Find Solitude and Adventure in Virginia

With more than a million acres of hiking, camping, paddling, and mountain biking, George Washington National Forest has a getaway for everyone.

When crowds flock to Shenandoah National Forest, keep going: The park’s lesser-known neighbor, George Washington National Forest, offers adventure, solitude, and hundreds of miles of trails amid some of Virginia’s wildest landscapes.

Only an hour and a half from Washington D.C. and just a half-hour drive from Charlottesville, George Washington National Forest is home to more than a million acres of protected land. Its borders encompass hundreds of miles of hiking and backpacking routes, including 330 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Mountain bikers will find rewarding endurance rides and world-class singletrack. And the forest is a haven for trail runners, as well: Three different 100-mile ultramarathon races are held within its boundaries.

Hardwood forests shade dozens of spectacular campsites and picnic areas, many of them historic treasures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Crystalline mountain streams splash with trout, serpentine rivers beckon paddlers, and hundreds of bird and mammal species make for prime wildlife viewing.

Ready for some deep-woods quiet and high-mountain Appalachian views? Here are some recommendations to help you make the most of your visit.

Getting There

If you’re coming from Washington D.C. or from the north, the closest section of forest is the Lee Ranger District. Head to the Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area (open mid-April through October). The area makes a perfect starting line for hiking, fishing, camping, or mountain biking adventures. On your way out, grab a bite to eat in Front Royal, a gateway town tucked in a bend in the Shenandoah River and surrounded by vineyards.

If you’re coming from Charlottesville, the Glenwood and Pedlar Ranger Districts are closest. Head east along Route 64 to Waynesboro, where you can pick up the Blue Ridge Parkway, tracing the Appalachian Trail south. Target Sherando Lake for hiking, fishing, and camping (open April through October), or keep driving for scenic overlooks and trailheads galore.

From the south, you can access George Washington National Forest through the towns of Buena Vista or Glasgow. Head to Otter Creek Campground for tent sites, fishing, and hiking, or the James River Visitor Center for picnic spots and trails right on the waterfront.

Photo: NPS

When to Go

George Washington National Forest is open year-round, and each season offers its own take on Appalachian adventure.  

Spring: Budding trees and the season’s first flowers make spring one of the best times to visit. Just be prepared for a little mud.  

Summer: Summer brings warmer temperatures, full canopies—and more people. Arrive early to get your pick of parking, and take a dip in one of the forest’s many lakes and streams to beat the heat. 

Fall: Cooler temperatures and changing leaves (come in October for peak color) make fall one of the best times to visit.

Winter: Come winter, temperatures consistently drop below freezing and snow isn’t uncommon. Come despite the chill and you’re all but guaranteed to have the trails to yourself.

Things To Do

 

Paddle

In the western part of the national forest, just north of Covington, you’ll find vast Lake Moomaw. You could stay there, fishing the trout-rich waters and cooling off at the lake’s two sand beaches—or you could launch a canoe into the Jackson River just below Gathright Dam, and spend the day paddling south through clear, gentle water. Keep eyes peeled for bald eagles overhead and deer and herons picking their way along the shore. You can takeout at any of five access points within the national forest (keep in mind that not all permit parking, and camping isn’t allowed at any of the access points). The furthest access point maintained by the Forest Service is Petticoat Junction, about 16 miles from Gathright Dam.

Rock Climb

Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area, located at the northern end of the Lee Ranger District, boasts 50- to 120-foot cliffs that offer a number of moderate climbs in a variety of styles, many of which are suitable for beginner or intermediate climbers. (Note: Toprope access is available for some climbs, but you’ll have your pick if you know how to lead.) Head to the Talking Heads area for shady climbs and roadside access, and the Buzzard Rocks zone for sunny walls with a scenic, more remote feel. Tip: Finished climbing for the day? Take a dip in one of Passage Creek’s many swimming holes.

Backpack

Traverse two wilderness areas and nab some of the state’s best views on this 26.5-mile backpacking trip along the famed Appalachian Trail. Start at Reeds Gap (just off the Blue Ridge Parkway and south of Sherando Lake) and head south to Salt Log Gap, following white blazes. There are a number of three-sided Appalachian Trail Shelters on the way, but The Priest shelter makes a good halfway point. Be sure to pause at Chimney Rock and Hanging Rock for sweeping views across rolling hardwood forest and, if you go in June, be on the hunt for blooming rhododendrons. No permit or fees required, but check the Forest Service’s guidelines for local rules and tips on minimizing impact.   

Mountain Bike

Located entirely within George Washington National Forest and just north of the town of Clifton Forge, Douthat State Park offers everything from year-round hiking and camping to seasonal swimming and boating. But Douthat’s best feature? Mountain biking. The park is connected via a web of trails—more than 40 miles in total—most of which are open to bikes. Try the beginner-friendly Flat Run Trail to get your bearings, or concoct a longer, more intermediate linkup on the Fore Mountain Trail, which heads south out of the state park before looping back north on the Allegheny Highlands Multiuse Trail/Forest Service Road 752.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.