Into the woods: 15 favorite Charlottesville-area hikes, from easy to “ease up!”

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Photo: Jack Looney Photo: Jack Looney

If you think that the end of summer means it’s time to put away the hiking boots, think again. Fall and winter in Virginia are fantastic seasons to walk in the woods—for 15 minutes or a whole day. It’s easier to see the mountains we live among when the trees aren’t fully in leaf, and we promise: Even if it’s chilly outside, once you get to hiking, you’ll feel warm.

Our area is loaded with hiking opportunities. Though the obvious destinations—Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway—offer many wonderful trails, you can get your fix much closer to town. We’ve tried to list something for everyone, from the hardcore to the stroller- bound to the hiking-averse. Here are 15 of our favorite hikes in and around Charlottesville.


Best low-key, no-travel hike: Secluded Farm

If you’re in Charlottesville and you just need to get outside NOW, you can do no better than to take the quick drive to Kemper Park—that’s just after the turn onto Route 53 toward Monticello—and hike the trails at Secluded Farm. Maintained by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the trails are so easily accessible it’s hard to believe they deliver such a middle-of-nowhere-in-Albemarle feeling. But it’s true. All you have to do is walk to the right from the Kemper Park parking area and you’ll enter a network of beautiful trails through woods and meadows.

You have your choice here: a couple miles of climbing the mountainside, or something more like a mellow stroll. Our favorite, because it’s a little unusual, is to follow the meadow trails to where big, stately oaks stand alone on an open hillside—a really sublime place for a picnic, a sketching session, or a talk with a friend.

Length: Variable


Best hike for people who hate hiking: Loft Mountain Loop

If you’re in Shenandoah National Park and there’s someone in your group who, ahem, isn’t exactly longing to walk in the woods, the Loft Mountain Loop is a good compromise. It’s easy—part of it’s even paved—yet not so short that you’ll feel disappointed when it’s over. It includes a great view and a stretch on the Appalachian Trail (in case your reluctant trekker might enjoy claiming, when back in civilization, to have “hiked the AT”). And best of all, it’s one of the few hikes anywhere that passes an ice cream stand.

As a loop, Loft Mountain avoids the we’ve-been-here-before boredom of out-and-back hikes. Starting at the Loft Mountain Wayside, hike along the Frazier Discovery Trail (which passes under a large rock overhang). The big, southwest-facing view comes about halfway through the hike, and—perhaps even more to the point—it’s the Loft Mountain camp store where you can grab some sweet treats. Keep on munching as you complete the loop on a trail that parallels the campground road.

Length: 2.7 mile loop


Blue Hole at Sugar Hollow. Photo: Jack Looney

Best hike to a swimming hole: Blue Hole at Sugar Hollow

Untrammeled wilderness this is not: Sugar Hollow is one of the most popular destinations for Charlottesville-based hikers, and for good reason. It might not be the place to find solitude—you’ll almost certainly have company on this trail—but if you don’t mind other humans, you’ll be enchanted by Blue Hole. But first you have to get there. Park at the end of Sugar Hollow Road and head to the left, toward the South Fork of the Moormans River. The trail immediately crosses the river (wear water shoes!) and, on the other side, you’ll find the wide, well-traveled path you seek. Don’t take the trail that soon dives down to the left. Keep following the river as the trail skirts the mountainside; after one more stream crossing, you’ll find yourself gently climbing toward the swimming hole.

Actually, it’s a series of swimming holes; you’ll know you’re there when you see big bare cliffs jutting out above you on the left. Check out the rope swing above the big hole—in years past, there used to be a much more bodacious one—and climb around behind the waterfall to find the smaller, more private swimming spots. The whole landscape is a study in the action of water on rock: lovely and refreshing.

Length: 3 miles out and back


Saunders-Monticello Trail. Photo: Eric Kelley

Best hike for strollers: Saunders-Monticello Trail

New parents who have been used to running and hiking in their lives B.C. (that’s Before Children) will be longing to get the blood moving. But strollers can be awkward at city street corners and hazardous on country roads, so a smooth, well-maintained trail—that’s also very close to town—is a real boon. Park the minivan at Kemper Park, off Route 53, and avail yourself of the Saunders/Monticello Trail.

Part crushed gravel and part elevated wooden boardwalk, this trail is beautifully designed and maintained, and wide enough for several strollers to travel abreast. It climbs the little mountain in two miles of graceful curves that, while not taking you deep into the heart of the wilderness, do offer lovely wooded surroundings and a good workout. If you do the whole trail, you’ll wind up at the Monticello visitors’ center—a nice place to get a snack or even hit the gift shop.

Length: 4 miles out and back


Humpback Rocks. Photo: Elli Williams

Best hike to show off the area to guests: Humpback Rocks

Yes, if you’re a veteran Charlottesville hiker you may already be sick of this hike. But your visitors aren’t. For newbies, it hardly gets better than this—an easy drive from town; a hike with a stellar, camera-ready endpoint; and an iconic Parkway experience. And there’s more than one way to skin this cat: If you want the short but steep version, you follow the blue blazes and the madding crowds, and huff and puff your way one mile to the top. If you want the longer, gentler version, take the AT instead and you’ll probably have a mite more solitude on the trail (2.7 miles one way).

The rocks themselves, of course, are a thrill—they offer a big view and the opportunity to climb about, cautiously or daringly as your temperament allows. Even better, you can combine the Humpback hike with any number of nearby attractions: the recreated mountain farm just across the Parkway; bluegrass concerts on summer and fall Sundays at that same farm; or any of the breweries, distilleries and wineries along Route 151 in Nelson County. It pretty much adds up to the perfect outside-of-Charlottesville day.

Length: 2 or 5.4 miles out and back


Walnut Creek Park. Photo: Jack Looney

Best hike near water: Walnut Creek Park

It may not look like much when you’re pulling into the entrance from Old Lynchburg Road, but Walnut Creek Park is not some dinky little patch of land. There’s a 45-acre lake in there! And nearly 500 acres of land to explore! As for hiking, you’ll probably have to visit more than once to experience all 15 miles of trails in this park.

The Walnut Creek trails are well-mapped and maintained, and form a dense network that you could combine in any number of ways. But for an easy-to-navigate hike that samples the best of the park, try leaving your car in the first parking lot and starting off over the little footbridge toward Luke’s Loop. Keep the lake on your left, hook up with Wilkins Way, and just stay on it as it skirts the shore, then climbs the mountain to the park’s highest elevations before looping back to the starting point (5.1 miles altogether). Another, shorter option: the two-mile Blue Wheel trail, which starts from the second parking lot and gives you lots of lake time, too.

Length: Variable


Crabtree Falls. Photo: Jack Looney

Best hike for a workout: Crabtree Falls

You’ll be craving a workout by the time you step out of the car—Crabtree Falls is over an hour from Charlottesville. (Make a nice loop of it: Drive the Parkway from Rockfish Gap to the trailhead on Route 56, then return on Route 151 through Nelson County.) Stretch your quads in the parking lot and then hit the trail.  Right away, you’ll get a great view of a section of Crabtree Falls. Enjoy it, but know this is only the beginning—the trail keeps climbing for nearly two steep miles, up switchbacks, steps, and wooden walkways, and passing several other great waterfall viewing spots on the way to the top.

There’s no way to view Crabtree Falls all at once; it’s just too big. In fact, it’s said to be the highest vertical-drop cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi, falling 1,200 feet through five major cascades and many smaller ones. You hike alongside it, not to it. And, of course, it’s magnificent.

The final viewpoint is actually above the top of the falls, where you gaze out at the Tye River valley. From here, if your legs aren’t jelly, an optional add-on is to continue another 1.2 miles to Crabtree Meadows. Or just start back down toward your car, working a whole other muscle group on the way.

Length: 4 miles out and back


Best hike for birding: Ivy Creek Natural Area

It’s not only that the Ivy Creek Natural Area includes different kinds of habitats in its 215 acres, from meadows to forests to shoreline, each of which attracts particular kinds of birds. It’s that ICNA is also the best place near Charlottesville to connect with the naturalist community here, by joining a bird walk or other educational event. There are lots of folks around here who know their birds (not to mention their trees, wildflowers, etc.), and Ivy Creek is where they—like warblers, geese, and wild turkey—gather.

Bring your binoculars and join the monthly first Saturday bird walk with the Monticello Bird Club; you’ll learn a lot from the experts in the crowd. Sometimes there are other special bird-related events, like an evening nighthawk migration watch, and even the monthly plant walks are likely to include some information about birds and other wildlife. For solo hiking, 7.1 miles of trails offer lots of options; the red and orange trails linked together will give you an overview of many different environments and likely offer an encounter with at least a few of the more than 150 species that have been spotted here.

The more often you visit, the more you’ll begin to spot and appreciate birds in this beautiful, beloved preserve.

Length: Variable


Best hike for families: Blackrock Summit

If it’s the kids’ first time taking a real, official hike, this is a great choice for an outing with a high chance of success. It’s only a mile long, with an option to add another .6 miles if things are going well. And it doesn’t require a big climb—but it does reward hikers with big views from a summit.

From the Blackrock Summit parking area, near mile 85 on Skyline Drive, follow the Appalachian Trail to the bouldery summit and gaze upon mountains to the north. You can either continue around the boulders for another set of views to the south, or—for a slightly longer hike—turn right to find the Blackrock Spur Trail, which leads through a boulder field and takes a little more muscle, with 445 feet of elevation gain.

Like all hikes in Shenandoah National Park, Blackrock can be found on a small map available at the entrance kiosk to the park, where you can also pick up a Junior Ranger booklet with lots of kids’ activities. This hike is also an official Kids in Parks TRACK Trail, meaning there’s a special brochure for kids available at the trailhead and the opportunity to log the hike online for free prizes.

Length: 1 or 1.6 mile loop


Turk Mountain. Photo: Tom Daly

Best evening hike: Turk Mountain

Why is Turk Mountain a great choice for an after-work or sunset hike? One, it’s not too far from Charlottesville—just zip out to the Shenandoah National Park entrance on I-64, and drive about 10 lovely miles on Skyline Drive to the Turk Gap parking spot. Two, it delivers more of a workout than you might expect for its length. Three, it culminates in a spectacular view to the west.

Pick up the Appalachian Trail on the west side of Skyline Drive and follow it south for .2 miles. The Turk Mountain trail then splits off to the right, moseying downhill to a gentle saddle before beginning to climb. Soon you’ll realize you’re going to earn the “summit” mentioned on the trail marker. The climb gets steeper and steeper until it suddenly veers sharply to the right as you crest the peak. Keep hopping along the pinkish-white chunks of rock until you emerge at the top of a big slope, strewn with talus for many feet below you. From here you’ll be able to see all the way across the Shenandoah Valley to the Alleghenies. Watch your step, have a seat, and break out that dinner you were smart enough to pack.

Length: 2.2 miles out and back


Old Rag. Photo: Jack Looney

Best day-trip hike: Old Rag

This one’s a classic for its challenging nature—it’s 9.1 miles long, gains 2,417 feet of elevation and requires some rock scrambling near the top—and because Old Rag is an iconic peak. Though it’s located within Shenandoah National Park borders, it’s accessed from Route 231 in Sperryville rather than from Skyline Drive. You’re gonna be climbing.

Old Rag takes more planning than most hikes, due to its length, popularity (try for a weekday when the parking lot may be less likely to fill up), and difficulty. Be safe.

The hike begins with a couple of miles of climbing on a wooded trail, and once it emerges onto the ridgetop, you’ll be following blue blazes as you scramble and shimmy over a mile and a half of granite boulders. This is fun but, of course, it can be dangerous in the wrong weather or for those who aren’t prepared. After appreciating a 360-degree view from the summit of Old Rag, you’ll travel four miles down the Saddle Trail and a fire road to return to your car. (A tip for the crowd-averse: Other routes to the Old Rag summit exist, and may offer somewhat more solitude—at least until you reach the top.)

The Park Service recommends budgeting about seven to eight hours for the classic loop hike. Finish up by late afternoon and you can celebrate your accomplishment with a nice dinner in Sperryville.

Length: 9.1 mile loop


Best all-day hike: Riprap

Here’s a Shenandoah hike that’ll let you know you’re alive. It’s less about reaching some amazing destination than enjoying the journey—though there are some highlights sprinkled throughout the route. These include a 50-foot-wide swimming hole, the viewpoint called Chimney Rock, a 20-foot waterfall, and—to please the technically minded hiker—several stream crossings.

At 9.8 miles and 2,365-foot elevation gain, Riprap is listed by the Park Service as “very strenuous,” and it’s recommended that you allow about eight hours to complete it—though you’ll find plenty of hikers posting up their sub-four-hour times. You’ll also see lots of different online opinions on the best direction to hike—you can start with a steep descent down the Wildcat Ridge Trail, then hike up to Chimney Rock and finish on the relatively easy AT; or do it all in reverse, ending with a steep climb. In either direction, this is a great way to spend the better part of a day communing with the incomparable Blue Ridge, and with your own cardiovascular system.

Length: 9.8 mile loop


Spy Rock. Photo: Jack Looney

Best early morning hike: Spy Roc

If you can get yourself out of bed early enough, make the drive out to the Montebello Fish Hatchery off Route 56 in Nelson County, and start up the Spy Rock trail before sunrise, we congratulate you. Then again, you’re not doing this for kudos; you’re doing it for the view.

The Spy Rock hike is not the most engaging trek in the region; it starts with about a mile of unrelenting climbing on a fire road (on which you may actually encounter a vehicle), then continues with another half mile of unrelenting climbing on the AT. As you proceed, though, the surroundings become more inviting, until finally you find yourself at the base of Spy Rock—a rocky dome that takes a little scrambling to summit. Once on the top, you’ll forget about all that huffing and puffing as you drink in one of the only 360-degree views in the Blue Ridge. You’re at 3,980 feet of elevation here: a real treat. And if you’ve actually made it in time to see the sun come up, so much the better. This is one of those days you’ll always remember.

Length: 3.1 miles out and back


Best romantic hike: White Rock Falls

This hike lets you converse easily with your sweetie (it’s not very strenuous), and it could hardly be more picturesque. You park at the Slacks Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway and walk north a very short distance along the road. The trail dives off to the right into a lovely forest full of mountain laurel and leads down to a couple of creek crossings, where rhododendrons lean over little pools and waterfalls. Then you’ll leave the creek and climb to a rocky overlook, the trail’s one big view, and a good place to rest and canoodle.

A short time later, after some mild switchbacking, you arrive at the waterfall: a tall, enclosed bowl, with water pouring down in two different places. Enjoy the shallow swimming hole, seek out a cozy niche in the rock faces, and enjoy this spot—a magical private room within the forest.

Length: 2.2 miles out and back


Rivanna Trail. Photo: Jack Looney

Best urban hike: Rivanna Trail

Is there any contest? The Rivanna Trail, at nearly 20 miles long, is truly an awesome urban resource. It’s not pristine, it promises no elevated breathtaking view, and it brings you closer to the city rather than providing an escape from it—and these are all the reasons why we love it. The Rivanna Trail is an intimate engagement with the city, serving as a reminder that nature is everywhere, not just out in the wilderness.

Read the online, section-by-section description of the trail (see rivannatrails.org) and you’ll realize that as it circumnavigates Charlottesville, the trail offers many different kinds of experiences. You can walk on pavement along the Rivanna River from Riverview Park. You can creep through a culvert under the 250 Bypass. You can rock-scramble along Moore’s Creek on your way to Woolen Mills. The trail visits some of the lonelier, timeworn parts of the city and puts you face-to-face with its most heavily trafficked arteries.

One favorite section we’ll recommend: the just-shy-of-two-mile stretch between Fontaine Avenue and Ivy Road. This is mostly wooded, a great place to run or hike, and yet true to the urban-fringe spirit of the Rivanna Trail, a major road passes by, just beyond the trees.

Length: Variable


A note on fees

All the hikes listed here are free, except for those in Shenandoah National Park, Walnut Creek Park, and at Crabtree Falls.

Shenandoah costs $30 per vehicle, and the $55 annual pass is well worth it if you live nearby.

Walnut Creek Park charges $3 for adults and $2 for kids if you’re a county resident, or $4.50 adults and $3 for kids for non-county residents. These fees only apply between Memorial Day and Labor Day, however.

At Crabtree Falls, you must pay a $3 user fee at the trailhead.

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