Although Virginia is best known for its multitude of historic sites, it's also home to a host of outdoor activities. In this section, I give you an overview of what I consider the best options available, where they are, and how to get statewide information. Please refer to the destination chapters for detailed information.
The Virginia Tourism Corporation publishes an annual Virginia Outdoors magazine that gives a comprehensive rundown of the activities available, a calendar of outdoor events, and a list of the many outfitters and tour companies operating in the state. Call tel. 800/827-3325 for a copy.
Bicycling & Mountain Biking
Bicycling is popular throughout Virginia, and with good reason. Most of the state's scenic highways are open to bicycles. My favorites are the 17-mile George Washington Memorial Parkway between Arlington and Mount Vernon, the 105-mile Skyline Drive above the Shenandoah Valley, the 218-mile Blue Ridge Parkway in the Southwest Highlands, and the 22-mile Colonial Parkway between Jamestown and Yorktown.
The state also has three excellent "rails-to-trails" parks, in which old railroad beds have been turned into biking and hiking avenues. I often use northern Virginia's Washington & Old Dominion Trail, which begins in Arlington and ends 45 miles away at Purcellville in the rolling hills of the Hunt Country.
The 34-mile Virginia Creeper Trail, one of the country's top bike paths, begins in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area high up on the flanks of Whitetop Mountain, Virginia's second-highest peak, and descends to Abingdon. Near Wytheville, the 55-mile New River Trail follows the New River, which actually is one of the world's oldest rivers. Outfitters along both trails rent bikes and provide shuttle services so you don't have to ride both ways -- particularly handy on the Virginia Creeper Trail, which drops more than 3,000 feet from Whitetop Mountain to Damascus, near Abingdon.
Down on the coast, I love pedaling along the Virginia Beach Boardwalk, through the natural beauty of First Landing State Park and Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and along all of the flat Eastern Shore roads.
I've never attempted them, but Virginia is crossed by sections of three major interstate bicycle routes. The Maine-to-Virginia Route 1 runs 150 miles from Arlington to Richmond and connects to 130 miles of the Virginia-to-Florida Route 17 from Richmond to the North Carolina line at Suffolk. Some 500 miles of the TransAmerican Bicycle Trail (Rte. 76) runs from the Kentucky line to Yorktown, including a stretch through Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in the Southwest Highlands. For strip maps of these routes, contact Adventure Cycling Association, P.O. Box 8308, Missoula, MT 59802 (tel. 800/755-2453 or 406/721-1776; fax 406/721-8754; www.adv-cycling.org).
Mountain bikers will find plenty of trails, especially in Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and in the George Washington and Jefferson national forests, which occupy parts of the Shenandoah Valley and the Southwest Highlands. For details about the latter, contact the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, 210 Franklin Rd. SW, Roanoke, VA 24004 (tel. 540/265-6054; www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/gwj).
Mountain Bike Virginia, by Scott Adams (Beachway Press, 1995), is a very handy atlas to Virginia's best trails, with excellent maps.
The Virginia Department of Transportation's Bicycle Coordinator, 1401 E. Broad St., Richmond, VA 23219 (tel. 800/835-1203 or 804/786-2964; www.virginiadot.org), publishes the annual Virginia Bicycling Guide, which describes Virginia's routes and trials and lists local bike clubs and relevant publications. Contact the department or the Virginia Tourism Corporation for a free copy.
The big bird-watching draws in Virginia are waterfowl nesting in the flatlands and marshes along the coast on the Atlantic Flyway. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island and Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge below Virginia Beach offer first-rate bird-watching. Chincoteague is especially good on Thanksgiving weekend, the only time the refuge's back roads are open to vehicles.
The Chesapeake Bay and its many tributaries, including the Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James rivers, are perfect for boating. In fact, you can come away from eastern Virginia with the impression that every other home has a boat and trailer sitting in the yard. Marinas abound on the Northern Neck, and you can rent boats in Hampton Roads and over on the Eastern Shore, where the back bays of Chincoteague await to be explored from a fish's-eye view.
A detailed map showing public access to the Chesapeake and its tributaries is available from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, 203 Governor St., Ste. 302, Richmond, VA 23219 (tel. 804/786-1712; www.dcr.state.va.us).
Canoeing, Kayaking & River Rafting
Kayakers and canoeists will find easy, quiet paddling on the backwater creeks of the Northern Neck and in Hampton Roads and on the Eastern Shore. Outfitters in Virginia Beach and Chincoteague rent both canoes and kayaks and offer guided excursions of the creeks and back bays, and you can go dolphin-watching with them off Virginia Beach.
Depending on how much rain has dropped recently, the best white-water rafting may be on the James River at Scottsville near Charlottesville. White-water rafting is most likely during spring and late fall.
The best canoeing and kayaking is on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River between Front Royal Luray and Lexington. When the water is low during summer, multitudes forget canoes and rafts and lazily float down the rivers in inner tubes.
The waters that are so great for boating are stocked with a wide array of fish. The best rivers for fishing include the South Fork of the Shenandoah near Front Royal for smallmouth bass and redbreast sunfish; the James between Richmond and Norfolk for smallmouth bass and catfish; the New near Wytheville for walleye, yellow perch, musky, and smallmouth bass; the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg to the Northern Neck for smallmouth bass and catfish; and the Chickahominy near Williamsburg for largemouth bass, chain pickerel, bluegill, white perch, and channel catfish.
The mountains have 2,800 miles of trout streams, many stocked annually. Guides are available in Lexington and Abingdon.
From Virginia Beach and Chincoteague you can go deep-sea fishing on charter and party boats in search of bluefish, flounder, cobia, gray and spotted trout, sharks, and other ocean dwellers.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 4010 W. Broad St., Richmond, VA 23230 (tel. 804/367-1000; www.dgif.state.va.us), publishes an annual freshwater-fishing guide and regulations pamphlet detailing licensing requirements and regulations. Available at most sporting-goods stores, marinas, and bait shops, licenses are required except on the first Saturday and Sunday in June, which are free fishing days.
You can play golf almost anytime and anywhere in Virginia, given the state's mild climate and more than 130 courses, but serious duffers head to Williamsburg and the Golden Horseshoe, Green, and Gold courses at the Williamsburg Inn, and the links at Kingsmill Resort. An hour's drive away, the PGA-owned Virginia Beach National Golf Club in Virginia Beach is one of the country's best upscale links. Up in the mountains, the Homestead's beautiful course in Hot Springs has the nation's oldest first tee, in continuous use since 1890. Wintergreen Resort near Charlottesville also has an excellent course, as does Lansdowne Resort near Leesburg.
The best source for information is the Virginia Tourism Corporation's annual Virginia Golf Guide, which lists and describes the state's courses.
Hiking & Backpacking
The same trails that make Virginia so popular with bicyclists also make it a hiker's heaven. The state's rails-to-trails paths along old railroad beds are both good and easy. Some 450 miles of the Appalachian Trail snake through Virginia, nearly climbing Mount Rogers and paralleling the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Skyline Drive in many places. The best backcountry trails are in Shenandoah National Park and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, with less-traveled trails in the George Washington and Jefferson national forests.
For information and maps of the Appalachian Trail, contact the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, P.O. Box 807, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425-0807 (tel. 304/535-6331; www.atconf.org).
Four good books give trail-by-trail descriptions. The Trails of Virginia: Hiking the Old Dominion, by Allen de Hart (University of North Carolina Press, 1995), is still the most comprehensive guide. The Hiker's Guide to Virginia, by Randy Johnson (Falcon Press, 1992), is a slimmer, easier-to-carry volume, as is Hiking Virginia's National Forests, by Karin Wuertz-Schaeffer (Globe Pequot Press, 1994), which covers trails in the George Washington and Jefferson national forests in the Shenandoah Valley and Southwest Highlands. Of more recent vintage, Hiking Shenandoah National Park, by Bert and Jane Gildart (Falcon Press, 2006), describes and maps the park's best trails.
Equestrians will find stables with horses to rent to ride on hundreds of miles of public horse trails in Virginia, the majority of them in the Shenandoah Valley and the Southwest Highlands. The Shenandoah National Park has its own Skyland Stables, from which you can take guided trail rides atop the Blue Ridge. The granddaddy of all trails, the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail, runs the length of Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, which has campgrounds especially for horse owners. Horses are also permitted on the Virginia Creeper Trail and the New River Trail. You can rent horses at the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and along the New River Trail. Ironically, few stables rent horses in northern Virginia's Hunt Country, where just about everyone who rides owns a horse.
The Virginia Horse Council, 2799 Stratford Rd., Richmond, VA 23225 (tel. 804/330-0345; www.virginiahorse.com), publishes a list of public horse trails and stables statewide.
To indulge your passion for surfing, jet-skiing, wave-running, sailing, or scuba diving, head for Virginia Beach, which has it all in abundance.