With 5,000-foot peaks, 3,000-foot climbs, climbable cliffs and fast-moving rivers, the mountains of the Old Dominion can challenge the best.
- Mount Roger (Massive Gap Route)
Multiple routes climb to the top of Mount Rogers—the highest point in Virginia—but the most scenic (and crowded) begins in Grayson Highlands State Park on the Rhododendron Trail. It runs north for a half mile before intersecting with the Appalachian Trail. Take a left on the A.T. and follow it up through Rhododendron Gap.
A spur trail leads to the actual summit, which is covered in trees and offers no views. Have no fear, though: The sections of Appalachian Trail below the actual summit present panoramic perspectives on the surrounding countryside from what is truly the roof of Virginia. Not to mention open balds, areas of rampant rhododendron and the occasional wild pony. With the return trip back to Grayson Highlands, hikers can expect to travel about eight miles there and back.
- Old Rag
Old Rag Mountain’s summit sits at 3,284 feet, and it’s covered in exposed, granite rock that makes for some of Virginia’s best climbing. Find dozens of routes that involve a range of corners, faces and splitters.
Hikers usually follow the Ridge Trail/Saddle Trail to access Old Rag, but climbers may want to start at a parking lot on Berry Hollow Road and follow the fire road to more directly get to the cliffs. Old Rag offers more than 80 climbing routes that include trad and toprope climbs, as well as sport routes. Some are pretty perilous, so it’s worth doing some online research before going.
- The Priest (Nelson County)
To reach the highest point in Nelson County, park at the Crabtree Falls lot on Crabtree Meadows Road, SR826. Hike 1.7 miles to reach the falls, and then a half-mile up the road, which is steep and often rutted, to find its intersection with the Appalachian Trail. Turn left and hike uphill for nearly a mile, where you’ll see a spur trail to the Priest Shelter, where you can find campsites and a spring, in addition to a hiker journal in which many people write confessions due to the name of the peak.
The Appalachian Trail continues for another third of a mile to the Priest Overlook spur trail on the left. Rock overhangs along the way provide for scenic views. To return, simply retrace your steps back to the Crabtree Falls lot.
Or, for the full experience of climbing The Priest, park at the AT crossing of Va. 56 (east of the Crabtree parking area), in the Tye River Valley, and enjoy the torture of a 3,100-foot climb over about four miles to the 4,062-foot summit.
- North Mountain- Longdale Loop
This 12-mile loop presents both scenic mountaintop views and streamside rambles. It works best with a mountain bike but can be hiked, too. Begin at the parking area about a mile up Virginia 770/Collierstown Road in the Longdale area in eastern Alleghany County. Follow Collierstown Road about three miles up to the top of the mountain, where you’ll find a trailhead that marks the start of single-track.
The cliffs just down the trail provide views of Lake Robertson and opportunities for climbing and bouldering. The climb and eventual descent from the ridge include lots of technical maneuvering, along with a variety of forest types. Don’t miss the right turn at the bottom of one rapid descent that ends in an old logging area. Near the bottom, take a right when you see a sign reading “To FDR 334,” which returns to the parking area.
- Glenwood Horse Trail
This more-than-65-mile trail network extends between Rockbridge and Botetourt counties, running from Natural Bridge Station to Camp Bethel. The terrain varies from gravel roads to narrow, single-track trail. The horse trail is used for the Hellgate 100K ultramarathon.
The bounty of linkages and access points to the horse trail provide a number of different potential routes. Much of it runs near the Blue Ridge Parkway, offering scenic views, waterfalls and swimming holes. The length, variety and loop potential of the horse trail makes it ideal for running, mountain biking and, of course, horseback riding.
- Three Ridges
The 14.5-mile Three Ridges loop attracts hikers for its proximity to Charlottesville, its ridge-top views and numerous small waterfalls.
Park at Reeds Gap (Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 13.5) before heading south on the Appalachian Trail. The route runs up to a series of knolls that showcase the surrounding ridges and valleys. The trail arrives at Chimney Rock before heading back downhill. When you reach the blue-blazed Mau-Har Trail, turn right. The trail runs along Campbell Creek, which includes numerous pools and falls. When you reach the Appalachian Trail again, follow it back to the lot at Reeds Gap.
A loop can also be done from Va. 56, up the Appalachian Trail to the north, then back down the Mau-Har Trail to the AT and your starting point.
- The Great Channels of Virginia
Just north of Abingdon lie some of the most extraordinary geological wonders in Virginia. The Great Channels consist of steep, narrow canyons that twist and turn, more like the sandstone topography in southeast Utah than the surrounding Appalachians.
One route to the channels, Brumley Mountain Trail, gains about 1,000 feet over three miles, offering scenic views from Middle Knob. Another route, the Channels Trail, runs 5.5 miles alongside Casey Creek. The channels themselves consist of sandstone caprock crevices that form a labyrinthine maze suitable for scrambling, climbing and exploring.
- Russell Fork River
The Russell Fork River between Haysi, Virginia, and Elkhorn City, Kentucky, provides 16 miles of whitewater that includes Class V rapids in season. Four different rapids have killed paddlers, so high-level skills are a must for that section of river. Intermediate and beginner paddlers can still find good action in other stretches and during lower flows.
The Class V section comes at Breaks Interstate Park when the water is flowing at more than 500 cubic feet per second (cfs). At levels below 375 cfs, this stretch of river becomes more doable for intermediate-level paddlers. The upper section of the Russell features technical paddling that also is accessible by intermediate boaters. The lower section has a couple of technical features but is attractive largely as a forgiving training ground for beginners.
- The Southern Traverse
The International Mountain Biking Association tags this 36-mile loop as one of its “epics.” The loop includes some on-pavement riding, but features extensive stretches of single-track around Shenandoah Mountain.
Start at Benson Run Road (Forest Service Road 173). Climb four miles, then turn left on the Shenandoah Mountain Trail. At Jerkemtight Junction, follow the southern single-track trail, which drops slightly to meet the ridge and then down toward Scotchtown Draft (Virginia 627). Take a left on Virginia 627, another left on Virginia 629 and follow it back to Benson Run Road.
For a touch of history, visit the nearby the Confederate Breastworks, built by southern soldiers in 1861 and 1862. The long, trench-like fortification serves as an early example of the shift to trench warfare seen in the Richmond–Petersburg campaign late in the Civil War, and then at industrial scale during World War I.
- The Triple Crown Loop
The 37-mile, so-called “Triple Crown” loop hits three of the Roanoke region’s most scenic lookouts from the Appalachian Trail, using a trio of supplemental trails to complete the circuit.
Find the trailhead on U.S. 311 to McAfee Knob, and begin with an ascent to the most photographed point on the Appalachian Trail, which provided the poster for the movie adaptation of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.” The trail then runs up and down bumps along the ridgeline before arriving at Tinker Cliffs, which provides panoramas without (quite) the crowds.
At Scorched Earth Gap, not far past the cliffs, take a left down the Andy Layne Trail, which descends into the valley. Cross Va. 779 and pick up Catawba Valley Trail, which climbs back to the ridge before intersecting with the North Mountain Trail, which delivers you to the Dragon’s Tooth parking area and trail. Take the Dragon’s Tooth Trail to Lost Spectacles Gap, then the Appalachian Trail south to Dragon’s Tooth before heading back for the final 7.5 miles back to the trailhead on U.S. 311.
- Rock Castle Gorge
The 10.8-mile Rock Castle Gorge loop also features both scenic vistas and a mountain stream, as well as a few historic ruins and, depending on how you take it on, two killer climbs. Its combination of habitats, elevations and conditions has earned it the nickname “Virginia in Miniature,” for its diversity within a single hike.
One place to begin is on CC Camp Road, just off U.S. 8 near Woolwine, where Rock Castle Creek and Little Rock Castle Creek converge. Start up the wide path, then take a right turn up the single-track loop trail. The route climbs steeply, running past a former Appalachian Trail shelter, built before the A.T. was relocated, and climbs out to run the ridges and bald areas alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The trail eventually begins to descend back into Rock Castle Gorge, but not before offering up a view of the FloydFest site and ruins of a chimney from an abandoned homestead. The final stretch of the trail meanders along Rock Castle Creek, with plenty of spots to take a dip or picnic along the way.
- Iron Gate Gorge
Located on U.S. 220 near the Alleghany/Botetourt county line, the cliffs hide in the woods just above the road near its intersection with Virginia 616/Verge Street. Find more than two dozen routes up vertical sandstone cliffs that max out at about 90 feet.