Wandering Burke’s Garden

Burke’s Garden, located in Tazewell County, Virginia, is Virginia’s highest-elevation valley, at over 3000 feet.   We first visited Burke’s Garden in 2019, shortly after we moved to Virginia.  There is only one paved road into the valley and involves going up, via several switchbacks, several hundred feet, before descending into the valley.  Once you arrive in the valley, it is like you stepped back in time.  There are just a handful of businesses, abundant farmland, and very few cars.  Our second visit, 4 years later, showed us that very little had changed.

Why Burke’s Garden is called God’s Thumbprint

This valley was formed by the collapse of a mountain, leaving behind a bowl-like valley called “God’s Thumbprint” by some.   The image below shows the valley, which, as you can see, is largely open farmland.

Aerial view of Burke's Garden

Credit: https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/historic-registers/092-0020/

It was originally thought that Burke’s Garden was an ancient caldera, but geologists have determined that Garden Mountain, as it is now known, was not a volcano.  The mountain was originally a sandstone-capped mountain overlying limestone and shale. Erosion eventually caused the limestone foundation of the mountain to collapse into an ancient seabed creating this beautiful valley. 

Burke’s Garden was discovered in 1749 by James Burke, a Scottish immigrant, who was hunting elk at the time.  Popular folklore says that Burke buried potato scrapings that later turned into a potato crop, thus earning the name Burke’s Garden.  Over time, this fertile valley attracted homesteaders, including Amish settlers, who established farms and a community with several hundred people.

Exploring Burke’s Garden

The road into Burke’s Garden, called Burke’s Garden Road, connects up with two other roads to form a 12 mile circular route. We followed this route, but also took a couple of detours down some side roads. At the General Store we met an Amish young lady who told us that about one-third of the residents are Amish.  There are 18 Amish families, totaling 120 people. 

The Amish do not drive vehicles, have electricity in their homes, have cell phones, or use computers.  Amish do have businesses that cater to the non-Amish, however, and will use electricity in them.  If they need to travel outside the valley, they will use “taxis”.   When I told this young lady that I was writing a blog post about Burke’s Garden, she had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.

Burke's Garden General Store

Burke’s Garden has some of the most fertile farmland in Virginia.  At one time, this was a thriving community, with a post office and gas station, a school, and several businesses.  Over time, farming has become less profitable, and many of the non-Amish residents have sold their farms.  Many residents now travel outside of the valley to find employment or are retired and simply love the solitude of this valley. 

In the winter, the valley can become shut off for days from the neighboring communities due to snowfall.  Because of the high elevation, Burke’s Garden gets more snow than the surrounding area. The harsh winter conditions often cause the one very steep and windy road into the valley to become inaccessible for a period of time. 

Historic Post Office in Burke’s Garden

Today, the post office is closed, the children are bused out of the valley to school (except the Amish children), and only a handful of businesses remain.  The post office and former gas station building is the most recognizable historic landmark in Burke’s Garden.  There was a “Take a Book, Share a Book” lending library box on the back porch that was a fantastic replica of the post office.

The main road through Burke’s Garden is 12 miles long, with farms on every side.  It seemed to me that most of the farmland was used for grazing cattle. The Amish grow their own food, so there is some cropland too.  We saw one Amish buggy and I got a picture, after asking permission from the Amish man who was talking to his young son nearby.  The Amish do not like to have their photograph taken and we were careful to respect that. When I asked, this gentleman didn’t mind that I took a picture of his horse and buggy. 

Mattie’s Place – a must stop destination

We went to Mattie’s Place, one of a handful of Amish businesses in Burke’s Garden, for lunch.  Mattie has been in business for quite a few years. Her store offers a lunch menu of homemade items, plus souvenirs, dry goods, and more.  She first rented the building where the General Store is. Six years ago, Mattie built her own home and store at her location on Gose Mill Road. 

We had sandwiches on homemade sourdough rolls, which were so delicious we ended up buying more sourdough rolls to take with us. Mattie seems to do a steady business with both tourists and locals. We enjoyed the banter between her and her local customers while we were waiting for our lunch.  Mattie’s Place also has bikes to rent if you prefer to explore Burke’s Garden on a bike.  The valley is not flat, however, so the 12-mile route could be quite a workout!

Mattie's Place

Burke’s Garden Fall Festival

Burke’s Garden holds an annual fall festival on the last Saturday in September.  Maddie told us in 2019 and again in 2023 to NOT come to the fall festival unless we loved crowds and wanted to sit in very slow traffic coming into the valley.  She suggested that if we wanted to see the fall foliage, the second week of October was the perfect time to see it.  Given all the old maple trees that we saw on this trip, I’m sure it is absolutely stunning.

However, if fall festivals are your thing, and you don’t mind waiting in traffic and mixing with crowds of people, then come the Burke’s Garden on the final Saturday of September.  You’ll be able to visit some local farms, learn about making butter and apple cider, see beautiful handmade quilts, enjoy local food, and much more.  If you go to the festival, send me some pictures. I’d love to include them in my blog!

Hike the Appalachian Trail from Burke’s Garden

You can get to the Appalachian Trail from within Burke’s Garden if you want to do some hiking.  On our first visit, Mattie gave us directions to find the forest road that has a parking lot for the trail.  This road was not in great shape, so we parked further down the road and walked in.  We followed the A.T. for a couple of miles, ending at the Chestnut Knob Shelter.  It was cloudy that day but we were able to see the valley from the overlook.  We did not do that hike on our second trip because the smoke from Canadian wildfires was obscuring long-range views.

This forest road is the only other route out of the valley, but it is not paved, nor is it well maintained. Make sure that if you use a driving app for directions, it doesn’t take you via the forest road.  Google Maps offered that as one of the two ways to get to Burke’s Garden, surprisingly. We already knew that was not a viable option, fortunately. There really is only one good route into Burke’s Garden, and that is to come in via Tazewell.

Wrapping it up

Burke’s Garden is a hidden gem in Southwest Virginia.  I’ve been surprised that many of our friends and neighbors have never even heard of it, even though it is only a couple of hours away.  You can enjoy beautiful scenery, take a hike, ride your bike, meet some local people, and learn about the history of the valley. If you like traveling the backroads, Burke’s Garden should be on your list.

Planning Highlights

Best Time to Visit

Virginia in the spring time is my favorite time of the year for natural beauty. Summer and Fall are also great times to visit.

Where to Stay

There are no hotels in Burke’s Garden, although an Airbnb might be an option, particularly in Tazewell. We camped at Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, VA, which is just over an hour away. There are several hotels in Marion and Wytheville, VA.

How to Get There

The answer to this is that it all depends on what else you want to see in Southwest Virginia. When planning your route, just make sure that you come in via Burke’s Garden Road, not the forest road. From our campground, we drove in via the Back of the Dragon, which is a well known road for motorcyclists. It is full of switchbacks which are probably a lot of fun if you are on a motorcycle. We were in a pick-up truck, so it wasn’t quite as fun.

How to Get Around

You will need either an automobile or a bike to explore Burke’s Garden. You can rent a bike at Mattie’s Place, or bring your own.

About Author

Karen is a retired software developer, now exploring our beautiful country with her husband, Steve.