This post first appeared on TheTrek.co on July 2, 2018.
Virginia is a lovely state. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And come to think of it, don’t let anyone tell you it’s flat, either.
I’m writing this about 200 miles out of Virginia, so perhaps I’m already feeling nostalgic and seeing the state through rose-colored glasses. But for all the warnings of the Virginia Blues, all the days of rain (record amounts of it, in fact), the 500-plus miles of trail, and over a month and a half spent there, I truly found magic in Virginia’s blue mountains, lush forests, plentiful breweries, roaring creeks (due to the copious amounts of rain), vibrant wildflowers (the rhododendrons and mountain laurel finally bloomed), and charming trail towns.
Southern Virginia is a ridiculously charming place, to start. Only a few short miles after crossing the border from Tennessee into Virginia, you’re met with the idyllic town of Damascus, home of Trail Days, the Damascus Brewery (highly recommend), and Mojo’s Coffee. It’s super hiker friendly, with three outfitters in town, multiple hostels (though I can’t recommend the Broken Fiddle unless you’d like to wash your own sheets and share one bathroom with 20 people), and plenty of southern charm and hospitality. It’s adorable, and I loved it.
From there, you’ll soon move onto the Grayson Highlands, where you’ll feel like you’re in “Lord of the Rings” and likely be “harassed” by adorable wild ponies.
Onward to scores of crystal clear creeks in which to take a dip on a warm day, easy terrain (a welcome change after the steepness of the previous three states), and waterfalls. My favorite week of the trail so far occurred in this section. We started with a sunny nero at a creek, hiked our biggest mileage day to date (24 miles), chased it with a tipsy day at Dismal Falls (thanks to Trent’s Grocery being so nearby), visited Wood’s Hole Hostel to escape a rainstorm (which is a ridiculously gorgeous and charming working farm with a hippie Pinterest feel), then finished up with a trip to Blacksburg to visit a friend and grab a shower before Trail Days. So many smiles that week.
Central Virginia, admittedly, was very, very wet. It rained more days than not, which was tough on morale. And I caught a stomach bug there. But there was a lot to love, too. The Washington and Jefferson national forests are beautiful, wild, and feel quite remote (unlike Northern Virginia), you hit Virginia’s triple crown here – the Dragon’s Tooth (great fun to climb), McAfee Knob (the most photographed place on the AT), and Tinker Cliffs (great views), and if you’re a beer drinker, you can finish up this section of Virginia at the incredible Devils Backbone Brewing, which will pick you up from the trailhead and let you camp on their enormous property for free. If you hit it on the right day, they even hold summer festivals with live music. Ask for OJ, the brewery greeter, who is about the sweetest man you’ll ever meet, and he’ll gladly show you around and make you feel welcome. We had a pretty amazing day there sipping brews, competing against each other in cornhole, trying nearly every food on the menu, and camping next to a field of fireflies.
Speaking of breweries, Ballast Point outside Daleville is pretty great, too. And the Super 8 at Daleville has a pretty spectacular in-ground pool. You know, in case you need a zero day in Central Virginia.
Northern Virginia is pretty lovely as well, and the sun finally came out for us there after what seemed like weeks without it.Shenandoah National Park is kind of like a vacation from the trail. It boasts several waysides right off the trail, where you can drink blackberry milkshakes to your heart’s content, multiple road crossings in case you need to jet to town for something, easy and well-kept trail, and wildlife galore. Rumor has it this is the place to see black bears on trail (my tramily saw multiple), but I have yet to see a trail bear (though I have seen three while in vehicles). Bonus points for this section because Peppermint’s parents visited from out west and generously put us up in a hotel and slackpacked us (meaning we hiked without our packs) partway through the park.
I missed out on the three famous trail towns in this section – Waynesboro, Luray, and Front Royal – because I got off the trail for a few days for Bonnaroo (music festival) and had to play catch up with the tramily once I was back on (I spent about a week alone pushing miles so skipped out on town stops), but I’ve heard they’re worth a visit.
One piece of advice for this section: do not fear the Roller Coaster at the very northern section of Virginia. It’s quite fun, actually.
Like any section of trail, there is much to love in Virginia, depending on your attitude toward it. Take care of your body and brain, and I promise you’ll find so much that is special in this state. It might be over 500 miles of trail, but it’s a pretty freaking great 500 miles.
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