7 Beautiful Virginia Hikes
Need some exercise and a change of scenery? Head to these wide open spaces.
Trails lend themselves well to metaphors. They provide terrific lessons about trusting a winding path, even if you’re not sure where it leads, and staying in the moment, putting one foot in front of the other. At the end of a rocky, uphill climb, there is often a beautiful view that was worth every hard step to get there. Walking in the woods might be the original form of #selfcare.
Rich in history and natural beauty, Virginia boasts numerous places to hike, from Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains to the many state parks that encompass mountain, lake and river experiences. We’ve chosen seven beautiful spots for hiking within about a two-hour drive of Arlington, and we hope you’ll use them as jumping-off points to discover other outdoor opportunities around the state. Be sure to check websites and alerts before you go to verify that trails and parks are open, and take all necessary safety precautions. Then lace up. The woods are waiting.
The constant lapping sound of the water against Lake Anna’s shoreline is hypnotic and peaceful. Marine biologist Wallace Nichols, author of the 2014 book Blue Mind, has said that the sight and sound of water releases neurochemicals that increase blood flow to the brain and heart, among other benefits. Located in Spotsylvania County, Lake Anna State Park offers hikers both woodsy shade and solitude, as well as lake views that can induce that much-needed serene feeling.
Situated on the site of an early-19th-century gold mine, Lake Anna is a reservoir that was created as a cooling facility for Dominion Energy’s North Anna Power Station. The lake is one of the largest in the state, stretching 17.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, with some 200 miles of shoreline. It has both a private side and a public side—the state park. Here, a dozen interconnected trails range from a short quarter-mile leg-stretcher to ones that are 2 to 3 miles long, although hikers can easily combine different trails to extend the experience. Several hikes, such as the Railroad Ford and Big Woods trails, offer glittering glimpses of the lake, with places to pause at a waterfront bench and allow the neurochemicals to do their job.
Lake Anna is ideal for hikers who want to add on other recreational activities such as boating, fishing, swimming or horseback riding. Both tent and cabin camping are available, and a visitor center features exhibits on the site’s gold mining history. The park also runs popular gold panning programs and tours of the Goodwin Gold Mine site, where ruins and trenches can still be seen.
Between Virginia’s eastern coastal plain and its Appalachian spine lies its rolling heart—the Piedmont. Located near the town of Paris, off U.S. 17, Sky Meadows State Park celebrates these Virginia foothills in all their glory, occupying a 1,860-acre tract donated to the state by philanthropist Paul Mellon. Nestled into an undulating valley east of the Blue Ridge, the park combines meadows, forest, streams and tended fields, as well as a historic district with 18th- and 19th-century farm buildings that interpret colonial and antebellum life.
Hikers at Sky Meadows have their choice of trails of varying difficulty and length, for a total of 22 miles. One of the most scenic circuits, however, is a 5.2-mile combination of the park’s Piedmont Overlook and North Ridge trails, as well as a short section of the Appalachian Trail, that provides stunning panoramic views of the surrounding hills and farmlands. Although sections of the circuit are forested, the hike is unusual in that it traverses open fields with unimpeded vistas. Forget Montana—this is big sky country in Virginia.
Because of its dark, relatively unpolluted nights, Sky Meadows is popular with stargazers, too. You could join one of the park’s regular astronomy nights, when astronomers bring telescopes and point out constellations and other celestial features—although after a day of hiking you might just want to book a campsite, kick off your shoes and look up.
With more than 500 miles of trails, Shenandoah National Park offers a bevy of options that range from short nature walks to the rugged Appalachian Trail (AT), which traverses the entire 100-mile length of the park. Broad vistas, rushing waterfalls and historic sites can all be seen from the park’s trails, most of which are accessed from overlooks and parking areas along Skyline Drive.
The moderately difficult, 2.4-mile Compton Peak trail, for one, offers a quintessential Shenandoah experience in relative proximity to I-66 and the amenities in Front Royal. The trailhead sits across Skyline Drive from the Compton Gap parking area at mile 10.4 (mileposts begin at zero at the park’s northern Front Royal entrance). Almost immediately, you’ll head uphill on a portion of the AT past large intact and crumbling boulders. At the junction with the Compton Peak trail, you can go right toward a magnificent view of the surrounding Appalachians, or left to see a volcanic columnar jointing feature, a series of connected hexagonal basalt columns (the same geological process that created the striated Devils Tower in Wyoming).
Adventurers who want a bigger challenge might consider joining the growing number of people in the informal Shenandoah 500 Mile Club—those intrepid wanderers who have hiked all of the park’s trails. Hikers who finish the “SHEN500” earn unlimited bragging rights, along with a special patch featuring one of the park’s famous black bears.
If you get lucky, you might see the real thing in Shenandoah. Several hundred black bears are thought to reside in the park, most active between April and November. Although black bears almost always scamper away at the sight or sound of humans, check the park website for tips on how to stay safe in bear country.
Among the many Civil War sites in Virginia, Ball’s Bluff Battlefield and Cemetery in Leesburg is a hidden gem. Tucked into a suburban development, this riverside regional park offers history-minded hikers both varied trails and interpretive markers that describe the early-war battle that took place here.
On Oct. 21, 1861, Union forces under Maj. Gen. George McClellan, attempting a reconnaissance of sites along the Potomac River, were easily repulsed by a Confederate regiment, resulting in the death of Col. Edward Baker, a U.S. senator, among others.
Today, a memorial to Baker, along with a small stone-walled cemetery containing the mostly unknown remains of Union soldiers who perished in the battle, are among the many historic stops awaiting hikers at Ball’s Bluff. A series of interconnected and colorfully blazed trails weave up and down through the park’s forest topography, making it easy for hikers to extend or shorten their trip as they wish.
Because of the park’s small size (76 acres), bounded on one side by suburbia and the other by the Potomac, it’s nearly impossible to get lost. Kids will love literally choosing their own adventure among the different paths through the woods.
Along the river, where the bluff at the water’s edge can be seen, springtime brings a profusion of Virginia bluebells, whose bright green leaves and delicate blue-lavender flowers are important for native bees and butterflies.
The river, usually calm and shallow, is actually a side channel of the Potomac passing between the park and Harrison Island. Tree branches twist and bend toward the river, including one downed, overhanging tree that dares brave souls to walk out as far as they can over the water. Be careful, or you’ll go home wet.
Of all the hikes in Virginia, Old Rag is a rite of passage. The granddaddy. The classic mountain rock scramble at Shenandoah National Park that is perennially popular. As a monadnock (meaning an isolated mountain or rock formation), Old Rag stands just east of the main ridge of Shenandoah and is a landmark visible from portions of Skyline Drive. Most hikers access the trailhead from a parking lot at the base of the mountain off Madison County state Route 601. Hikers can opt for a longer but (slightly) easier 9-mile circuit hike to reach the summit, or a 5.5-mile out-and-back hike.
The trail to the summit of Old Rag starts out like many Shenandoah trails—tree-shaded and slightly rocky. Before long, however, hikers come to the scramble, a long section of exposed rocks and boulders, which you often have to use all four limbs to get over, under and around as you proceed to the summit. Speaking of which, Old Rag plays dirty with a series of false summits that will elicit laughs or groans, depending on how much your muscles ache. Topping out at 3,291 feet, Old Rag’s true summit offers a well-earned reward: a 360-degree view of the Virginia countryside, as far as the eye can see.
As for difficulty, the National Park Service pulls no punches, calling Old Rag the park’s “most popular and most dangerous hike.” Sturdy hiking boots and ample water and snacks are a must, and you should plan to start as early as possible or risk meeting a full parking lot at the trailhead. Trekking poles might be useful on the lower trail portions, but they should be collapsible and packed away during the harder sections to keep hands free for scrambling. Old Rag is doable for adventurous kids, but only those who are big enough to navigate tricky sections, stay on trail, follow directions and enjoy a long, challenging day of hiking.
Only a few blocks from the Virginia State Capitol building in downtown Richmond sits one of the most unusual hikes in the entire state. The James River Pipeline Walkway is a metal catwalk that runs beneath a CSX railway viaduct and alongside a section of river rapids—providing an exciting juxtaposition between wild nature and an industrial urban environment. Because the catwalk usually sits just above the waterline, it provides hikers with an up-close view of one of Virginia’s most historic and scenic rivers.
Accessible from a parking lot near the intersection of East Byrd and South 12th streets, only about a 10-minute walk from the Capitol grounds, the half-mile pipeline trail will weaken your knees during periods of high water as you pass by Class 3 rapids, the water foaming and churning and rushing past at an incredible speed. Sometimes, it roars so loudly that hearing your hiking companions will be a challenge. Yet tranquil spots can be found along the pipeline as well; the route passes near a small island that shelters nesting sites for great blue herons. A small swimming hole and beach near the trail’s downstream end offers hikers a chance to get their toes sandy, too.
Although the walkway has metal railings on either side, note that there are wide gaps, so it’s important to mind smaller children. Eventually the railings end, even though the trail continues, requiring extra care beyond that point. Sometimes, the water is so high that it’s over the pipeline—that’s your cue to turn around.
The walkway is itself part of the 550-acre James River Park, which includes shoreline areas, islands, wetlands, trails and other places for a variety of recreational activities.
Dramatic cliffs, sandy beaches, sharks’ teeth and fossils: This could be the description of a Steven Spielberg movie, yet these are some of the real-life features awaiting hikers at Westmoreland State Park in Montross, along Virginia’s Northern Neck.
Dating to the 1930s and boasting a mile and a half of Potomac River frontage, Westmoreland was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as one of the state’s six original state parks. More than 6 miles of footpaths, originally dug by hand, take hikers through a surprisingly diverse forest landscape. Most of the trails are easy to moderate in difficulty, and a flat fitness trail along the park road features a series of exercise stations.
The park’s Turkey Neck Trail, for example, is a 2.3-mile loop that passes through a forest of deciduous and evergreen trees, including abundant American hollies, before taking a dramatic drop down toward the river. A boardwalk path traverses a marshy lowland section that is full of the common reeds also known by their scientific name, phragmites. (Although picturesque, phragmites are an invasive species and the park occasionally attempts to control them.)
Past the marsh, hikers can kick off their shoes at Fossil Beach, which affords stunning views of the Horse Head Cliffs, rising as high as 150 feet above the water, as well as a panoramic look at the river, which stretches more than five miles across at this point. Here’s your chance to search the shoreline for fossilized sharks’ teeth, thought to date back 15 million years when the area was covered by a shallow sea.
History buffs will appreciate that several CCC-built log cabins still exist for visitors to rent. Birders will find much to love here, too, in the form of the resident bald eagles, osprey, kingfishers and other species. The park also has a visitor center, boat launch, playground, fishing pier and Olympic-size swimming pool, available in summer months.
An avid hiker, Kim O’Connell has been a writer-in-residence at both Shenandoah and Acadia national parks.