With fall quickly approaching, it’s time to venture outside and do some exploring.
One of the best things about Virginia is that we actually get to experience all four seasons. With the scorching temperatures of summer mostly behind us—you just never know with climate change, right?—we thought now’s as good a time as any to spotlight some of the natural beauty the Old Dominion State has to offer.
Virginia is home to 66 dedicated natural preserves and 41 state parks with something for everyone. Here’s a look at five natural sites to stretch your legs and explore.
The Natural Bridge – Rockbridge County
Virginia is home to one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World: the Natural Bridge.
This 215-foot high natural arch spans about 90 feet and was created over time by Cedar Creek or a cavern collapse—depending on who you ask. Old folklore from the Monacan Native American tribe suggests the land bridge appeared during a battle and was used as an escape route.
The bridge has been designated a Virginia Historic Landmark and a National Historic Landmark, and in 2016, the state officially opened the Natural Bridge State Park. A criss-crossing of hiking trails allows visitors to walk underneath the bridge. Visitors can also learn more at the Monacan Indian Village, check out Lace Falls, and take a guided tour of the nearby caverns.
Plan to pay for parking at the park (and most Virginia state parks, except on designated holidays). To visit the bridge, plan on buying tickets. Tickets are $9 for adults and $7 for kids ages 6-12. Learn more about pricing before you go, here.
The Natural Tunnel – Scott County
The Natural Tunnel in Scott County spans more than 850 feet and at about 10 stories high, so the tallest member of your group doesn’t have to worry about hitting their head. The limestone tunnel was carved over thousands of years, creating a breathtaking chasm between the stone walls and chimneys to rival the rock formations in Utah.
This more-than-a-century-old tourist attraction cuts through a portion of the Appalachian Mountains and is so wide that it was once used as a railway tunnel, according to Atlas Obscura.
Local folklore also calls this breathtaking park a Lover’s Leap. The story goes that a woman fell in love with a man after he saved her from a bear but when her father refused to allow her marriage to him the two lovers determined they would be together one way or another. The two jumped to their deaths at sunrise cementing their love for eternity.
Heartbreaking story aside, visitors to Natural Tunnel State Park today can enjoy hiking, cave tours, canoe excursions, and even stay overnight in dorms located in Cove Ridge Center. Additionally, there is a chairlift to get down to the bottom of the tunnel floor.
If you’re willing to brave chillier temperatures, the park puts on an annual Christmas lights celebration inside the tunnel. Here’s a link for information on last year’s celebration.
Great Falls Park – Fairfax County
Are you a city slicker in Northern Virginia looking for a little nature close to home? Great Falls is an awesome destination just for that.
Great Falls State Park includes about 800 acres of wooded and often rocky land along the Potomac. The landscape creates rapidly rushing water that cascades down a short drop, and is a great backdrop for pictures.
The park includes 15 miles of hiking trails for all abilities, including wheelchair accessible routes along the water.
While you’re there, make sure not to miss the Mather Gorge. The area is named after Stephen T. Mather, who was the first director of the National Park Service. You can hike to lookouts by the River Trail (which is the more difficult route) or the Patowmack Canal Trail (which is a little bit easier.)
Depending on weather conditions and time of year, the falls can take on dramatically different water levels and speeds—all the more reason to visit more than once!
Good to know: The visitor center at Great Falls is currently closed for construction through Spring 2023. The park, the waterfalls, and overlooks are all still open.
Great Dismal Swamp – Norfolk
Don’t let the name fool you—this natural area that runs through the Virginia border to neighboring North Carolina won’t be a dismal visit.
The more than 100,000 acres give visitors a peek into what the natural landscape of the region looked like before settlers. In the past, the swamp covered more than one million acres of land.
The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was officially established by Congress in 1973.iThe area is a treasure trove for seeing wildlife in their natural habitat—including butterflies! Plus, with 220 confirmed species spotted in the area, it’s a popular destination for bird watching.
The park includes more than 40 miles of trails for visitors to check out the incredible landscape, including the 3,000-plus- acre lake in the center of the swamp, Lake Drummond. With winter approaching, be on the lookout for ducks, geese and swans descending upon the refuge.
The Sand Cave – Lee County
This sandy cave offers an incredible ceiling of color—perfect for photos to post on Instagram.
Located in Cumberland Gap National Park, hikers can visit the Sand Cave for an experience many reviewers have said absolutely lives up to the hype. Once a massive rock, the cave formed over many years of high winds that eroded the sandstone to create a 250-foot-wide opening.
Visitors can hike or horseback ride to the sand cave. The journey is about four miles from the parking lot to the sand cave over trails and some sand, so wear appropriate footwear.
Bonus destination: For hikers who are up for a longer journey, an additional mile or so will bring you to White Rocks. This is where you can see three states; Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee from the top of the rock formation. The two natural wonders make for an excellent (but tiring!) day of exploring southwestern Virginia.
Good to know: This is one of the state’s most popular hikes; if you’re looking to avoid crowds, hit the trails early in the day.
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