Off the Interstate: “God’s Thumbprint”

Burke’s Garden,   Photo credit: Va. Dept. of Historic Resources

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

I first encountered Burke’s Garden many years ago the first time I drove to Southwest Virginia.  I was enchanted with it and visit it every time I go to Southwest Virginia.  The latest visit was late last month when I was on the way back to Richmond from visiting my grandson in college in Kentucky.

I don’t remember how I found out about Burke’s Garden.  I certainly did not stumble upon it.  One does not stumble across Burke’s Garden.  One has to be looking for it.

To get there, you take a local road south from the town of Tazewell.  That road will lead up a mountain with the usual S-curves and hairpin turns.  Upon coming down the other side of the mountain, you will be in a large, fertile, green valley completely surrounded by mountains.  The road you came in on is the only paved way out.  (There is a forest service road at the other end of the valley but whether it is passable varies.  Some descriptions of it advise those attempting to travel it have a chain saw handy.)

Radford University geologists explain that the area was once a large dome comprised of shale and limestone capped by harder sandstone. As the forces of erosion cut through the sandstone, the softer rock beneath it eroded more quickly, forming the valley floor with hard sandstone forming the ridges around the edge of the valley.

That is Burke’s Garden.  It feels like another world.  About 300 people live in its nearly forty square miles.  Many are retired; others farm; and others commute to jobs outside the valley.  Cattle farming predominates the area with large pastures cut by little streams.  There is a road that winds around the valley, but in the two hours that I was there, the only motor vehicle I encountered was a school bus.

It is quiet, peaceful.  There are only two stores that carry some staples, deli meat, fresh baked bread, and lots of souvenirs.  At these stores, one can get freshly made sandwiches.

At some intersections, there are signposts indicating which families live down which road.

There is a legend that James Burke, a member of a surveying party that came into the valley in 1748, threw out some potato peels one night while preparing his meal over a campfire.  When the group returned a year later, they found a robust crop of potatoes.  His co-workers jokingly dubbed the area “Burke’s Garden”, and the name stuck.

In the late 19th century, the area attracted the attention of agents for the Vanderbilt family who were looking for land upon which to build a large estate.  None of the folks living in Burke’s Garden wanted to sell.  So, the agents moved southward to North Carolina and eventually Biltmore was built near Asheville.

One development since my last visit has been the influx of Amish families.  There were some Amish families in the area in the 1990s, but there was not enough land for sale for their children to stay in the area.  As a result, the families eventually moved out.  Now about 100 of the residents are Amish.  They have their own school in the valley.

If you are in the area, it is worth the time to step into this other world.  You will leave feeling refreshed.

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10 responses to “Off the Interstate: “God’s Thumbprint””

  1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    A great article. I love the far southwest. What a beautiful place.

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Thanks Mr. Dick. Always wondered about the geologic explanation of this valley. Now I know. The only other place I can think of in Virginia that is like Burkes Garden is Fort Valley between the Massanutten Ridges. Gradually becoming spoiled though.

  3. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    My first impression of the lead image was a HUGE caldera. Somewhat glad it’s not.

    Can you imagine the caverns that must’ve been at one time?

  4. SudleySpr Avatar

    There is a similar treasure along 678 just south of Strasburg. Use 55 to 678 which runs parallel and to the east of 81.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      I will look for it.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    “Discovered” Burkes Garden during my younger years of paddling various rivers in Virginia. To get to those rivers, one does alot of
    driving and encounters a lot special places like Burke’s Garden. The rivers take you to other special places, that you will only see
    if you take a river trip. I believe it is Wolf’s Creek that flows out of Burke’s Garden , over the “lip” (rocky steep rapids) and down to the valley where it finds it’s way to the Gulf of Mexico if not mistaken!

    So, one could actually do that trip in a canoe – an epic journey without doubt , way more than a trip from the headwaters of the James to the Chesapeake Bay – which is also an epic trip.

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        Wolf Creek flows into the New River at Narrows, where I had an aunt and uncle and cousins. We’d swim in that creek during the summer visits. My parents were from Bluefield (both sides) and my grandfather grew up on a farm on Cove Creek in Bland. The word that comes to mind when I think about that area, Dick, is “home.”

  6. Ronnie Chappell Avatar
    Ronnie Chappell

    Nicely done. Will add to my must see list.

  7. Chip Gibson Avatar
    Chip Gibson

    A Big Thumbs up on this one, Dick!

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