Virginia National Parks: Get Beyond the Tourist Hot Spots at One of These 5 Hidden Gems

By Amie Knowles

June 9, 2023

Virginia’s national parks offer opportunities to explore the great outdoors, from the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park to the wild ponies on the beach along the Assateague Island National Seashore.

When you think of a national park in Virginia, only one likely comes to mind, and that’s Shenandoah National Park. But if you look it up online, you’ll find sites touting anywhere from 22 to 30 or more national parks sprinkled throughout the commonwealth.

That got us thinking: How in the world can there be such a large gap? If there’s just one, there’s just one—and that’s a long shot from 30+

Our curiosity got the best of us, so we dug deeper. There are currently 424 national parks in the United States and territories like Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam. Out of those, only 63 sites include “National Park” as part of their proper name—and they’re the ones you’re likely to hear about most when you’re planning a vacation. 

Virginia’s Shenandoah is one of the 63, along with Acadia in Maine, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and Yellowstone, located predominantly in Wyoming, to name a few famous others.

In reality, there are 20 national park types under the care of the National Park Service, which make up the 424 total. From national seashores to national battlefields, the commonwealth offers multiple opportunities to explore the great outdoors. 

Shenandoah National Park

Virginia National Parks: Get Beyond the Tourist Hot Spots at One of These 5 Hidden Gems
NPS Photo/Shenandoah National Park: A hiker enjoys a winter sunrise from a rock outcrop at Hazel Mountain Overlook. 

Location: Waynesboro

We’ll start with the obvious, and that’s the national park in Virginia. Established the day after Christmas in 1935, Shenandoah National Park encompasses a 200,00- acre area of the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains.

Six months later, President Franklin Roosevelt visited the stunning mountainous region, stating: “We seek to pass on to our children a richer land, a stronger nation. I, therefore, dedicate Shenandoah National Park to this and succeeding generations of Americans for the recreation and for the re-creation which we shall find here.”

What better way to experience what Roosevelt envisioned than spending the night in the park? Backcountry camping opportunities are available for those wanting to sleep under the stars. If you’re staying in the park, you’ll need a permit—but with over 500 miles of trails at your fingertips (or should we say at your footprints), it’s well worth the step. 

For those who prefer a visual vacation with air-conditioning, driving along Skyline Drive might be more your speed. It takes about three hours to drive the 105-mile swath. Skyline Drive is generally open 24/7, with exceptions for inclement weather and road work. 

If you want to experience Shenandoah from the comfort of your home, there’s an option for that, too. The park has a series of webcams available for public view, featuring live recordings of the Shenandoah Valley, Big Meadows, a mountain view from the Pinnacles area, and more. 

Great Falls Park

Virginia National Parks: Get Beyond the Tourist Hot Spots at One of These 5 Hidden Gems
Great Falls Park/Great Falls on a summer day.

Location: Fairfax County

It’s hard to believe, but just 15 miles from the hustle and bustle of Washington, DC, there’s an expansive natural area featuring jagged rocks and a rushing river. 

Did we mention it’s the Potomac River, which peacefully meanders alongside the Nation’s Capital? Meanwhile just upstream, there’s a Class V+ set of waterfalls (Class V+ rapids are characterized by their extreme routes and intensity). 

The area often draws in white water sports enthusiasts—but if you go with plans to get in the stream, you’ll need to double check the precautions and restrictions first. Life jackets are mandatory for all boaters, and helmets are required for kayakers. There’s no swimming or wading allowed. 

You can learn more about kayaking the Potomac River here

If water sports aren’t your thing, there are also five miles of biking trails, 15 miles of hiking trails, and birdwatching opportunities. There are 163 varieties of birds that frequent the park, including waterfowl like ducks, geese, and herons, and songbirds like woodpeckers, vultures, and kingfishers.

Assateague Island National Seashore

Virginia National Parks: Get Beyond the Tourist Hot Spots at One of These 5 Hidden Gems
Assateague Island National Seashore/Two wild horses on dunes at Assateagtue Island National Seashore.

Location: Assateague Island

There are only two ways to drive to and from Assateague Island National Seashore, and only one of those is in Virginia! The state line splits the island, with the northern two-thirds located in Maryland and the southern third in the Old Dominion State. 

Many tourists visit both Assateague Island and nearby Chincoteague Island in search of wild ponies on the beach. While nothing more than a fence separates the Maryland herd from the Virginia group, the National Park Service owns the Old Line State’s, and the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns the commonwealth’s.

Following a breakout of fires in the Town of Chincoteague in the mid-1920s, a fundraiser involving the island ponies emerged. The local fire department received money from the sale of 15 colts, which swam across the channel between the two islands. 

Word spread and by 1937, an estimated 25,000 people came to see the wild horses swim from Assateague to Chincoteague. The following decade, the novel Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry brought even more attention to the pony penning. The annual event continues to this day, occurring on the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July. 

In addition to seeing the wild ponies, Assateague Island National Seashore offers ranger-guided programs, youth activities, and Over Sand Vehicle (OSV) permits. Driving on the sand can be a little tricky, especially for first-timers. If you’d like to prepare ahead of your trip, the park put together this OSV video for driving tips.

Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail

Virginia National Parks: Get Beyond the Tourist Hot Spots at One of These 5 Hidden Gems
Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail/An Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail marker is to the right of a dirt path.

Location: Abingdon

Did you know that there are national historic sites dating back to the Revolutionary War? One of them is in Abingdon, and the battle was a key turning point in the conflict.

The 330-mile Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail spans four states, including the commonwealth. The path follows the historic route the troops—led by Col. William Campbell of Virginia—took, which culminated at the battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina. 

Trekking through the rural countryside isn’t the only way to experience the Overmountain trail. Guests who prefer motor vehicle travel can access portions of the path by taking the Commemorative Motor Route. The route uses existing state highways marked with the trail logo—and at times travels over the original historic roadway.

Cumberland Gap

Virginia National Parks: Get Beyond the Tourist Hot Spots at One of These 5 Hidden Gems
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park/Gap Cave is adorned with fantastic dripstone formations.

Location: Ewing

Near the Virginia-Tennessee-Kentucky border, you’ll find quite the crevice. The Cumberland Gap National Park is a 24,000-acre area offering adventurers 85 miles of hiking trails, a plethora of scenic views, and its fair share of historical sites.

Several of the Gap’s best features are right here in the commonwealth, and you can find many of them at Thomas Walker Civic Park. A 3.9-mile hike will take you to a naturally formed Sand Cave—with no ocean in sight. 

If you continue past the sandy feature for another 5.2 miles, you’ll end up atop White Rocks. When you reach the peak, you’ll be able to see all three connecting states of the Cumberland Gap. 

According to the National Park Service, “The towering cliffs known as White Rocks were a landmark to early pioneers who were traveling through the Powell Valley to Cumberland Gap and into Kentucky.”

There’s also a cave on the Virginia side, aptly called “Gap Cave.” Guided tours occur from April 21 to Sept. 30 and cover approximately 1.5 miles of the underground area. Guests will see stalagmites and flowstone cascades—and an occasional cave creature or two, like a bat or a lizard. 

  • 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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