My wife and I live in the northernmost part of Western North Carolina, less than 20 miles from the Virginia border.
It’s a great place to be, providing easy access to the Blue Ridge Parkway and many of the best NC state parks and forests. Yet we are equally close to the best outdoor attractions the Virginia mountains have to offer.
Much of Western Virginia is comprised of conservation lands. The national parks in Virginia, including Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, are second to none.
The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests are also amazing. And that’s before we even get into discussing the abundance of Virginia State Parks!
There are 41 state parks in Virginia, many of which are located in the state’s Blue Ridge Mountains region.
These parks are perfect for exploring the rugged landscapes of the area, staring out at dramatic mountain vistas, paddling various lakes and rivers, and hiking to local waterfalls.
Since moving to our cabin near Elkin NC, we’ve made many trips across the state line to enjoy the top-notch parks Virginia has to offer. We’ve hiked, camped, and swam our way into feeling right at home in Virginia.
So whether you’re planning an epic Blue Ridge Parkway road trip or simply want to explore the mountains of Virginia, read on for our guide to some of the best state parks in Virginia to visit.
READ MORE: The 20 Best Blue Ridge Parkway Overlooks in NC & VA
Best Virginia State Parks Guide
- Breaks Interstate Park (BK)
- Grayson Highlands State Park (GH)
- Hungry Mother State Park (HM)
- Natural Bridge State Park (NB)
- Natural Tunnel State Park (NT)
- New River Trail State Park (NR)
- Shenandoah River State Park (SH)
- Shot Tower State Park (ST)
- Smith Mountain Lake State Park (SM)
- Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park (SW)
1. Breaks Interstate Park
627 Commission Circle, Breaks VA 24607
Entry Fee: $2.00
Straddling the border of western Virginia and eastern Kentucky, Breaks Interstate Park is unique in that it actually belongs to neither state’s park service.
Instead, it is an autonomous entity shared by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Kentucky Department of Parks.
Breaks is located in the northeastern region of Pine Mountain and features a canyon (yet another “Grand Canyon of the South”) that was formed by the Russell Fork River.
Things to Do at Breaks Interstate Park
Breaks Park encompasses about 4500 acres, with 25 miles of hiking trails, a dozen miles of which are multi-use trails open to mountain biking. Some trails are also opened to guided horseback riding.
The state park is home to several dozen species of birds. So it’s a popular place for birdwatching as well, including guided hikes conducted by park rangers.
The park’s two lakes, Laurel Lake and Flannagan Lake, are open to canoes and kayaks, which can be rented from park facilities. Laurel Lake also has pedal boats available.
There’s also a water park with slides, swimming pool, beach, in-pool sports, and other water features, but all were closed in 2021 due to COVID concerns. Laurel Lake is also open to licensed fishing, as are Beaver Pond and Russel Fork River.
More than anything, the park is popular for its collection of overlooks that provide amazing vistas of the canyon. These can be reached individually by car, but there’s also a great hiking trail (Overlook Trail) connecting them.
Breaks Interstate Park Lodging
Breaks Interstate Park has several lodging options, ranging from downright comfy to rather rustic.
The Lodge has full suites with a TV, kitchenette, and fresh linens available daily.
Free-standing Lakefront Cabins and Woodland Cottages are also available for rent. Each comes with a full kitchen, separate bedrooms, a washer/dryer, and great outdoor spaces to enjoy.
The park has a 138-site campground that can host anything from a primitive tent set-up to full-RV hook-ups. Note that these campsites should be reserved in advance.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Roanoke VA
2. Grayson Highlands
829 Grayson Highlands Ln, Mouth of Wilson VA 24363
Entry Fee: $7.00 weekdays, $10.00 weekends, $15.00 overnight
Located near Mount Rogers (the tallest mountain in Virginia) and Whitetop Mountain (the second highest mountain in Virginia), Grayson Highlands State Park specializes in scenic views, prime picnic spots, and live music.
Grayson Highlands is quite close to the North Carolina border, near the towns of Independence and Damascus, as well as historic Marion VA.
Things to Do at Grayson Highlands State Park
Grayson Highlands State Park has a great collection of hiking trails, some of which carry visitors to the highest points in the park (Big Pinnacle and Little Pinnacle). Other trails show off the beautiful creeks and waterfalls of the VA highlands.
Some of the park’s trails are open to mountain bikes and horseback riding, and several trails are self-guided, with free brochures for special points of interest. A few of the trails are even available for cross-country snow skiing in the winter.
The unique geology of Grayson Highlands makes it a premiere spot for bouldering, with over 700 climbing routes (a.k.a. “problems”) for climbers to enjoy.
Grayson Highlands Park boasts 10+ miles of wild trout streams that are open to licensed anglers for fishing. Check out Big Wilson Creek, Wilbur Branch, Mill Creek, Quebec Branch, and Cabin Creek for the best fishing spots.
There’s a massive picnic space near a rebuilt homestead site, and an outdoor venue for live music. In addition to the individual picnic sites with a table and a grill, there are also two large picnic shelters available to rent.
Another cool feature of the park is its “wild” ponies. These animals were introduced to the park nearly 50 years ago (1974) to help prevent the reforestation of the highland balds. The herd is managed by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association.
Grayson Highlands State Park Lodging
Grayson Highlands’ Hickory Ridge Campground offers tent sites, a bunkhouse, and recreational yurts. There’s also a camp store right outside the grounds in the park.
Additionally, there’s a camping space for equestrian riders located near the horse stables. Full-service camping is available from May to October, and primitive camping is possible in March, April, and November.
Although Grayson Highlands Park doesn’t allow backcountry camping, it serves as a gateway to the Appalachian Trail and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, both of which have backpacking campsites available.
READ MORE: Tips for Tackling the McAfee Knob Hike Near Roanoke, Virginia
3. Hungry Mother State Park
2854 Park Blvd, Marion VA 24354
Entry Fee: $7.00
Built in 1933, Hungry Mother State Park is one of the six original Virginia State Parks.
It’s located in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, with the 108-acre Hungry Mother Lake as the park’s centerpiece.
The park is less than 5 miles north of the mountain town of Marion VA, and just an hour away from Grayson Highlands State Park and the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.
Things to Do at Hungry Mother State Park
Hungry Mother State Park is centered around Hungry Mother Lake, with a wonderful hiking and biking trail that circles it. In fact, there are over 17 miles of great hiking trails in the park, many of which are open to cyclists.
The lake features a beach and a designated swimming area with a lifeguard (from Memorial Day to Labor Day). The beach area has concessions and a bathhouse for visitors to use. Guests can swim here out of season, but do so at their own risk.
Non-gasoline-powered boating (electric motor, kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding, etc.) and fishing (with a valid VA fishing license) are also allowed on Hungry Mother Lake. The lake offers about a dozen species of fish, and is annually stocked with channel catfish, hybrid striped bass, muskies, and walleye.
On Walker Mountain, you’ll find roughly 800 acres that are seasonally available for hunting deer and small game with a valid VA hunting license. But it does require coordination with Hungry Mother park rangers.
Extensive picnic shelters are available for walk-ins and reservations. Many of the shelters are old and have an interesting history, including photos of their construction or reconstruction. The shelters generally include a charcoal grill, picnic tables, electrical outlets and lights (available April 1 through October 31), and a fireplace.
Hungry Mother State Park Lodging
There are lots of accommodation options at Hungry Mother State Park, including 3 Hungry Mother campgrounds (Royal Oak, Camp Burson, and Creekside), 3 yurts, a 15-person lodge, and 30+ cabin rentals.
The Royal Oak Campground has no hookups and hosts 11 campsites, as well as a yurt. The Creekside Campground has 19 sites with electric and water hook-ups. Both of these sites are accessed via the park’s main entrance.
Camp Burson, the park’s largest campground, is located about a mile from the main Hungry Mother entrance. It has two yurts and 50 RV-friendly campsites, with electric and water at all 50 and a sewer hook-up for 30 of them.
The cabins vary in size and amenities, so it’s best to check the official site for specifics. Guests can generally expect a fridge, coffeemaker, dishes, silverware, and outdoor grills. But some cabins have linens, while others don’t.
Hungry Mother Lodge is a historic log-style lodge with six bedrooms, a full kitchen, deck, picnic shelter, washer/dryer, horseshoe pit, gas fireplace, etc. Note that guests must bring their own linens, towels, and kitchen cloths.
READ MORE: The Best Things to Do at Carvins Cove Natural Reserve in Roanoke VA
4. Natural Bridge State Park
6477 South Lee Highway, Natural Bridge VA 24578
Entry Fee: Ages 3-12 $6.00, Adults $9.00, $5.00 parking at trailheads
Natural Bridge State Park is located about 40 miles northeast of Roanoke VA, and 13 miles south of Lexington VA.
The Natural Bridge after which the park is named is a 215-foot high limestone formation over a gorge that was carved out over the course of countless centuries by Cedar Creek.
Though Natural Bridge wasn’t dedicated as an official Virginia State Park until 2016, it’s been listed as a US National Historic Landmark since 1988. George Washington once carved his initials in it, and Thomas Jefferson bought it from King George III.
Things to Do at Natural Bridge State Park
Natural Bridge State Park has seven miles of relatively easy hiking trails, including the Skyline Trail and Blue Ridge Trail for fantastic vistas and Buck Hill Trail for something akin to experiencing the AT.
However, the Cedar Creek Trail is really the showstopper here. It includes passing under the Natural Bridge, exploring a model Monacan Indian Village, discovering a Lost River, and standing in front of Lace Falls, one of two waterfalls in the park.
But the #1 reason to come to this park is the Natural Bridge itself. It’s so grand, stunning, and notable that author Herman Melville once referenced it to explain the magnificence of Moby Dick.
There are picnic shelters available in several different spots inside the park, and there’s a Children’s Discovery Area just a short drive away from the Visitor Center. Fishing is also available along Cedar Creek.
The state park was recently recognized as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association. To celebrate, the park will allow extended access to the Skyline Trail leading up to Jefferson Point for stargazing on select dates.
Natural Bridge State Park Lodging
There is no lodging available in Natural Bridge State Park proper.
But the Natural Bridge Historic Hotel & Conference Center is a clear choice for those looking for something quite special, and it’s less than a five-minute walk away from the Visitor Center.
For campgrounds in the vicinity, try the KOA Natural Bridge or Cave Mountain Lake Family Camp in the George Washington & Jefferson National Forest.
READ MORE: The 7 Best Roanoke Restaurants in Virginia’s Blue Ridge
5. Natural Tunnel State Park
1420 Natural Tunnel Parkway, Duffield VA 24244
Entry Fee: $5.00
Natural Tunnel State Park is located in the far western mountains of Virginia.
The park’s primary feature is a massive (850-foot long, 10-story high) limestone tunnel that was carved by Stock Creek.
The park is wedged just north of the border with Tennessee and south of the border with Kentucky, 40 miles west of Bristol VA and about 20 miles south of Big Stone Gap VA.
Things to Do at Natural Tunnel State Park
Seeing the Natural Tunnel is, of course, the major highlight of this park. It’s a beautiful geological anomaly, as well as interesting from a historical perspective. Visitors can either hike down to the tunnel or take a chair lift.
Natural Tunnel State Park also has Cove Ridge Center and Swim Complex, which has a 5,400-square foot swimming pool, large bathhouse, and concessions.
The Cove Ridge Center operates as a meeting place and educational resource facility within the park. It has the capacity to hold 100 people for meetings and houses up to 48 overnight guests.
Park visitors can also check out the Blockhouse in the Wilderness Road Historical Area. This is an area where Daniel Boone and other explorers would stop on their route westward.
This state park also has a Visitors Center, seven walking trails, limited fishing along Stock Creek, several picnic shelters, and a cool log cabin to visit.
Natural Tunnel State Park Lodging
Natural Tunnel State Park has 14 cabins for rent by the week from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Each comes with fully equipped kitchens, a gas fireplace, and furniture, but guests will need to bring bedding and towels.
There’s also a 6-bedroom lodge available for rent. Making reservations a year in advance isn’t a bad idea!
In addition to cabins, Natural Tunnel Park has four yurts for rent. These have beds, but no water or electricity. There is a shared water spigot available, and all guests have access to the Cove View Campground bathhouse.
There are two Natural Tunnel State Park campgrounds, Cove View and Lover’s Leap. Cove View has 16 electric/water hook-up sites, while Lover’s Leap has 18. Primitive camping (five separate tent pads) is also allowed in a designated area about half a mile from the park’s main campgrounds.
READ MORE: Visiting Mill Mountain Park & the Roanoke Star in Roanoke VA
6. New River Trail State Park
116 Orphanage Dr, Max Meadows VA 24360
Entry Fee: $7.00
As the longest state park in Virginia, New River Trail State Park stretches out some 57 miles, much of it along the New River (one of the oldest rivers in the world). It goes from Galax VA to just short of Pulaski.
Along its route, the park passes through two tunnels, over three major bridges, and across 30 trestles and smaller bridges.
Things to Do at New River Trail State Park
New River Trail State Park is an amazing place for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. And with the exception of the Hoover Mountain Biking Area, the trail is basically one long, wide, flat route.
There are many spots along the lengthy trail from which hikers can access it. The most popular access points include Galax, Foster Falls, Allisonia, and Draper.
Mountain bikers can enter from all the same access points as hikers, but the Hoover Mountain Biking Area near Hiwassee might be the top choice.
A whopping 55 miles of the park’s 57-mile route are open to horses. Horseback riders have several places with parking for trailers, including Austinville, Cliffview, Draper, Fries, Ivanhoe, Dora Junction, and Foster Falls. Foster Falls also has the Mark E. Hufeisen Horse Complex.
With 39 miles of the park paralleling the New River, there are ample opportunities for boating and fishing. The New River has every freshwater fish found in the state, and a few Virginia record pulls— muskellunge, smallmouth bass, and yellow perch— have come out of it.
Kayaks and canoes are available for rent at Foster Falls Boat and Bike Livery. The area around Foster Falls and along the New River Trail is also popular for tubing, although swimming there is not allowed.
New River Trail State Park Lodging
The park has no cabins, lodges, or yurts for rent, though it does pass through several towns and a city where hotels, motels, and more are available.
Within the park, there are three primitive campgrounds: Cliffview (near Galax) has 12 tent sites, Millrace (at Foster Falls) has 21 tent sites, and Double Shoals (near Fries) has two sites. Double Shoals is only accessible by river or trail.
The Millrace and Cliffview campsites all have a fire ring, lantern post, and picnic table. Campers have access to drinking water, as well as non-flush toilets.
READ MORE: Exploring the Blue Ridge Music Center Near Galax VA (Blue Ridge Parkway MP 213)
7. Shenandoah River State Park
350 Daughter of Stars Dr, Bentonville VA 22610
Entry Fee: $10.00
Shenandoah River State Park is situated on the South Fork of the river in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
This state park has over 5 miles of shoreline and encompasses some 1600 acres of land.
SRSP is located in Bentonville, just 8 miles south of Fort Royal and 15 miles north of Luray. The Massanutten Mountains are to the west, and Shenandoah National Park is just east of the park.
Things to Do at Shenandoah River State Park
The trails in Shenandoah River State Park offer 24 miles of hiking. Over half of those trails are multi-use, open to mountain bikes and equestrian riders alike.
Fishing is allowed in the park with a valid Virginia fishing license, and there are areas for both boat fishing and wade fishing.
Car-top boats can be launched from the day-use area, and there are three other car-top launches within five miles of the park. The Bentonville Access Area is just 3.2 miles away.
There’s also an extensive riverside picnic area with picnic shelters and river access. It’s a popular place to spend an afternoon.
Shenandoah River State Park Lodging
Lodging at Shenandoah River State Park includes everything from comfortable cabins to primitive tent sites.
There are 9 two-bedroom cabins, one three-bedroom cabin, and a six-bedroom lodge. These come with fridges, stoves, fireplaces, bathrooms, furniture, outdoor spaces, and more. Note that guests need to bring their linens, towels, and so on.
There are three yurts in the park. These are considerably more rustic, with no electricity, plumbed water, or bathrooms. Guests who stay in the yurts can use the water and bathroom facilities of the campgrounds.
There are four no-frills camping cabins, which are really more like bunkhouses. They don’t have kitchens, bathrooms, or fireplaces. But they do have regular campsite amenities, such as a fire ring, lantern post, and picnic table.
Shenandoah River Park also has a developed campground with 30-plus sites that include electric and water hook-ups for RVs, pop-ups, and so on.
Additionally, the River Right Campground has 12 canoe-in or walk-in tent sites (less than 50 yards from the parking lot), while the Cottonwood Primitive Group Camp accommodates up to 30 people and requires a 100-yard walk from the parking area.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Luray VA (Gateway to Shenandoah)
8. Shot Tower State Park
176 Orphanage Dr, Austinville VA 24312
Entry Fee: $7.00
Though Shot Tower has the official “state park” designation, that description is probably an exaggeration of the stature of this attraction. Quite literally, it is just a tower (albeit one of some historical import).
Located right off I-77, just two miles after taking exit 24, Shot Tower State Park is near the towns of Galena and Austinville, and attached to New River Trail State Park.
Things to Do at Shot Tower State Park
Shot Tower State Park is essentially just a 75-foot-tall tower with a 75-foot shaft beneath it, creating a 150-foot drop. It was built over 200 years ago in order to make round ammunition via gravity.
The Shot Tower is definitely worth a stop. The history of this place is super interesting, and the explanation of how it worked (which I won’t spoil here) is one of those feats of impressive ingenuity from yesteryear.
Visitors are allowed to climb to the top of the Shot Tower. From there, you can peer down the center of the tower to the bottom of the shaft and, of course, admire the scenic views of the landscape from on high.
The other thing to do at Shot Tower State Park is to visit New River Trail State Park, which is connected to it.
From Shot Tower, it’s just a one-mile walk to Foster Falls, which has a horse arena, campgrounds, picnic spots, playground, kayak rentals, and other historic buildings. So combining the two spots in one day makes perfect sense.
Shot Tower State Park Lodging
There is no lodging at Shot Tower. However, New River’s Millrace Campground is nearby (literally a short walk away). It has primitive camping with 21 tent sites, non-flush toilets, and drinking water available. It’s also located right next to the New River.
READ MORE: Exploring the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke VA
9. Smith Mountain Lake State Park
1235 Rd 888, Huddleston VA 24104
Entry Fee: $7.00
Located about 20 miles south of Bedford VA and 30 miles southeast of Roanoke, Smith Mountain Lake State Park encompasses 1,248 acres on the lakes northern shore.
Smith Mountain Lake is the second largest lake in Virginia, with 500 miles of shoreline, an average depth of 55 feet, and a max depth of 220 feet.
And though water-based activities may be the park’s most popular, there are lots of other things to do there, from camping and hiking to interpretive programs and more.
Things to Do at Smith Mountain Lake State Park
Smith Mountain Park is a true lake-lover’s paradise. Although massive in size, encompassing 32 square miles, the abundance of narrow channels and coves makes it easy to find secluded spots for swimming, fishing, and boating.
The park’s 500-foot beach is one of two public Smith Mountain Lake beaches with a lifeguard, with a $4-$5 swimming fee between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Guests may swim here at other times of year for free, but do so at their own risk.
The state park also offers great opportunities for shore and boat fishing, with striped bass, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, catfish, and other species among the most common catches.
There are 13 hiking trails through the park’s hardwood and pine forests, coves, and scenic vistas, ranging from half a mile to 3 miles. The Lakeview Trail, Turtle Island Trail, and Buck Run Trail are a few of the more popular paths.
There’s also a historic tobacco barn, a Visitor Center filled with informational exhibits, and a Discovery Center offering special events (such as guided hikes, wildlife-focused ranger talks, and more).
Smith Mountain Lake State Park Lodging
There are 20 Smith Mountain Lake State Park cabins available for rent, with one 3-bedroom cabin, eight 2-bedroom cabins with water views, and eleven 2-bedroom cabins with a forest view.
All cabins have heat and AC, kitchens (with fridge, stove, coffeemaker, dishes, silverware, cooking utensils, pots and pans, microwave oven, toaster, and electric can-opener), wood stove, picnic table, pedestal, and open porch with rocking chairs.
But you’ll need to bring your own linens and towels, and check their official site for reservation policies.
Camping at Smith Mountain Lake State Park is available from early March through the first Monday in December, and reservations are strongly encouraged in peak season.
There are 26 tent sites, each of which offers a gravel bed and in-ground grills for cooking/campfires. There are also 24 RV sites with water and electric hook-ups, including nineteen 30-ft back-in sites and five 50-ft pull-through sites.
READ MORE: Things to Do at Center In The Square in Downtown Roanoke VA
10. Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park
10 West First St, Big Stone Gap VA 24219
Entry Fee: Ages 6-12 $3.00; Adults $5.00
Much like Shot Tower, the Southwest Virginia Museum gets listed as a historical state park. But there are no hiking trails, swaths of wilderness, or campgrounds here.
The historical museum is located in the town of Big Stone Gap on a 1.5-acre lot that was the setting of a former mansion, which was turned into a museum/state park.
Things to Do at Southwest Virginia Museum
For anyone who’s into the history of the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, this place is a must-see. The Southwest Virginia Museum is one of those spots where the building itself is just as interesting as the exhibits found within.
The Victorian mansion was built in the 1890s for Virginia’s Attorney General, Rufus Ayers, by local craftsmen. They used locally-sourced materials in the midst of the coal boom.
The museum now has 60,000 pieces of history to enjoy, ranging from sports and weaving to politics and the fashion of the day. And, of course, coal and pioneers feature prominently in the historical exhibits as well.
The park does have a place for folks to have a picnic on the grounds, and the birdwatching is notable here. Private events like weddings and parties can also be held on the property.
Southwest Virginia Museum Lodging
Surprisingly, Southwest Virginia Museum State Park does list one accommodation option, The Poplar Hill Cottage, which can sleep up to eight people.
It comes with reproduction antique furniture, three bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen, and a full living room with a fold-out sofa.
While it does have a TV, DVD player, and Wi-Fi, guests do need to bring their own linens and towels (a Virginia state park standard, it seems).
If the cottage doesn’t seem appealing, Natural Tunnel State Park is only 20 miles south of Big Stone Gap, and has campgrounds and cabins available. —by Jonathon Engels, with additional reporting by Bret Love; all photos by Emma Gallagher unless otherwise noted; lead image of Grayson Highlands via Canva