Guides

The Best Hiking in Virginia

by Joe ColemanJun 21, 2022

Virginia gets much of its hiking pedigree from the Appalachian Trail running through it, but you don’t have to be a thru-hiker to appreciate the commonwealth! Hiking in Virginia is similar to the nearby states in that you get some incredible greenery throughout the spring and summer and enjoy the changing leaves when fall comes. With the prominence of Shenandoah National Park, Virginia hiking trails are gaining popularity, but there are still plenty of hidden gems to enjoy!

Tips for Hiking in Virginia

Leaves of Three, Let it Be

This adage comes in handy when on hiking trails in Virginia. Virginia has poison ivy and poison oak, among others, so be watchful for it. Poison oak, ivy, and sumac all have three leaves and can cause a nasty itch, making your hiking much less enjoyable. Dressing in light layers and being careful about brushing against leaves on the trail is usually enough but be sure to be extra careful.

Watch Your Step on Overlooks

Virginia has plenty of beautiful overlooks and outcroppings. Keep your footing when enjoying them! There’s a special euphoria that comes with getting to a scenic overlook after a long hike, but stay aware of your surroundings. You’ll get views just as good being a few steps back from the edge, and there’s no Instagram photo op that’s worth being a news story.

Be Careful When Crossing Streams

Virginia has plenty of river crossings, and even the small ones can cause problems if not properly respected. Grippy shoes and trekking poles are always a good idea, but especially so if your hike has a water crossing. Even if you aren’t wading through rushing water, those smooth rocks at the surface can be slippery, and it’s easy to fall and hurt yourself. As long as you’re sure-footed, take your time, and have the proper gear, it’s easy to stay safe while enjoying a water crossing.

Best Hiking in Virginia

Old Rag Mountain Loop – Shenandoah National Park

View from Old Rag Mountain loop trail while hiking in Virginia.

If you have one hike to appreciate Virginia, this is the one you want to pick. While certainly a challenge, there’s a reason it’s still one of the most popular hikes in Shenandoah National Park. Note that due to its popularity, you’ll need an Old Rag day use ticket (in addition to a park entrance ticket, if you don’t have an interagency annual pass) from March 1st to November 30th.

You’re in for some switchbacks before you get to the payoff point on Old Rag. Prepare for a couple of false summits to get your hopes up, but it’ll all be worth it once you do summit Old Rag. Take your time at the peak and enjoy a pretty consistent descent until you hit the trailhead.

Length: 9.4 miles

Elevation Gain: 2,582 feet

Route Type: Loop

Time Required: 5.5 hours

Where to Stay: Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park™ Camp-Resort: Luray

McAfee Knob via Appalachian Trail – Salem, VA

Rain clouds above the mountains—the view from McAfee Knob, a hiking trail in Virginia.

While most people don’t have the time to commit to a full thru-hike, any hiker can pick up a bit of the famous Appalachian Trail on this hike near Salem, Virginia. This out-and-back trail offers a fairly steady first (and last) two miles, with the middle four being the biggest draw of the hike. You’ll have a fairly steady uphill journey from mile two to mile four as you summit McAfee Knob. Be on watch for a scenic overlook about 3.4 miles in, roughly half a mile before you hit the peak.

Length: 7.8 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,811 feet

Route Type: Out and Back

Time Required: 4 hours and 15 minutes

Where to Stay: Halesford Harbour Resort

Hawksbill Loop – Shenandoah National Park

If you want something a little more moderate than Old Rag when you visit Shenandoah National Park, this hiking trail is just a bit under three miles and won’t require an entire morning to complete. You will want to get there early as parking isn’t as plentiful here as it is at Old Rag.

This trail gets a “moderate” rating mainly for the first mile. You’ll gain the lion’s share of your total elevation hiking to the summit for the first mile. You’ll get a bird’s eye view (pun intended) at the top, and then you’ll enjoy a long, leisurely descent back to the trailhead.

Length: 2.7 miles

Elevation Gain: 748 feet

Route Type: Loop

Time Required: 1.5 hours

Where to Stay: Endless Caverns RV Resort

Raven Rocks via the Appalachian Trail – Bluemont, VA

This is a trail where you’ll really familiarize yourself with the hills of Virginia. The trail map looks more like a roller coaster than a hike. It’s quite literally referred to as the “roller coaster of the Appalachian Trail.” This trail is definitely a challenge, though it only gets a “moderate” rating, so it won’t be as taxing as some of the other trails that surround it.

If you want a taste of the Appalachian Trail, this is an experience you won’t want to pass up. The view at the turnaround point, though, is something you’ll encounter few other places, so take your time when you get there.

Length: 5.7 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,535 feet

Route Type: Out and Back

Time Required: 3.5 hours

Where to Stay: Bluffs at Cedar Creek Campground

Sugarloaf Mountain and Northern Peaks Trail – Sugarloaf Mountain Natural Area

This is probably the most popular hike in the area and also the most well-maintained. You’ll find plenty of trail markings and amenities at the trailhead. As such, you’ll also find plenty of like-minded hikers looking to walk this trail.

Expect some small scrambles as you head towards the peak, but this is a fairly moderate trail throughout. Your first half mile has some elevation, but it’s mainly small hills beyond that until mile five.  Once you hit mile five, you’ll have a steady ascent for about a mile and then one final hill before hitting the end of the trail.

Length: 7.4 mile

Elevation Gain: 1,519 feet

Route Type: Loop

Time Required: 4 hours

Where to Stay: Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park™ Camp-Resort: Williamsport

Dragon’s Tooth Trail – Jefferson National Forest

The view from hiking in Virginia in Jefferson National Forest. Purple flowers dot the trail with mountains in the distance and blue skies with clouds.

This trail is both simple and difficult. You’ve got a straightforward out and back that offers about 2.2 miles of steady incline and then another 2.2 of steady decline on the way back. Expect some scrambles about half a mile or so before the peak, but the first 1.5 miles are fairly mild.

While it has a “difficult” rating, hikers tend to be able to handle it fairly well, even those with children. While not easy, it should be doable for most campers if you take your time and avoid the heat of the day. While best from March to October, it’s tougher during the hottest points of the summer because of the combination of heat and humidity. If you bring water and sunscreen, though, this is a challenge worth undertaking.

Length: 4.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,256 feet

Route Type: Out and Back

Time Required: 2.5 hours

Where to Stay: Eggleston Springs Campground

Hiking in Virginia offers a wide variety of experiences to appreciate. It’s easy to pick up the famous Appalachian Trail, but you can also spread out to the popular national parks and forests of Old Dominion. Head into the foliage and hike your heart out!

Joe Coleman is a freelance travel and outdoor writer based in East Texas. His love for the outdoors started when living near Olympic National Park and has stayed with him ever since. Taking a respite from social media, you can reach him exclusively at joecolemanfreelance@gmail.com.

Photo credit in order of appearance: Adobe Stock – Bram, eurobanks, Jared, Alisha.