Burkes Garden and The Varmint Half-Marathon

In eastern Tazewell County lies Burkes Garden, an isolated, circular mountain valley nicknamed “God’s Thumbprint.”  The people who have lived here for generations apparently have known for a long time they own one of the most idyllic mountain valleys in the South.  In fact, at one time agents of George Vanderbilt inquired about building his gilded age mountain estate here.  The local population refused to sell out, and he instead built his house, The Biltmore, at another location outside of Asheville, North Carolina.

Burkes Garden is the location of a scenic half-marathon called “The Varmint.”  Saturday, June 11, 2011, was the 18th consecutive running of The Varmint.  The race is named after a peculiarly large coyote that was killing sheep in the valley in 1952.  As the story goes, this varmint was difficult to catch or kill, so a professional big game hunter was called in to get the beast.  They eventually did get it.  The coyote itself can be viewed at nearby Crab Orchard Museum

Prior to this year I had run this 13.1 mile race a couple of times, so I was curious to go back and see how the race had changed.  To get to Burkes Garden, you have to drive over a mountain that separates the valley from the rest of Tazewell County.  The road, named Burkes Garden Road (Route 663), is about 2.5 miles in length from the base to the top and climbs considerably; I would estimate somewhat less than 1000 vertical feet.  Coming down into Burkes Garden at 7:30 AM, there was a fog which completely engulfed the valley.

As I approached the race, I was surprised by how many people were there.  There were well over 300 people.  The Varmint Half-Marathon is run in conjunction with a 5K road race, so some of the people who were there were obviously there for the 5K.  Nonetheless, the half-marathon has grown a lot since 2002 and 2004 when I last participated.  This year there were groups of runners from Virginia Tech University and West Virginia as well as the more expected contingent of runners from Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee with the State of Franklin Track Club.

The half-marathon is essentially a tour of Burkes Garden.  The race is staged and the start/finish line is at a school in the community.  Racers travel in a counter-clockwise fashion around the valley.  This is one of the more scenic races in the region.  You have to appreciate the scenery, because this is a tough and very hilly course.  The first six miles are constant hills.  Your legs will get pounded.  Thereafter the hills continue, but they are less pronounced.  The last three miles of the race is one long, slow climb with one small out-and-back detour back to the finish line.

After I ran The Varmint this Saturday I retraced the race route and took some photos of the course.  These are presented in the order a runner would see these views during the race.  Click on any of the photos in this gallery to enlarge and read a description of them.

The roads are very lightly traveled in Burkes Garden.  This would make for a great afternoon family or casual mountain bike ride, or a challenging road bike route if combined with the climb over 663 from Tazewell. 

Route 663 actually continues southeast all the way through Burkes Garden and travels up over Brushy Mountain, where it eventually intersects with the Appalachian Trail at the peak of the mountain, then continues down the other side via switchbacks to connect with Route 42 in Bland County.  Leaving Burkes Garden Route 663 however turns to gravel and is essentially an unimproved forest road.  This could be another mountain bike option as well.

Burkes Garden is one of those increasingly rare places where the beauty of the countryside is simple and still pure.  There are no restaurants and no stores in Burkes Garden.  There are also no neon or electric signs, no flashy or tacky homes, and no unnecessary distubances to the pastoral countryside.  It’s easy on the eyes.  It’s just a great place to sit back and relax—especially after 13.1 miles.

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