Five Great Outdoor Summer Destinations in Virginia

National Park Service

By Amie Knowles

July 27, 2022

Virginia is for outdoor lovers, and boy does our gorgeous commonwealth offer some spectacular sights!

More than 30 National Park Service stops are in Virginia. It was so hard to choose some of our favorites, but we’ve narrowed it down to our top five for summertime (look for our top five fall picks in a couple of months)! 

  1. Cumberland Gap, Lee County
Five Great Outdoor Summer Destinations in Virginia
Image: National Park Service

Need to beat the summer heat? Then it might be time to head for the hills — the mountains of western Virginia, that is! The Cumberland Gap, an area where visitors can actually stand in three states at one time, has a treasure trove of outdoor activities for nature lovers. 

If it’s too hot on the surface, there are experiences waiting to happen underground at Gap Cave, located underneath Pinnacle Overlook. If underground experiences aren’t your forte, maybe history is! At the Hensley Settlement on top of Brush Mountain, guests can enter a blacksmith’s shop, see a springhouse, explore a one-room schoolhouse, and imagine life the way it was from 1903 to 1951. The Cumberland Gap also features 85 miles of trails and 14,000 acres of wilderness.

  1. Great Falls, McLean
Five Great Outdoor Summer Destinations in Virginia
Image: National Park Service

While there are a number of waterfalls with accompanying swimming holes in Virginia, Great Falls in McLean isn’t one of them (actually, swimming and wading are both prohibited). But the sight of the Potomac River crashing amongst the rocks is a sight to behold! 

We chose this 800-acre park as a great spot for summer recreation not only because of the incredible views, but also for the variety of activities available to visitors. Located just 15 miles from Washington DC, the outdoor space accommodates bikers, hikers, fishermen, climbers, birdwatchers, and horseback riders. Believe it or not, there are opportunities to boat there, too, but use caution — rapids vary from from Class II (moderately easy) to Class VI (extreme)!

  1. Chesapeake Bay, Tangier Island
Five Great Outdoor Summer Destinations in Virginia
Image: National Park Service

There’s a little bit of everything in the Chesapeake Bay area. From port cities like Hampton Roads and Norfolk to serene coastal options like Cape Charles Beach, it’s the perfect location for a varied summer weekend.

Everything you’d hope to do on a trip to the beach is found along the Chesapeake Bay. There are shopping opportunities, chances to fish, and multiple seaside restaurants where guests can enjoy fresh seafood. Children between the ages of four and 12 can become a Junior Ranger along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, while those ages 18 to 25 can apply to the Chesapeake Conservation Corps Program. The Bay is also recognized as the nation’s largest estuary!

  1. Fort Monroe, Fort Monroe 
Five Great Outdoor Summer Destinations in Virginia
Image: National Park Service

Did you know that the first enslaved Africans in the New World arrived on the shores of Virginia? In 1619, some “20 and odd” African men and women landed at Point Comfort, the seaside area now known as Fort Monroe, after being stollen by English privateers from a slave ship bound for Vera Cruz, Mexico. 

By the 1860 census, there were more than 3.9 million enslaved individuals in the United States. Effective January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared that enslaved persons were free. Unfortunately, the Confederate states didn’t heed the proclamation, and slavery continued in the South until the end of the Civil War in April 1865. 

Now, Fort Monroe helps tell the story of the first African arrivals through walking tours, special events, exhibits, a historical marker, and more. 

  1. Appomattox Court House, Appomattox County 
Five Great Outdoor Summer Destinations in Virginia
Image: National Park Service

Summer’s a great time to visit the Appomattox Court House, located in Appomattox, Virginia. While Wilmer McLean’s house where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant might be one of the main reasons people seek out the site, there’s much more than the Surrender Room to see. 

Wetlands are probably something visitors would expect to see closer to the ocean, but they’re also in central Virginia — sometimes! In the summer, the vernal pool is invisible. Why? Because it dries up! The summer months are the only times to see the land without standing water, as the cooler months bring the feature to life. There are also multiple hiking opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, featuring eight different trails around the park, ranging from less than one mile to nearly five miles.

Did your favorite Virginia outdoor summer spot make the list? Let me know at [email protected].

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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