Best Hikes in George Washington and Jefferson National Forests (VA)

George Washington and Jefferson National Forests Overview

The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in western Virginia, and small parts of West Virginia and Kentucky, contain nearly 1.8 million acres; one of the largest areas of public land in the eastern United States. In addition to the best hikes in George Washington and Jefferson National Forests described below, the area contains 325 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

Notable Features

  • Combines 2 U.S. National Forests
    • The border between the 2 forests roughly follows the James River
    • George Washington National Forest was established on May 16, 1918, originally as ‘Shenandoah National Forest’. It was later renamed in 1932. 
    • Jefferson National Forest was established nearly 20 years later on April 21, 1936
  • The forests include the 140,000 acre Mount Rogers National Recreation Area
    • Mount Rogers is Virginia’s highest point at 5,729’
  • Approximately 230,000 acres of old growth forest 
  • The majority of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia runs through George Washington and Jefferson National Forests
  • Contains the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi River, Breaks Interstate Park
  • Lake Moomaw is a popular destination offering multiple recreation opportunities, campgrounds, beaches, boating ramps, fishing piers and great trails.
  • Shenandoah National Park is located just east of George Washington National Forest
StateVirginia, West Virginia, Kentucky
Nearest Metro AreaRoanoke, VA
Area Size1,790,933 acres
EstablishedMay 16, 1918
Miles of Trails1,925 miles

Click here for more National Park or National Forest hikes!
You can also view some of our most popular Gear Recommendations here!

Trailhead Traveler’s Recommended Best Hikes in George Washington and Jefferson National Forests

(*** = Best hikes in George Washington and Jefferson National Forests)

Appalachian Trail to McAfee Knob*** – 7.6 miles out and back
McAfee Knob
McAfee Knob, Photo by Gronkca

McAfee Knob is one of the most photographed spots along the entire Appalachian Trail so it is no wonder why this quick but steep day hike section is extremely popular. Beginning from the parking lot where the AT crosses VA-311, the trail climbs steadily over 1000′ in elevation gain on its way to the peak where awesome rock formations and an amazing view awaits.

Big Schloss from Wolf Gap Trail*** – 4.5 miles out and back
View from Big Scholss, Photo by US Forest Service – Southern Region

Hikers will quickly find themselves in a steep uphill ascent over the first 0.5 mile but then it flattens out with some more gradual grades. There are amazing views along the way as the trail rides the border of Virginia and West Virginia. There are some cool rock formations with more great views towards the top of Big Schloss peak.

Brumley Mountain Trail – 6.0 miles out and back
Rock paths with soil The Great Channels Virginia
The Great Channels, Photo by Amanda

This hike leads to the Great Channels of Virginia, a 400 million year old sandstone outcropping that forms a maze of channels. The hike itself isn’t too challenging and is a great option for families as children will love exploring the maze-like rock formations of the Channels.

Buzzard Rock Trail – 7.8 miles out and back
Buzzard Rock, Photo by US Forest Service – Southern Region

Parking is limited at the trailhead of this popular hike so plan to arrive early. The trail climbs gradually upwards to the northernmost point, then turns south again more steeply up along the center of the ridge. Along the ridge, the trail becomes very narrow and rocky, with many difficult sections. Hikers have the option of turning around at an intersection with Massanutten Trail or continuing on.

Cascades Trail – 4.0 mile loop
Cascades Falls, Photo by US Forest Service – Southern Region

Cascades Trail is a 4-mile loop trail that leads to Cascades Falls, a 66-foot powerful waterfall that drops into a large, rocky pool. The lower portion of the trail has been designated a “National Recreation Trail.” It travels alongside scenic Little Stony Creek for two miles. Many sections of this scenic trail are carved directly into existing rock. There are numerous stone steps, walls and walkways. Several bridges allow hikers to get even closer to the creek and be surrounded by the sounds and sprays of falling water. The upper portion of the trail is an easier walk as it climbs steadily through the forest above the creek. It is less rocky and the trail is wider than the lower trail. Many hikers take the lower trail up to the falls and return by the upper trail.

Crabtree Falls Trail*** – 5.4 mile out and back
Crabtree Falls VA
Crabtree Falls, Photo by Patrick Mueller

This moderate 2.7 mile trail wanders through the mountainside offering nice views of 5 major cascades falling a total distance of 1200 feet. Overlooks allow hikers to enjoy the beauty of the valley. The first overlook is universally accessible, and is only a short distance along a paved trail to the beautiful waterfall. Crabtree Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi!

Dragon’s Tooth Trail – 4.6 miles out and back
The Tip
Dragon’s Tooth, Photo by Rachel Elaine

Dragon’s Tooth is a spectacular rock formation located on top of Cove Mountain. The 2.3 mile trail leading to Dragons Tooth is a gradual uphill climb for the first mile until it joins the Appalachian Trail and begins to climb steeply. This part of the hike is strenuous and requires rock scrambling near the top. You’ll need your hands and feet to climb the last rocky sections to reach “The Tooth,” a 35-foot rock spire. At the top, you’ll be rewarded with a jumble of rugged rock outcroppings and panoramic views. Allow plenty of time and daylight to do this challenging hike. Many hikers will take six hours or more to complete the hike.

Elliott Knob Trail – 9.1 miles out and back 
Elliott Knob, Photo by Mongo

At 4,463’, Elliott Knob is one of the highest mountains in northern Virginia. A primitive jeep trail ascends the mountain from the east and leads to an old, no longer used, fire lookout tower. From here, hikers can enjoy nice views looking west from Elliott Knob.

Humpback Rocks Loop*** – 4.0 mile loop
View from Humpback Rocks
View from Humpback Rocks, Photo by Karen Blaha

Great hike that provides amazing views of surrounding valleys. The initial 0.8 mile climb to Humpback Rock is steep but worth it. After soaking in the sights, use the connector trail to get to the AT before looping back downhill to the trailhead. Parking at the trailhead can be busy during weekends in the summer so plan accordingly.

Kennedy Peak Loop – 9.6 mile loop

Easy to navigate trail that leads you to an old fire tower with nice views from the top of Kennedy Peak. Most recommendations advise taking the loop clockwise for a more gradual elevation gain on your way up.

Sharp Top Trail – 3.1 miles out and back
The top of Sharp Top
The Top of Sharp Top, Photo by Richard Martin

Short but steep trail as you ascend over 1200′ in 1.5 miles to the top of Sharp Top Mountain. The 360 views from the top are outstanding! 

Spy Rock via AT – 6.2 miles out and back
View from somewhere near Spy Rock
View near Spy Rock, Photo by Raincrow

The Spy Rock Trail (Forest Trail #732) is a 0.17-mile spur trail accessed from the Appalachian Trail. This out-and-back trail features outstanding scenic vistas from it’s terminus at Spy Rock, a large rock outcropping with views overlooking forested valleys and mountains including “the Religious Range,” the Priest, the Fryar, Little Fryar, and even Mount Pleasant. Access to the trail requires a minimum 6.5-mile round-trip hike which includes a steady uphill grade, sections of very steep trail and rocky terrain and sections of gravel road. 

Featured Image: Fall Colors in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, Photo by US Forest Service – Southern Region

Don’t forget to stock up on the essentials before you plan your next hiking or camping trip! We have recommendations on: