The Appalachian Trail is the world’s longest hiking-only footpath. Julia shares her cheat-sheet to hiking just a few of its many mountainous trails.


I’m in my mountain girl era. Lycra is second skin; hiking boots get more wear than sandals. Since hiking in Alaska, I discovered I love nothing more than walking along ridgelines, breathing fresh mountain air, and gaining a new perspective on life, landscapes, all the things. When in America, the only problem is deciding where to wander.

In my sights, I had America’s most extensive trail network, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail or the Appalachian Trail as it’s commonly referred to.


Sunset in Virginia


I knew I wouldn’t complete it; you must have time, grit, and extreme leg power. But if you only have a few days and aren’t exactly a marathon mountaineer, you can still conquer parts of the legendary trail and see its most famous bits, particularly those in Virginia.

Forget analysing trail maps and figuring out where to go; here’s my cheat sheet for hiking the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

About the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail is no walk in the park. Well, that’s a bit of a lie. The world’s longest hiking-only footpath extends roughly 3524km, winding through a whopping 14 states, including multiple national parks.

The Appalachian Trail starts from Maine’s Mount Katahdin and ends at Georgia’s Springer Mountain. In between, the trail passes through another 12 states following the Appalachian Mountains: New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.


Autumn trees on the Appalachian Trail



The average time to complete the Appalachian Trail is five to seven months. But if you have the stamina, you could always try to top Karel Sabbe’s lightning bolt record.

The Belgian ultrarunner smashed the fastest known time on record in 2018, completing the entire trail in 41 days, 7 hours and 39 minutes. (I want to know what magic juice he was drinking…)

I didn’t have time on my side, nor did I have superhero glutes like Sabbe, but I still had the goal of hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

Read more: Remember to leave no trace

Hiking the Appalachian Trail in Virginia

Firstly, it’s completely normal to start belting out the John Denver classic ‘Take me Home, Country Roads’ when stepping foot in Virginia’s mountains (err, ignore the ‘west’ part, sorry West Virginia!). Virginia is, indeed, a Mountain Mama, home to eight mountain ranges throughout the state.

A quarter of the Appalachian Trail – that’s 875km folks! – meanders through the state’s peaks and valleys, making it a picturesque destination no matter the season.

Hot tip! Visit Virginia in the fall to see the state burst with autumn colours. It’s truly a vivid sight to behold!

In saying that, there’s a bounty of trails to choose from: Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountain range – which covers a section of the Appalachian Mountains – and Shenandoah National Park are the most popular areas to strap on hiking boots and explore.


View from Catawba Mountain


Both areas feature trails ranging from easy to strenuous. Trail difficulty can also depend on the season, with hiking in these areas recommended during spring and summer for better weather conditions.

Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains

You can have all sorts of cheap thrills along Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The region offers an urban mountain adventure with the city of Roanoke at its centre, encircled by towns within an hour’s drive.

Roanoke is the largest city along the Appalachian Trail, only a short drive and hike away from Virginia’s Triple Crown, aka Virginia’s most popular hikes along the Appalachian Trail.


Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains


These trails – McAfee Knob, Dragons Tooth, and Tinker Cliffs – are filled with incredible panoramas and gnarly rock formations, a must-do for any avid hiker. Just be wary; these hikes can become busy during peak season.

Besides featuring sections of the Appalachian Trail, the region is known as East Coast’s mountain biking capital, offering over 1609km of trails. Seriously, visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and you may leave with the perfect abs after ramping up your step count and pedal power!

Trail not to miss: McAfee Knob Trail

Distance: 12.6km
Elevation: 552m

You may be familiar already with McAfee Knob: its iconic overhang is one of the Appalachian Trail’s most photographed spots. Its summit is akin to what you would expect on a motivational poster; a lone hiker standing on a mountain ledge, the world at their feet. Feel inspired, right?

To have that uplifting moment, it’s a moderate hike to Catawba Mountain’s scenic lookout. The trek is roughly a six-hour return trip, so pack a picnic lunch, as you’ll probably want to stick around longer, particularly for your impromptu photoshoot session.

It’s a gradual ascent with the popular trail snaking through compacted terrain and the occasional stony step to reach the ‘gram famous knob. Depending on when you visit, you may share the track with hordes of hikers.

Once atop the natural landmark, you’ll feel on top of the world. Its rocky ledge juts out over a lumpy patchwork of forested-mountain ranges and valleys running almost adjacent to each other. Take your time up there to soak up the views!


What it's Like to Hike the Appalachian Trail – Well, Some of It,Julia D'Orazio, view from mcafee in the fall

The view from McAfee Knob


After the hike, regain the kilojoules by visiting Parkway Brewing Company near Salem. Enjoy a cheeky craft beer (Majestic mullet Kölsch, anyone?) with food truck eats while listening to live folk blues. Now that’s a wholesome way to cap off the day.

 Read more: 8 USA National Parks You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park is a hiker’s paradise. The park extends over 200,000 acres, with its stunning lands characterised by forests, waterfalls, and unique rock formations.


Wildflowers in Shenandoah National Park


Wildlife includes Black bears, bush turkeys, songbirds, deer, and the elusive Shenandoah salamander, to name a few. Between it all, 804km of hiking trails run through the park, including the Appalachian Trail.

With the park less than a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C, Shenandoah National Park is a convenient escape from city life.

Trail not to miss: Hawksbill Loop Trail

Distance: 4.6km return
Elevation: 262m

The Hawksbill Loop Hike has many rewards. The moderate trail takes roughly two hours to complete, but that doesn’t include the time you linger at its summit.

There are two access points from parking lots, Upper Hawksbill Parking and Hawksbill Gap Parking. Take the latter and follow the short connector trail to the Appalachian Trail, passing by fields of rock-strewn terrain, forests, and fern-fringed pathways.

Its scenery depends on the season you visit. I went just after peak fall, passing skinny naked trees with their roots bursting from billion-year-old rocks and walking along pathways carpeted with brown leaves. I could only imagine its fairy-tale charms in summer and the start of fall!

From here, follow the posts and bear left to the Salamander Trail until reaching the summit at Byrds Nest 2 Shelter and Hawksbill Observation Platform. This area features a naturally formed rocky platform and stony fort with far-reaching panoramas of Shenandoah Valley, Ridge, and Appalachians.


What it's Like to Hike the Appalachian Trail – Well, Some of It,Julia D'Orazio, hawksbill summit

Hawksbill Summit


It’s the perfect place for contemplation, with its rock-strewn overhang offering ample space. To make the summit even more magical, stick around for sunset.

Watching mountains morph into layers of jagged blue lines over the horizon, thinly veiled by a yellow-orange glow, makes for spectacular viewing. No wonder they call it the Blue Ridge.

Read more: What I Learned Preparing to Hike the Pacific Crest Trail

Scenic Drives in Virginia

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is not the only way to experience Virginia’s mountainous scenery. Grab the keys and drive along Skyline Drive.

The 168km scenic drive runs parallel along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park. Expect to make multiple pitstops with 75 overlooks offering enticing views beyond the wheel, so pick your viewpoint.


Autumn colours from Hawksbill Summit


Or if you’re wanting to rest your legs for longer, take a road trip along Blue Ridge Parkway. The 787km scenic drive winds through mountains, starting from Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park to North Carolina’s Cherokee and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

With incredible views at every twist and bend, it’s little wonder John Denver couldn’t get enough of these country roads…

Julia D’Orazio was a guest of Visit Virginia and Visit Virginia Blue Ridge, and all thoughts and opinions are of her own. Learn more about our Editorial Standards.