I’m not a fan of heights but that didn’t stop me from putting one foot in front of the other as I climbed the 60 year old fire tower. I didn’t have the nerves to look around but instead kept my gaze fixed on the step in front of me. But by the time I reached the top of the tower I couldn’t help but look around at one of the most beautiful vistas in the Virginia mountains.
History of Big Walker Lookout
It all started with the Kime family in 1947. That’s the year the old fire lookout tower was first opened to the public to climb. The small mountain top attraction also included a large gift shop, full service restaurant, and a chair lift to take people to the summit of Big Walker Mountain.
Ron Kime, whose father built the attraction, pulled out an old photo album. I saw photos of the small parking lot crammed with cars. People riding the chair lift. He pointed to photos of the restaurant with tables that had an unbelievably beautiful view. Then he showed me a photo the day after the restaurant caught on fire and burned to the ground.
Only the gift shop and fire tower remain today. The attraction has now welcome the third generation into the office with Ron’s daughter, Heather, frequently working at the shop. And it’s still a place I visit every time I’m in the area.
Climbing the Big Walker Lookout
The fire tower is 100’ tall and stands at 3,405’ in elevation. Standing on the ground looking up it actually looks pretty awesome. And sturdy. Very sturdy.
I asked Ron if the tower sways. He chuckled a little. “It’s supposed to sway a little bit,” he replied.
I found the answer dubious but decided I’d climb the steps anyway. I always try to count how many steps there are to the top (so I know how many steps I have coming back down to solid ground) but I always lose count. It’s not a bad climb and would only take a few minutes if I didn’t have to stop to convince myself to keep going.
That first time I reached the top was a beautiful autumn day. A light breeze pushed through the air around me. The top swayed more than a little bit. It felt like it swayed a foot in either direction but it was probably mere inches at most. Still, I never let go of the handrail as I stood on the top wooden deck and took in the views.
You’re supposed to be able to see five states from up there. I never try to strain my eyes to see that far onto the horizon. Instead I focused on the nearby landscape. I looked back toward Wytheville to find it hidden behind another mountain. In the opposite direction I looked over a valley to another mountain range in the distance. Beautiful barely begins to describe the view at the top of the Big Walker Lookout.
Big Walker Country Store
If climbing a 100’ fire tower isn’t exactly your thing you can still get a pretty awesome view from the ground level beside the country store. A couple of picnic tables beneath the shade of a shelter offer a nice view toward the mountains hiding Wytheville.
The store itself is stuffed with all kinds of goodies. Local arts and crafts, touristy knick knacks, books, and a little bit of clothing. They always have one of those puzzles like the kind my grandfather used to make in his woodshop. I usually spend ten or twenty minutes trying to solve one.
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I always treat myself to a scoop of ice cream after returning from the fire tower. It’s kinda like a reward for ignoring my fear of heights and continuing to the top, especially since I love the views every single time. It helps that the locally-made ice cream is delicious.
If you stop by the country store on Saturday and Sunday evenings from May through October you might be able to catch some live music on the front porch. The event schedule is usually pretty packed throughout the summer months and makes a wonderful way to enjoy a relaxing evening in the region.
Getting to Big Walker Lookout
Getting to the Big Walker Lookout feels like it takes forever the first time. It’s located about twenty minutes outside Wytheville along scenic US Highway 52. The road was once a part of the Great Lakes to Florida Highway before I-77 was built and traffic patterns shifted.
The drive along Highway 52 is beautiful and peaceful. It’s a two-lane road in very good condition. Along the way you’ll pass the remains of Virginia City. In the 1960s it was a thriving tourist attraction built to resemble an Old West town. When the interstate was built the attraction died a slow and agonizing death until it finally closed for good. I hope someone eccentric with lots of money buys it someday.