MARION, Va. (WJHL) — Boasting a name with mysterious origins and a history dating back to the start of Virginia’s state parks, Hungry Mother State Park offers outdoor adventures and respite for any who make their way there.
Located only minutes from downtown Marion, the park features picturesque woodlands and a 108-acre lake that was dammed from Hungry Mother Creek.
News Channel 11 spoke with Park Manager Kevin McDonald, who shared the multitude of activities and opportunities to be found at Hungry Mother, as well as the park’s history.
“Hungry Mother I think is so unique because you have this opportunity to escape and reconnect with the nature and still be five minutes to Marion and Walmart and all the modern-day amenities that you may want,” McDonald said.
During the park’s peak season in the summer, McDonald said 55-60 wage employees work at Hungry Mother, including several local students at the park’s beach, boating dock and concession stand.
The park sees hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, and McDonald said a study showed the economic impact Hungry Mother has on the area cannot be overstated.
“Attendance for 2022 was over 300,000, which is a pretty decent chunk of people coming to visit the park,” McDonald said. “Every year, we actually subcontract through Virginia Tech to do an economic impact study, and the study reflected from 2022 that we had an estimated impact of about $16.3 million to the area.”
Hungry Mother and its hometown work hand-in-hand on a multitude of occasions, and McDonald said the park works with all of Smyth County when possible.
“We have a wonderful relationship with the Town of Marion but also Smyth County tourism, chamber of commerce, all of that. We will frequently partner with the Town of Marion in terms of just cross-pollination for events and advertising and all that. Then Smyth County, we do Fish and Fun Day, which is through the chamber of commerce. So they come out on the free fishing weekend and help us out with a lot of that stuff.”
With a wide array of activities to choose from each day, McDonald believes Hungry Mother State Park is instrumental in bringing visitors to the area.
“I know going forward, especially Smyth County the tourism, they’re really wanting to emphasize that section of what we bring, and I think Hungry Mother State Park is always going to be a focal point of those interactions.”
Why Call It ‘Hungry Mother?’
The park’s construction began in 1933 and celebrated its grand opening in 1936, making it one of what McDonald referred to as “the Original Six.” Those six Virginia State Parks were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and were the first state parks in the Commonwealth.
The exact origin of the near-century-old park is steeped in mystery and many versions of its roots have been told, but McDonald said there is one primary variation of the tale that the park stands behind.
“The one we commonly tell and what people commonly associate with the park would be that a mother and her child were taken, and when the child was able to escape and try to make her way back to people, when somebody found her she was so hungry and tired that all she could say was ‘Hungry Mother, Hungry Mother,’ from where her mother had left to have the child go find help.”
One of the park’s many trails is named Molly’s Knob, supposedly in honor of the mother who according to legend was found nearby.
An Escape for Campers
“We have 32 cabins and lodges, we have three campgrounds, one of which is full-service: water, electric, sewer. That’s our Camp Burson,” McDonald said.
The other two campgrounds, Creekside and Royal Oak, offer a little less in amenities for those who want to camp in a more primitive environment. Creekside has water and electric services, and Royal Oak is tent-camping only. All of the campsites have bathroom facilities.
Hungry Mother State Park is open all year long, 24/7. Cabins and camping are open throughout the year, but in the winter, the park leaves only Camp Burson open with fewer cabins available to match the smaller turnout of campers.
There are miles of trails to explore in the park. The challenging Molly’s Knob is short but demanding with a view at the top that some say includes Mount Rogers on a clear day. For those looking for a more leisurely hike, the lake trail is predominantly flat and scenic.
“If I was to recommend to somebody who said ‘Hey I’m camping for the first time, where should I go?’ even if I didn’t work here, I would recommend us,” McDonald said. “We can give you anything you want and leave out the things you don’t.”
McDonald said the park can cater to people looking for a quiet and relaxed escape or those seeking some thrill.
“If you want to come and just have a nice relaxing time and sit by the fire, you can have that. But if you want to be active and go find as much as you can, we can give you more than you could ever find in a couple of weekends.”
A Wildlife Haven
Hungry Mother is more than just an attraction; it also serves as a place to educate the youth and the public. The park offers youth programs and has its own interpretive department to teach guests about the wildlife and environment.
“It’s always been interpretive in terms of how we interpret the environment to our guests. You can also think about it as environmental educators, so we always put on programs, we have a chief ranger of visitor experience and her sole job is to bring education and support opportunities, volunteerism to the park.”
During the summer, McDonald said the park offers anywhere from one to six programs each day within the interpretive department. Hungry Mother also has its own Junior Naturalist program which stays active in the spring and fall and features self-guided activities throughout the park.
Visitors to Hungry Mother who stop at the park’s main office will be greeted by a diverse display of animals. Taxidermied wildlife found in the park over the years occupies a portion of the building with a few live reptiles and amphibians in their own habitats.
“One of the really cool things that we offer there at that particular facility is we do have a hellbender, which is the largest salamander in North America and they are native to Smyth County as well,” McDonald said of the amphibian at the office.
The animals in the office represent the variety of creatures found in Hungry Mother, which McDonald said have drawn visitors to the park for years. From white-tailed deer and often-seen mammals to raptors, massive fish and bears, the park is home to a massive network of animals.
“We do have bears. People frequently ask about bears and interactions with bears,” McDonald said. “The best way that I’ve always described it to people is that we are living in their world, but they also don’t want to interact with us any more than they have to.”
According to McDonald, most of the bear interactions in the park can be traced to one of two things: food left out overnight and dogs.
“We always encourage our guests to put their food up either in a vehicle or a locked cooler in the middle of the night so that a bear wouldn’t have any reason to want to come to investigate your snack.”
Hungry Mother, like other state parks, has a leash law requiring any dogs on the premises to be on a leash at all times. Park leaders have found that keeping dogs leashed protects the local wildlife, as well as the dogs themselves.
A Lake Full of Fish and Fun
For anglers, Hungry Mother could be considered a must-visit location. The lake is home to several species including panfish, bluegill, crappie, catfish, sunfish, largemouth bass, hybrid striped bass and walleye. Several enormous catches from the lake can also be found mounted in the park office, many of which are several feet long.
However, one monster fish in particular acts as a major draw for anglers: muskellunge, also known as muskie.
Muskie have been called “the fish of a thousand casts,” and are a challenge several freshwater fishermen and women hope to reel in. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources stocks Hungry Mother Lake with the member of the pike family, and McDonald said the predatory fish can easily grow to over 50 inches in length. Anglers at the park are limited to one per day at a 42-inch minimum.
Fishing at the park ramps up during the summer, particularly around Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Of course, fishing is not the only draw to the lake. The park has plenty of ways for guests to enjoy the water.
“We offer anything, especially from a boating department, from paddleboats to stand-up paddleboards,” McDonald said. “We have hydro-bikes, if you’ve ever heard of those before, which is pretty much a bicycle on water. Of course, we have canoes and kayaks and that sort of stuff to offer as well.”
According to McDonald, there are several lake programs for those wanting to paddle or hit the water.
“We have a lake cleanup program that we do, we do a general lake paddling program, we also do a nighttime paddling program that would be for more of your experienced paddler but I think would be great.”
The park also tends the lake’s beach near the entrance and operates a full concessions stand. During the summer, guarded swimming can take place, but unguarded swimming is still permitted during the rest of the year at each swimmer’s own risk. Hungry Mother plans to expand the concessions stand in the near future and offer more experiences for beach-goers.
Bringing Out the Crowds
Throughout the year, Hungry Mother acts as a hub for local events. The park employs a chef and keeps a full-service kitchen dedicated to events like weddings, corporate retreats and family reunions.
The most famous of its events is the Hungry Mother Arts & Crafts Festival, held on the third weekend of July each year. The festival, organized by the Art League of Marion, draws artisans, potters, leatherworkers, craftspeople and vendors to the park for the three-day festival.
“This last year was our biggest year,” McDonald said. “We had over 12,000 people come.”
The park also hosts several events around the holidays. Below is a flier from the park regarding events on Labor Day Weekend.