The Most Beautiful Places to Visit in Virginia
Enormous caverns, scenic seashores, and other gorgeous spots to get some fresh air.
Certain states tend to nab all the glory for their natural beauty (hi, California), but we know that underrated gems like Virginia are actually where it’s at. For Washingtonians, Virginia is also the prime locale for escaping the madness of city life. When the weekend rolls around and you decide that a leisurely stroll through the woods sounds better than pounding the pavement, heading to Virginia is pretty much the move.
Here’s the thing, though: There are plenty of beautiful spots that most DC locals know about in Virginia, like Great Falls and a number of gorgeous state parks, but that’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The Old Dominion State is actually chock-full of everything from natural chimneys shooting up into the sky to enormous caverns and scenic seashores.
To help you figure out where to get your next dose of much-needed nature, here are some of the most beautiful spots around Virginia that will help you unwind, relax, and refresh.
Luray Caverns is the kind of place that will make you seriously wonder whether you’re still in Virginia or if you somehow ended up on another planet. First discovered in 1878, this cavern system is actually one of the largest in the country. Purchase a day pass and wander your way through as you marvel at stalactites, stalagmites, mirrored pools, and other natural wonders. After that much-needed outdoor exploration, admission also includes access to the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, Toy Town Junction, and the Shenandoah Heritage Village.
This unique island technically spans two states: Virginia and Maryland. It’s also one of the only places in the country where you can still find wild horses grazing by the beach. Besides ample stretches of shoreline and one of the best beaches near DC, Assateague also has salt marshes, maritime forests, and coastal bays to explore during your visit. Explore it by foot and kayak through its waters during the day, and book a campsite if you plan to stay overnight.
Shenandoah National Park
Sometimes you want to spend time in nature without having to put on your hiking boots. The 105-mile long Skyline Drive is perfect for a scenic drive in any season, as it weaves its way through Shenandoah National Park. While you can leave your camelback at home, don’t forget to bring your camera as the drive is dotted with a whopping 75 scenic overlooks.
This place is so eerily beautiful it inspires poetry. No really, it does. Irish poet Thomas Moore wrote one about the Lady of the Lake—a legend about a Native American ghost who paddles around in her white canoe after dying just short of her wedding day. The wildlife area home to the lake spans Virginia and North Carolina is a whopping 111,200 acres. Be sure to take the Washington Ditch Trail and snap photos of the cypress trees emerging from Lake Drummond’s dark waters (stained amber by tannic acid). The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries reminds visitors to maintain social distancing while in its parks and waterways.
Before you shake your fist at us for calling something that reminds you of your own mortality beautiful, hear us out. The Gothic-looking cemetery doubles as a 135-acre garden with paths for exploring overlooking the James River. No wonder two presidents (Monroe and Tyler) and six Virginia governors use it as their final resting place. Check out its cool circular landscape that evades the typical grid-like layout of a cemetery. The best way to get around is a walk, and guided tours are also available to book on their website.
To traffic-worn Washingtonians, an island devoid of cars is a very beautiful thing. Tangier is a trapped-in-time waterman’s paradise only accessible by air or sea, meaning once you get there you’re using golf carts or bikes to explore the soft-shell crab farms, unspoiled beaches, ice cream shops, and otherwise idyllic surroundings. The sunsets are outstanding, the seafood is fresh, the streets are narrow, and the way of life is non-jerk.
You are probably not going to be able to fool your friends with a post bragging you made a weekend trip to the UK by taking a selfie in front of Foamhenge instead of Stonehenge, but this man-made marvel is still worthy of the drive. Built by Mark Cline in 2004, this replica of the iconic stone arches is full-size (but way lighter) and is actually quite striking.
Pop off the Blue Ridge Parkway to kick it at this 168-acre, boomerang-shaped lake that looks more New England than Southwestern Virginia. This land of no Wi-Fi is good for families and technology addicts alike, and is best known for “fairy stones,” which people come to “hunt.” These sought-after pebbles carry a St. Andrew’s Cross shape and various legends. In addition to sifting through sand, visitors can swim, boat, hike, and camp. Cabin rentals are available for longer stays. Face coverings are required in all park facilities and picnic shelters, and guests are asked to bring their own soap and sanitizer to use while there.
The Channels are super cool to hike around thanks to their maze-like hidden passageways, funky moss-stained colors, and potential for Indiana Jones reenactments. Find them on the slope of Clinch Mountain within the Channels State Forest. Natural areas have small parking lots that can accommodate between five to ten cars, so best to go during off-hours like mid-week, early morning, or late afternoon if you want to be sure to nab a good parking spot.
Kiptopeke State Park on Virginia’s Eastern Shore packs quite a surprise: crumbling, algae-covered concrete ships forming a natural breakwater. The WWII-era S.S. Edwin Thatcher, S.S. Leonard Chase Wason, and other vessels were brought into Kiptopeke Beach to protect the terminal during severe weather, but they’re also fun to look at or kayak around. Why concrete? There was a severe steel shortage during WWI and WWII, so we thought, what the hell, let’s see if concrete can float. Twenty-four “McCloskey Ships” were constructed, and nine can be seen at Kiptopeke.
It’s hard to believe a tangle of highways and our nation’s capital is a blip away from these serene wetlands whose cinematography-potential should be noted in case there’s ever another release of The Notebook (please no). As you snake through the hidden-gem grounds on connecting boardwalks, look for beavers, deer, heron, snakes, and turtles. Note: No bikes or dogs on the boardwalk and face coverings are required unless you are exercising.
These natural chimneys are evidence that the Shenandoah Valley was at one point the floor of an inland sea, which carefully etched out these structures when it receded. There are seven of them popping out of the pasture, some as tall as 120 feet. Make it a day trip or reserve one of their 165 spacious campground spots, all complete with water and electrical hook ups.
Staunton River is one of only 25 parks in the world that has the designation of an International Dark Sky Park. That means the bright lights of civilization don’t muddy the view of the night sky for astronomers (or any dude with a rent-a-telescope available on site). This means you can see stars, planets, and nebulae.
To get to the main attraction—a long, naturally formed tunnel that’s about 10 stories high—you have to take a chairlift. Three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan dubbed this Appalachian beauty the “Eighth Wonder of the World” because of its vastness. The park is enormous and has a lot to offer from canoe trips and cool rock formations to cabins to stay in. Face coverings are required in all park facilities and picnic shelters.
Bring your trunks because you’re going to want to take a dip in this natural pool of blue-green water surrounded by sandstone. The naturally smooth watering hole contains a waterslide rock and is a perfect place to spend an hour admiring its beauty while totally immersed in its waters. The bad news is the Devil’s Bathtub is only accessible by the difficult 7.2.-mile Devil’s Fork Loop Trail. The good news is you only have to go 1.5 miles in to reach it. Visitors must maintain a safe social distance and wear a face covering unless they are exercising.
High Knob Observation Tower provides lookouts with views that you’ll still be talking about years later, especially if you’re there at sunrise or sunset. On a clear day, it’s possible to view five states from the upper platform of the tower. This site is open for recreation, and also wheelchair accessible.
Mouth of Wilson
If you are into wild ponies and grassy pastures, Grayson Highlands is for you. Set high in the Virginian Appalachians in the Jefferson National Forest, there are trails, horses, meadows, and 5,000+ foot peaks. All overnight backpackers must have a reservation to park in the overnight backpackers parking lot and self-pay upon arrival without a reservation is no longer permitted.