It’s hard to make the wrong choice when you're looking to hike in Virginia. With over 7,000 miles of ocean and bay views along the coastal plains, more than 50 state and national park or forest sites and more than 550 miles of the Appalachian Trail crossing diagonally through the state, Virginia earns its reputation as a must-explore state on the East Coast.

While Virginia’s aforementioned section of the Appalachian Trail earns a lot of respect from hiking fanatics – hosting nearly a quarter of the thru-hiking trail’s entire length – the wild areas outside of western Virginia have trails more than worth your while, whether for a day hike or multi-day camping adventure.

Shenandoah National Park_Old Rag hike
Rocky lookout at the Old Rag hike in Shenandoah National Park © R. Ressner / Getty Images

Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park

Best for experienced day hikers

9.5 miles (15km) to summit, 7 hours

Whether looking in a guidebook or asking a local for recommendations, there’s a strong likelihood Old Rag Mountain comes up.

Situated in the central-eastern portion of Shenandoah National Park, this hike is popular, but don’t confuse that with accessibility—consider that this 9.5-mile trail rises more than 2,000 ft in elevation and takes some steep switchback climbing on the way up before you lace up at the trailhead.

Planning ahead is recommended, as the trail’s word-of-mouth fame leaves parking areas near the trail full and even lines to start the trail on days with decent weather. Shoot for a mid-week start earlier in the morning to avoid crowds and cherish the rolling green hills from the peak all by yourself.

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Great Falls of the Potomac
The Great Falls of the Potomac are just one of the great views you can take in close to DC © drnadig / Getty Images

Great Falls Park Trails

Best hike for families  

1.5-2 miles (2.5km), 1-2 hours

If you’re coming from the Washington, DC region, hiking in Virginia doesn’t get any easier than Great Falls. Just under six miles from the nearest Metro stop, this National Park Service site straddles the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland and combines the region’s nature and history into one destination.

The park’s best trails have a diverse spread, including family-friendly and accessible paved trails like the Old Carriage Road (1.6 miles one way) and rocky scrambles along riverside cliffs on the Billy Goat Trail (1.75 miles one way).

Hiking here is the status quo for many in the Capital Beltway region, so park entrance, parking lots and trails can back up early—expect to get to the park close to its 7am opening time, as entrance lines can build up by 10:30am. 

The Neabsco Creek Boardwalk in Woodbridge, Virginia is part of the Potomac Heritage Trail © Shutterstock / refrina

Potomac Heritage Trail  

Best hike for history buffs 

710 miles (1143 km)

Stay close to the DC region and you can continue to blend history with a hike on the start of the Potomac Heritage Trail, a National Scenic Trail stretching through northern Virginia, D.C., Maryland and Pennsylvania.

In 1983, the National Park Service was able to designate a network of existing trails that follow the Potomac River as an official National Scenic Trail, showing off much of the river through the Mid-Atlantic.

Most of the trail is cobbled together from existing routes, but if you’re looking for hiking in the Virginia portion, consider the 17-mile Mount Vernon Trail near George Washington’s homestead south of the District; it’s paved and relatively flat and urban enough to always see the city skyline.

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Hikers at McAfee Knob on Appalachian Trail in Virginia
McAfee Knob on Catawba Mountain is one of the most photographed vistas in the area © Joel Carillet / Getty Images

McAfee Knob

Best hike for backpackers and photographers

8 miles (13km), 4 hours

Settled on the Appalachian Trail near the southern end of the state, the hike to McAfee Knob offers hikers the chance to check out the thru-hiking trail’s most photographed vista.

The hike spans just under 8 miles and is mostly popular with backpackers making their way to the northern or southern termini, and is known to present a lower strain and a high reward. Backpackers will find several dispersed campsites, a shelter and water source, and great views from the hike up to the 3,171-ft peak.

The trails in Prince William Forest Park offer a something for all skill levels © Getty Images/iStockphoto

Prince William Forest Park Trails

Best for day hikers of all levels

It’s hard to believe that a 15,000-acre site easily accessible from the state’s most populous region doesn't dominate more Virginia hiking lists, but Prince William Forest Park isn’t like other spots in the state.

The park on former Indigenous Doeg land acts as a hub for Washingtonians hoping to get back to nature close to home on a variety of long and short hikes through a Piedmont setting.

The area hosts 37 miles of hiking trails, reachable from the central Scenic Drive looping through the heart of the park. You’ll also find a number of creeks and campgrounds scattered through the dense forest. Visit in the fall as the leaves change color and you’ll find a higher number of hikers around, but you're still alone enough to comfortably hike through amber autumn trees.

On the Run-Two Assateague Ponies
Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland is famously home to wild horses which were once domesticated but have since gone feral © Getty Images

Chincoteague/Assateague Islands

Best hike for birdwatchers

Chincoteague and Assateague Islands might be on the farthest eastern reaches of the state, inhabiting the narrow end of the Delmarva Peninsula, but for hikers in Virginia looking for something unique, they’re well worth the trip across the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge shares space on the barrier islands with the Assateague Island National Seashore, offering bay and ocean hikes for all types of hikers interested in a beach getaway.

Hop on the 3-mile Wildlife Loop to ensure a wildlife encounter as you circle Snow Goose Pool along a paved walkway, or practice your long walks on the beach on the 25-mile Beachfront Backpacking Trail, stretching along the strand of the peninsula up to the Virginia-Maryland border.

Grayson Highlands State Park

Best hike for wildlife lovers

4 miles (6.43 km), 2 hours

The Grayson Highlands are the gateway to Virginia coming to or going through the Southwestern corner of the state, and with the state’s tallest peaks and the start of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, are unsurprisingly home to some of the best hiking in the state.

Reach the 5,542-ft peak of Wilburn Ridge and catch sweeping views of the bald hillsides in the neighboring Jefferson National Forest. While you may avoid crowds in this wild area, you might still not be alone—expect to hear or see in person a few wild ponies from the Wilburn Ridge hike.

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This article was first published Jun 14, 2021 and updated Oct 14, 2021.

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