A civilized hike at Smith Mountain Lake
Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times
Sun rays pierce the clouds and reflect off Smith Mountain Lake on a late July evening along the Turtle Island Trail.
- Location: Smith Mountain Lake State Park in Bedford County. Brown highway signs clearly point the way from Virginia 24 east of Roanoke or from U.S. 460/221 at Bedford. Recommended route: From Roanoke, you can take Virginia 24 east (Elm Avenue) through Vinton and travel 18 miles east of Vinton to the intersection with Virginia 122. Turn right and follow 122 south 5 miles to Moneta, then turn left on Virginia 608. After 6 miles, turn right on Virginia 626 to the park, which can be entered by a road to the right marked by a sign. Once past the pay station ($2 fee), turn left at the split and the trailhead will be on your right just before a gate.
- Length: 4 trails in the park total 4.6 miles. The 2 covered here -- Turtle Island and Chestnut Ridge -- lead from the same trailhead and total 2.8 miles.
- Elevation: Around 800 feet. The lake, when full, officially tops out at 796 feet.
- Gottasee factor (scenery, scale 0 to 4): of 2: A nice hike through woods with some neat lakeshore views. Nothing overly spectacular, but definitely worth a side trip sometime if you're at or near the lake.
- Gottabreathe factor (difficulty, scale 0 to 4): of 1: Lots of level trail with very low-grade climbs. Total elevation difference is less than 100 feet. This is a trail the whole family can do regardless of ability level.
Most people who go to Smith Mountain Lake during the summer are thinking about a soak in the water, not a soak with sweat on a hiking trail. But the lake's namesake state park includes some decent, easy trails worth an evening saunter.
OK, so this isn't my kind of hiking. I much prefer God-made mountains to a man-made lake. But a couple of recent trips to Smith Mountain Lake State Park provided a pleasant change of pace, and I really didn't break much of a sweat, owing both to the trails' relative ease and to the wonderfully cool late July weather we experienced.
While the lake (technically it's an impoundment for a hydroelectric dam, but everyone calls it a lake) is man-made, the two trails I walked -- Turtle Island and Chestnut Ridge -- take advantage of natural terrain features that gained different personalities after water began backing up from the Roanoke and Blackwater rivers when the dam was built in the 1960s.
Turtle Island, for instance, would more appropriately be Turtle Knob if not for the lake, but a narrow channel of water now separates it from the lake's shoreline. Chestnut Ridge would still be a ridge, but it would present views of farmland instead of water.
The Turtle Island and Chestnut Ridge trails take off from the same trailhead on the road leading to the state park visitor's center. At the visitor's center, there are two additional trails I did not make it to -- Lake View and Tobacco Run -- that are rated easy by the state park. Since the state park rates the Turtle Island and Chestnut Ridge trails as moderate and I'm rating them as easy, I would suspect that the other 2 are "very easy" and would be a 0 or .5 on my "gottabreathe scale." It would be simple to do all the park's trails in 1 day.
Both the 1.3-mile Turtle Island and 1.5-mile Chestnut Ridge trails are sort of barbell shaped with loops on either end. Chestnut Ridge begins across the road from the trailhead, and we'll come back to it. The Turtle Island Trail begins behind a signboard and some picnic tables, paralleling the road. You can go either direction, but there is a blue interpretive pamphlet you can pick up at the signboard that is keyed to numbered signs along the way, and those numbers count from 1 to 22 in a counterclockwise direction. So that's the way we'll go.
The Turtle Island Trail follows a wide path around and down somewhat through a mixed forest to the lake shoreline, roughly follows it a while, then returns slightly upward back to the trailhead. Benches are placed here and there if you care to sit a spell and look out over the lake or admire the woods. The forest here contains the usual Virginia suspects -- oaks, maples, tulip poplars and pines -- but most of this land was cleared farmland before the lake. In the 40 years since the lake's creation, the forest has grown back rather robustly. And you may see robust wildlife -- a deer fawn made a quick cameo on the trail for me.
About halfway along the trail, there is a spur that heads right out to a footbridge that reaches the trail's namesake, Turtle Island. This "island" is really a rocky point that became surrounded by water after the lake was flooded. The last time I hiked it, it was actually a peninsula because the water was down slightly and the bridge merely crossed a muddy spot. Either way, this wooded knob provides some nice lake views as the trail skirts the edge of it and loops back to the bridge. Your feet will take you off this island Ñ you can't be voted off by your conniving islandmates.
Chestnut Ridge is a trek through a similar forest along and over a ridge that has now become a peninsula. In some places you can glimpse water in both directions from the trail.
After dropping slightly from the road, the trail splits. You can go either way here, for this split forms the first loop and the trail will merge into one again after about a half-mile. The merge point is near a historical remnant, an old cabin now missing a roof. People used to live in this area and farm crops, including tobacco.
Once the trails merge they follow the narrow ridgeline between portions of the lake. A nice bay will come into view on the right. It harbored a houseboat full of deliriously happy noises my last trip here. You will hear motorboats and jet skis out on the water here if you are hiking during warm seasons. In the winter, there's less of that and also fewer trees, opening up even more views of the lake.
The trail eventually splits again, and this split forms the loop at the end of the peninsula or ridge and takes you to probably the nicest views of the lake on the hike. Smith Mountain itself rises prominently in the distance and, in the foreground, you can see an attractive island home. Like I said before, it's not always a natural view, with lakeside homes and houseboats, but there is something soothing about hearing the lake water (sometimes propelled by the wake of a boat) slosh on shore rocks and the presence of water is always refreshing.
The loop works around this outcropping and leads back to the trail you came in on. When it comes upon the first loop, be sure and take whichever side back that you didn't do before, just to say you did the whole trail.
You don't have to go all the way to Smith Mountain Lake to experience lakeside hiking. Hiking is one of many activities that recently gained "official" approval by the Roanoke City Council at Carvins Cove, the city's drinking water reservoir just west of the city. The trail system there is less organized, but the terrain is more natural.