Mountain Lake Lodge…More Than Just the Home of Dirty Dancing
By Bob Tagert
That is, the movie Dirty Dancing! With the 1987 iconic movie celebrating its 35th year along with young people and dance, we decided to take our Road Trip to the primary filming location. Most of us are familiar with the movie and when we had the chance to visit and stay at the site of the movie we took advantage of the invitation. Don’t be fooled, however, there is so much more to Mountain Lake Lodge than Dirty Dancing fame.
Mountain Lake Lodge is located in the southwest mountains of Virginia in Pembroke, VA. Nearby is the campus of Virginia Tech, the New River, Appalachian Trail and plenty of mountains. At approximately 4,000 feet on Salt Pond Mountain you will find the stone lodge, rustic cabins and cozy cottages that make up Mountain Lake Lodge.
Upon our arrival, after a winding, uphill climb, we arrived at the lodge nestled in a bowl and surrounded by an old growth forest. The stone lodge is very impressive on first sight and more so after entering the beautiful hotel. We checked in and they gave us directions to our cottage in the center of the compound. We were given a cottage named Norfolk. All of the cottages and cabins have names from back in the days they were built. Our accommodations were very comfortable and complete with a balcony overlooking the volley ball and badminton courts, the two pools, Baby’s cottage and in the distance the dried up lake (we will get to that shortly). The cottage included a king size bed, stone fireplace and a jacuzzi tub. The tub came in handy after a day of kayaking on the New River. Even though the evenings were cool, it didn’t warrant a wood fire in the evening, however we did make it to the fire pit on our first night. As we were finishing settling in, a staff person arrived with our golf cart to help us navigate the grounds. Nice touch!
We enjoyed a very nice dinner our first night in the Lodge’s spacious dining room. Service was excellent as all of the staff were very friendly. Before and after dinner we made a stop at the Stoney Creek Tavern which was adjacent to the dining room. According to President and CEO Heidi Stone, the resort can accommodate up to around 350 people, which means that this bar would be pretty crowded during their busy season. To ease that situation they are in the middle of construction of an adjacent Pub. The Pub and adjoining shops will be completed this summer.
Although Mountain Lake is a place to relax and enjoy all of the open space, including hiking trails and free parking for day trippers, there are other adventures in which to participate including *Treetop Adventure, 3D Archery, an Escape Room, Bubble Ball, Archery Tag and Guided Gator Tours. In addition they offer a Clays 5 Stand, consisting of 5 individual shooting stands and up to 7 different targets, including a rabbit (not a real rabbit BTW).
On our first day we met our Gator chauffeur and historian Bo Hunnicutt and embarked on the 2 hour History tour. After the first hour of this tour I was convinced that Bo was a go-kart race driver in a former life. The John Deere Gator was the perfect vehicle for this off-road exploration of the 2,900 acres of the mountain. Our first ride took us to the top of the mountain where, some years ago, a golf course was built on the plateau. Although over grown today, there is a part of the course that is still maintained and hosts the Clay shooting operation. As Bo told us, imagine playing a round of golf at 4,000 feet. We understand that a number of celebrities have frequented this course over the years.
The rest of our Gator tour took us to the other side of the mountain and to Bald Knob that overlooks the valley at the top of Salt Pond Mountain. Bald Knob is a beautiful rock outcropping for unobstructed views. It reminded me of Dolly Sods in West Virginia…wind swept and vegetation bent from the constant wind.
As Bo expertly drove back down the mountain he continued to impress us with his knowledge of Mountain Lake and its long history. On our way back we decided to visit the lake bed….and this folks is what makes Mountain Lake so interesting and perplexing.
If you are familiar with the Dirty Dancing movie, you will remember the classic lift scene in the lake. When we arrived at Mountain Lake I began looking for the lake but could not see it. The lake was in a drying out stage. However, my disappointment turned into appreciating the wonders of nature as I learned that Mountain Lake was in a cleansing cycle that had been going on for six thousand years.
Mountain Lake along with Lake Drummond in the Great Dismall Swamp are are the only two natural freshwater lakes in Virginia. The lake typically covers about 50 acres and its level has largely been consistent at the elevation of 3,875 feet during the 19th and 20th centuries. The first known existence of the lake was in 1751.
Natural lakes are common well to the north, where the Appalachian Range was subject to geologically recent glacial activity. But the basis on which this lake – the only natural one in the southern Appalachians – exists has been the source of much speculation. Recent scientific studies indicate that an unusual combination of natural processes created the lake, which is maintained by four fissures at the bottom that provide an outlet for both sediment and water and prevents the lake from otherwise simply becoming a bog. Replenishment of the water lost depends on rain levels, and apparent washing out of sediment from the fissured bedrock bottom is causing the unstable levels. The lake essentially cleans itself.
The lake is estimated to be about 6,000 years old, and geologists believe it must have been formed by rock slides and damning. Because of the narrow channels, or fissures, in the lake bottom, the level has a history of changing dramatically depending on the water flow through these channels. The lake is more than 100 feet deep when the lake is filled.
On the lake bed today you can see the floating pavilion and floating docks sitting on the lake bottom. There is water running in a small stream into the lake but the lake does not rise because of the openings in the lake bottom at the deep end.
Kayaking and tubing the New River is a great added adventure available to guests when you stay at Mountain Lake Lodge. They have partnered with Paul Moody and his on-the-water venture, New River’s Edge. On our second day we drove the short distance to the New River where we met Paul, the 65-year-old kid who is retired but he has this “hobby” that keeps him extremely busy. When we were there the only helping hand Paul had was young Thomas – a quiet, hard-working young man with the best manners I have seen in a 19-year-old in a long time.
Paul asked us if we wanted to do the 6-mile paddle/float by ourselves or would we like him come along. I noticed the twinkle in his eye and we readily said “sure”. Not only is Paul a gifted kayaker but he loves the New River and taught us so much during our paddle/float. Without getting into the history of the new river, let it suffice that it is one of the oldest rivers in the world, has characteristics that match those of the Nile River and flows north through West Virginia and beyond. Paul is also a talented man and not one bit shy. During our float he asked if we would like to hear one of his songs. Without accompaniment or written words he leaned back and sang a song of passion for him…it is one he wrote about preserving the New River and its wildlife. It was quite good. He has been instrumental in a project called “ReNew the New!” that concentrates on removing derelict materials and litter from the river banks. We participated in some litter pick up on our trip – check them out at www.renewthenew.org .
The river was flowing swiftly which made for a bit of excitement when we came to the rapids created by the rocks. The last rapid was the longest and the best as the water flying about cooled us off. We plan on going back soon.
There is so much history to the development of Mountain Lake and the Moody family that still cares for the property today. We don’t have the room in this column to relate the entire history, but after a two hour ride in the Gator with Bo, you will know the whole story.
Getting There: We took a straight shot on I-66 to I-81 and south to Blacksburg. The drive was a little over 4 hours and about 300 miles. On the return trip we jumped off of I-81 at Staunton on to Route 250 until we picked up 340 North to Luray. From Luray we took Route 211 to Sperryville where we stopped in at Copperfox Distillery to see our friends and have a nice Copper Fox Rye. This helped break up the drive. From Sperryville we went through Warrenton to 15, to I-66 and the Beltway. The miles were shorter but the time was somewhat longer because of the stops and traffic.
If you are a Dirty Dancing fan, a visit to Mountain Lake is a must. The lodge is massive and the dining room huge. Baby’s cottage is there at lakeside and you can rent it. If the movie is irrelevant, go for the pure pleasure of these mountains, the New River and the great hospitality of Mountain Lake Lodge!
*The morning before we checked out Lani participated in this adventure. At 68 years old and not necessarily in prime shape, this truly was a one of a kind experience for her. She said that it literally was life-changing in that she pushed herself to limits that she wouldn’t have attempted 45-50 years ago. If you have any spirit of adventure and aren’t afraid of heights, sign yourself up!
Mountain Lake Lodge
115 Hotel Circle
New River’s Edge