Charlottesville: top ten mountain town

Charlottesville: top ten mountain town

Last year, Travel & Leisure included Charlottesville as #9 on its list of America’s Top Ten Mountain Towns. Not surprising. Most of us feel that subtle gravitational tug of the Blue Ridge to our west, relishing that blue mountain horizon visible for miles. Many of us succumb to the call of the mountains for recreation, relaxation, and renewal.

“Mountains attract a wide variety of people,” declares REALTOR® John McKeithen, an associate broker with Mountain Area Realty in Nellysford. “Some people like the long distance view from the top of the mountain. Others want to look up from the valleys to the mountains. The opportunities for recreation are great.”

Time out.

We know you want to know the other nine. Four are Colorado at Aspen, Estes Park, Boulder, and Telluride.  Also out west are Park City, Utah, and Whitefish, Montana. Closer to us are Lewisburg, WV, Stowe, VT, and Lake Placid, NY.

Now back to our story. What exactly defines a mountain town?

“No concrete criteria exist to quantify what makes a mountain town,” concedes the website for Blue Ridge Outdoors, the go-to magazine for mountain events and activities with offices in Charlottesville. “Not every town at a high elevation is a mountain town, but not every mountain town is in the actual mountains.”

The website continues, “You can usually tell if that dot on the map has an outdoor culture the minute you pull into town. Commuters on bikes, runners on a lunchtime jog, or a full tasting room at the local brewery are all good indicators you are in a mountain town paradise.”

Another sure sign of being “outdoorsy” is the presence of outfitters like those found in Charlottesville including Albemarle Angler, Blue Ridge Mountain Sports, Gander Mountain, and Great Outdoor Provision Company.

But perhaps the most telling clue is when you pull into a local parking lot and the vehicle next to you has Shenandoah National Park license plates, a decal reading LVMTNS, two mountain bikes mounted on its back end, and a kayak roped to the roof.

Along with all those clues, the single most important aspect of a mountain town is the people and their attitudes because outdoor recreation takes real commitment from people to maintain trails, keep waterways clean, and keep developers honest.

The Mountains

“Albemarle, Nelson, and Greene Counties are all gateways to the Appalachians, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Shenandoah Trust Park System,” says REALTOR® Sara Greenfield, Principal Broker for Charlottesville Fine Homes and Properties. “Much of the park touches Albemarle County just outside of the Crozet area, and to this day, there are still dirt roads and paths that lead through the ridge to the Shenandoah Valley beyond.”

The Appalachians appeared more than a billion years ago with Rocky Mountain-like high peaks. During the last few hundred million years, however, erosion left only their cores standing as the relatively gentle mountains we see today in the Blue Ridge.

Shenandoah National Park, authorized in the mid-1920s, wasn’t actually established for another 15 years. During that time, President Hoover purchased property on the Rapidan River and built a Summer White House—the first place deliberately constructed as a presidential retreat. (The Hoovers later donated the property to the park.)

Eventually Skyline Drive construction began, and the Civilian Conservation Corps was established and moved into the park area. More than 450 families—mostly small farmers—were relocated from the Blue Ridge and their fields returned to nature.

The lower elevations are well suited to grape growing, REALTOR® Greenfield continues, and there are a growing number of wineries and cideries for visiting. “The Blue Ridge is a natural magnet for bicyclers, walkers, and hikers who love its elevation and beautiful winding roads at the top of ridges and peaks,” Greenfield continues. “Campers enjoy the stillness and the ability to escape to quiet valleys and lakes.”

Recreation Abounds

“We really enjoy camping,” agrees Jill Dahl, principal of Charlottesville High School. She often camps along the Blue Ridge with her husband, their two teenage sons, and a pair of shelter rescue dogs. “It’s so great to get unplugged from electronics. We play cards and board games and get more engaged as a family. We come back recharged from our tech-free fun.”

Others head to the mountains for hiking, rock-climbing, zip-lining, bicycling, plus rafting, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, and other water sports. Changing seasons mean new forms of recreation. Leaf-peepers bring a surge in autumn tourism and winter means skiing, ice skating, and other cold weather sports.

Both Wintergreen Resort about 40 road miles southwest of Charlottesville, and Massanutten Resort, about ten miles east of Harrisonburg, offer skiing, ownership in lodging properties, and a variety of year-round overnight accommodations, dining, and spas. Summer brings doings such as tubing, golf, children’s activities, tennis, and a variety of musical performances. Each resort has an inviting website with much more information.

The AT

The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a powerful draw for people from all over the country. It was first proposed in 1921 and over the next sixteen years was promoted and built by private citizens. By 1937, it covered 2,185 miles from Maine’s Mt. Katahdin to Springer Mountain in Georgia. Today it’s maintained by federal and state agencies and thousands of volunteers.

Virginia has more AT miles—about 550—than any other state. Much of the AT in Virginia parallels the Blue Ridge along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive. The AT’s history, rigors, and joys are nicely told by Bill Bryson in his book A Walk in the Woods. A movie version, directed by Robert Redford, will be released this coming September starring Redford and Nick Nolte as erstwhile thru-hikers.

Thru-hikers are those intrepid souls who complete the entire trail in a single season. In 1948, a World War II vet named Earl Shaffer became the first documented thru-hiker (south to north) as he sought to “walk off” his traumatic experiences and the loss of friends during the war. He later thru-hiked the trail from the north, then fifty years after his first hike, at age 79, he again completed the AT south to north in a single season.

Kate Hoffmeyer, 29, says the mountains are a major reason she lives in Charlottesville. “In late December,” she recalls, “I met a woman who’d completed a thru-hike and I caught the trail bug bad! Hiking the AT went from something on my life list to a full commitment.”  She left Georgia this past April and by Memorial Day had reached Damascus, Va. Her trail nickname is “Cheerio” and it’s great fun to be a vicarious thru-hiker by following her trail blog.  Find it with a quick search for “trail journals Cheerio.”

Another Charlottesville resident, former Marine captain Sean Gobin, served three deployments in mid-Eastern war zones before leaving the Corps and thru-hiking off his own war on the AT. He determined to earn an MBA and chose the Darden School of Business at UVa to earn an MBA. Why Darden? Location.  Location.  Location.

“The Blue Ridge is the most beautiful parkway in the U.S. in my opinion,” he says. “I love to motorcycle on the parkway and hike the AT and the Shenandoah Park area is my favorite part. So my decision to attend Darden was its location closest to the Blue Ridge. I love the mountains. This is just the picture perfect place to live.”

Gobin is also the founder of Warrior Hike, which helps honorably discharged war-zone vets to complete hikes on one of six National Scenic Trails, including the AT, by providing equipment and supplies, community support, and eventually job placement help.

When hiking with others who’ve been in combat, and with no cell or computer, Gobin explains, the vet is freed to process war traumas. In addition, various groups along the trail—often the American Legion or a VFW post—arrange ahead of time to ferry hikers into town for a hot shower, meals, and a bed. “These people help the hikers reconnect with normalcy,” Gobin says. “Many hosts are vet’s groups with members who are farther down the road of life and provide mentorship and crucial insight.”

The 2015 AT hike started on March 15 and spent the month of May hiking north through Virginia. Not every thru-hiker—warrior or civilian—makes it all the way. “The typical attrition rate is 80 percent,” reports Gobin, “we’re closer to 50.” For information, visit WarriorHike.org.”

Real Estate in the Mountains

REALTOR® McKeithen of Mountain Area Realty, a Nelson County resident for about 20 years, loves hiking in the mountains, citing the Crabtree Falls area as a particular favorite. “Rivers are also significant,” he says and, in fact, he lives on the Rockfish River with a great place on his property for launching kayaks and fishing.

“The biggest player in mountain real estate is Wintergreen,” he says. “There is new ownership and management and we’re very positive about that. They are doing some major improvements to snow-making, for example.”

All the properties at Wintergreen are privately owned, but many owners on the mountain make their places available for rental. These, McKeithen he says, are mostly second homes. On the other hand, the valley section called Stoney Creek is probably 90 percent or so owned by retirees and people still working. “There’s a giant range of prices,” he comments, “depending on location, size, and condition.” He cites studio condos on the mountain priced starting at about $50,000 to single family homes priced anywhere from $200,000 to well over a million.

Of course, there are many places besides Wintergreen out in the mountain. “The Montebello area with Crabtree Falls up to the Appalachian Trail has some wonderful properties,” he says. “Tye River has pretty properties, too.” He says many places are second-home cabin-types, and there’s a wide variety from half a million dollars down to a small retreat. There is also acreage available from cabins with a couple acres to larger tracts available for building.

Whether you seek to live in the mountains, or simply visit them, their proximity makes Charlottesville a wonderful mountain town.

By Marilyn Pribus

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Marilyn Pribus and her husband like seeing the Blue Ridge from the Albemarle County home and have hiked portions of the AT in several states.