From beginner to pro, some of THE East Coast’s best hiking destinations are just a short drive away
There is a wide world out there to explore, beyond the concrete jungles and fields of houses in suburbia. And while it would be a far cry into the wilderness to say that Appalachia is all there is to see, some of the best nature hikes are at the disposal of Hill City residents, if they but wander a bit from their own backyards.
The rewards are as bountiful as the trees and rocks through which one can journey—air so crisp and clean you could practically drink it, a melodious tranquility humming all about, chance encounters with intriguing critters, stunning views like master strokes across the horizon and a pulsing rush of energy through your body, reminding you of your connection to what’s around.
Pick any direction from Lynchburg and a worthy hike is not far off.
“There are hikes all over this place. They are so cool,” said Herb Vreeland, Outing Committee Chair for the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club (NBATC). “We live in an incredible place. It would be great to see more people take advantage of that.”
Below are some of the area’s must-see hiking attractions, from those that are relatively family-friendly to intermediate and more advanced challenges. (Some of Vreeland’s recommendations are starred for emphasis.) It should be noted, however, that the difficulty levels may be relative in some instances. Most of these hikes are found along the Appalachian Trail, the longest hiking-only footpath in the world.
As a friendly reminder, Vreeland said these trails are in the mountains.
“People have to understand, it’s not like walking in your neighborhood.”
For The Family
The Liberty Mountain Trail System spans approximately 5,000 acres, featuring more than 50 miles of trails. Located off Candlers Mountain Road overlooking the university campus, this spot is an easy place to start for a novice hiker (though experienced ones have much to enjoy as well). Hikes range from beginner to intermediate.
For families looking to get started, the 0.6 mile 1971 trail is a fun hike starting at the Snowflex Centre and working its way up to the top of the monogram, where a gazebo provides rest and views of the city, the Blue Ridge and Liberty’s campus.
A short, muddy hike near Buena Vista (less than half a mile) has a refreshing payoff—a popular swimming hole. People jump from 10-foot rock shelves into a still pool below and enjoy the small streams that that meander through. Caution is advised when swimming; currents can be strong.
In Nelson County near Charlottesville is one of Virginia’s bucket list hikes and one that is manageable for families to boot. The trip up is littered with sparkling cascades culminating at the top of the tallest vertical dropping waterfall east of the Mississippi. There’s a beautiful view at the top and enough space for a rest and family picnic before completing the approximately 3.5-mile journey. While this is true of all hikes, it is important to emphasize the importance of staying within the boundaries of the trail and to not wander past the warning signs.
*FALLING WATER CASCADES
Off the Blue Ridge Parkway toward the Peaks of Otter is a beautiful family-friendly hike with a lush backdrop of greenery and clear water splashing off rocks.
“It is incredible,” Vreeland said. “It follows the cascades all the way up on the trail. It is a loop hike, a really great hike for families.”
*MATT’S CREEK SHELTER
Just up the road from where 501 crosses the James River is the James River Footbridge. From there, Matt’s Creek Shelter is not far. It is a great place to stop for a lunch break halfway before completing an out-and-back hike—following a stream along the way—on the AT.
Step It Up
FLAT TOP/SHARP TOP
From Lynchburg, two of the most iconic peaks on the horizon are Sharp Top and its flat neighbor. Both of these Peaks of Otter overlooking Bedford County make excellent hikes for beginners and have amazing views from their apexes. While Sharp Top is often the more popular, Flat Top (which is across from Falling Water Cascades) is an equally worth-it hike and both are must dos for local residents.
Both Cole and Cold are acceptable names for this Amherst County hike that is a must see.
“Did you ever see The Sound of Music?” Vreeland said. “It looks just like that. It is wide open. If you ever saw Cole Mountain, it would blow your mind.”
The trick, Vreeland explained, is getting to the trail head. One must be prepared to drive about four miles on a forest service road, Wiggins Spring Road. The drive will get bumpy.
But the payoff at the end of the hike (about six miles there and back) is a panoramic view unlike any other in the area.
“It really is like The Sound of Music,” Vreeland emphasized.
Near Roanoke, this seven-mile hike is often started at a full parking lot. But McAfee Knob is popular for a reason. One of the best views to reward any hike, period.
*FLOYD FIELDS APPLE ORCHARD FALLS OVERLOOK
Another hike up on the Blue Ridge near the Peaks of the Otter, this eight-mile trek (or four-mile runaround, with cars parked at both ends) features passage under the Guillotine, an unbelievable rock formation.
“It’s right on the AT,” Vreeland said. “You go right under this big round rock that got stuck between two other big rocks. You literally go right between that thing as you go along; it is a beautiful rocky area. And you end up at the old Air Force Radar Station. It is quite an interesting hike and not a hard hike to get to.”
While the view from the top of this three-mile journey is impressive, this hike is
really about the journey itself. After about a mile and a half comes the marble yard, an array of giant boulders splayed across the mountainside. Rock-hopping is the most exciting part of this adventure.
Devil’s Marbleyard is best enjoyed in the spring or fall as it gets very hot in the
summer sun and snakes are more likely to be seen.
*PUNCHBOWL SHELTER TO PEDLAR RIVER DAM TO BROWN MOUNTAIN CREEK SHELTER
This is an eight-and-a-half-mile hike in Amherst County if you plan to park cars at both ends so you don’t have to retrace your steps. It is rich in history. Old stone hog walls are seen along the way, and remnants of homes long gone litter the wayside.
“They had an actual civilization up there. There are some walls left from the houses, there are a lot of foundations, chimneys,” Vreeland said.
Take It To The Limit
BIG ROCKY ROW
On the opposite side of the James River from Matt’s Creek is the strenuous, weaving hike to Fuller’s Rock that features 20 switchbacks. From Fuller’s Rock is a beautiful view over Big Island and the James River.
After completing that challenge, continue with about a mile of straight upward climbing. Altogether, this is about 11 miles of tough hiking. It can be done as a loop or an out and back.
OLD RAG MOUNTAIN
Amazing panoramic views are featured on this nine-mile loop in Shenandoah National Park that challenges with a one-mile rock scramble. But as one of the most popular destinations in the Mid-Atlantic, crowds flock to Old Rag.
Dubbed one of the most difficult hikes on the entire AT, the Priest, near Crabtree Falls, is a nine-mile trip that includes some of the steepest terrain in Central Virginia, upwards of 3,000 feet in elevation.
Connect with the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club on Facebook @NBATC.Hiker
or on their website NBATC.org.