There are hundreds of trails throughout Virginia that lead to gorgeous views, waterfalls, and other “payoffs” that make the hike worth your while. The most popular trails are enchanting when hiked at the right time, but sunny days often bring crowds that hinder your adventure and ruin that feeling of discovery you get when you reach the end of the trail.
We looked around Virginia at some of the lesser-known hiking spots and picked out a few that inspire hikers and provide additional thrills. Set out on one of these trails today to find your favorite lesser-known payoff hikes around Virginia.
Washington Ditch Trail in Great Dismal Swamp—Suffolk
photo credit: Trevor Frost, @tbfrost
Total Distance: About 9 miles
While many people think of swamps as boggy, humid areas, animal lovers understand that these rich and thriving regions provide the perfect habitat for all sorts of creatures. Find living inspiration everywhere along the Washington Ditch Trail in the Great Dismal Swamp, located in Suffolk. You’ll spot plenty of wildlife, from over 200 species of birds to adorable river otters, along the miles and miles of trails. You may even see bears (hopefully from a distance!) during your hike through the swamplands. The trail is 4.5 miles one way, and ends at Lake Drummond. To get to the trailhead, take White Marsh Road to the Washington Ditch entrance. The trailhead will be just outside of the parking lot.
Payoff: Abundant wildlife in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Bonus: Kayaking tour through the reflective, near jet-black waters of Lake Drummond in the Dismal Swamp, one of the only two natural freshwater lakes in Virginia.
Cold Mountain Loop—Oronoco
Total Distance: 5.8 miles
East of Lexington is the Cold Mountain Loop, the sister circuit to the Mount Pleasant hike off of the Appalachian Trail. More experienced hikers combine the two trails for a longer hike of about 11 miles, while those looking for a quick route to the top use a shortcut trailhead entrance beside the parking lot that is only about a mile round trip. The summit of Cold Mountain Loop brings you to an open, pasture-like clearing that provides 360-degree meadow views. To get to Cold Mountain Loop, take US Route 60 through the Amherst countryside until you begin the climb into the Blue Ridge Mountains. At Coffeytown Road (Route 634), take a right, and then another right at Wiggins Spring Road. Follow the gravel road past the Appalachian Trail parking lot; the Cold Mountain parking and trailhead are only about 0.2 miles past.
Payoff: Panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys from one of the only meadow mountain-tops in central Virginia (and arguably one of the best on the East Coast).
Bonus: Finish your hike with a nice cold beer at Great Valley Farm Brewing in Natural Bridge.
False Cape Landing Trail at False Cape State Park—Virginia Beach
photo credit: Trevor Frost, @tbfrost
Total Distance: 1.5 miles
Virginia Beach is the most popular beach in the state, and you need only to walk a few steps off the boardwalk to have a front-row seat to the Atlantic Ocean. But this convenience also brings crowds during the summer months. Take a hike to some of the more secluded beaches to find a little peace and quiet. One such location is False Cape State Park, about five miles south of Sandbridge. You can only reach the park by foot, bicycle, boat, or tram (available to day-hikers, seasonally), and this difficulty gives the park’s beach area the privacy you won’t find at Virginia Beach. There are 15 trails that total about 7.5 miles in the park, but False Cape Landing Trail is only about .7 miles to the dunes. Reward yourself for your hard work with a little sun and solitude at the beach.
Payoff: Privacy on sand dunes
Bonus: Wild ponies, feral pigs, and other wildlife at adjoining Back Bay Wildlife Refuge
Guest River Gorge Trail—Coeburn
Total Distance: 5.8 miles
The Guest River Gorge Trail winds along sandstone cliffs that plunge 400 feet to the clear waters below, through the deep gorge created by the river over hundreds of years as it tunneled through Stone Mountain towards the Clinch River. Although it is a fairly lengthy trail, the crushed stone layer on the trail and the gentle slope ease the hike. Rest along the way on the benches that give you a view of the crystal clear currents and rapids that swell over boulders. The trail is frequented by cyclists, but hiking the trail allows visitors to take a closer look at the scenery of the gorge. Follow Highway 72 South from Coeburn for 2.2 miles and the parking lot will be on the left, past the Flatwoods Group Picnic Area.
Payoff: Incredible views of the Gorge
Bonus: Swede Tunnel and three small wooden bridges
Falls Hollow Trail to Elliot Knob—Augusta
Total Distance: 8.5 miles
One of the highest peaks in Virginia, the hike to Elliot Knob is no small feat. The climb to the top is an elevation gain of 2,425 feet, and the trail’s 8.5 miles takes many people over 6 hours to complete. If you want to take is slow and appreciate the surrounding scenery, there are two sheltered campsites near the fire tower at the summit where you can set up a tent overnight. Along the hike, there are several clearings that offer breathtaking views, and the trail also passes two small waterfalls that attract a variety of wildlife. The Falls Hollow Trail intersects with a steep access road that will take you to the summit area. Get to the trail by driving VA 42 South of Buffalo Gap to a small pull-in parking lot and gate. You’ll see a stop sign with the number ‘291’ attached.
Payoff: Clear views from the fire tower and summit
Bonus: Two waterfalls along the Falls Hollow portion of the trail
Jump Rock at Goshen Pass—Goshen
Photo credit: Matt Maier
Total Distance: 8.2 miles
Another lesser-known hike in the Lexington area, Goshen Pass does not have large crowds, but this wilderness trail takes a little work to complete the hike. The trail disappears shortly about halfway through, requiring hikers to wander through overgrown areas, and some of the sections may not be clearly marked.
Because of these issues, we recommend this as a hike for the more experienced outdoors fans that have GPS technology. Also, the short portion of the trail that goes to Jump Rock requires a permit to enter since it is part of a Virginia Wildlife Management Area. The summit of Jump Rock has amazing panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley. If you don’t want to bother with a permit, you can follow the main loop of the trail to the swinging bridge. Just like the trail itself, parking for the trail is off the beaten path, on an unmarked gravel road about 1.6 miles upriver from the Virginia Wayside rest station on Route 39 West.
Payoff: Secluded landscape with gorgeous views of Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley
Bonus: Swinging bridge across the Maury River
Savage Neck Dunes Natural Area Preserve—Eastville
photo credit: Suzanne Moss, @thenaturebus
Total Distance: 1.5 miles
Savage Neck Dunes Natural Area Preserve is a 300 acre preserve that borders the Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The preserve has a mile of Chesapeake Bay shoreline, providing private access to the highest sand dunes in Virginia. Use the main trail, marked for beach access, that winds past a grass field, a shady wooded grove, and finally past a large pond before you reach the tall sand dunes and emerge to the Bay. To reach the parking area, take route 634 from Business 13. The parking lot is about 4 miles on the right, but keep your eyes peeled, as the lot only fits three cars and is easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention.
Payoff: Sand dunes and a private beach area
Bonus: During migratory season, you can hear thousands of songbirds singing in the maritime forest area. And see if you can spot the small but important Northeastern Beach Tiger Beetle, a rare species that is now only found in three areas in the world, including the Eastern Shore.
Birch Knob Fire Tower—Dickenson
photo credit: Brad Deel, @brad.deel
Total Distance: 2 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
If you’re all about the view without having to deal with crowds, head to Birch Knob Fire Tower in Clintwood. At an elevation of 3,144 feet, you can see Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee from the platform. You can even see Ohio on a clear day! Save the tower for last and hike the two mile trail that leads downhill from the parking lot to Jenny Falls. Make sure you save a little energy—the observation tower has 183 steps to the top that take a little effort to climb. Birch Knob is located in the Jefferson National Forest on the border between Virginia and Kentucky. Take the Dickenson Highway (Route 83) to Clintwood onto Highway 631 for about 3 miles, then a right on Virginia Route 611 for 2.3 miles. A left onto 616 toward Birch Knob Road will take you to the parking lot.
Payoff: Views of five (sometimes six) states from the observation tower
Bonus: The trailhead to the left of the Fire Tower steps will take you to a waterfall
Keys Gap/Buzzard Rocks on the Appalachian Trail—Loudoun
Total Distance: 7.7 miles
With two popular hikes nearby (Raven Rocks hike is to the south and Loudoun Heights to the north), the Keys Gap/Buzzard Rocks portion of the Appalachian Trail is a lesser-known alternative in the region that still leads to stunning views from the summit. If you plan on making your trip an overnight in the wilderness, there is a campground along with the David Lesser Shelter about three miles down the trail. This is also convenient for hikers to wait out any bad weather during their hikes, as the trail can get more dangerous during rain.
Payoff: Views of the Massanutten Mountains and in the fall, you’ll see the Shenandoah River.
Bonus: Head to Harpers Ferry, only 6 miles north of the trailhead on the Virginia/West Virginia border
House Mountain Trails—Lexington
photo credit: Sarah Hauser, @virginiaflair
Total Distance: 8.2 miles
This hike near Lexington is actually made up of two hikes—the Little and Big House Mountain trails. Big House Mountain trail leads to spectacular views to the west, while Little House Mountain overlooks the Shenandoah Valley. Eight miles may not seem very long, but the steep incline and rocky pathways create a much more difficult trail. There is space for camping and a shelter along Big House Mountain trail, making this an ideal trip for hikers looking to spend multiple days out in the wilderness.
Payoff: Rocky ledges at the summit that afford open, scenic views
Bonus: See the mountain’s most famous resident—a friendly goat that is always on the lookout for food scraps.
Getting back to nature is a wonderful experience, but it is hard to enjoy when there are large groups of people surrounding you. Avoid the crowds and check out these hidden outdoor gems around Virginia for a peaceful hike with a perfect payoff.
Be sure to go to Dismal swamp in late fall to very early spring or you’ll be attacked by bugs. You can wear good clothes & spray but they are relentless.
If you’re not an experienced hiker, or even if you are, do the rescue people a favor and don’t do any hiking in these places until you’ve truly prepared yourself for every situation and know how to read a compass and take the correct equipment with you. We are having to go into Grayon Highlands Park every few days to rescue people for very stupid mistakes. Unfortunately, some of them have lost their lives by the time they are found. This is not to play with. You don’t just jump up from your couch or go for a drive and jump out of your vehicle and say hey let’s stop here and take off for a little hike, especially not on the Appalachian Trail, or the trails at Grayson Highlands. Be serious. Be safe.
I’m asking this in all seriousness, because I want to hike the Appalachian Trail eventually. How does one prepare for the hike? What are your thoughts about women who are single who want to go? I would appreciate any advice.
Dawn, you might want to look for a meetup.com hiking group to start with. Start with easy hikes and work your way up to harder ones. Then try some section hikes with a group. Really long hikes like the AT are just a series of section hikes.
Some very good hike suggestions.