So if you have asthma or are not used to outdoor activities, just take it easy.

For more information, visit the Web site or contact the park at (336) 246-9653 or mount.jefferson@ncmail.net.