Solitude and Adventure in George Washington National Forest

Visit Virginia’s biggest national forest for over a million acres of hiking, camping, paddling, and mountain biking.

When crowds flock to Shenandoah National Park, keep going: The park’s lesser-known neighbor, George Washington National Forest, offers adventure, solitude, and hundreds of miles of trail 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 managed jointly with the Jefferson National Forest and is home to over a million acres of protected land. Part of the ancestral territories of the Manahoac and Shawnee Peoples, the forest’s borders encompass hundreds of miles of hiking and backpacking routes, including 330 miles of the famed 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 bounds.

Between the trails, hardwood forest canopies shade dozens of bucket list-worthy campsites and picnic areas, many of them historic treasures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Crystalline mountains streams splash with trout, serpentine rivers call to paddlers, and hundreds of bird and mammal species make for prime wildlife viewing.

So, next time you need an escape from the noise and hubbub of urban life, head to George Washington National Forest 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

Paddle the Cowpasture River

In the western part of the national forest, just north of Covington, you’ll find the 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 dip a canoe into the Jackson River just below the 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 take out at any of five access points within the national forest (keep in mind that not all permit parking). More Info: fs.usda.gov

 

Rock Climb at Elizabeth Furnace

While Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area, located at the northern end of the Lee Ranger District, hosts numerous activities, its 50- to 120-foot cliffs offer a number of moderate climbs in a variety of styles, many of which are suitable for beginner or intermediate climbers. (Note: Top-rope access is available for some climbs, but you’ll have your pick if you know how to lead, or hire a guide.) Aim for the Talking Heads area for shady climbs and roadside access, and the Buzzard Rocks zone for sunny walls with a scenic, more remote feel. Pro tip: When you’re finished climbing for the day, take a dip (or cast a fly rod) in one of Passage Creek’s many swimming holes.

 

Backpack Along the Appalachian Trail

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-side 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. More Info: fs.usda.gov

 

Mountain Bike at Douthat State Park

Located entirely within the 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? Its mountain biking. The park is connected via a web of trails—over 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.