Hiking in central Virginia: a friendly guide!

Fall is the most perfect time to get off your duff, get on your hiking boots, and get out of doors. Luckily for us Richmonders we are surrounded on all sides by excellent hiking options. Here are four!

Fall is the most perfect time to get off your duff, get on your hiking boots, and get out of doors. Luckily for us Richmonders we are surrounded on all sides by excellent hiking options. Here are four!

Old Rag

Old Rag is the headline act of Shenandoah National Park. It’s quite strenuous, but has the advantage of great views and lots of giant boulders that you get to scramble over and through. You feel like you are on a real adventure. It also has the advantage of being accessible from outside the park, which means that you don’t need to drive up onto Skyline Drive to access the trailhead, making it quicker to drive to from the east. Plus, it’s famous enough that you can brag to your friends about hiking it, and they might even know what you are talking about.

It does, however, have a critical disadvantage: most days it is super crowded. But not like normal hiking trail crowded; more like King’s Dominion crowded. There are certain spots where you literally have to queue up to wait your turn for 10-20 minutes before you can continue. It seems to be popular with unprepared college students (who bring hard liquor instead of water), Boy Scout day trips, and people from DC. You see a lot of Zip cars, and once I saw a perfectly maintained 1970’s era VW bus with diplomatic plates in the parking lot. I guess it was the German ambassador?

Up until last year, you could drive up to the trailhead, where there were eight parking spots. If those were full, you had to park down at the main lot (200 spots). This would add two miles to your trip, where you are walking through what’s basically a neighborhood. It’s pretty boring. Perpetual spoilsports, the Park Service recently shut down the upper lot, and now everyone has to park at the bottom. If you can find a spot. Make sure you show up early on weekends and holidays, or you might find yourself having driven for over an hour, only to be turned away. Usually the desperate rush for the last spots starts at 10am or so, depending on the weather forecast.

If you do find yourself being blackmailed by the crazy lady that lives next to the parking lot ($15 to park in her backyard – it happens!), tell her to shove it and take the short 15 minute drive from there to White Oak Canyon, which usually fills up a little later.

The first part of the trail is your pretty standard slog up the side of a mountain. Eventually you get to the rock scramble, which, let’s face it, is the main reason you are there. You’ll be climbing over under and through giant boulders and you’re pretty much guaranteed to embarrass yourself at least once trying to do the splits across or up a gap. At the top, you can either continue down the other side of the mountain, where you are faced with the crushing monotony of miles of fire road, or you can turn around and go back the way you came–two rock scrambles for the price of one! But if you choose this path, be prepared for lots of angry looks. People seem to think it’s a one way trip. It’s not!

Parking at Old Rag, by the way, is $8 per car. They do take credit cards if a ranger is there. The loop is about 8 miles. Bring a lunch! There are relatively clean Port-o-Pots at the lower parking lot and the discontinued upper parking lot (1 mile in). There’s also a new absolutely disgusting compost toilet on the back side of the mountain before you hit the fire road.

Protip: Take a day off of work and go out there. It’s like a whole different mountain.

White Oak Canyon / Cedar Run

White Oak Canyon is another popular trail in Shenandoah National Park, right around the corner from Old Rag. It’s an excellent backup in case the Old Rag parking lot is full. But it is a dramatically different trail: where Old Rag is rugged and full of spectacular views, White Oak Canyon is a more traditional hike through a forest, with only one real view (it is a canyon after all). Its main draw, though, is an obscene number of waterfalls. At least a dozen or so.

From the parking lot, you have a choice between taking a left, to the Cedar Run trail, or a right, to the White Oak Canyon trail. If you are ambitious you can make a loop out of it, but either way, it’s better to head to the right, go up White Oak Canyon, and then come down Cedar Run. Cedar Run seems steeper to me and has fewer sights (only a paltry four or five waterfalls), while the White Oak side seems to be designed to give you dramatic views only if you are going up. I hiked the whole thing backwards a week or so ago and missed almost everything on the way down.

The trail runs alongside a creek most of the way. Near the bottom, you’ll see lots of people walking up to the lower falls. As you near the top, you’ll run into lots of people who have hiked down from Skyline Drive to look at the upper falls. You can rest easy at that point, secure in your feeling of superiority at having seen both. This will comfort you as you curse your wobbly legs, gasping for air. It’s fairly strenuous.

One thing that I like about this trail is that if you do the whole loop, at one point you end up right at Skyline Drive. So you’ve walked in a few hours what would have been a 40 mile drive in your car. The downside of this, of course, is that no one is going to want to drive up there to pick you up, so you are stuck walking back.

Fair warning: to link the two trails, you need to walk about 3 miles or so up a pretty boring fire road (welcome to Shenandoah National Park!). The whole loop is about 8 miles. There are two extremely foul (at the time of this writing) Port-o-Pots at the parking lot. Admission here is 5$ per car, cash or credit, as long as someone is there to take your money.

Protip: Go here in the dead of winter. Everything is deserted, and all the waterfalls are frozen solid. It’s amazing. Also the Cedar Run trail itself tends to freeze and you can slide down parts of it on your butt. It’s a much quicker way down.

Fredericksburg Area Battlefields

Most of the outdoor space in the Fredericksburg area is made up of Civil War battlefields, administered by the National Park Service. So the emphasis is on history and weird murals, rather than on hiking or walking. As a result, most of the battlefields have nice little driving tours through them for Civil War tourists. But they also have a few little walking trails through the woods.

There are two that are nearby to I-95 and thus fairly accessible: Spotsylvania Battlefield and Chancellorsville Battlefield (there is also a Fredericksburg Battlefield, which is more of a driving or biking tour thing, as well as a Wilderness Battlefield, which sounds promising, but is a little farther out there).

Spotsylvania Battlefield has no real facilities, besides signs and murals. It has a few short trails, through woods and fields, which you can connect up to the quiet, and usually empty, road through the park to make a big loop. If you enjoy ruins, history, and reading plaques, this may be the place for you! Otherwise… maybe not. One thing I enjoy about this park is that there are a lot of oddball monuments scattered around in the woods dedicated to this or that regiment, often donated by their hometown. So you will stumble out of the woods into a clearing where there is an obelisk dedicated to the 115th Michigan–often there will be flowers or a little weatherworn flag at the base.

Chancellorsville Battlefield Park is a little ways outside of Fredericksburg, out west on Route 3. It has a nice four mile or so loop hike through the woods. Unlike the Spotsylvania Battlefield Park, almost none of it is on the road so you feel a little more like you are in the woods–even though you are probably actually closer to civilization here. Note that there is no town actually called “Chancellorsville” here, so don’t expect amenities until you head back towards Fredericksburg.

The nice thing is that even though there are usually quite a few cars in the parking lot at the visitor’s center, I almost never run into anyone while on the trail. I’m not sure where everyone is, maybe in the visitor’s center looking at the murals and dioramas. Yes! Dioramas! Also, the bathrooms are nice and clean.

Everything is free, except the toy guns and civil war hats in the gift shop at Chancellorsville.

Protip: Stand right inside the tree line at Spotsylvania, looking out at the field. A Famous Civil War Celebrity most likely once did the very same thing, at the very same spot!


Back when Virginia closed all the rest areas in the state due to budget problems, they also closed some of the lesser attended state parks. I was sad to hear that Caledon State Natural Area was on the list, but it didn’t surprise me too much. There’s almost never anyone there. It’s since reopened, and it is a nice place for a walk in the woods.

Caledon is located on the south shore of the Potomac River, right in the middle of the Northern Neck of Virginia, birthplace of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Probably the reason that no one goes there is that, unlike most other state parks, there aren’t any cabins or water sports or barbecue pits, or any other fun activities. There’s just a seriously creepy playground in the woods, some trails, and a bunch of bald eagles.

I went out there a couple of weeks ago and got thoroughly lost in the woods. I have no idea how far I walked, but I ended up crossing a huge swath of swamp, which, according to the map, had no trails. But there were all kinds of benches and boardwalks along the way, so I’m not sure what happened. It was very beautiful, though!

The nice thing about Caledon is that it is very quiet, never seems to be crowded, and is quite pretty. It’s hilly so you get some exercise, and, if you follow the (gravel and boring) Boyd’s Hole Trail, you end up on the beach, which is a fun thing. It’s not easy to find an empty forest that opens out onto a beach around here these days. Note that the beach is usually full of trash. But it’s still cool.

Normal state park admission fees apply, that is to say: 2$ on weekdays or 3$ on weekends. Cash only, and seems to be just an honor system. The only toilet facilities I have found are a couple of clean Port-o-Pots over by the playground, although there’s a sign pointing to a big white house that says “Visitor Center” which always seems to be locked.

Pro-tip: Maybe bring a GPS, because the official trail maps are suspect, and there are a lot of intersections.

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Matt Schneider

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