From the moment you check into the Western Front Hotel in St. Paul, Virginia, you are ready to hit the ground running. The area is chock-a-block full of adventures just waiting to happen. But before we list a bunch of options, we’d love to fill you in on the miracle that is the region’s celebration of the environment.
One of the most bio-diverse rivers in the world, the Clinch River winds through St. Paul but the tiny coal mining towns were just strings of pearls along the edge focused almost exclusively on the big economic engine of coal for a couple of centuries.
Beginning in the 19th century, immigrants from all over the place brought their skills to build the towns. There were Czechs, Poles, Italians, Croatians and many more who all contributed to the rich diversity. Even now one local told us “We welcome weirdness. Everyone is welcome at the Western Front and St. Paul. It’s how we actually started with so many melting pots of immigrants in these three hollers.”
These days the environment, community and economy are the major goals to celebrate the Clinch River Valley. With help from the Nature Conservancy, St. Paul (and Wise County) have experienced off-the-scale success for the efforts over the project timeline with the loss of coal industry and the environmental tourism efforts to build it anew.
Back in the day, the town of St. Paul itself was receiving about $300k a year to keep the infrastructure in place for the economically disadvantaged region once big coal started pulling out. “Now, working with eco-tourism we will pull in that much just in food taxes with more from other efforts.”
“If we play our cards right and learn how to treat our river and nature, we will always be resilient and thrive,” Lou Ann Wallace, town leader and Chair of the Wise County Board of Supervisors, told us. “We never knew how valuable this river valley was, but the Nature Conservancy has taught us how to treat it right.”
And goodness have they succeeded. The newest jewel in their crown is the brand-new Clinch River State Park (2023) which added to the Appalachian Backroads Motorcycle and Car routes like the Back of the Dragon, and multiple kayaking launch locations, puts St. Paul and the Western Front smack dab in the middle of the action.
Add in the 120 plus miles of varying difficulties on the ATV & Dirt Bike Spearhead Trails and you have the makings for a wonderful weekend. We were lucky enough to experience the Mountain Trail with the self-appointed Mayor of the Western Front, retired school principal Jody Evans who took us on an hour long, exhilarating, hair-raising journey right from the back lawn of the hotel. Once we were kitted out with the mandatory helmets, we strapped in and motored the short distance to the beginning of the winding, sometimes steep, and well rutted trails which we later learned were the easiest “green” trails in the system. For those looking for more thrills, there were multiple options all easily accessed with the provided GPS map and tracking app to help avoid getting lost.
On top of all that, there are multiple local parks including Oxbow Lake and the amazing Wetlands Estonoa Learning Center which has received so much international interest the University of Virginia at Wise has created bunkhouses and classroom space to teach everyone from the local school children (who originally created the wetlands along with their science teacher, Terri Vencil) to university-level instruction. This wetlands area is a great place for birdwatching and observing local wildlife. It’s a serene spot for nature enthusiasts and photographers and an easy bike or stroll to both from the Western Front Hotel.
Whether you want to take it slow or fast, do yourselves a favor and make your way to the Western Front Hotel. You won’t regret the charm of their hospitality or the dedicated efforts to truly celebrate and appreciate the beauty of the Heart of Appalachia.