Cradled by the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge, Philpott Lake might just be the most spectacular body of water in Virginia. Located just northwest of the town of Martinsville, the 3,000-acre lake spreads into Franklin, Henry, and Patrick counties, framed by 7,000 acres of mixed hardwood forest. Besides the beautiful scenery, the lake is studded with nearly a dozen parks and recreation areas, offering an enticing buffet of Blue Ridge adventures.
MILES OF PRISTINE PADDLING
Philpott Lake provides paddlers 100 miles of undeveloped shoreline to explore—with the feel of pristine wilderness. You’ll be treated to tumbling waterfalls, secluded coves, and stunning stretches of shoreline along the Philpott Lake Blueway, a 25-mile water trail linking natural wonders, boat launches, and recreation areas. The bulk of the nine recreation areas scattered along the water trail also offer campgrounds, scenic trails, and serene swimming areas. You can find more information and a guide of Philpott Lake on the Martinsville County website.
The Smith River Trail System, which starts just below the Philpott Dam, is also a great option for paddlers. A 44.5-mile section of the Smith River starts at Philpott Lake and travels all the way to the North Carolina border. There are 11 river access points along the scenic byway as it travels through the towns of Bassett, Stanleytown, Fieldale, Martinsville, and Ridgeway. Along the route you’ll see some impressive rock outcroppings, and during peak water generation from Philpott Dam you can enjoy whitewater rapids (click here to learn more about the water-release schedule).
ADVENTURE OFF THE WATER
While paddling might be the main attraction, Philpott Lake is infused with a host of outdoor adventures. Hikers and runners can cover plenty of terrain on the 10-mile Little Mountain Trail System in the neighboring Fairy Stone State Park. Mountain bikers can head to the Jamison Mill Recreation Area, spread along the northwestern corner of the Philpott Lake. The six miles of forested singletrack take off-road riders past century-old historic sites, including the original location of the namesake Jamison Mill. Meanwhile, between Philpott Lake and Martinsville, road cyclists can explore bucolic country roads framed by the peaks of the Blue Ridge, or they can ride the 4.5-mile Dick & Willie Passage, a rail-trail tracing the route of the Danville and Western Railroad, which is also undergoing an expansion to increase its length. Cyclists looking to get the lay of the land can join the local Henry County Bike Club, which leads Sunday afternoon road rides beginning from the Ridgeway Library.
FISHING AND WILDLIFE
Beyond the breathtaking backdrop, Philpott Lake is also a hotspot for anglers of all types. While renowned as one of the premier walleye fisheries in Virginia, the lake’s pristine waters also harbor largemouth and smallmouth bass, catfish, and black crappie. One highlight is trying to hook one of the lake’s legendary walleye in Runnett Bag Creek during the spring spawn. Another is night fishing: After sunset, walleye, and both largemouth and smallmouth bass congregate in the lake’s sheltered, shallow-water coves, giving anglers ample opportunity to hook a trophy fish by moonlight.
In addition to the fish lingering beneath the surface, Philpott Lake is a hotspot for a wide array of wildlife, especially birds. Belted kingfishers and lanky killdeer troll shallow stretches of shoreline, while emerald-headed mallards are abundant throughout the lake. On dry land, the mixed forests of oak, maple, hickory, cedar, and pine are home to familiar woodland species like pileated woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds, and cedar waxwings. The woodlands surrounding the lake also provide the opportunity to spot scarcer species like ruby-throated hummingbirds, indigo bunting, and American goldfinches. There’s also a good chance you’ll spot a bald eagle, as they are increasingly common on the lake. Don’t forget the binoculars.
CAMP UNDER THE STARS
At Philpott Lake, campers have a smorgasbord of options, from rustic waterfront tent sites shaded by leafy hardwoods and fragrant pine trees to family-friendly campgrounds loaded with amenities like hot showers and swimming beaches. Campsites edging Philpott Lake provide stunning views of the Milky Way after dark, and campers seeking seclusion can soak up the scenery at the lake’s Goose Point Recreation Area. For a unique experience, paddle to Deer Island to snag one of waterfront campsites accessible only by boat. Meanwhile, families after kid-friendly facilities can opt for one of the campsites at the Horseshoe Point and Salthouse Branch recreation areas. Boaters can take advantage of the Philpott Marina and Group Campground in Bassett, which features 42 boat slips in addition to 10 camping spaces. The spots include water, electric, and sewer hook-ups, while the campground features a picnic shelter and tables, fire rings, and a bathhouse facility with restrooms and showers.
FAIRY STONE STATE PARK
One of the original six parks built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in Virginia, Fairy Stone State Park—located adjacent to Philpott Lake—is named for cross-shaped, staurolite crystals found within its boundaries. According to legend, the ancient stones are the crystallized tears of the fairies once said to inhabit the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Beyond the mythical mystique, the parks are filled with recreational opportunities.
The bulk of the park’s Little Mountain trail system is open to hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians. The 168-acre Fairy Stone Lake harbors largemouth bass, sunfish, crappie, catfish, and stocked rainbow trout, plus you’ll find a family-friendly swimming beach and seasonal boat and SUP rentals. The park offers some of the coziest accommodation options in the region—including waterfront cabins, homey yurts, and the five bedroom Fairy Stone Lodge, complete with a gas fireplace and restful rocking chairs on the front porch.
FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
Whether your idea of fun is hitting the water before dawn or longing lakeside, there’s plenty for the whole family at Philpott Lake. Weekend warriors can warm-up on the four miles of trails at the Stuart’s Knob area of Fairy Stone State Park, and then spend the afternoon on an SUP in the middle of sun-soaked Fairy Stone Lake. At the Salthouse Branch Recreation Area, tots can roam the half-mile Salthouse Branch Nature Trail searching for spicebush and swallowtail butterflies before heading to the kid-friendly swimming area. Meanwhile, family members with four-legs can explore the 4.5-mile Dogwood Glen Trail, also accessible from the Salthouse Branch Recreation Area.
THE PERFECT PARKWAY PIT STOP
Philpott Lake is an idyllic detour for road-trippers exploring the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway. Located just 30 miles from the parkway’s Rocky Knob Visitor Center (milepost 167), the lake is a picturesque place to take a break from the road. Plan a picnic at the Twin Ridges Recreation Area, hit the beach at Horseshoe Point Recreation Area, or cast for walleye from the shady shoreline at the secluded Ryans Branch Recreation Area.
Besides the bucolic beauty, the region surrounding Philpott Lake also has a rich history of craftsmanship, renowned for the production of furniture and textiles. In historic Fieldale, once a textile producing hub, the walking tour of historic downtown provides a glimpse into the region’s industrious past, while in Martinsville, the collection of galleries and studios dotting the Smith River Artisan Trail showcase the area’s continued tradition of the arts.
Whether on the water or off, the Philpott Lake region has plenty to love for anyone who enjoys the outdoors.
Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated Media in partnership with Martinsville County.