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Perched on Salt Pond Mountain in Giles County, Virginia, Mountain Lake is the lake that should not exist. With its amazing geological history and a recreation background stretching back to before the Civil War, Mountain Lake is a fascinating vacation destination.
Mountain Lake in the Blue Ridge Highlands is one of only two natural lakes in the state of Virginia. (Drummond Lake is the second.) Geologists estimate that water has been flowing into the lake for about 10,000 years, but the lake itself is only about 6,000 years old. Mountain Lake is fed by snow melt, ground water and cold springs, and some of the water then flows out into Pond Drain. About 6,000 years ago a rock slide of sandstone boulders at the north end of the lake created a dam partially blocking the outlet at Pond Drain. Under normal conditions, the water in Mountain Lake would build up and overflow the semi-permeable dam eventually carving its way through the blockage. That is what has happened to similar lakes and is the reason there aren't more natural lakes in Virginia. Mountain Lake, however, is not a normal lake.
Giles County is the most seismically active county in Virginia, Mountain Lake formed over fault lines in the sandstone bottom. The cracks in the bottom of the lake provide another outlet for the water, which keeps it from eroding the dam at Pond Drain. It is estimated that Mountain Lake suffers an estimated subterranean water loss of 600 gallons per minute, every minute. As a result, water levels are very dependent on the water table and the amount of water flowing into the lake, but that is not enough to account for the wild swings in the lake's levels.
It is estimated that Mountain Lake has dried up six times in the past 4,500 years, sometimes staying dry for decades. The lake also empties very quickly, often in as little as two years. Earthquakes in the area open and close the cracks in the bottom of the lake, allowing the water to run out like water from a sink. When the earth shifts again, the cracks close slightly and the lake refills. In 1959, an earthquake cracked a mantle in Mountain Lake Hotel and the lake filled back up. The cracks in the bottom of the lake have also kept it from becoming a bog or wetland because they keep the silt and debris from filling in the bottom.
Southwest Virginia had suffered a drought for years, and by 2002, water levels on Mountain Lake had dropped 15 feet. Its normal surface area had decreased from 50 acres to just 25 acres. By 2003, the lake was full again. In July of 2008, water levels were 51' feet below full pond from its normal depth of over 100 feet. Even though the area received more rain than normal, by October of the same year, the lake was almost completely gone.
Mountain Lake is filling up again, and by March of 2009, there was a small lake at the north end. The springs that fill the lake create temperatures that rarely rise above 70 degrees on the surface and 46 degrees on the bottom. When the lake is full, water runs out Pond Drain and into Little Stony Creek. From there it flows over Cascades Waterfall and on into the New River. The New River is an "American Heritage River," and a great place to tube. The section near Mountain Lake is exceptionally beautiful.
Such a variations in the lake's water levels might make it seem challenged as a recreational lake. Mountain Lake, however, has served as a resort since before the Civil War. By the mid 1800's, Mountain Lake was a stop on the stage coach line and drew hundreds of visitors a year. The lake and surrounding land has passed through several owners. After the Civil War, General Herman Haupt from Philadelphia owned the lake and changed the name of the hotel from Salt Pond Motel to Mountain Lake Hotel. The Haupts also built guest cottages. By the 1930's, Mountain Lake was owned by William Lewis Moody, a former guest. In 1936, Mr. Moody built the existing stone hotel and used the wood from the old hotel to build more cottages. When he passed away in 1954, ownership of the lake and hotel went to his daughter, Mary Moody Northen. Upon her death in 1986, control passed to the Mary Moody Northen Endowment. In 1989, the Endowment established the Mountain Lake Conservancy to protect and share Mountain Lake. The Conservancy runs a Visitor Center with exhibits on the local wildlife, and the history of the lake.
Today, the 2,600-acre resort is known as the Mountain Lake Hotel and Conservancy. The resort is open seasonally from May through October and weekends in November. When the lake is full, guests can paddle boat, kayak, canoe and fish for rainbow trout and largemouth bass, but there is plenty to do when the water is low. In 1987, Dirty Dancing, staring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, was filmed at Mountain Lake, and the Mountain Lake Hotel stood in for the Kellermans Resort. Like the fictitious Kellermans, Mountain Lake Hotel has dance classes, a putting green, and lawn games. There is croquet, lawn chess and checkers, tennis and basketball. Over 22 miles of trail stretch around the resort for biking, hiking, and nature walks. In the winter, those trails become cross country ski trails. There is a disc golf course, archery, and wagon rides. Accommodations range from rooms in the main hotel to cottages. The dining room serves multi-course meals and there is a poolside snack bar and cocktail lounge. The resort has an exercise room, hot tubs, saunas, a pool and a gift shop, and the front desk is stocked with movies and board games.
When water levels at Mountain Lake are low, visitors are encouraged to explore the exposed lake bed to look for fossils and artifacts. In 2008, hotel guests discovered wingtip shoes, a cigarette case, a class ring, coins and human remains. The identity of the body was a mystery sparking the interest of both locals and guests. Eventually, the body was identified as Samuel Ira Felder. Thirty-seven year old Felder was boating with his wife and friends the night of July 23, 1921, when he fell overboard.
Mountain Lake is a short drive from the Jefferson National Forest. Combined with the George Washington National Forest in 1995, the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest is 1.8 million acres in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. With almost 2,000 miles of trails including part of the Appalachian Trail, the recreation opportunities are almost limitless.
Mountain Lake Hotel and Conservancy has a motto. "Do it all or do nothing at all." The hotel and surrounding land certainly provide an opportunity to do it all. Mountain Lake's quiet mountain setting and slower pace offers guests a chance to truly stop and relax. Whether just for a day or for an extended stay, Mountain Lake is an interesting and inspiring destination.
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