Stirring and Serene

Virginia’s Smith Mountain Lake Delivers Both Fun and Relaxation

By Guy Fletcher | Posted on 08.12.15 – Destinations, Travel

Resting in a crook of the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwest Virginia is a manmade wedge of water that unintentionally delivers both ends of the vacation spectrum. Want to get away from it all and spend a quiet trip away from the bustle, crowds and kitsch of a resort town? This is your place. Want to partake in a wide range of high-octane water activities, including boating and skiing, with access to dining and entertainment? This is also your place.

Smith Mountain Lake really does try to be all things to all people—the out-of-the-way location that is still attractive for those who want a little fun with their sun. “It has just developed into a fun, wonderful community to visit,” says Vicki Gardner, executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The glassy lake is edged with mansions and mansion wannabes, as well as rental properties of all sizes and types. There are many local real estate companies that offer a range of homes, condos and other accommodations from which to choose. A good place to start your trip is by checking out the Chamber of Commerce’s website at www.visitsmithmountainlake.com, which is full of tourist information.

Taking in the scenery, it’s difficult to imagine that the lake water laps up against what were once mountain peaks. Smith Mountain Lake was created in the 1960s with the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Roanoke and Blackwater rivers. The dam was completed in 1963 and it took three years for the gorge to fill to its current level. Today, the lake covers 20,600 acres and has more than 500 miles of shoreline.

But the lake wasn’t an immediate hit for tourism. In fact, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the area remained mostly rural, with tobacco farms and other agriculture abundant. “Most people had no idea a lake was here,” Gardner says. Early development consisted largely of small trailer parks and modest houses. But in the 1980s the area began growth that continues to this day with upscale, large lakefront houses, as well as condominiums, marinas and golf course communities.

Then, something funny happened: the internet. Gardner speculates that as word of the lake hit the web and then social media, people outside the area really started to take notice. What they found was a location that wasn’t too far away from the metropolitan areas, yet felt worlds away when they got there. They also found a climate that maintained four seasons without extreme swings in temperature. So they started to build … and build.

The dam was completed in 1963 and it took three years for the gorge to fill to its current level. Today, The lake covers 20,600 acres.

Today, a vacation at the lake can involve a range of activity: taking out a boat to explore the various serpentine channels; whiling away the hours on a pier with a good book; zooming by in a personal watercraft; or fishing for the big catch of the day. (The lake is stocked with striped bass and fishing tournaments are frequently held.)

There’s much to do off water, as well, including golfing, hiking and biking. One popular stop is the America Electric Power dam that created the lake, where visitors can learn how electricity is generated at the facility through hands-on exhibits, computer models and a theater with audio-visual presentations. A three-dimensional terrain map shows the lake area as if viewed from 25,000 feet and a scenic overlook provides spectacular views of the dam, gorge and lake.

In nearby Bedford, Va., is the National D-Day Memorial, a moving tribute to those who fought and died during the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II. The memorial, which features a haunting tableau of the beach landing, includes the names of the 4,413 Allied soldiers who died in the invasion, the most complete list of its kind anywhere in the world.

At first, rural southwest Virginia might seem an unusual location for such a national memorial, but it was the tiny town of Bedford (population 3,200 in 1944) that suffered the nation’s highest per capita losses when 23 of its men died during the Normandy campaign. The memorial is open most days from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit www.dday.org for more information about fees, tours and background about “the Bedford boys” who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation.

Also nearby is the Booker T. Washington National Monument, birthplace of the famed orator, educator and author who was born a slave in 1856 on the 207-acre farm of James Burroughs. The park, which includes an interpretive visitor’s center, walking trails and farm and garden areas, is open all year from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit www.nps.gov/bowa for more information.

Such a wide offering of sights and events have expanded the tourist season far outside the traditional summer months. In late September, visitors flock to the lake for the annual Smith Mountain Lake Wine Festival and in November is the Fall Chili and Craft Festival. “There are events happening all year round,” says Gardner.

Her office is also readying for a series of events next year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the lake. “It’s a great time for the eyes of the world to be on Smith Mountain Lake,” she says.

A drawback? This isn’t the place to go to if you like your vacation travel limited to a few hours in the car. A trek to Smith Mountain Lake is a full four hours from Frederick County, and most of it is over the well-traveled—and truck-favored—Interstate 81. So, if you have visions of a peaceful drive through the bucolic Blue Ridge, forget that. One doesn’t enjoy a drive to Smith Mountain Lake as much as one endures the trip.

But fans of the lake life will swear that the destination is worth the trip. And when your toes first dip into the cool lake waters and you take in a deep breath of the clean mountain air, it’s hard to debate that.