As a student at Virginia Tech, I found visits to nearby Mountain Lake—one of only two natural lakes in the state of Virginia—enchanting. Walking along the trail on the east side of the large freshwater lake required hiking through a rhododendron “hell” that was spectacular when in spring bloom. (A rhododendron hell refers to an area of these plants growing so close together that they are “hell” to get through if a pathway has not already been cleared for you!)
Today, more than 40 years later, the fantastical rhododendrons remain, but sadly, the lake, once covering about 50 acres, is now a ghost of its former self. Although somewhat variable in size throughout its history, the lake seriously suffered from the statewide, long-term drought of 2002, and it has never recovered.
Geologists cannot definitively cite the reason for its continued difficulty in refilling. However, many researchers have studied Mountain Lake, and they are certain about some things. Dr. Chester F. Watts (“Skip”) of Radford University told me that geophysical studies indicate that the lake originally formed as the result of a landslide that clogged a narrow gap in a ridge. The random jumbles of rock blocks created a dam that backed water up into a meadow.
Unfortunately, the disordered rock dam contains spaces in between the rocks. Those openings sometimes allow water to pass through, while at other times they clog with silt that holds water in. Additionally, some deep holes, which leak, lie along the lake floor. Thus over the past four thousand or more years, Mountain Lake has fluctuated in size, depending upon the state of both the dam and the holes.
Jeanne M. Roningen (U.S. Army Corp of Engineers) and Thomas J. Burbey (Virginia Tech) discussed the hydrogeologic factors that influence lake-level changes in a research paper in the 2012 Hydrogeology Journal (20: 1149-1167). They say that historical data suggest that either significant precipitation or artificial intervention to mitigate seepage would be required for lake-level recovery in the near future.
The reduction in lake size has resulted in the loss of over one million dollars per year for the Mountain Lake Conservancy, the non-profit organization founded to manage and protect the resort and the 2600 acres of land surrounding it. (NASL ML FldTrp printed.pdf) Should this drop in income continue, it could perhaps result in the future closing of the Lodge and thus public access to this wonderful 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 bowl at the northern end of the lakebed. Yet even without its namesake lake, this resort is still remarkably special.
First, the drive into the mountains of southwestern Virginia is just spectacular. If you have never traveled to this area, you have missed what is perhaps the most beautiful section of our state. The extraordinary views astound me every time I visit, and I feel I could never see it enough!
Arriving at the lodge, you know you have reached your destination because the resort spreads out before you, nestled within the confines of forested mountain slopes. It is the perfect place to escape the woes of the world and experience true serenity, if you so desire. (Of course, to accomplish this state of mind, you should disconnect from your electronic devices, although WiFi is available.)
What makes Mountain Lake especially unique to me is the natural beauty of the grounds in the resort area itself. The aesthetics of today’s populace typically tend towards totally manicured settings that appear, to my eyes at least, as artificial landscapes totally devoid of a connection to reality. But the grounds at Mountain Lake, while ordered and neat, contain natural areas within the grounds themselves that maintain our connection to nature, which is precisely as it should be.
You can hike the many trails running throughout the property, or just observe the variety of plants that have filled the lakebed. They attract numerous kinds of butterflies and other insects (such as dragonflies), and the birds that feed upon them. Early-morning risers can view bats flying around the lodge after a night of feeding.
Spring is a great time to see such migratory birds as thrushes, tanagers, and warblers. During spring and summer, the Lodge maintains hummingbird feeders that host more than a dozen Ruby-throats. Comfortable benches in the shade allow you to relax while the tiny birds constantly chase each other around. And American Goldfinches, in their luminous yellow plumage, seem to be everywhere.
If you enjoy history or just historical buildings, you can find both here. The current lodge dates from 1936. However, visitors started coming to Mountain Lake in the mid-1800s, and many of the original cabins where they stayed still exist today.
For a sense of former times at the resort, you can study the old photographs that line the bedroom hallways of the lodge. In addition to seeing people boating upon the lake, you can see what would now be antique cars and people on horseback, and folks cutting ice blocks from the lake to preserve food during the warmer months of the year.
I see these pictures as a chance to see history in the making.
Over the past decade, the Conservancy has begun to develop recreational activities, such as zip-lines and water slides, for their guests. It saddens me to see those kinds of offerings that people can find elsewhere, as if the lodge minus its namesake lake has nothing special going for it.
But Mountain Lake is an exceptional place, with or without its famous lake! The lakebed has rarely been accessible, as it is now, for walking and exploring. At this time in its history, folks have a chance to view geological features normally underwater, and there have been unexpected surprises.
In 2008 when the lake had dried to almost nothing, Tim Dalton of Ripplemead and his son, Chris, discovered the remains of Samuel Ira “Si” Felder who had drowned there in July of 1921. In 2010, when his great-niece came to Mountain Lake to gather his belongings, she commented that she could “see why he and [his wife] would have come down here. It’s a beautiful place.”
The Mountain Lake Resort is enchanting and may very well cast its spell over you, drawing you back repeatedly to experience its lovely charms.