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(Above) Burruss Hall, the main administration building at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Photo by Cheyenne Kees. (Click on images to view larger versions.)

Virginia’s Montgomery County is steeped in scenic wonders, a rich cultural heritage, and Hokies.

6-Mar-24 – It is helpful, before visiting Montgomery County in southwestern Virginia, to know what the heck a “Hokie” is. You will encounter a lot of them, and you just might become one.

By definition, a Hokie is a student, athlete, or fan of prestigious Virginia Tech in the most pleasant town of Blacksburg.

This Hokie business started more than a century ago as a made-up word in a made-up cheer in a made-up contest to rally campus athletes. The word was soon associated with Gobblers, a school nickname of dubious etymology. From there, the turkey part is easy to figure.

Put it all together and you’ve got HokieBird, the maroon-and-gold costumed mascot who performs in plushy splendor at sporting events and festivities. His caricatured likeness is replicated on apparel, artwork, signage, and tchotchkes everywhere you go.

Photo by Michael Kiernan

(Left) HokieBird at the Duke vs. Virginia Tech football game on October 26, 2013. Photo by Michael Kiernan.

The thick of Hokie Country is Montgomery County, sprawling the New River Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Virginia Tech, along with sister towns Blacksburg and Christiansburg, form a triumvirate of art, culture, cuisine, and gorgeous landscape. Large swaths of the George Washington & Jefferson National Forests – plus myriad parks, preserves, and waterways – beckon outdoor explorers and photographers.

My Hokie adventure began on the campus of Virginia Tech, where my first impression was all the buildings appeared strikingly similar. The university was founded in 1872, then named Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, and has grown to 200-some buildings, 2,600 acres, and 38,000 students.

Some buildings are designed in Collegiate Gothic style, some are Romanesque, and others are decidedly modern. What ties them together are their facades of Hokie stone, a local multi-hued limestone that has been used since 1899. It was originally chosen because bricks were in short supply, but today it is a signature feature. In fact, the university operates its own quarry. Later-day facades include expanses of glass and precast concrete, but Hokie stone remains the common aesthetic.

I checked into the Inn at Virginia Tech, a 147-room boutique hotel with an adjacent conference center. Hokie stone clads the facade and porte cochere, and it paves the floor of the wood-paneled lobby (right).

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Onsite Preston’s is a white-tablecloth restaurant with a regional and seasonal menu plus buffet breakfast, and Continental Divide is a casual lounge for bites, sips, and sometimes live music. The guest rooms are classically furnished in a palette of warm earthy tones and arranged with a computer workstation and upholstered seating area. It’s an elegant place to anchor your stay but be sure to consult the school athletic calendar. Reservations are scarce when the Hokies play home games.

Hokie heritage

As I explored the campus, one visual standout is Moss Arts Center, named for celebrated artist and benefactor P. Buckley Moss. The building’s sleek architecture is underscored by a glass curtain wall of elongated hexagons, which is dramatically illuminated from the interior at night. Hokie stone is a minor element, but it’s there.

Photo by Jim Stroup

(Left) Moss Arts Center in twilight. Photo by Jim Stroup.

Moss Arts Center is a venue for both performing and visual arts, with a 1,300-seat, state-of-the-art concert hall and multiple galleries for exhibitions. A robust events agenda of music, theater, dance, and multimedia is presented by international and regional performers and artists, and faculty and students.

Another worthy campus attraction is Hahn Horticultural Garden (right), a botanical retreat from collegiate buzz. The six-acre garden is the largest public garden in western Virginia and a teaching lab for students. Within the diverse environs of sun, shade, and water are a meadow of native plants, collections of maples and conifers, a wisteria arbor, and aquatic and xeriscape gardens.

Photo by Scott Douglas

Photo by Scott Douglas

Jeweled colors such as spring tulips and summer annuals are displayed seasonally, and indoor and outdoor nature-themed art exhibitions are ongoing.

In Christiansburg, Montgomery Museum of Art and History showcases both the works of regional artists and the history of Montgomery County and Virginia. The museum makes a creative home in a 1960s-era bank by adapting and preserving its original architectural features. The vault is one of several art galleries on the premises, and the area behind the teller counters is the genealogy center.

When I visited the museum, a lobby exhibition portrayed the lives of local coal miners until the industry closed in the mid-1970s. Here I learned that coal mining was a seasonal job, primarily in winter, when demand for heat was the highest. Many miners farmed crops as a source of income during the summer.

Another exhibit displayed photographs by O. Winston Link, best known for his dramatic black-and-white images depicting the waning days of steam locomotives between 1955 and 1960 on the Norfolk and Western Railway. Past exhibit topics have included early African American schools and the history of NASCAR, which has roots in the days of Prohibition.

Get outdoors

Scenic New River Valley boasts hundreds of miles for hiking and biking, at all degrees of challenge. Montgomery County’s terrain varies from flat to knobby, and from marshy to forested. These are my easy-peasy hiking experiences:

Photo by Austin Hodges

The 15-mile Huckleberry Trail (left) connecting Blacksburg and Christiansburg runs through a landscape of residential neighborhoods, farms, and woodlands.

Photo by Austin Hodges

It’s a paved rail-to-trail course with multiple trailheads for access to cultural highlights and casual eateries.

Pandapas Pond is a hidden lakelet set within George Washington & Jefferson National Forests. The one-mile loop is a leisurely stroll alongside hardwood forest and feral rhododendrons. Pedestrians only, but other nearby trails are acclaimed by serious mountain bikers.

At Beliveau Farm and Winery (right), you’re welcome to venture 165 hilly acres of vineyards, lavender garden, woodlands, and hay fields.

Photo provided by Beliveau Farm and Winery

Beliveau Farm and Winery

Then chill out with a glass of estate wine and a charcuterie platter while the sun sets over distant mountains. All wines – red, white, dry, and sweet – are produced from Virginia-friendly grapes grown onsite.

Beliveau is a countryside destination with a five-room bed-and-breakfast, winery, and gluten-free brewery. It’s the only gluten-free brewery in the state, I was told.

Let’s eat

University cities and towns are outstanding places to dine, in part because faculty and students from around the world bring their diverse palates to campus. Montgomery County is no exception.

Photo by Sarah Hauser

(Left) Downtown Blacksburg. Photo by Sarah Hauser.

Wine Lab was established by a Virginia Tech professor and oenophile who combines his twin loves for geography and vino. Wines from around the world are paired with charcuterie boards and composed plates, sandwiches, and salads. Wine flights are served in beakers. The emphasis is on tinned fish, which I discovered is having a moment in high-end cuisine. The late celebrated chef Anthony Bourdain devoted an episode of his TV show to tinned fish.

Maroon Door is a gastropub and brewery offering the kinds of bar fare you expect and some you don’t. Like roasted buffalo cauliflower burgers and smoked rabbit egg rolls.

Bull and Bones Brewhaus and Grill is a brewpub, sports bar, and pool hall specializing in southern-smoked barbecue, especially brisket and wings, in two locations.

Rising Silo Brewery (right) is a rustic brew kitchen and patio taproom on the site of a working farm, which supplies ingredients and inspiration for the menus. Wood-fired pizza and hand-pressed apple cider are crowd-pleasers.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Blacksburg Tavern is a historic 1890s farmhouse that was rescued from the brink of demolition and converted into a restaurant. The woodwork is meticulously restored, the windows are topped with flirty valances, and the walls are hand-painted with murals depicting pastoral scenes. Known for hearty country cuisine, the menu features such traditions as fried chicken, baked ham, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and biscuits and cornbread. If you’re with a group, order family-style and choose two to four meats and whole bunches of trimmings. Save room for the homemade pie.

Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen except where noted otherwise.