Staunton, Virginia is well known as a mecca for all things Shakespeare, with year-round productions of the bard’s work and other events in local venues such as the beautifully appointed Blackfriars Playhouse. But outside the theater, a look down Market Street at the green mountains that frame the central Virginia town makes it obvious why the town is the perfect launch pad for a thousand outdoor adventures.
Tucked into the rough ridges of the Allegheny Mountains, Staunton sits right in the middle of the George Washington and Jefferson national forests and is a short drive from the southern edge of Shenandoah National Park. Add in its impressive viticulture, historic inns, and unexpectedly robust craft beer scene, and Staunton easily becomes worth the four-hour drive from Charlotte for a long weekend of exploration. But the appealing little town is so full of ways to explore the outdoors—and wind down afterward—that it can be difficult to narrow them down. Here, some adventurous inspiration for an outdoor-centric weekend in Staunton.
Exploring Shenandoah National Park is one of the greatest hiking experiences in the Eastern United States. Huge waterfalls crash through dense forests of pine and hardwoods, while black bears amble around the park in search of ripe berries. The park’s 311 square miles are impossible to fully explore in a long weekend, but the central region holds several fantastic hikes and is easily accessible for a day trip from Staunton.
To get a sample of both deep-woods waterfall hunting and iconic Blue Ridge Mountain views, tackle the Dark Hollow Loop followed by the Hawksbill trek. The first hike is about four miles and includes up-close viewing of both Dark Hollow Falls and the beautiful, double-drop Rose River Falls. After a soak in the pool at the bottom of the falls, head back to your car and drive a couple miles north to the Hawksbill trailhead. Hawksbill is a one of the most photographed rock outcroppings in the East, and for good reason. The expansive view makes for an incredibly dramatic backdrop for your next cover photo. Both trailheads can be found between mile markers 45 and 50 on Skyline Drive.
Douthat State Park
Surrounded by the expanse of the George Washington National Forest, Douthat State Park is a magnificent example of what outdoor exploration in the Virginia mountains is all about. More than 40 miles of trail climb the ridges of the park, providing challenging treks and even more challenging bike rides. The 50-acre Lake Douthat offers both a hub for the stunning views and a peaceful place to paddle or fish.
The trail system at Douthat connects in such a way that several loops can be created using different trails. One popular route takes hikers to the top of Beard Mountain for intermittent views across the valley. But for challenging incline, distance, and variety, the nearly 9.5-mile Blue Suck Falls Loop is the hike to go for. To complete this loop, begin at the ranger station parking lot. Use Tobacco Ridge, Blue Suck Falls, Stony Run, and Locust Gap trails. In addition to the panoramic views, the moderately sized Blue Suck Falls is a welcome stop mid-trek.
Accessing the lake for an afternoon paddle is a simple task. If you have your own canoe or kayak, use of the boat launch is included with your park entrance fee. During spring and summer the park rents all sorts of human-powered craft including hyrdobikes, paddleboats, canoes, and more. Floating past the tree-lined shore is an excellent way to relax after a tough hike.
George Washington and Jefferson National Forests
The George Washington and Jefferson national forests were combined into one administrative entity in 1995. The 1.8 million-acre parcel of public land stretches into three states, the vast majority of which is in Virginia. There are some 2,100 miles of recreational trail winding through the vast national forest, including 325 miles of the Appalachian Trail. So while finding a place to hike here isn’t difficult, finding just the right place can be.
The GWJNF is divided into 11 ranger districts. One of the closest to Staunton is the stand-alone Pedlars Ranger District. Here you’ll find one of the most challenging and rewarding hikes in the entire forest.
Most people will take on the 14-mile Three Ridges Wilderness loop hike as a two-day backpack trip. Since more than half of the hike follows along the AT, there are shelters and backcountry campsites easily found. Experienced trekkers, however, can complete the loop as a day hike. No matter how you do it, be forewarned that distance isn’t the only challenge here. The loop includes almost 4,000 feet of elevation change, sections of ankle-biting rocky trail, and knee-pounding downhill. But with great effort comes great reward, and this hike rewards with ridiculous views where wave after wave of the Appalachian Mountains seem to be the only thing left in the entire world.
Begin the hike at Reeds Gap where VA highway 664 meets the Blue Ridge Parkway. The parking lot here isn’t huge; if it’s full, there are alternatives down the road.
Where To Rest and Refuel in Staunton
A great adventure base camp needs great amenities, and Staunton is well stocked for both. Visually, the town is all historic architecture. Beyond the façade, the food and beer scene is almost frenetic, with three breweries and more restaurants than your appetite can handle lining its historic streets.
Zynodoa is your home for next-level farm-to-fork dining. You’ll want to clean up a bit before hitting this spot, but dishes like seared duck breast or sea scallops are worth it. For a more relaxed vibe, pull up a barstool at The Depot Grille. Housed in a historic train depot and highlighting Staunton’s past as a rail hub, The Grille is a cozy location for hearty burgers, steaks, and seafood.
There are two breweries in proximity to the central dining hub of Staunton. Redbeard Brewing is ultra-casual with a good range of styles to choose from. For an eclectic list of well-balanced beers, try the Shenandoah Valley Beer Company.. The head brewer’s philosophy—“Brew beers that people want to have a second one of”—is expressed in the brews’ mild temperament and moderate alcohol content.
You’ll find plenty of options for a good place to sleep in Staunton, too. Camping is available in just about every direction. But if you like a bit of history mixed into your outdoor adventure, you’ll find it here: A night at The Frederick House, built circa early 1800s, is a great way to steep yourself in the town’s rich past. Of course, the amazing breakfast of waffles made of locally milled flour or the layered, ultra-cheesy breakfast casserole doesn’t hurt either.