Let’s be honest: Traveling to faraway places is expensive. From frolicking through a field of tulips in the Netherlands to soaking in a hot spring in Iceland, it’s often all one big fantasy that lives forever in our heads—but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Believe it or not, Virginia has its fair share of extraordinary destinations that’ll transport you to other countries and continents. Sand caves? We’ve got that. An estate plucked from Europe? Yep—that, too. But what about those tulips and hot springs? Check and check.
Get ready to gas up the car because a world’s worth of wonders awaits in Virginia, and you don’t have to spend a fortune to see them.
GRAYSON HIGHLANDS STATE PARK
Who said you have to travel to Scotland to see wild ponies? Tucked in the southwestern corner of the state (Grayson County), you’ll find a rhododendron-filled forest that opens up to expansive grassy meadows within Grayson Highlands State Park. Herds of wild ponies roam freely here and in the adjacent Mount Rogers National Recreation Area—the highest natural point in the state. Witnessing the ponies as they graze across the mountainous landscape is a scene that must be seen in person.
There are around 100 ponies that call this area home, so be respectful of their territory and keep a safe distance during your hike.
THOMAS WALKER CIVIC PARK
As you approach the sand cave at Thomas Walker Civic Park (Lee County), you half expect Indiana Jones to sprint across the landscape while being chased by swordsmen in search of the Holy Grail. Maybe it’s the 3.9-mile journey over mountains that's required to get there, or better yet, maybe it’s the ceiling of gold, red, and green rock formations that make you feel like you’re somewhere in the Middle East. Either way, the intense adventure is worth it for this movie-scene-level beauty continuously carved by Mother Nature’s hand. (Just be sure to look out for bears.)
Bonus: If you’re feeling extra adventurous, continue along the trail for an additional 1.3 miles to see the White Rocks, an overlook that provides breathtaking views of Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky atop white quartzite embedded in sandstone. It’s stunning!
WARM SPRINGS POOLS
The story goes that Indigenous peoples discovered hot springs bubbling up from deep underground chambers hundreds of years ago in what is now George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. The warm waters quickly became a sacred site for their rejuvenating, mineral-rich properties, eventually attracting the attention of European settlers in the 1500s.
Fast forward to the 21st century and this cherished site has now transformed into Warm Springs Pools (Bath County), a complex of bathhouses built above the springs, where visitors can bask in an Icelandic experience. For $30 per person, you can step into the rounded basin and enjoy 50 minutes of floating through the 98-degree pools that have been visited by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. No flight needed.
If there’s any place that sums up why Virginia is for Lovers, it’s the Swannanoa Mansion (Nelson County). Railroad tycoon James H. Dooley built the massive, 52-room estate as a token of appreciation for his wife Sallie, a gesture made abundantly clear through a 10-foot Tiffany stained glass window that features her. But that’s only the beginning of the story. Carrara marble floors inside, terraced gardens outside, and Italianate architecture all around make you feel as though you’re in Europe—a product of Dooley’s romantic persuasions. Tours, offered on the second Sunday and fourth Saturday of each month in 2023, take you through the mansion’s many lives with an undertone of enchantment that has stood the test of time. A true testament to love in the prime of America’s Gilded Age.
THE KOREAN BELL GARDEN—MEADOWLARK BOTANICAL GARDENS
The Bell of Peace and Harmony is a fitting centerpiece in the heart of the Meadowlark Botanical Gardens (Fairfax County). The handcrafted structure symbolizes a lovely friendship between South Korea and the United States. Kwangsik Won, a legendary Korean artist, created the bell while other artisans added natural images representative of both countries. The placement of the bell within a traditional Korean pavilion makes it the only landmark of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.
While you’re here at the Korean Bell Garden, roam the surrounding grounds and you’ll spot plenty of other cultural icons such as totem poles (“jangseung”), volcanic rock statues (“dol hareubangs”), and ornamental display gardens as well.
BURNSIDE FARMS FESTIVAL OF SPRING
Drive along Kettle Run Road in early April, and your jaw is guaranteed to drop once you get to Burnside Farms (Prince William County). Rows and rows of colorful tulips—over two million of them to be exact—bloom in phases for three fleeting weeks in a spectacle plucked straight out of Holland. Daffodils also join in on the action at this U-pick event dubbed the Festival of Spring, but don’t forget about the games, kid's playhouse, and plenty of food. Let the selfies commence!
GREAT DISMAL SWAMP
The cypress trees seem to crawl out of the fog as it drifts across the surface of Lake Drummond, like an awakening giant from the Earth. Off in the distance, warblers sing their morning song. The sky is golden blue, the water like crystalline glass, and I’m convinced there’s no more beautiful moment happening on this planet than right here, right now at the Great Dismal Swamp (Hampton Roads). If it sounds like a scene too pretty to be real, this is your sign to visit one of Virginia’s greatest natural treasures and experience a similar moment of your own. The 112,000-plus-acre refuge brings an abundance of sights at all times and seasons, which you can explore on blazed pathways. Wildlife lovers can see anything from white-tail deer and river otters to black bears and bobcats. The annual Spring Birding Festival is a big attraction to see many of the 200-plus avian species that flock to the area.
The history of the swamp is as rich and complex as the wildlife that calls it home, and guided tours are the recommended option to understand and appreciate it all together. Don’t know which one to choose? Well, you can’t lose with the Swamp Safari tour, but be sure to reserve a spot in advance.
Which spot will you visit first? Let us know in the comments.