Every state has its fair share of peculiar landmarks – like the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Kansas or the Lucy the Elephant sculpture in New Jersey – and Virginia is no exception. From the World’s Oldest Ham to the burial site of Stonewall Jackson’s arm, Virginia is rich with odd attractions. My husband, our two kids, and I decided to set out and see some of the strange and curious sites that call Virginia home. Here is our list of ten places worthy of a visit.
Wild Ponies At Grayson Highlands State Park
Most people are familiar with the ponies that roam freely along Assateague Island in Virginia, but there are also wild ponies that call the mountains of Grayson Highlands State Park home. More than one hundred ponies live within the state park, the only place on the Appalachian Trail where you can see wild ponies. First bred by local ranchers in the fifties, the ponies were left behind when the land was converted to a state park.
The best access for sightings is through Massie Gap and up the Rhododendron Trail, although there is no guarantee you will encounter any of these creatures when you visit. (Sigh. We were not lucky enough to see them).
Park staff member Ellie Passeser says the best chance to see any ponies is on a sunny afternoon. She also suggests that you come prepared for hiking and enjoy your visit whether or not you spot wild ponies. “Our best advice is to dress appropriately, hydrate, and plan for quick weather changes,” Passeser says. “The weather up on the mountain, like the ponies themselves, can be unpredictable.”
The ponies are prone to kicking and biting so keep a safe distance and avoid touching or feeding them. During peak season in the summer, the park offers family-friendly programming including guided wild pony hikes. In addition to the ponies, Grayson Highlands State Park has a plethora of scenic overlooks and beautiful hiking trails including Cabin Creek Waterfall, as well as a historic homestead and a visitor center with a museum. Guests can also canoe, bike, zipline, or boulder (a form of rock climbing) within the state park. Pets are welcome on the trails, so bring the whole family out for an adventure.
Photo: Teresa Schardein
The Concrete Fleet at Kiptopeke State Park
Those who visit the beach at Kiptopeke State Park on Virginia’s Eastern Shore will surely notice what appear to be ships just offshore of the park. What are they exactly and how did they end up here? They are ships, but they are made of concrete. Before the existence of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, the area was used as a ferry terminal for transporting people from the Eastern Shore to Hampton Roads. In 1948, nine of the twenty-four concrete merchant ships contracted by the U.S. Maritime Commission during World War II were brought to Kiptopeke Beach to act as a barrier to protect the land from the bay’s strong tides. “They are pretty cool,” says Matthew Justice, a Kiptopeke State Park staff member. “People are surprised that they used to float.” Today, the crumbling hulks provide a home for coastal fish and birds.
At Kiptopeke State Park, families can spend the day swimming, boating, kayaking, fishing, hiking, bird watching, or picnicking. Campers and glampers can also pitch a tent, park their RVs, or rent a cabin, lodge, yurt, or bunkhouse for a longer stay. Whenever we visit the Eastern Shore, we also like to stop off at Cape Charles, which is a 15-minute drive from Kiptopeke. There, we stroll along Mason Avenue, browse the shops and grab lunch at Kelly’s Gingernut Pub and dessert at Brown Dog Ice Cream. Cape Charles also has a beach with calm and shallow waters that make it perfect for families with young children.
Photo: Brandy Centolanza
Ellwood Manor: Burial Site of Stonewall Jackson’s Arm
On the grounds of historic Ellwood Manor near Fredericksburg, visitors will find a cemetery, the final resting place of several family members of William Jones (the man who built the estate), and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s arm. Yes, his arm.
In 1863, Jackson was accidentally wounded by his own troops in the Civil War during the Battle of Chancellorsville. His left arm was amputated at nearby Wilderness Tavern and carried across the fields by his chaplain to be buried in the graveyard at Ellwood Manor. The arm is the only grave there marked with a tombstone.
On the day we visited, the gravestone was flanked by lemons, and I just had to ask why. “Stonewall Jackson loved fruit, and that evolved into ‘he loved lemons,’ and now people like to put lemons on the grave,” explains Mark Leach, president of Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, a volunteer organization dedicated to the preservation of Ellwood Manor. “We get quite a number of people who are Stonewall Jackson fans on a quest to find his arm. It’s like the missing piece of a puzzle.”
Visitors come from all over the world to get a gander at the burial site. The property also includes gardens, and guests can take a tour of the manor itself, which was once used as a field hospital during the Civil War. If the burial site of a general’s arm isn’t enough, history buffs may wish to make a day of it and visit all the Civil War battlefields in this area, including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania, all part of the National Park Service.
Photo: Brandy Centolanza
Mount Trashmore Park
We’ve frequented Mount Trashmore Park in Virginia Beach many times over the years. Its quirky moniker is derived from the fact that yes, indeed, it was once a garbage dump. “Mount Trashmore is a great example of landfill reuse,” says Erin Goldmeier, director of public relations for Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Playing there is a nice break from the beach and something different to do with the kids.”
Mount Trashmore, which first opened in 1974, encompasses 165 acres and features two man-made hills suitable for climbing, as well as two lakes, two playgrounds, a skate park, volleyball courts and horseshoe pits, multi-use trails with ten outdoor fitness stations, and picnic shelters. The Kids Cove at Mount Trashmore Park features three play areas built on a rubber surface and a solar-powered charging station for cell phones, which is a hit with parents.
When we visit, we pack a lunch and bring our bikes for a day at the park. It’s also a popular place for families who like to kayak, fish, and fly kites. There are special events held at Mount Trashmore throughout the year, like concerts and block parties, a carnival during the summer, a kite festival, and outdoor movie nights.
Photo: Crag McClue
At Cox Farms in Centreville, families can take in a life-size replica of England’s Stonehenge made entirely out of Styrofoam. Foamhenge was created by artist Mark Cline fifteen years ago and stood at Natural Bridge before relocating to Cox Farms in 2017. Since then, people from across the country have trekked to the farm to experience Foamhenge.
My husband is the only one in our family who’s been to the actual Stonehenge, and he noted during our visit to Cox Farms that Foamhenge is just like the real deal. He described Foamhenge as “definitely unusual.” That’s the whole point for Cox Farms co-owner Lucas Cox. “It’s just so absurd and silly, and that’s what we like about it,” Cox says. “People think it’s funny. It puts smiles on their faces, and that’s what it is all about.”
It takes forty-five gallons of paint to touch up Foamhenge, which is repainted twice a year due to wear and tear from the weather as well as curious people who can’t resist the temptation to touch the foam rocks. The best time to visit Foamhenge is the fall during Cox Farms’ annual fall festivals (hours are limited on Saturdays during the spring and summer). Foamhenge is accessible
Cox Farms is perfect for families with little ones. Its weekend fall festivals include interactions with the farm animals, a market with cider, pumpkins, pies, kettle corn, and other festival fare. If you visit Cox Farms, don’t forget your camera – and not just to snap a picture of Foamhenge.
Photo: Brandy Centolanza
National D-Day Memorial
We tend to tie our travels to whatever subject the kids may be studying in school. If your children are learning about World War II in class, it may be worth a visit to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford. Twenty of the town’s men died fighting during the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, the highest per capita D-Day loss of any community in the nation and thus the reason for the establishment of the memorial here.
“The Memorial presents the D-Day experience from the planning of the invasion, to crossing the channel and landing on the beaches, to liberation and victory,” says Angela Hatcher Lynch, associate director of marketing for the National D-Day Memorial Foundation. Veterans from across the globe visit the outdoor exhibit, which can be just as meaningful for families as they discover the impacts of D-Day on the world and the sacrifices that were made here at home. The depictions of battle are life-like, but not scary and provoke family dialogue about the historic event. There are educational and family-friendly events held at the Memorial throughout the year, though the biggest times to visit are Memorial Day, the commemoration of D-Day on June 6, POW/MIA Awareness Day in September, and Veterans Day on November 11.
On the way to or from Bedford, take a detour with your brood and enjoy many family attractions that Lynchburg has to offer, including a children’s museum, a biking trail, and year-round skiing and tubing.
Town of Bristol Virginia/Tennessee
Have you ever stood in the middle of the street and been in two states at once? In the town of Bristol, traffic is often stopped along State Street so touristy types can plant one foot firmly in Virginia and the other in Tennessee (yes, we were those people and have the photos to prove it!). Bristol is the only place in the country where this is possible.
Beyond this quirky endeavor, fans
of NASCAR and country music will appreciate the town, which has deep roots in both. Bristol, Virginia, is considered the birthplace of country music. We toured the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, where we learned about the history of the 1927 Bristol recording sessions, admired a collection of rare stringed instruments including the banjo uke and Hawaiian guitar, and witnessed the evolution of recorded music from the phonograph to the mp3 player, thanks to the museum’s impressive display. Here, our kids spent most of their time crooning out their own tunes in the museum’s sing-a-long recording studio.
During our visit, we also had lunch at the Burger Bar, a burger, fries and milkshake joint where famed country singer Hank Williams Sr. had his last meal (he died later en route to a tour date in West Virginia), strolled along State Street, crossed into Tennessee for a pizza dinner at The Angry Italian, and then returned to Virginia for dessert at The Blackbird Bakery, a great doughnut and pastry
shop with a massive waiting line any
time of day.
For those who love racecar driving, NASCAR’s short track venue is located on the Tennessee side of Bristol.
Photo: Brandy Centolanza
Families with kids in the T-Rex phase may want to consider a trip to Dinosaur Land in Shenandoah Valley. Dinosaur Land has been a roadside attraction since the 1960s and features more than fifty ginormous dinos, mostly made from fiberglass and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
“We have been a landmark since before the interstates were built,” said co-owner Joann Leight, whose father first owned and operated Dinosaur Land. “The dinosaurs do not move or talk but, at the time, they were made according to scale.”
While visiting Dinosaur Land, children can use their imaginations and pretend what it was like when dinosaurs roamed the earth. And parents can live out their Jurassic Park fantasies, although on a slightly smaller scale.
World’s Oldest Ham at Isle of Wight Museum
I don’t do Twitter, but the World’s Oldest Ham does. You can check out the ham’s tweets, keep tabs on it online twenty-four hours a day via The Ham Cam, or see the real thing at The Isle of Wight Museum in Smithfield. The museum is home not only to the world’s oldest ham, which celebrated its 117th birthday this past summer, but also to the world’s largest ham, which weighs sixty-five pounds, as well as the world’s oldest peanut.
In the early 1900s, P.D. Gwaltney Jr., whose family was once a part of the Smithfield meat empire, used to carry the ham around as a pet and even had a brass collar for it when he showcased it. People visit the ham and send it cards on its birthday as well as gifts like mustard and pineapples. The Isle of Wight Museum has two levels highlighting the history of the county and includes interactive exhibits for toddlers and preschoolers such as an old country store, a reading area, a dress-up bin, and a sand dig. Smithfield, meanwhile, is a quaint little town with shops and restaurants all along Main Street.
After our trip to the museum, we did some souvenir and early holiday shopping at The Christmas Store and grabbed a cone at Smithfield Ice Cream Parlor. Not far from Smithfield in Surry, Virginia, is Hampton Roads Winery. The family-friendly establishment is located on a farm featuring a herd of Red Angus beef cattle as well as nine Nigerian dwarf goats, who live in the tallest goat tower in the world, which the owners had custom built.
The Grand Kugel
Okay Richmonders, you don’t even have to leave your backyard to check out this strange and curious landmark. Right here on Broad Street, we found something beautiful and unusual. It’s the Grand Kugel, situated in front of the Science Museum of Virginia. The Grand Kugel (kugel is German for ball) is part of a duel-kugel display, which is designed to depict the distance and appearance of the actual Earth and moon, depending on where you are standing.
“If you are standing at the Earth kugel, the moon kugel looks the size the moon does in the sky,” explains Jennifer Guild, manager of communications and curiosity for the Science Museum of Virginia. “Or if you are standing at the moon kugel, you get an idea of the scale of the Earth from that perspective.” Guild says if a guest is standing at the Science Museum’s moon kugel and looks toward the Earth kugel, they are seeing the Earth at the same scale the astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission would have seen it in July 1969.
When it was unveiled in 2003, The Grand Kugel was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest floating ball sculpture.
Photo: Science Museum of Virginia