Appalachian Trail Town

Why Pearisburg is a hiker’s mecca.

(Photo by Kyle LaFerriere)

On this early spring morning in Pearisburg, I sink into an Adirondack chair on the deck of the Inn at Riverbend. I listen to the New River rippling below me as it flows toward the rugged Appalachian Mountains rising in the distance. Deer frolic in a dew-covered meadow.

When I’d arrived dirty and rumpled the day before, after hiking a wooded stretch of the Appalachian Trail, Riverbend’s innkeeper, Jeanne Jeffers, flashed me a knowing smile. “Our theme is relax, renew, refuel,” she told me. Now freshly showered after a good night’s rest in a sumptuous corner room with spectacular views, I linger over coffee and embrace her words wholeheartedly.

When Jeffers’ husband, John Dush, summons the inn’s guests to breakfast, I realize that I am ravenous and ready for a second cup of Riverbend Blend; the Inn’s custom coffee is roasted in small batches in nearby Riner. 

(Photo by Kyle LaFerriere)

Breakfast is Served

Dush has laid out fresh pears, chocolate zucchini muffins, and vanilla yogurt topped with freshly grated ginger root. Now, he’s manning the griddle, turning out strips of smoked bacon and fluffy blueberry pancakes. I drizzle them with orange cardamom syrup before taking a bite. 

I’m in heaven. 

Couples are drawn to the Inn, and I’m joined around the table by a pair of newlyweds from Spotsylvania County and a long-married couple from North Carolina. When I mention my plans to tackle the 10-mile hike up nearby Sugar Run Mountain, both couples say they haven’t thought much beyond breakfast. Instead, they’re content to let the day unfold.    

(Photo by Kyle LaFerriere)

The Inn at Riverbend (now Lilly Valley Inn) also attracts Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, who are covering the 2,194 miles between north Georgia’s Springer Mountain and Maine’s Mount Katahdin in one go. It’s “a grueling and demanding endeavor,” the trail’s website cautions, the “equivalent to hiking Mt. Everest from sea level and back 16 times.”

In springtime, when the thru-hikers begin popping up like crocuses in Pearisburg, they’ve put 600 miles behind them—and they happily stray the two miles to the Inn, where a private room with plush bed linens and a hot shower awaits. 

Several years ago, Jeffers says, a retired federal judge booked a few nights there. He’d hiked the 600 miles and, once he arrived, “he just kept adding a night,” she recalls. “Eventually, he told me, ‘I think I’m done.’” The judge never did get back to the Trail.  

Trail Community

I’ve come to hike, too, but the Appalachian Trail, affectionately known as the AT, isn’t on my to-do list. Instead, I’m checking off hikeable summits and reveling in brilliant mountain vistas for a guidebook I’m writing on Virginia’s tallest peaks. 

Pearisburg, founded in 1806, is one of the welcoming trail towns in Virginia, home to some 550 miles of the Appalachian Trail, more than any other state it passes through. About 50 of those miles run through Giles County, home to Pearisburg.

(Photo by Kyle LaFerriere)

Ralph Robertson has hiked over 800 miles along the AT through Virginia and neighboring states. From trail overlooks, he identifies specific mountains, rivers, and towns, even miles in the distance, in his charismatic drawl. A local outdoorsman, Robertson attributes his deep knowledge to two things, “I’m nosy, and I like to talk a lot,” he says. “If I see a hill, I can’t rest until I get back there and find it.” 

He gets a lot of questions, too, often about hiking shoes. “Well, what kind of shoes are comfortable on your feet?” he shoots back. He claims he could walk barefoot on his area trails. 

The thrill of kicking off your shoes is shared by many hardy and determined thru-hikers. Once they reach Pearisburg, there’s no better feeling after the 636-mile journey from Georgia.

Pearisburg is a popular stopping point, whether it’s to restock at the Food Lion or fill up on tacos and tortillas at La Barranca Mexican Grill, one of my favorite spots in town. Of course, hungry hikers aren’t picky, so the local Dairy Queen and Hardee’s also do the trick. The few hotels in Pearisburg include the no-frills hostel, Angel’s Rest Hiker’s Haven. Basic accommodations there also include hiker luxuries like WiFi and a laundry room. 

With the Hikers Comes Spring 

For Samantha McCroskey, owner of Sugar + Flour, a Main Street bakery known for its piping hot cinnamon rolls, early- to mid-spring is a special time of year. “When the hikers come through town, it’s a sign that spring is finally here,” she says. “They come in to warm up, get a hot drink, and charge their devices before getting back on the Trail. It’s such a fun time of year.” 

The AT cuts through less than one mile to the west, so the weary backpackers that find their way onto Main Street are quickly drawn to McCroskey’s breakfast rolls, coffee, lattes, and chai teas. 

A few doors down from Sugar + Flour, at Pearis Mercantile, hikers stock up on freeze-dried meals, stove fuel, and insect repellent. The Mercantile, also a gift shop, has most anything hikers need to get back on the trail quickly, even sleeping bags and tent repair kits.

Warming Hearts and Souls 

On my way up Sugar Run Mountain, I pause less than three miles in at Wapiti Shelter, one of 62 rustic hiker shelters that dot the AT in Virginia. There, I chat up a section hiker, a man in his 50s who’s been on the trail for just a few weeks. Unlike the thru-hikers, he’s taking a few years to complete the entire trail, checking off a new stretch of miles each year.  

He’s also trying on trail names for size. Fellow hikers have bestowed him with both “Doc” and “Boomer,” but he’s not ready to commit to either one. A trail name is a nickname long-distance hikers earn from their fellow travelers. A few hours later, as I steer my car down a bumpy, gravel road toward Wood’s Hole Hostel, a popular spot a short walk from the AT, I spot him again and offer a ride. He tosses his heavy pack into my trunk, and we make our way to the hostel.

Tucked deep into the woods, Wood’s Hole feels more like a commune than a hostel, but that’s part of the appeal. Owner Neville Harris is known up and down the trail for her warm, home-cooked meals, like vegetable soup and Mexican lasagna—and even warmer trailside hospitality. 

Harris’ grandparents opened the hostel in 1986. A certified massage therapist and yoga teacher, she now runs the place and offers free yoga classes on request. A downward-facing dog must feel amazing after a long day spent lugging a 30-pound pack along the trail. 

At Wood’s Hole, a night in the bunkhouse starts at $22 per person, while private rooms in the main house go for $77. Glamping tents are also available. Breakfast and dinner come with suggested donations instead of prices. Harris doesn’t want money to burden hikers’ weary minds. “When hikers arrive, they’ve had a hard trip,” she says. “They need to get their hearts and souls warm.” Donations to her online Trail Magic Jar allow Harris to offer beds to hikers who can’t afford a night’s stay. She also hosts community breakfasts and dinners, asking only for help with cooking and cleanup. “Generosity, it’s such a cool thing,” she tells me. “It’s really a gift to yourself.” 

Culinary Delights

You might think the dining scene in a region best known for hiking trails, fishing, and kayaking would be ho-hum. But you’d be mistaken. Once I cleaned up after my hike, I made the short drive to The Bad Apple, a speakeasy-style restaurant in nearby Pembroke, which, let me tell you, is no easy find. By design, even the front door is obscured, but it’s all part of the mystique. 

The Bad Apple occupies a 1940s-era barn on Doe Creek Farm, a working orchard founded in the late 1800s. The barn sat dormant for years until the restaurant repurposed it in November 2019. “There’s a totally different feel when you walk in,” says Allison Hollopter, one of the restaurant’s owners. “The Bad Apple is about no worries and good times. It’s an escape where you come to lose place and time.”

I order the Low Country Shrimp and Grits—shrimp, andouille, and bacon served over a creamy bed of grits. “I tried to take it off the menu once—to refresh our entrées for a new season,” says Hollopter, who describes it as a definite favorite with regulars. Then came the backlash. “Oh man, I was getting personal phone calls. We haven’t taken it off since.” 

The Bad Apple is also known for hand-crafted cocktails, like the Hay Burner and Bad Apple Old Fashioned. Both are made with spirits from Virginia distilleries—the exclusive focus on Virginia wines, beer, and spirits is a Bad Apple hallmark.

Days Well Spent 

I make my way back to the Inn at Riverbend for a pleasant night’s sleep, dreaming of the next morning’s coffee and breakfast at the Inn, which happens to be among those certified Virginia Green by the state.  

I was set for another mountain hike too, with my sights on Pearis Mountain, where lavender phlox line the path to Angel’s Rest View Rock. This perfect boulder is one that angels—and hikers—can stand on for a spectacular view of the New River and Pearisburg. 

The hike to Angel’s Rest was gorgeous, definitely as-advertised, and my work was complete. I had checked off three guidebook-worthy hikes, but I would be back soon, maybe for another cup of Riverbend Roast with a side of sunrise pinks and oranges from the deck of the Inn. 

A Weekend in Pearisburg

– Eat
  • Sugar + Flour, Pearisburg: Make a stop on Main Street for made-to-order lunch specials and warm, gooey cinnamon rolls. Facebook: Sugar + Flour, LLC
  • The Bad Apple, Pembroke: This speakeasy-style restaurant boasts craft cocktails, award-winning wines, and sophisticated fare.
  • The Palisades Restaurant, Eggleston: Set in a one-time general store, enjoy locally sourced cuisine, including seasonal pizzas.
  • Bluegrass BBQ, Pembroke: Legendary barbecue joint with epic sides like mac ‘n’ cheese, collard greens, and sweet potato casserole.
– Stay
  • Wood’s Hole Hostel and B&B, Pearisburg: Not just for AT hikers, this charming and welcoming log cabin homestead was built in the late 1800s with chestnut trees from the property. 
  • Inn at Riverbend (now Lilly Valley Inn, Pearisburg: Rejuvenate at this seven-room inn with views across the New River and Appalachian Mountains.
  • Mountain Lake Lodge, Pearisburg: Nobody puts Baby in a corner at this pet-friendly historic stone lodge. Opt for a cottage or cabin alongside Mountain Lake where much of Dirty Dancing was filmed. 
  • Angel’s Rest Hikers Haven, Pearisburg: Close to everything in town, this family-friendly haven was built by hikers for hikers. With private rooms and a bunkhouse, overnight rates start at $25.
– Hike
  • Cascades Falls: Hike to 66-foot-tall Cascades Falls on this out-and-back hike along Little Stony Creek (easy).
  • Wind Rock: A half-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail leads to big views near Mountain Lake Lodge (easy). 
  • Bald Knob: A hike to the top of Bald Knob rewards hikers with vibrantly colored sunsets (moderate). 
  • Angel’s Rest: This wooded hike on the Appalachian Trail delivers hikers to two overlooks with breathtaking views (strenuous).

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum