As the motto goes, Virginia is for Lovers, and there’s much to love in a state that crams a wealth of extremely beautiful places, from secluded Atlantic beaches to Appalachian mountainscapes.
Virginia’s rich history endows it with a kind of serene beauty, in the colonial architecture of Williamsburg and Alexandria, or the private estates of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, two of eight presidents to hail from this state.
Something I have to point out about the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, is how easy it is to get to some truly extraordinary locations.
First, Skyline Drive follows the ridge through Shenandoah National Park for more than 100 miles, and at the southernmost point, this connects with the Blue Ridge Parkway, meandering from one dramatic overlook to the next for another 200+ miles along its Virginia half.
1. Shenandoah National Park
Heading up my list is a national park on a giant tranche of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Long and relatively narrow, Shenandoah National Park traces the range’s ridgeline, and you could say that the park’s backbone is Skyline Drive.
This is the road trip of a lifetime, with as many as 75 scenic overlooks along just over 100 miles of road.
From this elevation you can see across the Shenandoah Valley on the west side, and Piedmont plateau to the east, with boundless views of autumn foliage that will stop you in your tracks in fall.
The same spectacular rocky outcrops along the road can also be seen on the Appalachian Trail, which also traces the ridgeline for 101 miles through the park, and is part of a 500-mile trail system.
If you only have time for one short hike from Skyline Drive, the Dark Hollow Falls Trail leads to the foot of a 70-foot cascade ensconced in hardwood forest.
2. Blue Ridge Parkway
Not so much a place as a series of spellbinding experiences, the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway begins where Skyline Drive ends, at Rockfish Gap, and winds through astounding mountainscapes for almost 217 miles before entering North Carolina.
On average, the Blue Ridge Parkway has a formal scenic overlook for every 2.69 miles of road, but there’s much more than a chain of mountain vistas.
To give you an idea of the sheer weight of extraordinary places on America’s Favorite Drive, many of the locations in my article are either on or near this National Parkway.
To name a couple there’s the Peaks of Otter and Roanoke. And for some other necessary stops you’ve got Humpback Rock with its pastoral farmland, the pristine Sherando Lake, and the idyllic water-powered Mabry Mill.
For a more refined kind of beauty, I don’t think you can look past Charlottesville, which is considered Virginia’s cultural center and listed as one of the best places to live in Virginia.
A figure who will always be associated with Charlottesville is the third president and renaissance man Thomas Jefferson, who built his own estate, Monticello, on the edge of the city.
Jefferson also founded and planned the University of Virginia (UVA), which now forms a joint UNESCO World Heritage Site with his home.
In Charlottesville you’ll get to know Jefferson as a figure of the Enlightenment, and his ideals inform everything from the area’s historic architecture to the curriculum at UVA.
Also keep in mind that enslaved people built much of what you see, and made sure Monticello and UVA functioned smoothly right up to the Civil War.
Charlottesville is a major center for entertainment, shopping and dining, but also benefits from being in the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with vineyards, horse farms and lots of opportunities for outdoor pursuits.
4. Luray Caverns
Officially the largest cavern attraction on the East Coast, the Luray Caverns are a necessary detour on Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive.
These chambers, acclaimed for their dazzling array of stalagmites, stalactites and flowstone, has wowed all-comers since it was first discovered by Euro-Americans in 1878.
In particular, there’s a wealth of flowstone drapery here, a standout being the mesmerizing Saracen’s Tent, which has an almost gossamer quality.
Then there’s Dream Lake, the surface of which is so reflective it’s almost impossible to the true depth (just 20 inches), while the self-guided tour comes to an end at the Great Stalactite Organ, a functioning instrument using the cave’s formations and covering 3.5 acres.
My pro tip is to bring something long-sleeved if you’re visiting in summer, as the temperature in the Luray Caverns is 54 °F all year.
On the surface there’s a handful of other attractions to check out, like the Car & Carriage Museum, and the living history of the Shenandoah Heritage Village.
5. Great Falls Park
Just 14 miles upriver from Washington, D.C. the Potomac bounces down a flight of jagged cascades about 500 feet long before entering the narrow Mather Gorge.
An expanse of the Virginia bank of the Potomac is a National Park Service site, with perfect vantage points of this surprisingly rugged natural feature.
You can check out the Great Falls along 15 miles of trails, but as a fan of historic infrastructure I’m also inspired by the human history of this place.
The park is the site of the Patowmack Canal, built in the late 19th-century to bypass this treacherous stretch of river.
This was the very first waterway in the United States to use a lock system, and operated until 1828. Spring through fall, the east-facing walls of Mather Gorge offer some of the most developed rock climbing in the area.
6. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
By my reckoning, the most beautiful seascapes in Virginia are on the 37-mile Assateague Island, which crosses over into Maryland.
The Virginia section is protected as the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which is 14,000 acres of flawless sandy beaches, dunes, salt marshes, and tracts of maritime forest growing on old dunes.
Contributing to the wild allure of the island is the Chincoteague pony, a breed of feral horse that has most likely been here since the 17th century, living on salt marsh plants and shrubs.
In the course of a year around 320 birds nest or stop at the national wildlife refuge, and one attractive year-round inhabitant is the snow egret, seen pecking around the salt marsh.
7. Natural Bridge State Park
Thomas Jefferson was such a big fan of this natural wonder that he purchased the property in 1774, and entertained guests here for decades afterwards.
Earlier, Natural Bridge is believed to have been surveyed by a young George Washington in the mid-18th century, who may or may not be responsible for the initials G.W. carved into the rock.
Captured by many landscape artists in the 19th century, this majestic natural arch is 215 feet high, with a span of 90 feet. The formation is part of a karst gorge, hollowed by Cedar Creek over many millennia.
Although Natural Bridge is the headline, it’s one of a few reasons to visit the state park, including the 30-foot Lace Falls, the rugged scenery along the gorge, and a replica village for the Monacan Native Americans, for whom the Natural Bridge was a sacred site.
8. Peaks of Otter
In the best possible way, it’s a stop-start journey traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, and I recommend taking as much time out as possible to experience this trio of dominant mountaintops, once praised by Thomas Jefferson.
He even speculated that they were the tallest in North America. Of course, we know better now, but it’s easy to see why the Peaks of Otter made such an impression. Sharp Top, Flat Top and Harkening Hill are all on National Park Service land.
The most striking is Sharp Top, and you can either hike a pretty grueling 1.5 mile trail to the top, with an elevation gain of 1,300 feet, or hop on a shuttle bus that takes you much closer to the summit.
Before you start exploring the area, head to the visitor center where you can get hold of a trail map detailing the seven routes on the peaks, taking in a waterfall, high crags, meadows, lakes, riparian environments and parcels of old-growth forest.
Dating back to 1632, Williamsburg was colonial Virginia’s capital from 1699 until 1780, and in the 1920s was the site of an historic restoration project on an incredible scale.
The result is Colonial Williamsburg, the most popular visitor attraction in Virginia, with hundreds of restored or rebuilt buildings on more than 300 acres.
One truly painstaking project was the reconstruction of the Governor’s Palace (1706), which served as a home for Thomas Jefferson when he was governor after the Revolution. Jefferson was educated at Williamsburg’s College of William & Mary, founded in 1693.
The Sir Christopher Wren Building (1700) here, designed by the architect behind London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, is the oldest academic building in continuous use in the United States. Williamsburg is part of the Historic Triangle, including Jamestown and Yorktown, both minutes away and steeped in the nation’s early history.
10. Virginia Beach
On the southern cusp of Chesapeake Bay is a fun-loving coastal city with mile after mile of sandy beaches 300 feet wide.
The clue is in the name, because there’s no better spot for a beach vacation in Virginia. Something that will strike you is how arrow-straight the shoreline is, disappearing into the distance north and south.
For three miles the beach is backed by a bustling boardwalk, stretching a full 40 city blocks, and a vibrant place to hang out and watch the world go by on a summer’s day.
For a slower pace and a bit more seclusion, Sandbridge Beach, about 15 miles down the coast, is a dune-edged piece of paradise.
Be sure to also check out my guide on what to do in Virginia Beach.
11. Grayson Highlands State Park
Virginia’s highest peak, Mount Rogers (5,729 ft) rears up next to this area of breathtaking high-elevation wilderness.
The mixed evergreen and hardwood forest here could be mistaken for the Alps, but the most memorable scenery, to my mind, is on the balds.
These are windswept mountain meadows, made all the more atmospheric by craggy outcroppings. Grazing on the balds is a herd of wild ponies, which add to the beauty of this unique place, but need to be admired from a distance.
The Grayson Highlands can be a harsh environment, and this also part of its appeal, but it’s important to stay abreast of weather forecasts.
See also: 24 Amazing Hidden Gems in Virginia
12. McAfee Knob
One of the best short hikes on the Appalachian Trail brings you to this high rocky ledge, 3,197 feet above sea level.
McAfee Knob is claimed to be the most photographed location on the entire trail, jutting out of the Catawba Valley, with a 270° view that also encompasses the Roanoke Valley in the east, the Tinker Cliffs to the north, and North Mountain in the west.
If you can make the hike early or late in the day you’ll be treated to a scene of astonishing beauty.
The hike is eight miles out and back from the parking lot to the south, and my common sense advice is to bring plenty of water, and come on a weekday so you don’t have to share this stunning scene with too many people.
13. George Washington’s Mount Vernon
With splendor and historical significance in equal measure, George Washington’s estate is on a plot by the Potomac about 15 miles south of the nation’s capital.
Expert restoration work has returned the interior of the Palladian mansion, built in 1758, to its appearance when the first president and his wife lived here.
Touring the house and the grounds you’ll learn tons of fascinating details. My favorite piece of trivia is that the boxwood hedges lining the entry path descend from cuttings imported from England and planted by George Washington in 1786.
You’ll get a feel for life on an 18th-century farm, with costumed living history interpreters, a functioning blacksmith’s shop, and heritage horse breeds grazing in riverside fields.
There’s cause for reflection too, as among the outbuildings are the quarters for Mount Vernon’s enslaved families, while the burial ground for the estate’s enslaved men, women and children has been preserved.
Downstream from Washington, D.C. on the Potomac, Alexandria is a gorgeous little waterfront city founded in 1749.
A big part of this place’s charm comes from Old Town Alexandria, the third oldest historic district in the United States, bursting at the seams with stately 18th and 19th-century townhouses, on cobblestone streets and red-brick sidewalks.
I love the ambience on King Street, a mile-long artery where a lot of the city’s restaurants, museums and boutiques are congregated.
On the waterfront, a 1920s torpedo factory has become an art studio complex, and there’s a water taxi scooting along the Potomac between Alexandria, Georgetown and National Harbor MD.
15. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
A massive, steamy swamp once took up a million acres, south of Chesapeake and bleeding into North Carolina.
Although much of the Great Dismal Swamp has been lost to development, a substantial piece has been safeguarded as a national wildlife refuge, on more than 110,000 acres.
Recognized by the image of noble bald cypresses on foggy Lake Drummond, I find this classic southern swamp has a sparser more ethereal beauty compared to say Appalachian Mountainscapes.
You can cross big swaths of the refuge on boardwalks, and take a boating trip along the Dismal Swamp Canal, excavated at the turn of the 19th century.
The birdlife is sensational, with more than 220 species documented during the spring migration, while summers bring more than 65 species of butterfly.
Also read: 15 Best Lakes in Virginia
16. Natural Tunnel State Park
It can be hard to wrap your head around the idea of a natural limestone cave so enormous that it is used as a railroad tunnel.
This amazing natural formation, 850 feet long, 200 feet wide and 80 feet high, has been sculpted over hundreds of thousands of years by dissolution and also erosion thanks to an underground river.
The Natural Tunnel has drawn awestruck visitors for well over a century, and it is thought that the first Euro-American to lay eyes on this scene was the frontiersman Daniel Boone.
You can tour the cave, but you’ll also want as much time as possible to appreciate the size of this limestone ridge, with its broad chasm enclosed by towering pinnacles.
The Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway pass by close to this endearing city, wrapped in epic mountain scenery.
To underline that fact you’ve got Mill Mountain, a highly prominent peak within the city limits, climbing steeply over the Roanoke River.
Since 1949 the summit has been capped by a one-of-a-kind landmark—the world’s largest freestanding manmade star, 88.5 feet tall, with neon lights visible for 60 miles around.
The overlook in front of the Mill Mountain Star has an almost vertical vista of downtown Roanoke, with a hazy ridgeline in the distance.
Now known for a burgeoning food and craft beverage scene, Roanoke is a comfortable foothold for some fun in the mountains, whether you’re hiking, biking, or paddling.
You may also like my post on the best day trips from Roanoke.
18. First Landing State Park
More people visit this coastal property at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay than any other state park in Virginia.
Close to where Christopher Newport and the Virginia Company colonists first stepped ashore in 1607, before heading upriver to establish Jamestown, First Landing State Park has a gorgeous beach, low dunes, cypress swamp, salt marsh, lagoons, and fragile maritime forest.
The beach faces into the bay, so is shielded from the Atlantic surf and has calm waters that are just right for swimming and paddleboarding, and for children to play in safety.
The full diversity of ecosystems at the park can be discovered on 19 miles of trails, and you can extend your stay at a campsite or cabin.
In the 1920s the wealthy couple James and Sallie Dooley left their grand Victorian estate to the people of Richmond.
Perched above the James River, Maymont is a delight, with its opulent mansion, a captivating Japanese garden, a terraced Italian Renaissance garden, and a variety of newer attractions that have helped make it all an essential day out over the last century.
For instance, there’s a set of wildlife habitats where you can see species native to Virginia, like bison, elk, black bears, and several birds of prey.
Maymont Farm is a dose of pastoral Virginia in the middle of the city, and has all kinds of barnyard animals, including goats, which can be fed by hand.
20. Devil’s Bathtub
Up in the Appalachian Mountains in the very west of Virginia, the Devils Fork Conservation Area protects more than 4,500 acres of rocky upland wilderness, explored along trails and old logging roads.
In this landscape you’ll come across a place of uncommon natural beauty. The Devil’s Bathtub is a natural swimming hole, with clear aquamarine waters and curving walls of layered rock.
There are actually two pools, both fed by waterfalls, and the main swimming hole is reached by climbing the first set of falls.
I recommend avoiding the hike during periods of high water, as the conditions can be hazardous after sustained wet weather.
21. Burke’s Garden
The Appalachian Trail passes along the rim of this giant ovular depression at the top of a mountain.
With the evocative nickname, God’s Thumbprint, this lush, crater-like feature is the highest valley in Virginia, at some 3,000 feet above sea level.
Burke’s Garden was formed when subterranean limestone caverns collapsed, creating a dip measuring 8.5 miles in length and 4.5 miles across.
With mountain ridges on the horizon in every direction, and a medley of hardwoods, fertile farmland, marsh and grassland, it’s a necessary detour in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains.
The scenery is best experienced by bike along a designated 12-mile loop, while there are wonderful views into the bowl from the Appalachian Trail.
22. Breaks Interstate Park
Embedded in the Appalachian Mountains on the VA/KY line is a cloud-wreathed canyon that was named by Daniel Boone when he passed through in 1767.
Here the snaking Russell Fork has hollowed out a gigantic “break” from the sandstone, between 830 and 1,600 feet deep and continuing for five miles. Winding trails, all connecting with State Route 702, lead to a set of inspiring overlooks.
A rare joint-operated state park on a single property, Breaks Interstate Park has no lack of amenities, with an olympic size pool, an 80+ room lodge, a large campground, and a visitor center with exhibits about the gorge and the area’s history and ecology.
On weekends in October, a torrent of water is released from the John Flannagan Dam and Reservoir upstream, creating high-quality and not to mention highly challenging conditions for whitewater rafting.
23. Sand Cave, Ewing
My pick for a less trafficked spot is within the huge boundaries of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, straddling the tri-state area in the far west of Virginia. If you’re willing to put in the steps, a four-mile hike will bring you to a geological wonder.
At Sand Cave, the winds have eaten away at a sandstone overhang, forming a massive chamber 250-feet across.
True to its name, the floor of this natural dome is laid with sand, and you can look up and study the curious erosion patterns and the colorful patterns in the rock.
Climb to the back for an awesome photo of the lush forest at the cave’s opening. On the same trail, Sand Cave is only a short hike from the high ridge at White Rocks, right on the VA/KY line, with views into all three states.
24. Westmoreland State Park
There’s a gentle beauty to this property on a broad and fast-changing stretch of the Potomac River, being molded by the water as I type.
Westmoreland State Park has about 1 ½ miles of shorefront, with sandy beaches broken up by sedimentary cliffs.
Horsehead Cliffs here give you a clear view across the water to Maryland, but are also special for the fossils they yield at lower levels, chiseled out by the tides.
Fossil Beach on the east side is a fun place to search for shark’s teeth, and you don’t need to be a paleontologist to make a discovery.
Cabins and campsites available in the summer, and there’s real historical interest with the birthplaces of George Washington and Robert E. Lee a matter of minutes away.
Also read: 15 Best Small Towns to Visit in Virginia
25. Staunton River State Park
Closing out my list is a little slice of heaven on the largest body of freshwater in Virginia. Kerr Lake covers around 50,000 acres, and was impounded by the John H. Kerr Dam, completed in 1952.
The state park dates back well before, and was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s at what was then the confluence of the Staunton and Dan rivers.
Head to this relaxing place for camping, aquatic activities, and hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding on 17+ miles of multi-use trails.
Maybe Staunton River State Park’s greatest asset becomes clear once the sun goes down, as this is a designated International Dark Sky Park and a stargazer’s dream in a sparsely populated corner of Virginia.