Burke’s Garden: God’s Thumbprint

Aerial Photo of Burke's Garden, courtesy Greg Cromer
Aerial Photo of Burke’s Garden, courtesy Greg Cromer

Just a handful of miles from where Virginia’s Blue Ridge spine meets the rounded off hills of West Virginia is a geographic oddity that has been described as “God’s Thumbprint”.

Located in the heart of Tazewell County, Virginia, Burke’s Garden is an oval, bowl-like valley that is surrounded entirely by mountains and measures roughly 8.5 miles long by 4 miles wide.

At 3,000 feet in elevation, the site is the highest mountain valley in the Commonwealth of Virginia and serves as some of the most fertile farmland in the state thanks to the reality that water drains on all sides into the valley.

Though the land feature resembles a large volcanic crater from the air, it as actually created when massive underground limestone caverns collapsed and is believed to have once been the bed of an ancient sea.

According to Virginia Tourism, the site was first discovered in the 1740’s by James Burke while hunting in the area. “The name ‘Burke’s Garden’ was given to the valley as a joke in 1748 after Burke planted potato peelings by the campfire of a 1748 surveying party. The next year, a fine crop of potatoes was found.”

The community was an outpost of German immigrants who settled in the back country frontier in the late 18th century.

Thanks to the circling mountains around the settlement, the area remained isolated for over a century, until agents from the Vanderbilt family discovered the property in the late-1800’s.

Contacting local farmers in hopes of purchasing the land in order to build a large estate in the valley, the Vanderbilt’s were disappointed when all landowners refused to sell.

Dejected, the Vanderbilt’s went farther south to the hills of North Carolina and constructed the Biltmore Estate near Asheville.

In the 1990’s, a small number of Amish families moved to Burke’s Garden and have gradually begun building a thriving Amish community in the heart of Appalachia.

Today, lines of scooters can be seen daily outside the Burke’s Garden School and Community Center where the Amish now have their own school. The General Store is owned by the Amish and visitors enjoy barbecue and sandwiches on thick slices of home baked bread. Visitors can buy baked goods and vegetables, bike on area roads, hike and hunt in nearby Jefferson National Forest.

The only vehicular entrance to Burke’s Garden may be accessed approximately 25 miles west of the Rocky Gap, Virginia exit of Interstate 77 in Bland County, Virginia.  The community can also be viewed from the Appalachian Trail.

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