As a student at Virginia Tech, I found the visits to nearby Mountain Lake, one of only two natural lakes in the state of Virginia, to be enchanting. Walking along the trail on the east side of the large freshwater lake required a hike through a rhododendron ‘hell’ which was spectacular in the spring bloom. (A rhododendron hell refers to an area of these plants growing so close together that they are a “hell” to walk through if a path hasn’t already been cleared for you!)
Today, over 40 years later, the fantastic rhododendrons remain, but sadly the lake, which once covered around 50 acres, is now a ghost of itself. Although varying somewhat in size throughout its history, the lake suffered seriously from the long-term statewide drought of 2002, and it never recovered.
Geologists cannot definitively cite the reason for its continuing difficulty to fill. However, many researchers have studied Mountain Lake, and they are certain of certain things. Dr Chester F. Watts (“Skip”) of Radford University told me that geophysical studies indicate that the lake originally formed as a result of a landslide that obstructed a narrow space in a ridge. The random piles of boulders created a dam that forced the water back into a meadow.
Unfortunately, the messy rocky dam contains gaps between the rocks. These openings sometimes allow water to pass through, while at other times they become clogged with silt that retains the water. In addition, there are deep, leaky holes along the bottom of the lake. So, over the past four thousand years or more, the size of Mountain Lake has fluctuated depending on the condition of the dam and the holes.
Jeanne M. Roningen (US Army Corp of Engineers) and Thomas J. Burbey (Virginia Tech) discussed hydrogeological factors that influence lake level changes in a research article published in the 2012 Hydrogeology Journal (20: 1149-1167 ). They say historical data suggests significant rainfall or artificial intervention to mitigate seepage would be needed for lake level recovery in the near future.
The downsizing of the lake has resulted in the loss of more than $ 1 million per year for Mountain Lake Conservancy, the non-profit organization founded to manage and protect the resort and the 2,600 acres of land surrounding it. . (NASL ML FldTrp printed.pdf) If this drop in income continued, it could perhaps result in the future closure of the Lodge and therefore public access to this magnificent property, which would be tragic.
My husband and I visited in August when the Lodge offered a Solar Eclipse package. We were disheartened to see that only a small pond existed in the deep basin at the north end of the lake bed. Yet even without its namesake lake, this resort is still remarkably special.
First of all, the drive to the mountains of southwestern Virginia is simply spectacular. If you’ve never traveled to this area, you’ve missed out on what is perhaps the most beautiful part of our state. The amazing views amaze me every time I visit, and I feel like I could never see it enough!
When you arrive at the lodge, you know you’ve reached your destination as the resort stretches out in front of you, nestled within the confines of the forested mountain slopes. It is the ideal place to escape the misfortunes of the world and experience true serenity, if you so desire. (Of course, to accomplish this mindset, you have to disconnect from your electronics, although WiFi is available.)
What makes Mountain Lake particularly unique to me is the natural beauty of the resort grounds itself. The aesthetics of today’s population generally tend towards totally neat settings which appear, in my eyes at least, like artificial landscapes totally devoid of any link with reality. But Mountain Lake’s grounds, while orderly and neat, contain natural areas within the grounds themselves that maintain our connection to nature, which is precisely what it should be.
You can hike the many trails that run through the property or simply observe the variety of plants that have filled the lake bed. They attract many types of butterflies and other insects (like dragonflies) and the birds that feed on them. Early risers can see bats flying around the lodge after a night of feeding.
Spring is a great time to spot migrating birds such as thrushes, tanagers and warblers. During spring and summer, the Lodge maintains hummingbird feeders that house more than a dozen Ruby Gorge. Comfortable benches in the shade allow you to relax while the little birds constantly chase each other. And American goldfinches, with bright yellow plumage, seem to be everywhere.
If you like history or just historic buildings, you can find both here. The current lodge dates back to 1936. However, visitors began to come to Mountain Lake in the mid-1800s, and many of the original cabins they stayed in still exist today.
To get a feel for the old days of the resort, you can study the old photographs that line the hallways of the lodge rooms. As well as seeing people boating on the lake, you can see what would now be vintage cars and people on horseback, and people cutting blocks of ice from the lake to conserve food during the warmer months of the year.
I see these images as a chance to see history being made.
Over the past decade, the Conservancy has started to develop recreational activities, such as ziplines and water slides, for its guests. It saddens me to see these kinds of offers that people can find elsewhere, as if the lodge without its namesake lake is nothing special about it.
But Mountain Lake is an exceptional place, with or without its famous lake! The lake bed has rarely been accessible, as it is today, for walking and exploring. At this point in its history, people have the opportunity to see geological features normally underwater, and there were some unexpected surprises.
In 2008, when the lake had almost dried up, Tim Dalton of Ripplemead and his son Chris discovered the remains of Samuel Ira “Si” Felder who had drowned there in July 1921. In 2010, when his great-niece came to Mountain Lake to collect her things, she commented that she could “see why him and [his wife] would have stayed here. It is a beautiful place.”
The Mountain Lake Resort is enchanting and may very well bewitch you, repeatedly enticing you to discover its charms.