Dolly Sods | Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia
Arguably one of the most beautiful hiking areas on the United States’ east coast, the Dolly Sods Wilderness inarguably has the most unique trailhead warning sign: Watch out for unexploded ordinance in the area. (The U.S. Army used the area for artillery and mortar training during WWII.) Don’t fret, though. With over 47 miles of hiking trails crisscrossing and looping around an open plateau, you’ll have little need to wander too far off trail to observe the beauty of these grassy meadows, stunted red spruce and sphagnum bogs.
Of all the trails, the Dolly Sods North Loop is my favorite. Pitch a tent halfway through the loop in a section of windswept meadow replete with rocky boulders and a stunning view of the Canaan Valley.
Statistics: Total Distance: 11.9 miles | Elevation Gain: 1,050 feet
Spy Rock | George Washington National Forest, Virginia
Desiring a hike on the Appalachian Trail (AT) but unwilling to hike far for a spectacular view? Head to central Virginia’s Spy Rock where energy expended is minimal and the payoff is incredible. Hike for one mile up a short and steep road until you hit the AT, then hike for half of a mile and you’ll stumble upon a rocky outcrop that provides a commanding 360 degree view of rolling, wooded mountains, particularly stunning when the fall foliage is a cascade of red, orange and yellow. Camp right below Spy Rock where you will find plenty of sites.
For those wishing to tack on a few additional miles, visit nearby Crabtree Falls (4 miles total), where you can hike beside one of the tallest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River.
Statistics: Total Distance: 3.1 miles | Elevation Gain: 1,260 feet
McAfee Knob | Jefferson National Forest, Virginia
One of the most photographed vistas on the Appalachian Trail (AT), McAfee Knob does not disappoint. Located a short distance from Roanoke, Virginia, the Knob has an almost 270 degree panorama of the Catawba Valley and North Mountain to the west, Tinker Cliffs to the north and the Roanoke Valley to the east. From the parking area, it’s a steady climb of 1,740 feet over 4 miles to the Knob. Pro: The Knob provides unparalleled photo opportunities. Con: This is one of the most popular segments of the Appalachian Trail. You will not be alone.
Camping is prohibited immediately next to McAfee Knob. For those staying overnight, continue 7/10 of a mile ahead where you’ll find ample campsites near the Campbell Shelter.
Statistics – Total Distance: 8.3 miles | Elevation Gain: 1,740 feet
Three Ridges Loop | George Washington National Forest, Virginia
Situated in central Virginia a mere 30 miles southwest of Charlottesville, the Three Ridges Loop is one of the most popular backpacking circuits in Virginia. This trail provides hikers with vista after vista along the Appalachian Trail (AT) as well as a number of small waterfalls and pools (perfect swimming holes for the ambitious) on the Mau-Har Trail beside Campbell Creek. This backpack is not for the physically unfit as it features considerably more elevation gain and loss than your average mid-Atlantic backpacking circuit.
Halfway through the circuit, you’ll find the main camping area near the Harpers Creek Shelter. For those seeking a bit more privacy than the typical AT shelter provides, head a bit further downstream before pitching your tent. Roughly two miles past this site, you’ll find encounter Campbell Creek—site of the hike’s best waterfalls and swimming holes in which to dip your tired feet.
Statistics – Total Distance: 14.4 miles | Elevation Gain: 3,960 feet
Mount Rogers | Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia
Located in southwest Virginia near the North Carolina border, Mount Rogers is Virginia’s tallest summit at 5,729 feet. To reach this peak, you have to hike through beautiful Grayson Highlands State Park with its grassy expanses and rocky outcrops, much of which is above treeline. (Note: A herd of wild ponies roams throughout the nearly 5,000 acre Grayson Highlands State Park. We encountered these ponies time and time again throughout our hike, much to my dog’s chagrin, and we awoke to the sound of their neighing and grazing directly outside of our tent.)
The peak itself is wooded and does not offer an impressive view. You’ll want to camp roughly a mile before the summit where, once off the trail, you are free to choose whichever stunning vista of the Blue Ridge Mountains you prefer.
Statistics – Total Distance: 8.0 miles | Elevation Gain: 1,750 feet