Mountain Lake emerges as destination for nature lovers
Bill Cochran | The Roanoke Times
Mountain Lake Hotel in Giles County overlooks one of the two natural lakes in Virginia.
The rocking chairs still line the porches of the lodge made of native stone and the hillside cottages continue to offer the best seat in the house to watch the September shadows fall lazily across the water. But Mountain Lake no longer is a place just for nodding.
The pleasure resort, which dates to the mid-1800s, remains a far cry from a hiker's bedroll, but it is attracting a more active, outdoor-oriented clientele who come to hike and mountain bike and cast flies to colorful rainbow trout in water that is deep and cold and a bit mysterious.
"We are seeing more and more young couples and young families who want to be active," said Jeff Slack, executive director of the Wilderness Conservancy at Mountain Lake. "They want to hike, they want to fish, they want to bike, they want to canoe. They are ecotourists. We are trying to put together the programs that suit those folks."
The best example of the transition might be the mountain-side golf course, which has regenerated into wildlife habitat. The quest for birdies has given way to the pursuit of glimpses of birds and big bucks and even bears that come to feed on blueberries and grasses amid wildflowers that bend in the breeze.
While the natural lake has been around since nature formed it with dramatic rock slides and a hotel has existed for more than a century in this Giles County setting, the wilderness conservancy is a more recent concept. It is a nonprofit foundation dedicated to preserving and protecting the natural beauty and resources of the lake and the 2,600 acres of private mountain land that surround it. Slack's work as the overseer is aided by an advisory council composed heavily of resource experts from Virginia Tech.
"The conservancy was formed in 1989 by the Mary Moody Northern Foundation," Slack said. "She was the previous owner. She died in 1986. The foundation, decided to form the conservancy because Mrs. Northern loved the environment. She loved Mountain Lake and didn't want to see anything happen to it."
With the conservancy has come the emerging of the resort as a destination for nature lovers and conservationists who don't mind being pampered, but who also harbor strong feelings for wild places and want a bit of rawness and ruggedness in their lifestyle. The program is not without its challenges.
"Never again," said Crystal Smelser of Rural Retreat, after returning from a mountain-bike ride in granny-gear country. "You do a lot of pushing the bicycle up these trails." Her husband, Wayne, insisted it really wasn't so bad.
The two, who were celebrating their anniversary, later joined Slack in a more gentle, guided hike to Bald Knob, which started in a moist sea of ferns behind the hotel and concluded on a lofty upcropping of sandstone boulders skirted by the bright berries of mountain ash.
Along the way, Slack explained how to tell the difference between yarrow and Queen Anne's lace - the root of the Queen Anne's lace smells like a carrot - and how the striped maple trees can change sex - it happens when they are stressed - and why the dark-eyed junco's are year-round residents - "They know a good thing when they see it."
The Bald Knob hike is one of Slack's favorites, along with Bear Cliffs and Golf Course Road.
He raised some eyebrows when he told his hiking group, "I wouldn't encourage you to go into the caves [at Bear Cliffs]. We don't know what is in there."
Some 24 miles of trails have been refurbished on the property, and just beyond the conservancy land are 11,000-acre Mountain Lake Wilderness and the Appalachian Trail.
While the mountains of Mountain Lake are getting more close-up attention from the average guest, the lake remains the focal point of the area. It is one of two natural lakes in Virginia, the other is Drummond Lake in Dismal Swamp. You need only take a summertime dip in Mountain Lake to realize it is a cold-water habitat, which is fed by underground streams that rarely allow the water temperature to rise above 72 degrees.
"We have a really neat fishery," Slack said. "We are trying to manage the lake for trophy rainbow trout and largemouth bass."
The staff provides guided fishing tours, and there are fly-fishing lessons by Harry Slone, a Roanoker who is the author of the guidebook, "Virginia Trout Streams." Slone's instruction at the resort frequently is directed toward members of Elderhostel, a national provider of educational opportunities for older adults.
"Some of our guests want to keep the fish and have the chef prepare them for dinner as a side dish," Slack said. "It has to be a 14-inch trout, which is usually not a problem."
For guests, there is no charge for fishing or guided hikes, but day users pay a fee. Accommodations at the resort range from $75 to $335 per night and include breakfast and dinner in the hotel's window-lined dining room. Mountain-bike rentals are available from the conservancy.