Interstate 81 runs a long and scenic way through Virginia, from historic Winchester up near the Maryland border 320 miles down to music-rich Bristol. While coursing through Virginia, I-81 comes near an array of intriguing state parks that will whet your outdoor appetite. So why not combine your road time with some downtime to explore the scenic splendor within Virginia’s state parks? Walk to the incredible arch rising over Natural Bridge State Park or experience the view-laden hills of Sky Meadows State Park. Paddle the soothing waters of Shenandoah River State Park. Do some waterside bicycling at New River Trail State Park or perhaps swim in the highland-rimmed lake centering Hungry Mother State Park.
Come to think of it, wouldn’t it but fun to use I-81 as a conduit for the ultimate Virginia state park road trip, where you can hike, paddle, camp, overnight at a cabin or lodge, or engage that often elusive goal we all seek – relaxation? So hop on in and let’s head north to south, exploring where to go and what to do on our ultimate I-81 Virginia State Park road trip.
For starters, the world’s most famous hiking path – the Appalachian Trail -- runs through this hiker’s paradise of a state park (Did I also mention that Virginia has 544 miles of the Appalachian Trail, far more mileage than any other state?). The paths at Sky Meadows State Park traverse a blend of woods and meadows, travel astride ridges and beside streams, along old stone fences and upon tree-covered slopes, cobbling together a mosaic of landscapes sure to please the most discriminating trail treader. Moreover, the views are something to behold – vast panoramas of proud hills falling away toward the gathering lowlands in the distance. Further refine your adventure by pedaling the nine miles of trails for bicyclists, riding the ten miles of trails for equestrians as well as hiking the 22 trail miles for hikers only.
Sky Meadows is an international dark sky park, should you favor star gazing, and what better place to do it than at the primitive hike-in campground, necessitating a one mile walk to the camp? Here, 16 campsites are situated along a stream, with ample distance separating the leveled campsites on a slight slope. Each site has a fire ring, lantern post, picnic table, and tent pad. A pump well serves the camps.
Day trippers can bring the kids to the Children’s Discovery Area and Outdoor Classroom or the Track Trail, all designed to get your youngster deeper into the great outdoors. Kids of all ages can tackle the Sensory Explorer’s Trail, displaying the interface of Sky Meadows agricultural past with today’s preserved wildlands. Other attractions and activities include fishing at a small former farm pond. Have a picnic on site then find a souvenir at the gift shop.
Mountain ranges line much of I-81, but so do rivers. And if you need to scratch that aquatic itch, Virginia state parks have it covered. Shenandoah River State Park (official full name “Shenandoah River Raymond R. "Andy" Guest Jr. State Park”, the longest state park moniker in Virginia) protects over five miles of shoreline on the South Fork Shenandoah River.
The South Fork Shenandoah River flows for 97 beautiful miles in a valley bordered by Shenandoah National Park to the east and the mountains of the George Washington National Forest to the west. How can you go wrong with that setting? It’s a paddler’s utopia. The nearby town of Front Royal dubs itself the “Canoe Capital of Virginia”.
The state park offers a drive-up campground, a riverside tent camp, trails for hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians, picnic shelters, and cabins.
For paddlers, Shenandoah River State Park presents a natural shoreline with multiple river accesses. The shoals here are often ledges mixed in with riffles and even-gradient rapids. On some of the longer shoals, you will have to route find but beware -- the stellar views from the river can disrupt your navigational concentration. Within the developed area of the state park, you will see shoreline anglers and others playing in the water or tubing.
The vistas here aren’t limited to river floaters. An extensive multiuse trail system – 24 miles strong -- renders panoramas from hills and along the Shenandoah River of Massanutten Mountain and the crest of Shenandoah National Park, where Skyline Drive delivers highland panoramas of its own.
Rent one of 10 state park cabins or a whole six-bedroom lodge. Tent campers can overnight at River Right Campground or opt for the separate RV campground, which includes water and electricity. The park’s three yurts and four camping cabins upgrade your camping experience. Complete your trip to Shenandoah State Park with a meal under one of four picnic shelters.
One of Virginia’s newer state parks, the name Seven Bends refers to the number of hairpin turns on the North Fork Shenandoah River in the vicinity of the mountain-rimmed preserve. Just a short hop from historic Woodstock (purportedly named by George Washington himself), Seven Bends State Park is centered on the natural amenities of the vivid North Fort Shenandoah with its shoreline striped by small streams flowing off regally wooded Powell Mountain above.
This is a make-your-own fun type of park, perfect for cranky car-worn kids to stretch their legs or play in the river. Lead them on the Bass Bight Trail. The wide track runs riverside. Combine the Eagles Edge Trail with the Gokotta Trail to experience one of the Seven Bends firsthand in a 1.7-mile loop. A total of eight miles of trails lace Seven Bends State Park.
Water lovers can paddle or tube the North Fork using the two launches for small boats. Anglers can throw in a line for bass or bream. Overnight accommodations from camping to hotels can be found in nearby Woodstock, renowned for its farmer’s market. Enjoy fresh farm offerings or have a meal made for you at one of the eclectic restaurants in town.
Okay, I admit it, Douthat State Park is located closer to I-64, a half-hour’s drive west of the I-64/I-81 junction, but this rustic preserve, federally recognized as a National Historic District, is just too cool to leave off this list. The natural setting is supreme, lying between two mountain ridges in the Alleghany Highlands of Bath County, not far from Hot Springs.
Part of the “Original Six” Virginia state parks established in 1936, Douthat covers over 4,500 acres. The Civilian Conservation Corps left its mark with naturally integrated landscaping, quaint stone masonry, and distinctive wood craftsmanship throughout the park (hence the National Historic District designation).
The list of manmade facilities is long: camp store, amphitheater, park restaurant, four distinctive campgrounds with fine fully electric and water sites, 30 restored cabins built by the CCC yet revamped to work for today’s cabin lover, three lodges for families or larger groups, and a large group meeting area.
The first-rate Virginia mountain scenery has been there all along. Eye-pleasing Wilson Creek courses through the park and is dammed as 50-acre Douthat Lake. On this placid impoundment, you can enjoy the swim beach, and fish for trout, bass, or catfish. Only electric motors are allowed on Douthat Lake, keeping the atmosphere serene. Bring your own canoe or kayak or rent a rowboat, paddleboat, or even paddleboard in this scenic impoundment surrounded by majestic highlands. Wilson Creek also has stream fishing for trout and is beloved by fly anglers.
Here for just a little while? Have lunch under one of three picnic shelters then go for a hike. Douthat State Park delivers over 40 miles of first-rate trails, including pathways to two pretty but seasonal waterfalls – three-tiered 60-foot Blue Suck Falls and rhododendron-bordered 50-foot Stony Run Falls. Both cataracts are on tributaries of Wilson Creek. Another must-visit is Tuscarora Overlook where you’ll find a grassy clearing and a restored CCC fire-watch cabin, with a superb panorama into the basin of Wilson Creek and across toward the distant Beards Mountain on the park’s east boundary. Grab another terrific view from Lookout Rock. Yet still another vista can be had via the Buck Hollow Trail. Whether you come via I-81 or I-64 making the exit to Douthat State Park will be a wise move.
Need a short nature stop off I-81? Natural Bridge State Park is an ideal choice, very close to I-81 with quick-hitting highlights. Once owned by Thomas Jefferson himself, Natural Bridge had been attracting visitors for centuries before I-81 ever came into being. And such a landmark is Natural Bridge -- a massive, 200-foot-high arch rising above Cedar Creek. The former private attraction joined the Virginia State Park family in 2016, making it an even more desirable natural destination.
Make the park visitor center your starting point. The classic hike from there is the .8-mile Cedar Creek Trail, where you travel under Natural Bridge and then continue to 50-foot Lace Falls. The .6-mile Skyline Trail loops you past a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. If your kids need to expend a little more energy before putting them back in the minivan visit the Children's Discovery Center, an interactive outdoor classroom of sorts with hands-on nature displays. The Track Trail here makes a little loop and is also designed for the younger set.
Since the Natural Bridge infrastructure was built as a private attraction, park acreage is limited, but the preserve does have three reservable tent campsites. If you are looking for accommodations check out the nearby historic Inn at Forest Oaks or the adjacent Natural Bridge Hotel. The Caverns at Natural Bridge is also beside the state park and remains a private attraction. Savor a guided tour of the belowground phenomenon.
Claytor Lake State Park, with its three miles of waterfront, is your best bet if you are looking for recreation on a big lake. The full-sized reservoir comes in at 4,500 acres. Set on the inside of a big bend of the reservoir, Claytor Lake State Park is one of those “has-it-all” preserves, with every amenity you have come to expect at quality Virginia state parks. In summer, the lake beach and swimming area are a big draw. Fishing and boating on Claytor Lake are fun and scenic experiences, with wooded hills rising above the stilled mountain waters of the lively New River.
Claytor Lake State Park even has its own marina, as well as picnic shelters and fishing platforms bordering the water. The marina rents everything from pontoon boats to motorboats to kayaks, saving you the hassle of hauling watercraft. They also rent paddleboards for those inclined.
The state park overnighting facilities stretch along Claytor Lake. A whole set of cabins and larger lodges are situated waterside, ready for you and your extended family to experience the respite offered here. Those who love camping (like me), can choose one of over 100 campsites divided among four campgrounds. Select a site with or without electricity and water. Yurts and a group bunkhouse round out the overnight options.
The Haven Howe House adds a touch of Virginia history. The brick manse overlooks Claytor Lake and doubles as a visitor center, where the folks inside are happy to help and give advice. Hikers and bicyclists have about seven miles of easy trails to explore, with most of the paths laid out in loops, so trail trekkers don’t have to cover the same ground twice. The park even rents bikes, should you want to pedal the paths or park roads. Want more? Have a shoreline picnic. You can even get married here -- the state park offers a gathering facility overlooking Claytor Lake. This state park really does have it all.
This long (as in linear) Virginia state park encompasses a picturesque rail trail I highly recommend and have ridden from end-to-end numerous times. Stretching for 57 miles from Galax to Pulaski, the path is easily accessible from several points along I-81. Fun for couples, families, and everyone in between, the trail primarily traces the gorgeous New River as it courses through big mountains for which Southwest Virginia is known. Hikers, bicyclers, and equestrians love to follow the gentle former railroad grade along the New River, breaking out their phones to photograph the interplay of deep forest and open meadow, of stirring water and expanding mountains. A fresh scene opens around every bend. In other places, you can traverse the New River by bridge or even trek through a tunnel, or cross trestles spanning dancing creeks below.
Specific highlights along the New River Trail, which traces the former bed of the Norfolk and Western Railroad, include Chestnut Creek Falls, the Shot Tower, and Foster Falls. Chestnut Creek Falls forms a wide, eight-foot-high drop over a rock base at a bend in Chestnut Creek. A ledge rises on the far side of the falls, fashioning an alluring pool. A little covered picnic shelter stands nearby. Foster Falls is more of a long roaring rapid on the New River which stands as a community from yesteryear, while the Shot Tower is a preserved architectural curiosity.
Being along the New River adds a major water component to this state park experience. You can paddle the watercourse in a kayak, canoe, or raft or simply tube down the mountain-rimmed waterway, using state park river accesses. Anglers can vie for bream, bass, and even walleye. The New River is renowned for its smallmouth bass fishery.
The Foster Falls access at New River Trail State Park is a great starting point if you haven’t explored the linear preserve before. A concentration of facilities is located here, including rail trail access, bike rentals, canoe, and kayak rentals as well as tube rentals for floating the New River during warm season weekends. An outfitter runs both bike and paddler shuttles seasonally. Make the four-mile river float from Austinville to Foster Falls or the eight-mile aquatic run from Ivanhoe to Foster Falls. The bike shuttles also allow for trips of differing lengths to suit the mileage you want to cover. Check ahead for specifics. A children’s play area and picnic tables are also available here.
Foster Falls was once a community that included a church and post office. The historic buildings – now part of the state park -- have been restored, including the old train depot, now a gift/information shop. Here at Foster Falls, you can camp at Millrace Campground, set riverside under widespread sycamores. Since it is a walk-in campground, the state park provides little carts to haul your camping gear to the site from your vehicle. Each camping area has a picnic table, fire grate, and lantern post. Two more camping areas are stretched along the New River Trail. More developed lodgings can be had in Fort Chiswell or Pulaski, directly off I-81.
The Shot Tower, an antique stone turret originally used to manufacture ammunition, is a rewarding 1.5-mile hiker destination on the New River Trail from Foster Falls. With lead mined from nearby Austinville, shot makers poured the molten metal through sieves whereupon the lead dropped 150 feet into a water-filled kettle, rounding the shot along the way. Check the Shot Tower out for yourself or join a ranger-led walk to the tower and climb up its heights, while imagining shot makers hauling the hot lead up the tower.
Conveniently located off Interstate 81 near Marion, Hungry Mother State Park is a Virginia classic, a venerable state park set in mountainous terrain between Little Brushy Mountain, Brushy Mountain, and Walker Mountain. I’ve spent many a worthwhile day at this preserve within easy striking distance of my home. When you think of Hungry Mother State Park, you’ll think of one of Virginia’s prettiest little lakes from which rises regal mountains overlain with visitor-friendly facilities. Think of loads of natural beauty, from blooming rhododendrons to autumn hues, and from vast mountain vistas to colorful wildflowers brightening your spring day.
Consider making the three-mile paddle around the shore of the 108-acre, no-gas-motors lake. Rent a paddleboard, kayak, canoe, or paddleboat then start at the park boat launch – with its universally accessible pier -- and stroke your way into the main part of the slender reservoir, where Hungry Mother Creek was dammed back in the 1930s when the state park was established. Cruise toward the imposing rampart of nearly 4,000-foot-high Walker Mountain. Head to the uppermost part of the lake to meet chilly Hungry Mother Creek. From here you work your way back around the impoundment, passing more facilities that will leave you wishing to expand your Hungry Mother State Park adventure beyond paddling. Lakeside you can hit the swim beach during the warm season or test your skill while attempting to catch bass, bluegill, or catfish from the many fishing platforms scattered around the impoundment.
It is a special treat to make the 5.7-mile hiking circuit around Hungry Mother Lake. Or enjoy one of the three views from the Molly’s Knob Overlook Trail. Make a family loop hike on the .9-mile Raiders Run Trail. A total of 17 miles of trails run through the preserve.
A variety of cabins are available at Hungry Mother for your overnight stay, from one-bedroom, rustic log cabins to more modern choices and even larger lodges for family gatherings. Here at Hungry Mother State Park, you can find your perfect lodgings and it will surely beat a nondescript motel just off the interstate.
Campers have a large variety of sites to pitch their tent or park their rig. Over 80 campsites are available in three separate campgrounds. Royal Oak is for tent campers only, while Creekside (with beautiful natural surroundings along Hungry Mother Creek) has a mix of sites appealing to hard-shell campers and tent campers. Camp Burson is located 1.5 miles from the main park facilities but does have water and electric hookups expected by RV campers. Ever overnighted in a yurt? Hungry Mother has three of them so here’s your chance to try one out for a night.
Next time, when you are rolling down I-81 – perhaps on your ultimate Virginia State Park road trip, you will know where to go and what to do at these fun and convenient getaways.