Editor’s Note: Author James Linton Vasen Brewing’s hiking ambassadors. Never been to Vasen in Scott’s Addition? Learn more here.
Hiking is a fantastic way to get out and see relatively unknown and remote places in the wilderness, and backpacking pushes those boundaries even further. Even though you have haul a lot more weight, be comfortable with the creatures of the forest at night, and become one with your own (and other people’s) filth, the payoff is getting to see and experience spectacularly remote, untainted wilderness areas. And luckily for us, Richmond is situated in an incredible place to access some fantastic weekend backpacking trips. These are my top five weekend backpacking trips that can be accomplished relatively easily from Richmond, in order of beginner, intermediate, and experienced. Happy hiking!
Spy Rock — Although often completed as an day hike, the Spy Rock hike as an overnight trip yields incredible sunset and sunrise views and is great for first-timers. The hike begins at a parking lot (coordinates 37.841873, -79.131253) adjacent to the Montebello Fish Hatchery, which is just a little over a 2-hour drive from downtown Richmond. Bring enough water with you to last overnight and pitch your tent early enough to enjoy the sunset views atop of Spy Rock! In the morning, scramble back up Spy Rock before sunrise for another phenomenal display of the mountains before making the 1.6-mile hike down the mountain back to the car. Insider tip: The hike used to lead up a rather unexciting road for approximately 1 mile on private property until it reached the AT and you bear left to Spy Rock. However, within the past few months, this road on private property has reportedly been closed to hikers and the U.S. Forest Service is working to establish a new hiking route, which may be slightly longer. As with any hike, make sure you’ve done your research and keep an eye out for postings from the Forest Service with updates. Level: Beginner. Length: 2 short days/1 night with a total hiking distance of 3.2 miles. Round trip driving time from Richmond: 4.5 hours.
Cole Mountain/Mt. Pleasant Loop — For those looking to make the transition from day hikes to backpacking, or for those looking to grab some epic views along fantastic trails, this hike couldn’t be a better place to start. A leisurely 2.5-hour backcountry drive from downtown Richmond brings you to the Cole Mountain/Mt. Pleasant Trailhead near Amherst (coordinates 37.759653, -79.195179). Starting at
Hog Camp Gap, you take the AT south to the summit of Cole Mountain. A little sweating and burning during this first section will quickly reward you with incredible views as you traverse the balds at the top of the mountain. As you finish your first loop, you’ll find a ton of great campsites, so pitch your tent for the night here. Looking for a spot farther away from parking? An alternate site would be to continue up the Mt. Pleasant trail for a farther campsite. This will also allow you to get a jump start on the following day’s summit of Mt. Pleasant. For great campsites and great views, with the convenience of not being too far from the car, this backpacking trip is one that would be hard to skip. Insider tip: Stray off the AT when on the balds and you will find some great hammock places to relax and soak in the view in complete solitude away from the trail. Level: Beginner/Intermediate. Length: 2 Days/1 night with a total hiking distance of 11.4 miles. Round trip driving time from Richmond: 5 hours.
Spruce Knob/Seneca Creek Loop — Just writing about this hike gets me excited all over again! This 16.5 mile loop is hands down my favorite 2 day/1 night backpacking trip, which allows the intermediate backpacker chances to get out on a hike with everything from incredible waterfalls to beautiful wildflower-laden meadows with rolling mountain vistas. The hike starts about a 3.5 hour drive from Richmond at the summit of Spruce Knob in West Virginia (coordinates 38.70230, -79.53105) and follows the Huckleberry Trail out of the parking lot through an incredible spruce forest. The full loop hike is a combination of six different trails in the following order: TR 533 – TR 534 – TR 564 – TR 530 – TR 515 – TR 512 – TR 530 – TR 533 (I highly recommend using the Seneca Creek Backcountry forest service map for the hike). Insider tip: Although incredible campsites begin popping up 8 miles in, my personal favorites are approximately 9-10 miles in along Seneca Creek near Judy Springs where you will find fantastic trout fishing, incredible open meadows, and deer foraging beneath wild apple trees. An early camp set up is worth it so you can snag one of these spots. Level: Intermediate. Length: 2 Days/1 night with a total hiking distance of 16.5 miles. Round trip driving time from Richmond: 7 hours.
Grayson Highlands/Appalachian Trail Loop — If there is one hike on this list that I would say is a must do for every backpacker in Virginia, it would be this one. Just under a scenic 5-hour drive from Richmond is the trailhead for this hike (coordinates 36.633520, -81.505716) in Grayson Highlands State Park. The hike is unlike just about any other in the region in that there are wild ponies and longhorns along many of the trails. You are met with continuous incredible views and constant interaction with wildlife, and to top if off some amazing camping spots. Insider tip: the streams (and your drinking water with them) on this route dry up rather quickly when it hasn’t rained in a few days. Try and plan your trip to avoid these dry spells and ensure you have more than enough water. Level: Intermediate. Length: 2 Days/1 night with a total hiking distance of 15 miles: Round trip driving time from Richmond: 9.5 hours.
Linville Gorge Wilderness Loop — Wow. This single word is the best way to describe this rugged, exhausting, backcountry loop. This hike is for all of my fellow weekend warriors and all of the serious backpackers out there. Sitting at the furthest hike on the list at just over 5 hours away is the Wolf Pit trailhead (coordinates 35.824125, -81.889411) in the Pisgah National Forest. Here you begin your hike into the Linville Gorge Wilderness area with the climb up the Wolf Pit Trail. You’ll be met with nonstop breathtaking views along the ridge before you begin your descent into the gorge itself. From personal experience, this hike is no joke, so prepare yourself for intense elevation gain, river fording, and minimal trail blazes. It’s also important to note that many of the trails off of the Shortoff Mountain Trail are not blazed or marked whatsoever, so be sure to always have your map handy. If you want one of the most challenging and rewarding weekend backpacking trips from Richmond, this is it. Insider Tip: If hiking on a hot day, make sure you have plenty of water after making the final river ford before you hike back up to the Wolf Pit Trail. This section is grueling and very exposed to the sun. Stay prepared and enjoy all that this hike has to offer! Level: Experienced. Length: 2 very long days/1 night with a total hiking distance of 22.3 miles (and lots of elevation gain). Round trip driving time from Richmond: 10.5 hours.
These hikes aren’t just incredible backpacking trips that are easily accessible from Richmond, but are some of the East Coast’s finest. Take your time to plan for each outing and be prepared for anything. If you have a smartphone, I personally recommend the Hiking Project app. It is a great tool to help prepare for each hike, and works offline if you need help on the trails.
Looking for even more ideas? Here are some others worth noting:
Big Rocky Row (37.596847, -79.391172) – Beginner/Intermediate
Dolly Sods/Lions Head (39.064648, -79.303326) – Intermediate
Three Ridges Hike (37.901628, -78.985255) – Intermediate
AT from Iron Mountain Gap to 19 East (36.142922, -82.233194) – Experienced