The lushness of new-season vegetation, combined with snow-melt high flows in streams and some great views make these five hikes perfect for spring.
When I was a boy, and the family made the trip from Baltimore down to Radford to visit my maternal grandparents, the thing that overwhelmed me most—well, aside from getting to go to the Clover Creamery pretty regularly for ice cream cones— was how green and naturally noisy the Virginia mountains were compared to home.
It was the lushness of the green that looked the most different. Add in the big noise of birds going nuts, and the rush of water in spring-swollen streams, and I felt like I was in a different world. And one I loved enough to come back to the region to live once I grew up and had the choice.
That feel and lure of spring remains strong for The Day Hiker and me. Here are five favorite places to get out and revel in it, in rough order of easiest to most demanding:
1. Apple Orchard-Cornelius Creek trails loop from I-81 Exit 168. Not only do you get a chance to experience 200-foot Apple Orchard Falls around its peak flow, but on the climb from the parking lot at the end of FR 59, we’ve often stopped to listen to the flow off the mountain toward the creek, rushing under new green with enough noise to sound like its own stream. And the sound of Cornelius Creek—on the way back down—can make it hard to talk at points. Be prepared to take your boots off to ford it at two points near the bottom. Total distance: 6.8 if you take the forest road to Cornelius Creek; 7.3 if you take the Appalachian Trail. And expandable to about 8.5 if you take the AT on past Cornelius Creek to lunch at the great overlook at Black Rock.
2. Camp Rapidan hike near Big Meadows Lodge on the Skyline Drive. A great walk to get up to after a night at Big Meadows, in that it can be as ambitious as a 7.4-mile loop or as easy as a 4.1-mile down and back. Attractions are the palpable history of President Hoover’s mountain getaway, and the meeting of the Mill Prong and the Laurel Prong to form the Rapidan River, which can be kicking in spring.
3. Whiteoak Canyon trails from milepost 45.6 of the Skyline Drive. While the nearly continuous waterfalls make this area as popular (crowded), as perhaps any in the Virginia mountains, everyone should experience at least once this strenuous (and we hate it when you go down first), but rewarding loop of either 8 or 9.3 miles past six falls, not to mention swimming holes and lots of slippery footing.
4. The Grayson Highlands. Most any hike in most any season is a treat as you walk across the top of Virginia. We love ascending toward Mount Rogers from Elk Garden along Va. 600, climbing the Appalachian Trail toward the side trail to the Mount Rogers summit. Water is not the attraction here. It’s open meadows, great vistas, pony visits and just taking a deep breath of the purest dose of spring in the Commonwealth.
5. Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness, west of Staunton. By far the most rugged of these hikes, as you’re not sure, depending on recent rains and storms, how high the flow of Ramsey’s Draft will be, necessitating constant decisions about if and where to cross, whether to try to walk across that tree fallen across the flow or just face reality and butt-scoot. But whatever the circumstances —at times the unmarked trails are easier to find and follow than others—you’re as purely outside as you can get in these parts.