Wanderlust is defined as a strong desire to travel, but here in Virginia, we call that feeling WanderLove. As we begin to travel again, planning an epic road trip is a safe way to explore Virginia’s endless beauty, from its pristine beaches to the scenic curves of its storied mountains.
When road tripping through Virginia, you will experience an incredible variety of landscapes, terrain, and habitats in which to undertake an equally amazing variety of adventures. Do you want to strike out for the ocean where you can try sea kayaking the tidal shores of the Atlantic, camping in a maritime forest, and hiking through a wildlife refuge? You can do that in Virginia.
Or perhaps you prefer a mountain-centric adventure, trekking to the top of a high peak with a stunning 360-degree panorama, then paddling a thrilling, chilling whitewater river, capped off with a challenging mountain bike ride in rugged terrain. You can do that, too, in Virginia.
Check out these five Virginia road trips for outdoor lovers, then pack your outdoor toys – and your sense of adventure — to experience the thrills of the Virginia outdoors along the open road.
–VIRGINIA ARROWHEAD ROAD TRIP–
Photo Credit: Michael Speed, IG account: @photosbyspeed
Virginia Arrowhead Adventures Overview: Far Southwest Virginia is the best-kept secret when it comes to outdoor activities in Virginia, where friendly locals are happy to help. Prefer the trail less traveled? Come here to experience Virginia’s unsung national park – Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, where human and natural history converge, where you can experience a wealth of geological features such as Skylight Cave, Sand Cave, cliffs, overlooks, and the remote Hensley Settlement. Virginia state parks and the Jefferson National Forest provide additional places to see waterfalls, natural tunnels, deep gorges, and mountain-rimmed lakes. Paddling opportunities range from flatwater paddling on the aforementioned lakes to gorgeous rivers with overnight camping possibilities such as the Clinch and Powell, good floating and fishing, and finally hair-raising whitewater paddling on the Russell Fork. Tent and RV camping possibilities are abundant, too, here in Virginia’s arrowhead. Breaks Interstate Park is a scenic wonderment, home to the “Grand Canyon of the South”.
Hiking Adventure: Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Hensley Settlement Hike – make a 9.7-mile balloon loop. Take the Chadwell Gap up Cumberland Mountain to reach a preserved mountaintop community. Once the home of Sherman Hensley and his descendants, the remote habitation existed in isolation for five decades. Today, a strenuous 2,000-foot climb leads to the secluded and gorgeous locale where two dozen buildings, from homes to the schoolhouse to outbuildings, await your visit. It is truly a fascinating trip back in time.
Backpacking Adventure: 19-mile Chief Benge Scout Trail. The mostly downhill end-to-end backpack explores a lesser visited parcel of Jefferson National Forest. Highlights begin at restored High Knob observation tower with 360-degree views. Descend to Stony Creek, passing a small lake and campground. Keep in the scenic valley then climb over a ridge to join Little Stony Creek Valley, hiking along Bark Camp Lake. Ahead, major waterfalls await as the backpack traverses the magnificent Little Stony Creek gorge. Plenty of backcountry camping opportunities along the way, as well as fishing, too.
Paddling Adventure: Russell Fork whitewater paddle — Russell Fork delivers Virginia’s most challenging whitewater, much of it for top-flight whitewater kayakers only. Russell Fork is well known for its truly spectacular scenery as it cuts a chasm through Pine Mountain, the great breaks for which Breaks Interstate Park is named. The 4-miles from Garden Hole to Ratliff Hole is the section that makes the Russell Fork the stuff of legend. Here, the river drops markedly under steep sandstone walls, making its way in a giant semicircular loop cutting through Pine Mountain. River gradients reach an astounding 190 feet per mile. Paddlers are taking on Class IV-V rapids named Triple Drop and El Horrendo, among others. This section is full of continuous, complex rapids.
Photo Credit: Scott K. Brown
Camping Adventure: Natural Tunnel State Park — overnight in a yurt. A yurt is a circular modern incarnation of an ancient shelter – a cross between a tent and a cabin. Natural Tunnel also has two more conventional campgrounds with water and electricity, as well as ridgetop cabins.
Mountain Biking Adventure: Stone Mountain Trails. Part of the legendary Spearhead Trails of Southwest Virginia, the 30-mile network of Stone Mountain Trails offers challenging riding. It is also open to OHVs. Located near Pennington Gap, the tougher terrain includes overlooks, caves, and river accesses, as well as challenging ascents and descents.
–VIRGINIA HIGHLANDS ROAD TRIP–
Virginia Highlands Adventures Overview: The Virginia Highlands encompasses the lands containing Virginia’s rooftop – the great Mount Rogers which has elevations soaring over a mile high and over 4,000 feet of vertical variation between points high and low. Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is the centerpiece of the Virginia Highlands, with over 436 miles of trail open to hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers, and equestrians, including the famed Virginia Creeper Trail, a rail trail of national renown, and the Appalachian Trail. Fishing and paddling creeks and rivers complement the trails. Campgrounds allow overnighting possibilities. Grayson Highlands State Park offers more highland beauty and opportunities, while New River Trail State Park presents 57 miles of waterside biking through bucolic rural Virginia. The hamlet of Damascus lays claim to being the most famous trail town on the entire Appalachian Trail.
Photo Credit: Joshua Moore, IG account: @jtm71
Hiking Adventure: Virginia High Point — make the 8.8-mile there-and-back hike to Virginia’s high point, Mount Rogers — 5,729 feet. Take the Appalachian Trail from Elk Garden trailhead, enjoying immediate views. Along the way, the hike passes through a rare and lofty spruce-fir forest. Numerous rock outcrops jut above meadows where wild ponies graze and blueberries ripen late in summer. The last part enters a dense spruce-fir forest where the actual high point stands.
Backpacking Adventure: Make a 6-day loop combining the Appalachian Trail and the Iron Mountain Trail. Leave Damascus and trace the Iron Mountain Trail, eventually to descend through lofty Fairwood Valley. Climb to Virginia’s highest terrain and join the Appalachian Trail (AT) southbound through mountaintop meadows, evergreen forests, and rocky outcrops. Trace the AT past Whitetop Mountain and along wooded ridges back to Damascus. Ample trail shelters and campsites throughout the route.
Paddling Adventure: Whitetop Laurel Creek is a fun kayaking stream. The 12-mile section between Creek Junction and Damascus offers a literal boatload of kayaking fun, with multiple put-ins and takeouts. Much of the run is paralleled by the Virginia Creeper Trail, allowing paddlers scout the river as well as use a bike shuttle. Kayakers dash between timeworn boulders, over falls and around islands, mostly Class II-III water. Be careful when Whitetop Laurel Creek flows under trestles of the Creeper Trail.
Camping Adventure: Beartree Campground at Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is a time honored favorite and adjacent to lots of action. This heavily wooded, secluded, clean campground is located in the upper end of the Straight Fork Valley in a forest of evergreens and hardwoods. The sites are average in size but are completely separated by thickets of rhododendron. Bathhouses, complete with hot showers, are never far from any campsite. Beartree Lake complements the campground, as do numerous trails emanating directly from the camp.
Mountain Biking Adventure: Make the 8-mile Rhododendron Gap Loop. Start at 4,600 feet and pedal from Scales on the Crest Trail, entering the high country. Climb to Rhododendron Gap, passing numerous other paths. Descend a bit past Rhododendron Gap and intersect the Rhododendron Gap Trail. Turn left on the Rhododendron Gap Trail and head through some rocky sections through which you may have to walk your bike. The pedaling eases upon intersecting the wider Virginia Highlands Horse Trail (VHHT). Take the VHHT down into Big Wilson Creek and more views before climbing back to Scales. Watch for wild ponies along the way.
–EASTERN SHORE ROAD TRIP–
Eastern Shore Adventures Overview: Virginia’s Eastern Shore encompasses the scenic spit of land – along with numerous islands — dividing the Atlantic Ocean from Chesapeake Bay. Long on water, it is no surprise that water-based activities dominate the action in this quiet, relaxed, and impossibly beautiful shoreline scenery. A host of national wildlife refuges dot the Eastern Shore, namely Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. These refuges provide venues for hiking, biking, wildlife watching, and beachcombing — or even visiting a lighthouse. Assateague National Seashore is famed for its Atlantic beach, wild ponies, and back-to-nature vibe. Paddlers can ply the 100-mile Virginia Seaside Water Trail, winding its way through some of Virginia’s most stunning seaside scenery – coastal marshes, wildlife refuges, and beaches. Multiple launch sites offer beginner, intermediate, and advanced routes for paddlers. Camping is somewhat limited on the Eastern Shore but gorgeous Kiptopeke State Park and private campgrounds make up for that. Fishing, crabbing, and clamming are time-honored past times. Bicyclers can try out the paved Southern Tip Hike & Bike Trail. State natural area preserves add more wildlands and hiking opportunities.
Paddling Adventure: Chincoteague to Assateague Island. Leave Chincoteague Island and work south. Paddle east into Toms Cove, potentially landing at the historic US Coast Guard Station (worth a visit) on the bay side of Assateague Island. Hop out and do some beachcombing and wild pony searching along the Atlantic Ocean before paddling back to Chincoteague Island.
Camping Adventure: Kiptopeke State Park features a little over a mile of bayfront. The park campground is fine for tent and RV campers. The campground is divided into two areas, putting like-minded RV campers together and tent campers together. The RV area has electric, water, and sewer campsites. The tent sites do not have water, electricity, or sewer, but are cheaper. Two large bathhouses serve the campground. Reservations are highly recommended at Kiptopeke during the summer. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the park is full every weekend and some nice weather weekdays, so make reservations far in advance during this time.
Photo Credit: Chad Williams, IG account: @echadwilliams
Biking Adventure: Head over to Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge near Kiptopeke and jump on the paved Southern Tip Hike & Bike Trail. The path follows an old railroad grade for 2.6 miles, and presents an opportunity for wildlife observation while bicycling. Add to your bicycling by pedaling quiet refuge roads, some open to autos, other closed to all but refuge personnel. Looking for more bicycling? Try the trails at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
–ALLEGHANY HIGHLANDS ROAD TRIP–
Photo Credit: Preethi B. Harbuck
Alleghany Highlands Adventures Overview: First off, the Alleghany Highlands are located in far western Virginia, fast against the West Virginia state line. Primarily in Alleghany County as well as adjoining areas, the Alleghany Highlands are comprised of remote mountains, hot springs, wild rivers, deep forests, and outdoor opportunities galore, much of it within the Jefferson National Forest. Paddle the Jackson, Cowpasture Rivers, Douthat Lake, or Lake Moomaw, all part of the Alleghany Highlands Blueway. Hikers can hit the trails at Douthat State Park, with waterfalls, overlooks, and good camping. The state park is very mountain biker friendly, too. More national forest hiking and camping await at Blowing Springs and Hidden Valley. Head to the Omni Homestead Resort and take the Ridge Runner Zipline Tour – traverse over 4,000 feet on 8 zip lines, then make a final 1,300 foot descent on the Red Tail Racer. Mountain bikers can access trails at the Omni Homestead or adjacent national forest lands.
Hiking Adventure: Roaring Run Falls and Furnace. This nifty little trail system packs a powerful punch. The 1.6-mile hike rewards with every footfall. First, revel in the stonework of the trailhead picnic area, then visit Roaring Run Furnace, a stone edifice from the 1830s that once fashioned iron. Next, work your way through woods in the chasm of Roaring Run to a view, then visit a series of cascades capped by Roaring Run Falls. Finally, descend past more cataracts as you traverse the Roaring Run gorge. If the mileage is too short, consider trekking the Hoop Hole National Recreation Trail (leaving from the same trailhead as Roaring Run Falls), a system of paths exploring the Rye Patch Mountains. The gorges of Hipes Branch and Stony Run have many waterfalls of their own.
Photo Credit: Preethi B. Harbuc
Paddling Adventure: Lake Moomaw, in the Jefferson National Forest, is one of the most remote impoundments in Virginia. Luckily, it offers two campgrounds along its shores so you can make an extended adventure. Paddle the mountain-rimmed reservoir that displays mountain scenery rising from its waters. The big lake is narrow at the top with wider sections and islands at its lower end. For a 9-mile paddle, start at Bolar Flat Launch then circle an island-filled cove to reach Greenwood Point, where boaters and hikers can camp. The return paddle to Bolar Flat will deliver more first-rate scenery.
Camping Adventure: Douthat State Park features four campgrounds within its confines, one of which is for equestrian use. However, the other three are for the general public and each present a fine option for overnighters. The Lakeside Campground is the best option for tent campers. Astride Douthat Lake, the quiet camp has no electricity, leaving it for tenters. Generators are not allowed, keeping the atmosphere serene. Hot showers are a welcome thing for adventurers like us. The other two campgrounds – White Oak and Whispering Pines – have water and electricity at each site, making them RV friendly. The park also has cabins and even group lodges for rent.
Photo Credit: Big Orange Frame
Mountain Biking Adventure: Douthat State Park has become a mountain biking haven. Over 40 miles of trails twist and turn throughout the park and connect with more trails in the adjacent Jefferson National Forest, keeping the trailside scenery new day after day. Most of the paths are singletrack. Middle Mountain Trail is a favorite and is important for making loop rides. However, expect some steep trails where you might walk your bike uphill, but the downhills will be all the more fun.
–SOUTHSIDE VIRGINIA ROAD TRIP–
Photo Credit: Sam Dean, IG account: @sdeanphotos
Southside Virginia Adventures Overview: For clarity, Southside Virginia is in the Piedmont part of the state south of the James River, west of the coastal Tidewater and east of the Blue Ridge. The North Carolina border forms the south boundary of Southside Virginia. A rolling, rural land dominated by big lakes, Southside Virginia is growing in popularity as an outdoor destination, perfect for a Virginia road trip. Buggs Island Lake, also known as Lake Kerr, is a huge draw for not only its waters but also its shores, where Staunton River State Park and Occoneechee State Park add hiking and camping to the possibilities. Lake Gaston is shared with North Carolina but the Virginia portion of the impoundment avails additional flatwater paddling. Paddlers can enjoy the Southern Virginia Wild Blueway, encompassing not only Buggs Island Lake and Lake Gaston but also free flowing segments of the middle Roanoke River, Dan River, and the Banister River. These rivers are mostly Class I mild waterways with a few Class II rapids. The scenery is quite rewarding, considering over 80 of the 100 river miles are designated Virginia Scenic Rivers. Fairy Stone State Park has a little bit of everything to sate the adventurer — hiking, paddling camping, and historical study. Staunton River Battlefield State Park has hiking trails amid a Civil War site. City and county parks add mountain biking and bicycling on greenways to the agenda. It is easy to see why Southside Virginia is rising on the outdoor horizon of adventurers in the know.
Photo Credit: Cameron Davidson
Hiking Adventure: Occoneechee Plantation – Take this hike at Occoneechee State Park, on the shores of big Buggs Island Lake (aka Lake Kerr). Combine a pair of nature trails and connect to the Old Plantation Trail, where you can tour the remnants of an 1800s cotton plantation. After entering the plantation grounds you will see remnants of yesteryear’s lifeways, from an old outbuilding to ice pits to the gardens that once adorned the manor. Take note, this hike connects to other park trails that can add to your mileage. Make a bigger loop with the Mossy Creek Nature Trail and the Tutelo Birding Trail. Occoneechee State Park features a total of 17 miles of trails.
Paddling Adventure: Staunton River, Long Island to Brookneal: A moving-water part of the Southern Virginia Blueway, this 11-mile float is a favorite of local Southside Virginians. The river run shows off Class I rapids and rural scenery that is good for the whole family. Leave the put-in, then wind your way among the Hale Islands. Keep easterly, passing Hale Mountain. Ahead, weave your way through two more series of islands before reaching Brookneal access below the US 501 bridge.
Camping Adventure: North Bend Park, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facility, located near Buggs Island Lake Dam (Lake Kerr), is a camping facility of choice. The well-maintained, sizeable camp offers electric and non-electric sites, and has multiple camping loops, along with hot showers and flush toilets. Recreation is instantaneous, as boat ramps and docks, fishing piers, a swim area, and beaches are all incorporated into the recreation area. You never even have to leave camp. Many campsites are large and shaded.
Mountain Biking Adventure: Challenge yourself on the Anglers Ridge trail system along the Dan River near Danville. Hilly terrain and obstacles raise the bar, yet the 35-mile network has trails for all abilities of mountain bikers. A well-signed, interconnected series of trails run up the watery hollows feeding the Dan River and along the hillsides rising from the aforementioned hollows.
If you prefer a greenway bicycling, experience the 9-mile Danville Riverwalk. It links up to the Anglers Ridge Trails. The paved greenway travels along the north bank of the Dan River, and has been ingeniously incorporated into the existing infrastructure. Along the way, it tells the story of Danville from its industrial and Civil War past to today.