Get Outside RVA: Day hikes within a few hours drive from Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Want to do a lot of hiking this summer but don’t want to travel very far to do it?

Fortunately, you live in Virginia, a state filled with hundreds of trails for hikers of all ability levels.

The Old Dominion state, like much of the East Coast, features beaches, coastal swamplands, rivers, rolling hills, waterfalls, beautiful ridgelines and boulder scrambles.

The state also features 554 miles of the Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive/the Blue Ridge Parkway and 37 state parks.

Here are just a few of the best outdoor adventures you can have in under three hours of driving, using just your own two feet (and a daypack for water and snacks):

Piedmont:

Pony Pasture. Images courtesy of Carrie Brockman
An explanation of the Buttermilk Trail’s name.

James River Park System: Drive time = 10-15 minutes max from anywhere in the city. Starting off local, the James River Park System is a series of trails for hikers and mountain bikers that can be found smack dab in the middle of Richmond City along, you guessed it, the James River. Some highlights of the park system include Pony Pasture — beautiful swampy area with views of the James — The Buttermilk Trail — parallels Riverside Drive on the city’s south side, and Belle Isle — can be accessed by pedestrian bridges from either side of the river; besides being beautiful, it also features tons of historical markers telling the island’s history, including its use as a prison camp during the Civil War.

Forest Exploration Trail, Pocahontas State Park

Pocahontas State Park: Drive time = 30 minutes from Richmond. Pocahontas State Park is one of Virginia’s most popular parks, featuring over 60 miles of mostly moderate, flat trails for biking and hiking. The park represents one of the closest escapes into the woods from Richmond — at least woods that don’t feature cityscapes and the sound of nearby traffic. Some trails worth checking out include the Beaver Lake Trail — a 2.5-mile loop that features great views of the lake, the Forest Exploration Trail — a 2.25-mile up and down affair that crosses several streams, and the handicap-accessible quarter-mile long Spillway Trail.

Images from the Beaver Lake Trail, Pocahontas State Park

Mountains:

Humpback Rocks: Drive time = 1.5 hours from Richmond. Humpback Rocks is a steep, but short 2-mile round trip hike located off the Blue Ridge Parkway just south of Waynesboro with a beautiful overlook — hence the name. Don’t let the shortness of the hike deceive you, as the 800 feet of elevation gained make for a tough workout. But the views make it worth it. The short trail also intersects with the Appalachian Trail for those who want to add a little extra onto their hike — or do some backpacking.

Humpback Rocks

Spy RockDrive time = 2 hours from RichmondPark at the Montebello Fish Hatchery in Nelson County, and make your way up another steep, but short 3-mile round trip hike to beautiful, not-quite-360-degree views. Spy Rock features yet another rocky outcropping with pretty views that intersects with the Appalachian Trail. And it’s just a hop and a skip away from Devil’s Backbone, Wild Wolf and Blue Mountain Breweries…or Bold Rock Cidery for those so inclined.

Spy Rock

Dragon’s Tooth: Drive time = 3 hours from RichmondFound along the county border line between Roanoke and Craig Counties, Dragon’s Tooth is a huge, pointed rock just down the road from the even more popular McAfee’s Knob. The parking lot is directly off Route 311. All told, it’s a moderate to difficult 5.5-mile round trip hike with some rock scrambles along the way. You’ll find metal staples drilled into the rock as an aid when it gets really steep. Lots of fun bouldering and beautiful, 360-degree views of the surrounding valley at the top, but be careful, it’s often quite windy. Secondary Note: This trail also intersects with the Appalachian Trail and can be made into a longer backpacking loop that also includes McAfee’s Knob and the less popular but also beautiful Tinker Cliffs.

Dragon’s Tooth

McAfee’s KnobDrive Time = 3 hours from RichmondAlso located off of Route 311 near Roanoke, McAfee’s Knob is one of Virginia’s most popular hikes. As a result, you can expect the parking lot to be full any time you visit on a sunny weekend. Be careful if you park on the side of the road to clear the roadway entirely because towing can and does happen. Otherwise, there are two ways to approach this hike: via the 4.5-mile (one way) Appalachian Trail or the more direct fire road. The AT is more of a “hiker’s hike,” whereas the fire road can get you there, but it’s a tad less attractive, but also less strenuous. That said, for rock climbers, bouldering opportunities abound along the fire road. Once you get to the top, you’ll find the often photographed namesake of the hike as well as a ton of fun in the form of a rock maze. Once more, bouldering abounds at the top of McAfee for those who choose to pursue it. When you get done with your hiking and bouldering, travel down the road a few more miles to check out the Homeplace Restaurant, every hiker’s favorite all-you-can-eat southern family style meal.

McAfee’s Knob

Sharp Top MountainDrive time = 2.75 hours from Richmond. Sharp Top and neighboring Flat Top Mountain make up the Peaks of Otter, two beautiful, 360-degree views just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, north of Bedford, Virginia. Sharp Top is the shorter of the two, and also more popular at about 3.5-miles round-trip. While short, the trail is still quite steep, so make sure to bring your water and take breaks when needed. Once at the top you’ll find a stone cottage, along with the aforementioned views of the surrounding valleys and Flat Top. You can also combine the two for a 10-mile round trip excursion.

The view from Sharp Top, Peaks of Otter. By Virginia State Parks staff.

Waterfalls:

Whiteoak CanyonDrive time = 2.5 hours from RichmondThis hike, like many of those in the surrounding area, is always quite busy with visitors from the Washington D.C. area. That said, it’s absolutely worth sharing because of the quality of the waterfalls and swimming holes. Located in Shenandoah Park, not far from Old Rag, this hike also offers options based on ability levels and interest in hiking more or less mileage. Regardless of which path you choose, views of waterfalls and swimming holes abound. Check out the Cedar Run trail for the chance to experience a natural waterslide. For those looking to really get their hike on, you can combine the two with the yellow-blazed WOC fire road/horse trail to create an 8-mile loop. Otherwise, it takes about a mile to reach waterfalls from the lower parking area. The elevation gain is steady throughout, but nothing crazy. Note: This hike has multiple parking areas, so check the Hikingupward.com page for better planning information. Also, because it is in Shenandoah, be prepared to pay a National Park entrance fee.

Whiteoak Canyon. Images by Shenandoah National Park and ForestWander.

Crabtree FallsDrive Time = 2 hours from RichmondThere’s an upper and lower parking area, but the hike is most easily accessed from the lower parking area (Check here for information about how to get to the upper parking lot). In all, it’s a 4-mile roundtrip up and down with beautiful views of falls within the first mile. Go all the way to the top and you get some pretty views from above the falls as well. Hikingupward.com offers great details for those who want to combine this with Spy Rock as a 14-mile-long short backpack. Also worth noting, Crabtree Falls is by far the tallest waterfall in Virginia, and some say it’s the highest on the East Coast.

Crabtree Falls. Source: US Forest Service

Great FallsDrive Time = 2 hours from Richmond. Great Falls is another very popular hiking and kayaking destination in Northern Virginia. It’s proximity to D.C. makes it, once again, extremely busy, but once more, still worth a visit. Situated at the fall line of the Potomac River, you can expect beautiful views of waterfalls and rapids, not to mention bouldering and rock climbing opportunities. If you’re there on the right day, you might get a chance to see paddlers at play in one of the state’s best whitewater destinations. This one also has an entrance fee, so make sure to plan accordingly. Caution: swimming and wading are strictly prohibited due to dangerous currents.

Great Falls Park. Image courtesy of National Park Service Digital Image Archives

Coast:

Great Dismal SwampDrive Time = 1.75 hours from RichmondLots of short hikes throughout this unique National Wildlife Refuge that straddles the North Carolina, Virginia border and includes one of Virginia’s only two natural lakes — Lake Drummond. Obviously, the hiking is mostly flat and easy with beautiful views of one of Virginia’s most unique ecosystems. Beyond hiking, there’s the opportunity for biking, fishing and hunting in the refuge as well.

Great Dismal Swamp’s Lake Drummond. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

False Cape State ParkDrive time = 2.25 hours from RichmondFalse Cape State Park offers one of the few undeveloped beaches on the East Coast. The park can only be accessed on foot, bike or via boat. Many choose to camp along the beach. As you would expect, sand dunes and swimming opportunities abound here. Just make sure to bring enough water and food if you plan on camping.

False Cape State Park. Images by Virginia State Parks staff and Lago Mar.

Boulders/Scrambles:

Old Rag MountainDrive time = 2 hours from Richmond. One of Virginia’s most popular hikes for a reason. There are multiple paths to reach the summit here, but most people do it as a 9-mile-loop hike. Old Rag begins typically with lots of switchbacks and the occasional pretty views of the nearby valley before turning into an epic rock scramble towards the summit. Bouldering and rock climbing opportunities exist for those who are interested, as well as some of the most beautiful 360-degree views in the state. Be prepared to use all four limbs in places, especially on wet or icy days. As it is in Shenandoah National Park, be prepared to pay park fees. Also, expect a crowd, regardless of the season.

Old Rag

Devil’s MarbleyardDrive time: 2.5 hours from Richmond. Perhaps Virginia’s most oddball, and arguably most fun, hike. Devil’s Marbleyard is located just minutes down the road from another famous Virginia landmark: Natural Bridge. The perk of this hike vs. its neighbor is that it’s free. The downside is that it’s far more strenuous than any other hike on this list if you follow the boulders to the summit. Fortunately, the actual trail skirts the boulders and takes you to the summit and back in a total of about four moderately difficult miles. Extensions can also be found on hikingupward.com, including a connector trail with the Appalachian Trail. That said, the fun in this hike is in the boulder scramble, but use caution as it’s a pretty tough evacuation if you get injured!

Devil’s Marbleyard

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