The state of Virginia is blessed with plentiful tracts of wild lands, places where backpackers can find large parcels of terrain laced with trails and places to trek for days, places such as Shenandoah National Park and the vast George Washington & Jefferson National Forests. These backpacking destinations present crashing waterfalls, dramatic overlooks and historic highlights – and good campsites to pitch your tent, where you can relax before a calming campfire, and escape from electronic chains that bind us to the daily grind.
A Virginia backpacking adventure can lead to destinations high and low, from the Atlantic shores of False Cape State Park to the historic highlands of Cumberland Gap National Park, and a wealth of mountainlands in between. Virginia’s unforgettable backpacking destinations lead through federally designated wildernesses and scenic areas and along the Appalachian Trail.
Here are 10 of Virginia’s unforgettable backpacking destinations. The nearest town to the backpack is listed, followed by mileages of the trip. Elevation highs and lows give you an idea of the terrain, and GPS coordinates deliver you to the trailhead. Read on, then load up – its time to go backpacking in Virginia!
– RIDGE TRAIL AT CUMBERLAND GAP NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK –
Nearest Town: Ewing
Backpack Mileage: 20-mile end-to-end
Elevation Highs and Lows: 3,400 feet high point, 1,410 feet low point
Why Backpack There: This end-to-end backpack leads past both natural and historical highlights, with views aplenty, and includes a visit to the Hensley Settlement, a collection of preserved cabins and farm buildings of a forgotten mountaintop community.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is an excellent backpacking destination, so even if you cannot arrange two cars for a shuttle, consider making a one-might loop or a two or three night trip then backtrack. The scenery is first rate and highlights are plentiful. Furthermore, once atop the main ridge, elevation changes are not strenuous.
The entirety of the Ridge Trail straddles the Virginia- Kentucky border. The Lewis Hollow Trail leads from the Virginia side up to the Ridge Trail. Along the way pass Skylight Cave, views, Indian Rock shelter, the numerous preserved buildings of the Hensley Settlement and Sand Cave with its waterfall. Top it off with a panorama from atop White Rock, where you can see the Smoky Mountains on a clear day. The Ewing Trail leads back to the lowlands.
Five designated campsites – including one with a primitive cabin – are stretched out along the Ridge Trail. However, a backcountry permit — obtained at the park visitor center — is required.
Essential Fact: Springs are located within a short distance of each designated backcountry campsite. The trailside cabin at Martins Fork can be reserved in advance.
– MOUNT ROGERS HIGH COUNTRY –
Nearest Town: Konnarock
Backpack Mileages: 10-25 miles
Elevation Highs and Lows: 5,728 feet high point, 3,600 feet low point
GPS Trailhead Coordinates: 36.64618, -81.58307
Why Backpack There: You can explore Virginia’s highest elevations, making a highlight reel hike amid meadows, spruce-fir forests, rock spires and crashing streams.
The pathways change with the landscapes, from narrow track foot trails to wider equestrian paths, from deep woods tracks to rock-strewn treadways open to the sky overhead. Additionally, you can travel through two wildernesses and Grayson Highlands State Park; through areas busy and locales lesser traveled. A wealth of connector paths enables to alter your backpack as desired.
The Mount Rogers High Country is a must experience for Virginia backpackers. This elevated land contains a maze of trails amid superlatives including Virginia’s highest point, vistas that extend for miles in all directions, and wildlife including the famed wild ponies. Also, avoid nice weather weekends and holidays if you are seeking solitude.
Trail shelters are located on the Appalachian Trail as it traverses the high country. Otherwise, almost too many campsites populate the balance of the area. That being said many of the camps are scenic.
Essential Fact: Mount Rogers can offer the harshest weather in the state. Be prepared for cloudy, windy, foggy, and rainy weather any time of year.
– TORRY RIDGE BACKCOUNTRY –
Nearest Town: Sherando
Backpack Mileages: 20-mile loop
Elevation Highs and Lows: 3,500 feet high point, 1,700 feet low point
GPS Trailhead Coordinates: 37.90908, -79.05874
Why Backpack There: Views, water features and good backcountry campsites, with the possibility of overnighting in a campground if so desired.
This loop backpack has plentiful highlights that you earn with climbs and descents. Leave Slacks Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, crossing the Parkway to make White Rock Falls. Beyond the falls, cross the Parkway again, dropping to South Fork Back Creek. Ahead, Sherando Lake Recreation Area is centered with a pair of lakes and a series of nature trails that you can incorporate into your loop. The recreation area also has water spigots running during the warm season. From Sherando Lake, ascend Torry Ridge, passing view-laden Overlook Rock where Three Ridges Mountain rises in the distance. Work your way to the lowlands, eventually reach trouty Mills Creek. A steep climb earns now-wooded Bald Mountain. Still more views open of the Mills Creek Valley below while ridge running back to the Slacks Overlook.
Backcountry campsites can be found on South Fork Back Creek, lower Orebank Creek, and lower Mills Creek. Beyond, Sherando Lake Recreation Area offers developed campsites, water, and hot showers in season if you desire.
Essential Fact: This loop requires a little over 4,800 feet of ascending and descending.
– RAMSEYS DRAFT WILDERNESS –
Nearest Town: Staunton
Backpack Mileages: 16 mile loop
Elevation Highs and Lows: 4,000 feet high point, 2,100 feet low point
GPS Trailhead Coordinates: 38.30838, -79.36089
Why Backpack There: The federally designated wilderness has an excellent trail network traversing the stream of Ramseys Draft as well as along the enveloping ridges.
This loop backpack starts by heading up Ramseys Draft, a mountain trout stream with everywhere-you-look beauty. Backpackers will be forced to cross the stream several times. The difficulty of crossings will reflect the season. In spring the waters will be higher, decreasing to autumn, when dry footed rock hops are the norm. Avoid the trail in winter. Remember all trails here are minimally maintained, keeping with a wilderness atmosphere.
The uppermost part of the Ramseys Draft Trail steepens when it heads up Right Prong, then eases up near Hiner Spring. Your loop heads right on the Tearjacket Trail then joins the Bald Ridge Trail. Trek among hardwoods on a surprisingly undulating path that is sometimes indistinct in places, but stay along the ridge. Views are limited to winter. Intersect the Bridge Hollow Trail. It takes you around Bridge Hollow on a steep-sided slope, then back down to the trailhead.
Despite the steep valley, campsites are scattered along Ramseys Draft as well as up near Hiner Spring. Campsites on Bald Ridge will be waterless. Carry water if you want to overnight there.
Essential Fact: The steep sided Ramseys Draft valley wasn’t settled, thus has pockets of old growth woods, especially the upper valley.
– ROCKYTOP BIG RUN LOOP –
Nearest Town: Waynesboro
Backpack Mileages: 13-mile loop
Elevation Highs and Lows: 2,800 feet high point, 1,300 feet low point
GPS Trailhead Coordinates: 38.24115, -78.71098
Why Backpack There: This loop meets the high beauty standards expected at Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park where you claim views from ridgetop talus slopes then dip in Big Run’s clear pools.
This loop takes you along the high ridge of Rockytop Mountain. While hiking rocky mountainsides and open boulders make for solitude-filled lookouts of the adjacent mountainscape and Shenandoah Valley beyond. Drop into crystalline Big Run, exploring the gorgeous valley of the park’s largest watershed from low to high.
The hike leaves Browns Gap, eventually joining the ridge-running Rockytop Trail, mixing views, woods and talus slopes. Descend past sun-splashed rock fields with great views of Shenandoah Valley before dropping to Big Run and the Big Run Portal Trail. Ascend Big Run beneath its canyon walls, criss-crossing the stream and its little islands.
Look for evidence of old homesites. After a few miles join the Big Run Loop Trail to climb 1,100 feet in the next two miles. Once back in the high country it is but a short way back to Browns Gap.
Backcountry campsites can be found along Big Run, with limited spots on the ridges. Bring water if camping on the ridges. Remember, backcountry camping permits are required, and can be obtained at Shenandoah National Park entrance stations and visitor centers.
Essential Fact: Big Run –largest watershed in the park – has to be crossed numerous times. Therefore, this loop is best completed from late spring through late fall.
– HAZEL COUNTRY LOOP –
Nearest Town: Luray
Backpack Mileages: 18 mile loop
Elevation Highs and Lows: 2,800 feet high point, 1,300 feet low point
GPS Trailhead Coordinates: 38.63818, -78.31379
Why Backpack There: Backpack where Virginia’s pioneer history meets the splendor and large-scale wilderness of Shenandoah National Park.
This overnight loop meanders through “Hazel Country,” one of the most heavily settled areas before Shenandoah National Park was established. Leave Skyline Drive on the Hazel Mountain Fire Road, make your way to the White Rocks Trail, then drop to Hazel Falls. Enjoy the scene where a cave borders Hazel Falls, dropping 30 feet down a narrow chute into a deep pool. Back on the ridge, views open before you meet Hazel River Trail, looking for a campsite.
Next day, continue down Hazel River then climb Sams Ridge Trail. Look for rock walls and homesites. A series of short paths, former pioneer roads leads you to Nicholson Hollow Trail. Come along the Hughes River and look for a campsite for night two. Your return takes you along Hannah Run Trail, with rock walls, rock piles, even a chimney on your left. Campsites can be found here, too. Work your way back to Hazel Mountain Fire Road and Skyline Drive.
Backcountry campsites can be found along Hazel River, in Nicolson Hollow and in the valley of Hannahs Run. Remember, backcountry camping permits are required, and can be obtained at Shenandoah National Park entrance stations and visitor centers.
Essential Fact: This loop is one of the most history-laden backpack loops in Shenandoah National Park.
– NEIGHBOR MOUNTAIN JEREMYS RUN LOOP –
Nearest Town: Luray
Backpack Mileages: 18-mile loop
Elevation Highs and Lows: 2,800 feet high point, 1,300 feet low point
GPS Trailhead Coordinates: 38.74094, -78.31189
Why Backpack There: Jeremys Run is one of the most alluring streams in Shenandoah National Park, and all of Virginia.
This overnight loop passes over the seldom-visited Neighbor Mountain down to gorgeous Jeremys Run. Camp down on the lower reaches of this stream, then make your way back to the high country. Busy weekends may find other backpackers along Jeremys Run.
Leave Elkwallow Picnic Ground, then join the Appalachian Trail to meet the solitude-laden Neighbor Mountain Trail. Look for outcrops with views of the Shenandoah Valley. Downtrail, drop over 1,600 feet in 2.6 miles before the sounds of Jeremys Run reach your ears.
Join Jeremys Run Trail. Head upstream, passing deep pools divided by rock slab cascades beside big sunning rocks. Making your first stream crossing, then come to a two-tiered waterfall and swimming hole Most of the 15 crossings are in the upper valley.
A steady grade brings you to back to Elkwallow Picnic Ground.
Backcountry campsites can be found along Jeremys Run and up on Neighbor Mountain, but you must carry your water to Neighbor Mountain. Remember, backcountry camping permits are required, and can be obtained at Shenandoah National Park entrance stations and visitor centers.
Essential Fact: The Jeremys Run Trail requires 15 crossings of Jeremys Creek. Avoid this hike after heavy rains.
– LAUREL FORK BACKCOUNTRY –
Nearest Town: Monterey
Backpack Mileages: 28-mile trail network
Elevation Highs and Lows: 4,000 feet high point, 3,200 feet low point
GPS Trailhead Coordinates: 38.57826, -79.62973
Why Backpack There: This perched watershed of meadows, spruce copses and northern hardwoods is laced with an extensive trail network.
Laurel Fork drains a surprisingly large system of feeder streams divided by thickly wooded ridges. Laurel Fork and these tributaries were logged over a century ago, but the former narrow gauge railroad grades serve as the foundation of the trail network running up these streams. Other trails traverse the ridges. Wildlife lovers will find beavers and plenty of evidence of them, including ponds, along the creeks.
Grassy, sometimes boggy meadows are found on the upper reaches of streams, flowing through one of the more remote backcountry areas of Virginia. Be apprised that trails become harder to follow when traversing these meadows. Stream crossings are frequent. A trail map – National Geographic #791, Staunton, Shenandoah Mountain map will help you flesh out the myriad loop possibilities.
Backcountry campsites are found along most of the streams, often at the confluence of Laurel Fork and its tributaries. Camping in the meadows is not recommended as they are often wet and open to the elements and are more fragile than already established sites.
Essential Fact: The best place to access the trail system is Locust Springs Picnic Area. You have to temporarily enter West Virginia to get there. Lowermost Laurel Fork is not accessible due to private property along VA 642.
– NORTHERN MASSANUTTEN MOUNTAIN –
Nearest Town: Strasburg
Backpack Mileages: 20+ miles of trails
Elevation Highs and Lows: 2,900 feet high point, 900 feet low point
GPS Trailhead Coordinates: 38.92451, -78.33243
Why Backpack There: Enjoy solitude here on Massanutten Mountain, a lesser visited destination due to its proximity to Shenandoah National Park.
Massanutten Mountain National Recreation Trail, making a 71-mile loop, is backbone of the trail system. The northern end of this path is laced with additional connector trails spoking out of Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area. Multiple loop possibilities are possible on this northern end. The whole 71-mile trail makes an epic circuit.
A good route uses the Massanutten Mountain NRT to head past Buzzard Rock Overlook and on to Signal Point, where Confederate and Union soldiers used to contact their fellow warriors. The wide-ranging views from here confirm that. Continue on the Massanutten Mountain Trail past Strasburg Reservoir on a doubletrack. Leave the Massanutten Mountain Trail on the unpleasantly named Mudhole Gap Trail, which will lead you back to the parking area. An additional loop possibility exists on the east side of Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area.
Backcountry campsites can be found along the ridges, and the uppermost reaches of Little Passage Creek, and along Little Passage Creek near Mudhole Gap. During fall and times of little rainfall streams can run very low.
Essential Fact: Massanutten Mountain is generally drier than other backpacking destinations in Virginia. Carry water and be very selective in choosing campsites. Moreover, if you find a well-watered camp, don’t pass it by.
– FALSE CAPE STATE PARK –
Nearest Town: Sandbridge
Backpack Mileages: 10-18 mile there-and-back
Elevation Highs and Lows: 40 feet high point, sea level low point
Why Backpack There: Pitch your tent along an Atlantic Ocean barrier island. Enjoy backpacking in an ecosystem unlike any other destination in Virginia.
The backpacking adventure heads from Little Island City Park south of Virginia Beach through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and into False Cape State Park. It is a minimum of 5 miles to reach the first of four primitive campsites. Hike past dunes, maritime forests with widespread live oaks and along the waters surrounding False Cape. Listen to the surf sing you to sleep at your campsite.
Plan carefully before camping here. Camping reservations are required and same day reservations are not available. Read the False Cape State Park camping information with an eye for detail, then engage your trip.
The hiking from the trailhead at Little Island City Park through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and to False Cape State Park traces a doubletrack road closed to the public except for permit holders who access their homes in nearby North Carolina. Park personnel use the road as well. However, don’t let this detract from your experience. Plan for the possibility of excessive bugs and sun.
Four camping areas availing a total of 12 sites are available for campers – two along the bay side of False Cape and two on the Atlantic side of the peninsula. Beware, mosquitoes and biting flies can be problematic.
Essential Fact: Freshwater is available in three locations at False Cape. Bring your own water containers. Open fires are not permitted; camp stoves may be used for cooking.
© johnnymolloy for Virginia’s Travel Blog, 2016. |