Travel to the Alleghany Highlands

Every route in this mountain paradise is scenic. Anchored by the twin towns of 
Covington and Clifton Forge, the Alleghany Highlands sit smack in between The Omni Homestead Resort—20 miles to the east—and The 
Greenbrier, 20 miles west.

Its tagline, Uniquely Alleghany, speaks to the bounty of singular experiences on offer: You can swim in Lake Moomaw, hike the Jackson River trail, float fish for wild trout, and bike absolutely everywhere. Throw in an 80-foot waterfall and an historic covered bridge, and you’ll need more than a weekend to cover it all.

I begin at Wesley Hodges’ hunting and fishing lodge in Eagle Rock—aptly named Wesley Hodges Fly Fishing—15 miles from Clifton Forge. Clients fly in from around the world for his guided trips. As I drive in, his dogs track my car from the back porch. “There’s nothing those dogs want to do more than sniff out birds for you,” he tells me as soon as I arrive. Beyond the three-bedroom lodge, guests can stay in one of four comfortable glamping tents on his 13-acre property, situated on the James. From the lodge’s back porch, all five bird dogs whine in excited anticipation.

Photo credit: Kyle LaFerrier.

Virginia Living Magazine

I’m not here to hunt—but the dogs’ll get their chance. Hodges, who goes by Wes, has fished and hunted his whole life. Born in Texas, he could have chosen to live anywhere. Why Alleghany? “I can take clients to fish in seven different rivers within an hour of here,” he says. “I’ve traveled all over the world, but this is where I ended up.” A veteran of the Army 82nd Airborne, Hodges often welcomes fellow vets through the Wounded Warriors Project.

At the lodge, Bryn McDaniel, owner of Kind Baking 
in Roanoke, handles the cooking and baking. “We stay as local as we can, we even source our flour from a mill in Floyd.” I sample one of her banana-blueberry muffins, breakfast for a group of clients who just packed up and left—without the muffins. They should have stuck around. It’s super. Any other guest favorites, I ask? “My creamed carrots,” McDaniel is quick to answer. “It goes great with our Argentine-style meat cooked on our outdoor grill.”

Founded in 1746

Wes ended up in Alleghany after seeing the world, but most locals never leave. If they do, they don’t stay away for long. Dr. Paul Linkenhoker, a retired teacher and historian, is one of them. “Class of 1966, Covington High School,” he says. “Then I went off to earn graduate degrees from Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, but returned here to teach middle and high school history.”

I meet him in downtown Covington, at the Alleghany Highlands Discovery Center. It’s run by the Alleghany Historical Society, of which Linkenhoker is President and CEO. The Center’s official name—Alleghany Highland Industrial Heritage and Technology Discovery Center—is “a bit of a mouthful,” he admits. “We call it the Discovery Center for short.”

Photo by: Kyle LaFerrier.

Virginia Living Wesley Hodges Fly Fishing

Visitors here get a hands-on lesson on industries that shaped Covington and the region. “A Scotch-Irishman, Joseph Carpenter, and his three brothers settled here in 1746,” Linkenhoker explains. Within a few decades, iron production emerged, then timber and coal. In the 1920s, there was even a rayon factory.

Nowadays, WestRock dominates. With an annual revenue of around $21 billion, it’s one of the world’s largest paper and packaging companies. “They go through160-200 truckloads of timber every day,” he tells me. “If you’ve used a cardboard box or paper milk carton in the last few years, it probably came from Covington.”

Around the Highlands

Just a few minutes outside of Covington, the arched timberwork of Humpback Bridge spans Dunlap Creek. The longest arched wooden bridge in the U.S., it closed to vehicles in 1929. As my wife, Rebecca, and I saunter slowly through its dark interior, we notice the walls are inscribed with the hopeful scribblings of young lovers. To all of them, may your love endure like this bridge. It’s stood since 1857.

One couple that has lasted—Erin Bartley and her husband, Jeremy—share a love of running and the outdoors. Erin grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia, but Jeremy’s family, “has been in Covington forever,” she says. “I’m always meeting new cousins of his.”

Photo credit: Kyle LaFerrier.

Virginia Living Wesley Hodges Fly Fishing

The Bartleys coach the cross country teams at Alleghany County’s middle and high schools. Their direction seems to be working: In 2021, the boys’ team won the state championship—Alleghany High School’s first state win, in any sport. After that, the girls followed suit, 
capturing their own state championship in 2022.

When they’re not cultivating running champs, the couple heads for the water. “Lake Moomaw is a hidden gem,” says Erin. “There is no development, no second vacation homes on the shoreline. We take the kid, the dog, and a canoe and paddle out. It’s just us, out on the water, surrounded by the mountains.” The Bartleys also bike, run, and kayak—and they don’t have to look far for competitions.

For Outdoor Competitors

“I don’t know of another county our size that puts on as many outdoor adventure events as Alleghany,” says Josh Taylor, director of marketing and special events for the County. Taylor directs three of the biggest ones: in May, it’s the Agony in the Alleghenies Gran Fondo bicycle race. June brings the Jackson River Marathon, with runners covering the 15-mile crushed gravel Jackson River Scenic Trail. And in August, there’s the One-Mile Lake Moomaw Open Water Swim. If that’s not enough, Clifton Forge holds a rare triathlon, run-kayak-bike, in late May every year.

“We love to show off the region,” says Taylor. “Our biggest event is the marathon. We’re a Boston qualifier race. In June we hosted close to 500 runners from nearly all 50 states and several countries.”

The races are a good time, as I discovered while cycling up 5,000 feet of hills on the 64-mile Agony in 
the Alleghenies mountain ride. After crossing the finish line, riders get a free recovery massage and full leg compression therapy, along with a catered lunch, one free beer, with the Thomas Taylor Band playing country and classic rock covers.

Photo credit: Kyle LaFerrier.

Virginia Living Marian Paxton

Compression therapy? Angel Mcallister of Appalachian Wellness Massage pulls out her air-powered compression leg sleeves and explains: “Starting from your ankles and up to your thighs, they push your blood up and get the toxins out more quickly.”

She puts them on me and, after 15 minutes of leg-sleeve tightening from my lower calves up my thighs, I feel like a nicely squeezed sausage and let the next cyclist have a try. The next day, my legs feel pretty good. Angel was right. Rebecca is so impressed that she goes to Angel for a full- body massage and myofascial release the next day. Angel’s skill is enthusiastically endorsed with a slew of epic online reviews.  

Home Cooking

After burning calories over 64 miles, I have no trouble finding great local food. At Family TreeT’s, owner Tawnya Ross’ classic country hangout features rotating theme menus on Friday nights and a Sunday brunch 
buffet. Philly Cheese Steak Casserole and Million Dollar Baked Spaghetti were on the brunch menu when we 
visited. The sausage gravy on the breakfast bar was some of the best I’ve ever tasted. You’ll find it next to the waffle bar and Ross’ homemade desserts.

I find Tawnya behind the buffet counter. I ask her about the “tree” in Family TreeT. “My family ‘tree’ is full of chefs and bakers,” she says, laughing as she whisks me off for a tour. “This building is 175 years old and has been a bank, a hospital, a post office, a general store, and even a jail.”

In Clifton Forge, Jack Mason’s Tavern is the neighborhood hangout. “It’s like home,” says assistant manager Carry Ailspock, pointing to the upside down canoe hanging from the ceiling. People attach photos and 
dollar bills to it, in memory of locals who have passed on. At the bar, the walls and columns are covered with donated license plates, dollar bills scrawled with messages professing newlywed love, and other mementos.

Photo credit: Kyle LaFerrier.

Virginia Living Wesley Hodges Fly Fishing

“Once something is posted, it stays up,” Ailspock states. “That’s the rule. Even if you get divorced, we don’t take it down,” she says with a smile. With live music and home brewed beer, Jack Mason’s always draws a lively crowd. As the evening’s band warmed up, we enjoyed an impossibly rich brownie-bite cheesecake. It’s even more memorable with a cold glass of milk.  

If the Alleghany scenery and the people who live here shared a collective soul, it would rest in Clifton Forge’s Historic Masonic Theatre. Built in 1906 for $42,000 by Frye and Chesterman, an architecture firm from Lynchburg, it has hosted local concerts and events for over a century. A $6.9 million renovation was completed in 2016. If a show’s on the calendar when you’re in town, it’s well worth a visit. A pay-what-you-can movie night gives it an extra charming vibe.

“The Historic Masonic Theatre has a long history as a movie house, as well as bringing entertaining live acts to the Alleghany Highlands,” says Justin Reiter, the executive director of the Historic Masonic Theatre. “The renovation of our 118 year old theater did not stop that tradition.”

Drop in early to enjoy a drink at the Underground Lounge & Café before the show. You’re likely to strike up a conversation with a local. While you wait for curtains up, relax to the hypnotic babbling burbles of Smith Creek through the windows just a few feet away.

“Enjoy our chill atmosphere in The Underground Lounge, with three large screen televisions, full bar, snacks, fresh made popcorn, and live, incredibly talented local musicians,” says Reiter. “If you can’t make it to a movie, you can join our house band, Alibi.” They play on the second Thursday of each month for open mic night.

“The Historic Masonic Theatre is not only in the 
center of the town, it is the center of the town, and a 
community gathering place for the region,” notes Gayle Hillert, President of the Masonic Theatre Preservation Foundation Board of Directors. “Many say when they enter the doors, they feel her spirit of persistence.”

Janet Spearman would agree. Her father-in-law, John Hillert, led the drive to raise funds for the building’s spectacular, multimillion dollar restoration. Spearman gives Rebecca and me a tour, proudly noting every beam, every seat, and the painstakingly restored molding. As our tour wraps up, she sighs at the beauty of it. “I lose my breath a little every time I step into this building,” she says.

It’s just one of the sites here in Alleghany that will take your breath away. 

Jeff Yeates was born in Alexandria and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He and his family enjoy bicycling, roller coasters, and Virginia history. They always brake for roadside produce stands.

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