Southwestern Virginia - SUNDAY DAY ONE

View of Burke's Garden, Virginia's highest valley at over 3,000 feet CLICK FOR ENLARGED VIEW

After a month of planning Nancy and I packed the Fun Mover and headed north to explore the backroads of southwestern Virginia . We had received several dozen emails filled with interesting suggestions for fun roads and places to see in the Roanoake to Wytheville area so we decided to spend three nights and get in 4 days of riding.

You can see from this day of riding why we like the KLRs. We encountered several types of roads and the dualsports were fun on all.


After carefully negotiating the Dragon early Sunday morning we hit the Interstates into Virginia and noted no Tennessee Highway Patrol on these dangerous highways. We guessed they we having coffee and doughnuts while planning their weekend pep rally to cleanse the Dragon of the lawlessness. We were heading for a place that for now seemed much more welcoming to bikers.

At Rural Retreat Virginia we exited the boring superslab I81 at milemarker 60 and took SR680 north as a shortcut over to US52. Doing most of our pre-trip work on the Internet we had spotted Stony Fork Campground in Jefferson National Forest operated by the U.S. Forest Service as a central place to stay for a couple of nights. We find these state and federal campgrounds more to our liking over the more populated privately owned KOA types, even though we might not have sewer hook-ups or even water and electric. We also try to plan our stays on week nights when the campgrounds are less crowded.

We were pleasantly surprised as we circled the camping areas. There were a number of rather secluded sites in this heavily wooded campground and only a few were occupied. We selected a site on the dry creek bed of East Fork Branch that was protected on both sides by an expanse of trees. The site had electric, but no sewer or water which was fine with us for a few nights. Cost was $18 a night. Elevation 2400 feet, N37 00.623, W81 11.096.

After setting-up and unloading the KLRs we planned a short loop for the afternoon and programmed out GPS units. We have become totally spoiled when it comes to running with GPS. We have found that following pre-planned routes on the Garmin Zumo and making changes to the route on the fly greatly decreases wasted time using printed maps and stopping at intersections to make sure we are on-track. We use MapSource on Nancy ’s notebook computer to trace our planned route and then transfer the data to the Zumo. More about this in an associated article GPS HINTS

We zipped out of the campground and were met by a local sheriff at the next intersection. He actually smiled and waved at us giving us a much better welcome than THP gives riders coming to the Dragon. This was a good omen for our riding in the next few days.

Our route took us west on SR717 and then north on US 52. We were immediately on some great twisties as US52 climbs Big Walker Mountain from 2400 to 3500 feet in 4 miles. At the intersection of US52 and SR621 we stopped at the Big Walker Country Store and Lookout for a quick view southward into the valley below.

We then continued northward on US52 through some scenic country into Bland and then paralleled I-77 farther north to SR614. At the intersection we noted SR666 which by many is considered a “Devil’s Highway”. In New Mexico they actually changed the number on US666 because of this (some maps still show this as 666). We’ve ridden the New Mexico 666 and had no unusual experiences.

SR 614 westerly through a valley of Jefferson National Forest  had good pavement and some good sweeping corners. There were good views of the mountains to each side. Traffic was minimal.

At Gratton we turned south onto SR623 and suddenly met a challenging uphill climb with tight corners. The road crests and then descends into Burke’s Garden, a rather unique geographic feature. This nearly flat mountain valley at 3100 feet elevation is completely surrounded by mountains reaching 4000 feet. From the air Burke’s Garden looks like a giant crater, but there are numerous theories on its formation. We didn’t have time to explore the many backroads which blanket the valley and are used by motorcycles and bicycles. Most of these roads either dead-end or loop back to the main road SR623.

We made a quick stop at the Burke’s Garden General Store. We hadn’t been in the place for a minute when Nancy ’s face suddenly flashed a look of complete panic and she motioned me outside. She was on her bike and down the road in no time with me following somewhat confused. A mile down the road we pulled in at an old building designated as the US Post Office.

Nancy had been severely spooked when she entered the General Store. She was still shaking, nauseated and dazed. She had one of those moments when something had seriously affected her subconscious and told her to get away. We wondered if a murder had been committed there in the past or if something bad was coming soon. It was eerie and not like Nancy to get this feeling, but we are both believers in trusting our instincts so we left.

The old post office was closed, but the inside looked like it hadn’t changed in 100 years. The cornfields across the street stretched seemingly forever. We had a Red Bull and snack as Nancy slowly returned to normal.

Burke’s Garden is named for James Burke, a surveyor who camped in the area in 1748 and returned the next year to find potatoes growing where he had buried peelings. He settled there but left a few years later in fear of the Indians. It is said that the Vanderbilts tried to buy land here in the late 1800s but were turned down. They found land in Asheville where they built the Biltmore Estate, one of Asheville most popular tourist attractions today.

The only paved way out of Burke’s Garden is the way we entered on SR623. Since we were on our KLRs the gravel route to the south presented no problem. It was quite a picture on the GPS unit as we first climbed the ridge on switchback after switchback and then descended on similar path to Sharon Springs and US42. This was a 9.5 mile Forest Service gravel road which was well maintained. It crosses the Appalachian Trail .

Feeling refreshed after the gravel we twisted the wrists on US42, a great road with some fast sweepers. Then we took a quick right onto SR621. Wow …. Talk about some tight corners on a mountain road!!!!

Back at the Big Walker Country Store we turned for home on downhill US52. We took it easy here finding some gravel and a nasty guard rail.

The short 65 mile loop with a little bit of everything really whet our appetites for more back roads on Monday. We found wide open sweepers, tight corners, gravel switchbacks, and lots of bucolic scenery. And Nancy is still talking about the weird feeling at the general store.



TOTAL TIME: 3 hours

HIGHLIGHTS: Stony Fork Campground
Burke's Garden - even with the hinky feelings
Some great gravel
Some great back road twisties

Note the unique features of Burke's Garden on the left

Camp site at Stony Fork Campground

US52 overlook

US52 northbound toward Bland

Old gas station on US52

SR614 westbound

Gose Mill Pond with Burke's Garden in the background

Nancy and Ron at the old post office. We wore our new Olympia Moto Sports AST All seasons Touring Jackets that we got from Tellico Motorcycle Outfitters in Tellico Plains Tennessee. The outer shell Cordura jackets are great for summer days providing plenty of air flow to keep the body cool. Good armor protection for shoulders, elbows and back. Lots of pockets for cameras, cell phones, billfolds, glasses, etc. Lots of velcro too for both securing the pockets and tightening the front zipper, sleeves, neck and waist. The removable insulated jacket liner is a great jacket in itself. Nancy wore it in the evenings around the camp fire. We were impressed with the quality, comfort and cost.

Scenic shot at the post office

This shot was taken from the gravel road leading up and out of the valley

One of the many switchbacks on the gravel road

Heading home on US52 southbound

Corn fields as far as you can see

Another view from the gravel road as we came down the ridge approaching US42