Beyond Dirty Dancing:
Visiting Mountain Lake
A few months ago, I had to make the harrowing drive up to Mountain Lake Lodge–a beautiful mountaintop resort located in Giles County, VA. This was my first time driving myself up the mountain because the only other times I’d gone were with other people for Mother’s Day and the Fourth of July (when I sprained my ankle during a night hike).
Mountain Lake is probably one of the most beautiful locations you’ve never heard of–outside of Dirty Dancing. Yes, Mountain Lake Lodge is one of the filming locations for the Jennifer Gray and Patrick Swayze classic and home to the iconic dock. Now, there isn’t anything wrong with wanting to visit because you love the movie. In fact, the lodge also loves the movie and has signs spread throughout indicating which scene was shot where.
Since the lodge reopened, there have been a few write-ups in Cosmo and other magazines of that ilk with clickbait headlines “OMG, You can visit the place they filmed Dirty Dancing!” Again, I don’t have a problem with this because it is great for marketing.
However, these articles miss a key detail about Mountain Lake–there is no lake. Well, there is now, but for a long time, there was just a field where it used to be. And I don’t know about you, but I would be pretty bummed if I read an article online about visiting the filming location of my favorite movie, and it was missing a key player. The story behind the missing lake is really cool, and it’s been something I’ve wanted to write about since Postcard Press was just a group project at The George Washington University.
Lakes in Virginia
Mountain Lake is one of only two natural lakes in the state of Virginia. All other lakes in the state are man-made. That alone makes visiting Mountain Lake an incredible experience.
Virginia just isn’t made for lakes. Unlike other spots in America like Michigan or Minnesota, Virginia wasn’t hit with glaciers, so there weren’t any areas carved out for lakes to form. That, plus the mountainous terrain just didn’t create the right environment. However, humans fixed that as technology allowed by building their own lakes, like Smith Mountain Lake.
And because Moutain Lake is a natural lake, it goes through one of the most fascinating natural phenomena in the State of Virginia.
But Where’s the Water?
The first thing I always notice when I visit the lodge is that there is very little water in the lake itself (though, it has risen since my first visit in 2006). It’s probably disappointing for everyone dying to recreate the lake scene from Dirty Dancing for a photo-op.
So, where did the water go? As I said, Mountain Lake is one of the only natural lakes in Virginia, and it’s located on top of a mountain (hence the name). When you have a natural lake, the natural environment is going to have various effects on it.
To put it simply, Mountain Lake has a hole in it. Because of this hole, the water naturally rises and falls throughout the years. The dry periods are a natural process that occurs every 100 years or so. Right now, the lake is in a dry period. However, the lake is starting to refill (slowly but surely) thanks to the help of local geologists and geology students at Radford University and Virginia Tech. They’ve worked tirelessly over the years to figure out the issue, find the leak, and find a way to close it naturally so that they wouldn’t disturb the natural order. Since I only got a ‘B’ in Geology, I’m going to let the video below explain the work they did to help the lake naturally refill again.
My Experiences at Mountain Lake
I don’t have a lot of personal experience at Mountain Lake. The drive up the mountain is terrifying with beautiful views designed to distract you so you drive off the edge. Because of that, I try to only go when I’m not the one driving.
However, I spent one of the best Fourth of Julys at Mountain Lake because a friend of a friend wanted to take pictures. We actually had permission to walk out into the lake (at this time it was more of a field) and set up his camera. So, while everyone else at Mountain Lake Lodge was crowded onto the shore, we had front row seats to an amazing fireworks show. We also messed with the people on the shore because my friend brought her green laser pointer–which is used by astronomers to point at the stars.
The conservatory is open to the public and staying at the lodge is optional. However, if you’re planning a trip, make sure to check their events calendar to find the weekend that’s right for you.
I’m in no way trying to turn people away from Mountain Lake or shame anyone who wants to go because they love the movie Dirty Dancing. Travel is a personal experience, and you should visit place for whatever reason you want to visit them. Even without the lake, Mountain Lake is an amazing location for vacation if you love hiking and the outdoors. Their trails offer stunning views and chance encounters with wildlife. And, of course, if you are a huge fan of Dirty Dancing, they still have all the filming locations marked for you to find for your photo-ops. As always, my wish is that more publications look deeper into a location rather than just write about the surface level.
Have you ever visited a someplace that was different than you imagined? What are some movie locations you want to visit?