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.
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.