Hidden in Virginia: The Big Walker Lookout in Wytheville

Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
January 28, 2015
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Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
January 28th, 2015
Share story

I’m not a fan of heights, but I just had to climb the 100′ tall Big Walker Lookout tower on top of the mountain range near Wytheville, Virginia. By the time I reached the top my legs were trembling from fear of heights, but as soon as I saw one of the most beautiful mountain views I’ve ever seen I felt just fine. This is one of those off the beaten path destinations that is easy to visit and provides beautiful views throughout the year.

When I say I have a fear of heights, I’m actually understating it. My legs start to wobble after climbing a 6′ ladder. Despite the fear of heights I have always challenged myself. I have flown with the Blue Angels during an airshow, I have been in a hot air balloon, and I have been in the bucket of a fire department truck 100′ high. So when I pulled into the parking lot and stared up at this tower, I just knew I had to climb it despite the fact my gut was screaming “no”.

But I was so very happy I did. The solid wooden steps on a steel frame were easy to climb, wide enough for comfortable one-way passage for visitors. It probably took me 20 minutes to climb the tower, but only because I needed to stop every once in awhile and encourage myself to continue. I do it for the photography, mostly. By the time I reached the top observation platform, the tower was swaying ever so slightly in the wind and the temperature was a good ten degrees cooler. I never let go of the handrail. But then I saw the view.

Late afternoon sun creates deep shadows on the mountain ridges seen from the Big Walker Lookout on Highway 52 in Wytheville, VA on Saturday, March 8, 2014. Copyright 2014 Jason Barnette

View across mountain ranges in the early spring.

The view from the top of this 100′ tall lookout tower, sitting atop a 3,405′ high mountain, was one of the most stunning view of the Appalachian Mountains I had ever seen. I could turn 360 degrees and see mountains as far as the horizon in all directions. It was one of those moments that literally took my breath away and filled me with a happiness you only feel standing before nature like this. The first time I visited was a cool winter day, pictured above. But I’ve also visited during the summer to see lush greenery in all directions and the fall to see vibrant burnt oranges in the trees along the mountain ranges. This is a place that could truly be enjoyed four seasons a year.

An epic summer thunderstorm rolls across the valley below the Big Walker Lookout, a locally-owned 100' observation tower on top of Big Walker Mountain along scenic Highway 52, in Wytheville, VA on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Copyright 2014 Jason Barnette

A summer thunderstorm sweeps up the valley.

The lookout has been here since 1947 when it was first constructed by the Kime Family. During it’s heyday the mountain top was a destination all on it’s own: the 100′ lookout tower, a large full-service restaurant, gift shop, and a chair lift to take visitors to the peak just above the tower. Slowly but surely things have fallen since then, however. The chair lift was removed, the restaurant burned to the ground, and some of the finer details fell into disrepair. But don’t let any of this discourage you from visiting for a single moment because the literal heart of the attraction is still there: 3rd generation owner Ron Kime.

Owner Ron Kime is the grandson of the original builder of the Big Walker Lookout. Most days visitors will find him in a small office inside the gift shop and deli, an office with a small window overlooking the beautiful landscapes of the mountains. He is a friendly man with decades’ of stories to tell and a big love for his family’s heritage. A few historic photos hang on the wall near the restrooms, and Ron will stand there for hours telling stories of everything pictured. He was one of the friendliest and most entertaining owners I had ever met, and a real treat to chat with again each time I return.

But the lookout tower isn’t all this destination offers. There is a large gift shop with loads of local arts, crafts, books, and baked goods. They also have a small deli area with sandwiches and ice cream, and a couple of tables for a few people at a time. During warmer days visitors can also sit on the benches on the front covered porch of the gift shop, or lay claim to the picnic tables at the edge of the parking lot with a view of the valley below.

The Big Walker Lookout is off the beaten path, about 20 minutes from Wytheville, Virginia along scenic Highway 52. It is easily accessible from Interstate 81 and Interstate 77. My recommendation for enjoying this scenic drive is to make a loop out of it. If you begin with Highway 52 in Wytheville, drive up the mountain to the lookout, then head down the mountain into the valley and get on Interstate 77. You can do the opposite if you begin with the exit on Interstate 77. This way you’re sure to enjoy the beautiful valley and mountain scenery.

The lookout is a great destination for about an hour or two, maybe more if you enjoy lunch outside on a warm summer day. This is definitely a great place to bring the family, but I will caution you about the stairs on the tower. The stairs are open space, so small children could crawl through. Note that I did not say slip through because they certainly are not going to fall through the cracks, but it is possible for younger children to get on their bellies and crawl through. I would recommend this for well-supervised children under 10, and it’s certainly safe for children of any age.

Rich fall colors seen from the top of the top of the 100 foot observation tower at the Big Walker Lookout in Wytheville, VA on Thursday, October 23, 2014. Copyright 2014 Jason Barnette

Popping fall colors along the tree tops.

Photographers will also enjoy the stunning views from the top of the tower. But I have to caution you: don’t do what I did when I climbed the tower as a summer thunderstorm approached. I could already hear thunder booming in the distance when I decided to climb the tower. By the time I reached the top the wind was rocking the steel frame pretty good. I leaned over to place my elbows on the outer handrail to support myself while capturing some photos, and that’s when I felt a little jolt of static electricity. I knew at that moment I was just asking to get struck by lightning. Hey, it’s on my bucket list, but it’s the last item on my bucket list. I have a lot of other things to check off first.

Visitors can climb the 100′ tower, look for some local arts and crafts items in the gift shop, enjoy a meal, grab an ice cream, and at the very least enjoy the view from the parking lot while visiting the Big Walker Lookout. It’s a locally owned, family friendly place to visit any day of the year, and a place that will take your breath away most days.

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