Finding wild, remote forestland comfortably close to modern amenities may sound impossible, but travelers to the Shenandoah Valley discover just that in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.
A combined 1.8 million acres in total, the forests comprise one of the largest swaths of public land in the eastern United States. They include 325 miles of the Appalachian Trail, 23 Wilderness areas, and 2,340 miles of perineal streams. (The two forest were combined administratively in 1995.)
The outdoor recreation possibilities are a laundry list of adventure: hike, bike, backpack, camp, swim, hunt, fish, trail run, canoe, OHV, ride horses, cross country ski—if you can do it outside, you can do it in one of these forests. Moreover, when your day in the woods is done, you can easily drive back to a nearby town and enjoy a beer and a bed. Winchester, Front Royal, Luray, Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro, Bedford plus several other locales provide any level of accommodation you need within timely distance of the national forests.
Below we list just a few venues in or near the forests to help you enjoy the experience:
Fort Valley Ranch owner Bill Schumacher told us, “We offer guided mountain horseback rides from one hour to multi-day packages. Our outfitter permit allows us to guide you into the National Forest. The Ranch has comfortable bunkhouse cabins, camping including water and electric sites, corrals and paddocks. Trails range from lush, wooded valley to mountain top ridges, providing panoramic views of the Shenandoah River and Valley below.” Fort Valley Ranch is minutes from Luray, in the Massanutten Mountain area of the forest.
Shenandoah River Outfitters, also just outside Luray, is well-known to paddlers of all stripes. Rent canoes, kayaks, rafts or inner tubes and spend a day floating the river. Opt for the Lunch and Steak Dinner Package and you won’t have to worry about bringing food. Stay longer in one of their several private cabins—some right on the Shenandoah River and most with hot tubs. Other amenities may include queen size beds, fireplaces, full kitchens, heat, AC and Direct TV. Cabins are open all year; tent camping and hot showers are available, too.
River Bluff Farm BnB — A short drive from the national forest, River Bluff is located on 20 secluded acres above the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, near New Market. River access is easy and private. Each guest room has private bath; there is free Wi-Fi, a full kitchen if you want to cook and an expansive deck overlooking the river. Breakfast is free with herbs, fruit and eggs coming right off the farm.
Outdoors enthusiasts from cyclists to skiers to golfers can get all the fun they want just staying at Massanutten Resort, but its close proximity makes it a great base to explore George Washington National Forest. If you tire of hiking/biking the forest, take a dip in the Indoor Waterpark. Even at this time of year, several dining options and live entertainment make for a memorable stay. Right now, skiing, snowboarding, tubing, skating and other frigid fun are underway.
Cabin Creekwood is another venue that trumpets horseback riding, calling it “One of the finest ways to enjoy the Blue Ridge Mountains.” Their Mountain Cabins are located right off the Blue Ridge Parkway (check for road closures in winter) and surrounded by the scenic trails found in the George Washington National Forest. Their cabin offerings include a wide range of styles, from a one-bedroom built before the Civil War to modern cabins with Wi-Fi, fireplaces, AC, flat screen TVs, etc. One mile from scenic Sherando Lake. Nearby Star B Stables can get you on a horse for a safe, guided trip by appointment.
Steeles Tavern Manor and Alpine Hideaway Cottages is just a short drive to Crabtree Falls Trail, one of Virginia’s most well-known waterfall hikes, as well as several other great day trails in the national forest. Operating as a guest house for travelers since the 1780s, and once a way station for stagecoaches, the historic original home was the hub around which the small town of Steeles Tavern emerged. Located between Staunton and Lexington, Steeles Tavern offers both guest rooms at the inn and secluded cottages that exemplify country luxury. Much of the sumptuous breakfast menu is grown on site or nearby.
Virtually surrounded by Jefferson National Forest, Peaks of Otter Lodge is easily accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway, MP 86. Not-to-be-missed hikes include Sharp Top (3,875 feet); Flat Top (4,004 feet) and Harkening Hill (3,375 feet). Or just take a relaxing amble around Abbott Lake. Travellers have been lodging in the area since 1834; today Peaks of Otter offers 63 rooms, all with views of the lake and Sharp Top Mountain. Open on weekends only during the winter, the lodge’s full season commences March 16.
Peaks of Otter is near Bedford, an ideal base from which to explore a multitude of outdoor activities in Jefferson NF and the surrounding area.
Learn more about George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.
Note: when in a national forest, passes or permits may be necessary for some activities. Check with the relevant District Ranger’s office.
Banner photo: Peaks of Otter/Abbott Lake/Sharp Top Mountain, photo courtesy Peaks of Otter Lodge