In tiny Saltville, VA (pop. just under 2,000) lies one of the most interesting natural wonders of Virginia. Head to the Well Fields Recreation Area to explore the unique high-altitude salt marshes that gave Saltville its name. The lakes of the Well Fields are a top destination for birding, fishing, and history enthusiasts. Explore several miles of interpretive trails covering 30,000 years of historical significance.
History of the Saltville Well Fields
Saltville can, probably without challenge, claim to be the most fascinating two square miles in Virginia, or possibly the eastern United States, owing to its geology, paleontology, history, and past industrial production”. – Dr. Charles S. Bartlett, Geologist
The town of Saltville rose to prominence due to its salt deposits, and salt is inextricably linked to the town’s history. Two major Civil War battles were fought over the Confederate salt works in the town. In the 20th Century, Saltville was best known as a “company town” for chemical company Olin Mathieson, which produced hydrazine rocket fuel for test engines leading to the Apollo 13 mission to the moon.
The Well Fields area is a now a series of lakes and wetlands that are both fresh water and brackish due to salt leakage from the many old brine wells within the area. The lakes were formed by subsidence resulting from the removal of salt deposits beneath the town. Two hundred years ago there were extensive pastures here. According to the Virginia Department of Wildlife, the Well Fields are the only inland saline marshes in Virginia. Originally the location of salt wells that pumped the salinated water up for salt production, now the Well Fields are an 86-acre public park owned and maintained by the Town of Saltville.
Local universities frequently host paleontology digs in the Well Fields. For tens of thousands of years, animals have been drawn to the salt licks in the area, making the Well Fields rich with fossils. Head to the nearby Museum of the Middle Appalachians to view fossils from the Well Fields, including mastodons, woolly mammoths, and giant beavers.
Saltville: a bucket list destination for birding and wildlife
The Well Fields are an official site on the Virginia Bird and Wildlife Trail, due to the unique ecology of the area. The saline marshes make it one of the best places in Virginia to glimpse migratory shorebirds and waterfowl, with species like grebes, northern pintail, American black duck, American wigeon, and green-winged teal. Migrating birds, during their spring and fall migrations through the area, have carried other organisms as seeds, and planted an unusual garden here.
Plants in the area include both freshwater and saltwater species, such as saltmarsh bulrush, black-grass, and spearscale. One of the fascinating things about exploring the Well Fields is seeing saltwater plants native to the coastal areas, growing happily in the Appalachian Mountains, some 400 miles from the ocean. In summer, wide swaths of blooming swamp rose mallow dot the shoreline of the lake.
Local fisherman enjoy the Well Field lakes, and fishing is permitted dawn to dusk with a standard Virginia fishing license.
Exploring Well Fields Recreation Area
Head to Saltville’s Well Fields for superb fishing, birding, and wildlife viewing. The Helen Williams Barbrow Interpretive Trail is a .6 mile paved walking and biking trail. Signage along the trail traces the history of Saltville and the Well Fields, “from the Ice Age to the Space Age.”
For families, the Well Fields make a great picnic destination, and small children will enjoy the wooden pedestrian bridge connecting the picnic area to Lake Drive. A nearby playground and historic train engine are also popular for families.
The Well Fields are located in the town of Saltville, Virginia at 434 Palmer Avenue. Free public parking is available on Palmer Avenue, and at the trailhead for the Helen Williams Barbrow Interpretive Trail on Lake Drive. From I-81, take Exit 35-Chilhowie, and travel 9 miles north on Route 107 to downtown Saltville.
Admission to the Well Fields Recreation Area is free, and the park is open seven days a week, dawn to dusk. For more information on birding and wildlife, visit Virginia Department of Wildlife. For a free map of the Well Fields and Saltville, visit The Museum of the Middle Appalachians at 123 Palmer Ave., Saltville, VA 24370.