We hike all year long and this is our list of the best winter hikes in Virginia for when the temperature drops including hikes to wide open views, frozen waterfalls, and protected tunnels.
Winter in Virginia is hard to predict. Some weeks start at a sweet sunny 65 on Monday and end with temps plummeting to 25 by weeks end. If you are an avid hiker you can hunker down and wait for spring or power through.
I’ve always been the power through type, although that’s left me cold and wet a few times.
Over the years we’ve done many winter hikes and while most trails are fine during winter, some are much more enjoyable than others.
What makes a great winter hike
We’ve personally hiked all of the trails on this list and while they aren’t necessarily better in the winter than other seasons, they are all great during winter and you aren’t missing anything by hiking them in winter, the worst of seasons.
One thing we considered when we put this list together is what makes for a good winter hike. For us the things that make a hike special are:
- The views are still great when there isn’t foliage
- Being near water
- An interesting trail
Not every hike has all of these but the more things that the hike has the better it is, at least in our opinion.
It’s important to pay attention to the weather when hiking in any season, but especially during winter. If the weather looks potentially unsafe, not hiking is the better choice.
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Do I need microspikes for winter hikes in Virginia?
Crampons and microspikes are spikes that you attach to your boots to give you traction and help puncture snow or ice so you don’t slip.
In some parts of the country, you really can’t hike in the mountains during winter without using something for added traction like crampons or microspikes. But in Virginia, you usually do not need crampons and microspikes for hiking.
I personally have never needed them, I’ve found that boots and shoes with deep lugs are enough for traction. But I know some people that swear by them. If you plan to do a lot of winter hiking and really want some, I recommend YakTrax.
YakTrax don’t have the sharp points that crampons or microspikes have; instead it is a wire wrapped strap system. We don’t usually have enough snow and ice to truly need microspikes and many of our trails are root lined and the sharp points can damage the root system of the surrounding trees.
What gear do I need for winter hiking in Virginia?
While the Blue Ridge in Virginia is mountainous, it is still fairly mild most years. Still, we always have at least a few weeks when the temperature is bitterly cold. You need to be sure you are dressed appropriately for the weather both for your comfort and for safety.
In addition to hiking, I’ve also spent many years working outdoors year round, so I know how important wearing the right gear is when it’s frigid outside.
Layering is critical for staying warm in winter and a base layer is where that starts. I’ve tried many different types over the years and the two that I’ve found to be best are: ViCherub thermal underwear and Under Armor base series.
ViCherub is a good low cost option, less than $25 and does a good job keeping me warm down to about 20 degrees. Under Armor, specifically base 3.0 is amazing, but it’s expensive. I’ve had my base 3.0 for almost 15 years and still use it regularly when it’s cold and windy.
Quality warm socks
Cold feet or hands can make an otherwise pleasant hike terrible. I despise cold feet, Darn Tough socks fix that. There are many different styles but for winter you want the boot cushioned ones. Your feet will stay warm and happy.
When I worked as an arborist I learned about fleece lined work gloves. We used Atlas and they are amazing. Your hands stay warm and you can feel things through them. If you are using hiking poles, the gloves will help keep things in your hands and it cuts down on fatigue.
Finally, hiking poles are incredible when the trail gets slippery. We use Cascade Mountain Tech because they are easy to adjust and collapse and have several accessories to change the tip for different conditions. Whatever brand you get, make sure they are adjustable and have different tip options for use year round.
Hot hands are completely optional, but they’re nice to have for windy long days on the trail. You don’t need to have them but they’re cheap and they work well. We always have some in our packs in the winter just in case.
Best Short Winter Hikes in Virginia
All these hikes are around two miles long and not only are they short, they aren’t too difficult. In other seasons, crowding on these popular trails can be a problem, but in winter the crowds are gone.
This is my favorite short hikes in Virginia, regardless of season.
As the name suggests, there is rock scrambling on the hike, in fact it’s one of the main reasons to do it.
You can expect a short but intense series of rock obstacles early in the trail before reaching a 360 degree view that rivals any I’ve seen anywhere.
Bearfence Rock Scramble is in Shenandoah National Park, so be prepared for the $30 entrance fee. If you have the America the Beautiful pass you can use that for park entrance.
The best time for this hike is when winter weather is on the warmish side, close to 40 degrees and when there isn’t a chance of ice. The exposed rock that you scramble over isn’t that safe to scurry over when conditions are slick.
Bearfence Rock Scramble
Length: 1.4 miles Difficulty: Moderate Elevation Gain: 311 feet
Great For: Rock Scrambling, photography
When to avoid: Icy, wet, or severe cold.
How we Rate It: 4.5/5, It’s an amazing hike, I wish it was longer.
Stony Man is a great hike with a huge view. The trail has a steady incline but nothing too difficult. The trail winds through the forest and while you will miss out on the great hardwood foliage in winter, you will have an amazing view at the end.
The real benefit of hiking here in the winter is the lack of crowds; the rocky overlook can get pretty crowded in other seasons. In winter you shouldn’t have that issue.
The trail is wide and well established so as long as Shenandoah National Park hasn’t closed Skyline Drive you can definitely hike here after a snow.
The Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park tower over the surrounding valleys and seeing the mountains, snow capped or not, from the overlook is breathtaking.
This is the best hike for after a light snow, it’s short and the trail is wide enough to be easy to navigate even with some snow. Like Bearfence, check Shenandoah National Park’s website for closures and be aware of the entrance fee.
Stony Man Trail
Length: 1.6 miles Out and Back Elevation Gain: 340 feet Difficulty: Easy
Great For: Photography, Kids, Sunset
When to Avoid: When icy. Park will likely close in icy, dangerous conditions.
How we Rate it: 3.5/5, the hike is easy and the overlook areas are quite beautiful.
Roaring Run is one of our favorite hikes as a family. It’s very easy and most of the trail follows Roaring Run River and has several wide wooden foot bridges that cross over it.
In summer you can slide down a couple of the natural waterslides or take a swim in the shallow swirling pools.
You miss out on that in the winter but you gain privacy. Not many people hike Roaring Run in the winter. They are missing out.
The short hike is easy and the trail isn’t affected by snow or ice. In fact, if it’s been very cold the waterfall almost completely freezes. Who doesn’t love a frozen waterfall?
In addition there is a short walk from the trail head to an old pig iron forge.
The forest is almost exclusively hardwood and will be barren in the winter, but the river was always the reason to come to Roaring Run anyway and that doesn’t change.
You will want to check road conditions before heading to the trailhead, but you don’t need to worry about the trail being closed in winter.
Roaring Run Trail
Length: 1.7 miles Out and Back Elevation Gain: 300 feet Difficulty: Easy
Great For: Photography, Kids
When to Avoid: When icy conditions make driving dangerous.
Location: Eagle Rock, Botetourt County
How we Rate it: 3.5/5, This is a very easy hike to a pretty waterfall along a narrow river.
If there is one trail on this list that does not care about the season, it’s this one.
Hot or cold, wet or dry, the tunnel is about 50 degrees and the air is damp.
In the heat of summer, this makes for some interesting clothing options and a strange balancing act. Part of the trail is along a gravel path so finding clothes that are appropriate for 90 degrees and 50 degrees is hard.
In winter it’s easy – dress warm. For this hike you NEED at least one flashlight, but more is better. You’ll be walking through a mile long decommissioned railroad tunnel.
A few years ago the tunnel was transitioned into a hiking trail and it’s the most unique hiking experience we’ve had in the Blue Ridge.
If you can get to the trail, you can hike through the tunnel. From the Western entrance, the walk is level and easy. If it’s a rainy winter day, you can bring an umbrella for the half mile walk to the tunnel.
Whether or not you hike this trail in the winter you need to visit at some point. It’s amazing!
Blue Ridge Tunnel
Length: 3 miles Out and Back from East entrance Elevation Gain: 400 feet Difficulty: Easy
Great For: Families, history.
When to Avoid: Icy conditions when driving is dangerous.
How We Rate It: 5/5, this is an amazing experience. Just go do it.
What to Bring: You will need a headlamp or flashlight, preferably both and extra batteries.
Best Medium Length Winter Hikes in Virginia
These longer hikes are all very popular in other seasons and regularly have parking issues, but in winter, you’re much more likely to have the trail to yourself. Plus, some of these hikes are just a better experience all around in the winter.
Devil’s Marbleyard is a massive boulder field in Rockbridge County. The trail to the boulder field is along the Belfast Trail and travels just inside the James River Face Wilderness.
While the slightly steep trail is a pleasant walk through the woods, the real reason to go here is the rock scramble.
I call it the rock scramblers paradise. If you don’t know what rock scrambling is, we have an article breaking down the basics and what you need to know about rock scrambling in the Blue Ridge.
The boulder field is 8 acres and climbs upward to a broken tree-lined cliff. There is no established route to the top and no delicate flora to worry about disturbing on the rocks, save for a stray tree or two.
It’s amazing and incredibly unique and if you are able to reach the top, the view is incredible. And even if you aren’t, you’ll still be treated to incredible views all along the climb.
The reason it’s on this list is because in summer the rocks can be brutal. There is no shade and the rocks reflect the heat and light. You need a lot of water, which adds to the weight you need.
In winter you don’t have to worry about any of that.
Here’s what you need to consider before a winter hike here. Has it snowed? Has it rained recently? Is it bitterly cold and windy? If all of those are no, then you want to do this hike.
In fact, I prefer this hike in winter. So, find a buddy that is willing to brave a hike in the winter and go have fun.
Length: 3.2 miles Out and Back ** Elevation Gain: 1300 feet Difficulty: Moderate
Great For: Rock scrambling
When to Avoid: When icy, wet, or very windy.
Location: Rockbridge County
How we Rate it: 5/5, the trail is okay, but the rocks are a playground.
** The distance is deceptive if you are going to do the rock scramble. It’s not a long distance but it is tough.
Cascade Falls is a great hike any time of year. On warm summer days, the pool at the base of the falls serves as a giant swimming pool. In spring, the waterfall swells and the dense forest explodes with life and in fall, the hardwood forest is decked out in shades of yellow, orange, and red.
For a winter hike here, you want the cold, deep freezes. If it’s been a mild winter, the hike is fine but pales in comparison to the other seasons, however, when the temperature plummets, the wide falls are frozen in a striking wall of crystalline ice.
When it’s been bitterly cold, you want to avoid the hiking trail and stick to the fire road that leads to the waterfall. This doesn’t make the trail any shorter or necessarily easier, but hiking along the river is unpleasant during icy conditions. The fire road is much easier and safer.
In the end, the view of the frozen falls is worth braving the frigid conditions.
Cascades Falls Trail
Length: 3.8 miles Out and Back Elevation Gain: 700 feet Difficulty: Moderate
Great For: Photography
When to Avoid: When roads are dangerous.
Location: Town of Pembroke
How we Rate it: 4.5/5, this is an awesome hike to the prettiest waterfall in the region.
McAfee Knob is in Roanoke County and sits on Catawba Mountain. It’s the most popular hike in the region because the view from the top is stunning. The bare rock overlook thrusts out and the view over the surrounding valley is wide and dramatic.
I’ve been there in every season in both great and terrible conditions.
It’s always beautiful but nothing compares to when it’s snowed. The snowy mountain ridges that fade into the distance at oblique angles are magical.
It’s a quiet beauty and one of the few times a year when you probably won’t have company at the overlook.
If you are going to go in snowy conditions, take the fire road for as much of the trail as you can but be prepared for a difficult hike once you hit the upper section. This is winter hiking, though, and if you are looking for good hikes to take in the winter, you already know that.
I think the view from the overlook after a snow rivals the beauty in the fall during the leaf change. It’s that good.
Length: 7.8 miles Elevation Gain: 1700 feet Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
Great for: Families, Photography
When to Avoid: When icy conditions prevent driving
Location: Northern Roanoke County
How we rate it: 5/5, It’s an easy to follow, at times steep, trail with an amazing payoff. There’s a reason so many people visit.
The Great Channels is located in Southwest Virginia and is a rare slot canyon in the eastern United States. The overall distance of the hike is a little more than 6.5 miles, the first section of which is a bit underwhelming.
But once you reach the incredible rock formations all that changes. The wandering paths through the towering stone slabs is nothing short of amazing.
Throughout most of the year, finding a place to park at the 10 spot parking area is tough. Once the temperature drops, the fair-weather hikers hibernate and we few proud masochists can enjoy some frigid free-time in peace.
You definitely want to check road conditions if it’s been icy but otherwise this is a great winter trail. This is a trail, not for view, but for experience.
The Great Channels
Length: 6.6 miles Elevation Gain: 1400 feet Difficulty: Moderate
Great for: Families, Photography
When to Avoid: When icy conditions prevent driving
Location: Russel and Washington County
How we rate it: 4/5, the first half of the trail is on the boring side, but the Channels are so unique that it’s worth a boring walk to reach.
Best Long Winter Hikes in Virginia
These final two trails are incredible and I think a must-do for any hiker.
With them being longer trails, and isolated, you need to really consider the weather when you visit. Neither is appropriate after heavy snow or on one of those miserable rainy 35 degree days we get.
Man, do I love this hike. Old Rag is the jewel of Shenandoah National Park. The near 10 mile hike climbs through a rocky and lush forest to an exposed granite summit.
Then the fun begins.
The trail weaves over, around, and through boulders for about a mile of breathtaking scenery. We’ve been fortunate enough to travel across the U.S. twice visiting amazing places and hiking some of the most popular trails in the country. Old Rag still stands out as one of the best hikes I’ve ever done.
The rock scrambling along the rocky ridge is superb. But on warm days in spring, summer, and fall the trail becomes a lunch counter. It robs the experience.
Recently, Shenandoah National Park introduced a day use ticketing system that runs from March to November to cut down on the overwhelming number of visitors.
In winter this isn’t a problem. You need to avoid the trail when snowy or icy conditions are likely present and when it will be wet and cold. Also, be ready for strong wind when you get to the top. The view from Old Rag is better during other seasons, but the number of people makes the experience worse.
I hiked Old Rag one February when it was windy and 11 degrees outside. It was cold, but I had long sections of the hike completely to myself.
Old Rag Trail
Length: 9.4 mile loop Elevation Gain: 2600 feet Difficulty: Hard
Great For: Photography, rock scrambling
When to Avoid: When icy or wet.
Location: Shenandoah National Park
How we Rate it: 5/5, This is an amazing hike. The top sections is some of the most fun I’ve ever had hiking.
Situated in Greyson-Highland State Park, Mount Rogers is an amazing hike and despite it’s 10 mile length, it’s not terribly difficult. You can visit and enjoy Mount Rogers all seasons of the year.
While many trails in Virginia cut through hardwood forests, that’s not the case for Mount Rogers. Much of the trail to Mount Rogers is along the grassy balds of the state park.
Eventually the trail leads you out of park and through a heavily forested section of the Appalachian Trail. Before you reach the pinnacle of the hike, the hardwood forest shifts to an evergreen one.
When you reach the pinnacle of Mount Rogers, don’t expect amazing mountain views. It’s heavily forested and the mountain gradually reaches its peak. The great views are along the trail as you head up toward the summit.
But the views are not the only reason to come here. There are wild ponies! They roam freely inside the state park grounds and mainly stay near the Wilburn Ridge. If you just want to see the ponies you can hike just the first couple miles.
After the first time I went to Mount Rogers, I haven’t been back to the top, but we love coming to see the ponies any time of year.
We’ve found the ponies most often congregate near the edge of the park where the Wilburn Ridge trail connects to the Appalachian Trail. Beyond that point the trail gets very rocky for awhile but is still a beautiful hike.
Mount Rogers Trail
Length: 10.5 miles Out and Back Elevation Gain: 1750 feet Difficulty: Hard
Great For: Photography, wildlife
When to Avoid: Snowy or icy conditions.
How we Rate it: 5/5, the ponies and unusual grassy balds are amazing on this hike.
And that’s our list, but what do you think? Do you have a favorite winter hike? If so, let us know in the comments. We are always looking for more new trails to try.
If you aren’t sold on winter hiking in Virginia but want to check out some other trails in the region while you wait for spring check out the hikes we’ve covered.