With fall fast approaching, it’s time to venture outside and do some exploring.
One of the best things about Virginia is that we experience all four seasons. With the scorching summer temperatures most behind us – you never know with climate change, right? – we thought it was the perfect time to highlight some of the natural beauty the Old Dominion State has to offer.
Virginia is home to 66 dedicated nature preserves and 41 state parks with something for everyone. Overview of five natural sites to stretch your legs and explore.
The Natural Bridge – Rockbridge County
Virginia is home to one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World: the Natural Bridge.
This 215-foot-tall natural arch spans approximately 90 feet and was created over time by Cedar Creek or a cavern collapse, depending on who you ask. Ancient folklore of the Monegasque Native American tribe suggests the land bridge appeared during a battle and was used as an escape route.
The bridge has been designated a Virginia Historic Landmark and a National Historic Landmark, and in 2016 the state officially opened the Natural Bridge State Park. A furrow of hiking trails allows visitors to walk under the bridge. Visitors can also learn more at the Monacan Indian Village, experience Lace Falls, and take A guided tour nearby caves.
Plan to pay for parking in the park (and in most Virginia state parks, except on holidays). To visit the bridge, plan to buy tickets. Tickets are $9 for adults and $7 for children ages 6-12. Find out about the prices before you leave, here.
The Natural Tunnel – Scott County
The natural tunnel in Scott County spans over 850 feet and about 10 stories, so the tallest member of your party needn’t worry about bumping their heads. The limestone tunnel has been dug over thousands of years, creating a breathtaking chasm between stone walls and chimneys to rival rock formations in Utah.
This century-old tourist attraction cuts through part of Appalachia and is so wide it was once used as a railroad tunnel, according to Dark Atlas.
Local folklore also calls this breathtaking park a Lover’s leap. The story goes that a woman fell in love with a man after saving her from a bear, but when her father refused to allow her to marry, the two lovers decided they would be together forever. one way or another. The two jumped to their deaths at sunrise, cementing their love for eternity.
Heartbreaking history aside, visitors to Natural Tunnel State Park Today, you can hike, cave tours, canoe trips, and even stay overnight in dorms located at Cove Ridge Center. In addition, there is a chairlift to go down to the bottom of the tunnel.
If you’re willing to brave cooler temperatures, the park hosts a Christmas lights celebration inside the tunnel each year. Here is a link for more information on last year’s celebration.
Great Falls Park – Fairfax County
Are you a Northern Virginia city dweller looking for a bit of nature close to home? Great Falls is a great destination just for that.
Great Falls State Park comprises approximately 800 acres of forested and often rocky land along the Potomac. The landscape quickly creates rushing water which cascades over a short drop and makes a great photo backdrop.
The park includes 15 miles of hiking trails for all abilities, including wheelchair accessible routes along the water.
While you’re there, make sure you don’t miss Mather Gorge. The area is named after Stephen T. Mather, who was the first director of the National Park Service. You can hike to the lookouts via the River Trail (which is the more difficult route) or the Patowmack Canal Trail (which is a bit easier.)
Depending on weather conditions and time of year, the falls can take on drastically different water levels and speeds, all the more reason to visit more than once!
Good to know: The Great Falls Visitor Center is currently closed for construction until spring 2023. The park, waterfalls and lookouts are still open.
Great Dismal Swamp – Norfolk
Don’t let the name fool you – this natural area that crosses the border from Virginia to neighboring North Carolina won’t be a dreary visit.
The more than 100,000 acres give visitors a glimpse of what the area’s natural landscape was like as before the settlers. In the past, the swamp covered over a million acres of land.
The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was officially created by Congress in 1973. The area is a treasure trove for viewing wildlife in their natural habitat, including butterflies! Plus, with 220 confirmed species spotted in the area, it’s a popular destination for birdwatching.
The park features over 40 miles of trails allowing visitors to experience the incredible landscape, including the over 3,000 acre lake at the center of the marsh, Lake Drummond. As winter approaches, be on the lookout for ducks, geese and swans descending on the refuge.
The Sand Cave – Lee County
This sandy cave offers an incredible color ceiling– perfect for photos to be posted on Instagram.
Located in Cumberland Gap National Park, hikers can visit the Sand Cave for an experience that many reviewers said absolutely lived up to the hype. Once a massive rock, the cave was formed over many years of high winds that eroded the sandstone to create a 250-foot-wide opening.
Visitors can hike or horseback ride to the sand cave. The trip is about four miles from the parking lot to the sand cave on trails and sand so wear proper footwear.
Bonus Destination: For hikers who are up for a longer trip, about an extra mile will bring you to White Rocks. This is where you can see three states; Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee from the top of the rock formation. Both natural wonders make for a great (but strenuous!) day of exploring southwestern Virginia.
Good to know: This is one of the most popular hikes in the state; if you’re looking to avoid the crowds, hit the trails early in the day.