Disconnect to Reconnect—With an Escape to Virginia
So many of us have—by necessity—spent the last long while glued to our screens, where life has become a series of press briefings, Zoom meetings, family Facetimes, online classes and, of course, Netflix binges. But as essential as all that virtual connectivity has been, it’s also created a deep appreciation—and even deeper longing—for the real thing: a screens-down getaway with the people we love.
The ideal setting? Someplace lavishly endowed with another luxury everyone’s been missing: the great outdoors. Throw accessibility, affordability and safety into the mix, and you get Virginia, whose mountains, forests, rivers and beaches are perfect for a summer or fall road trip.
And this being Virginia, there’s even more to, well, love: Last year’s golden anniversary of the Virginia is for Lovers campaign saw giant LOVE installations grow to unprecedented numbers statewide. Officially known as LOVEworks, these 200+ expressions of wild creativity and talent have become so sought after, locals have started crafting entire “Love Tours” to see (and let’s be honest, Instagram) as many as possible.
So whichever expanse of nature you retreat to, be sure to keep an eye out for the local LOVEworks. In fact, read on and we’ll tell you where to look in six of the state’s most gorgeous natural escapes.
Shenandoah National Park
A stunningly pristine stretch of Virginian nature, this 300-square-mile refuge was the state’s first national park, and remains the most famous. One look and you’ll see why: Appalachian peaks, tumbling streams, misty falls, blooming woods, jagged outcrops, gorgeous fall foliage—and that’s just the short list. For a spectacular (and sometimes literal) overview, road-trip along Skyline Drive, the National Scenic Byway that leads you along 105 prime Shenandoah miles, where your views include everything from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the bucolic local patchwork of woods, wineries and farmlands. Along the way, look out for bears, fox, otters and maybe even the occasional mink.
In keeping with the disconnect-to-reconnect theme, consider overnighting under the stars in one of the park’s five gorgeous campgrounds (or really go off the grid with some backcountry camping). If indoor plumbing and electricity are more your speed, check out the impressive array of local cabins (in fact, most of the park’s lodges include a handful of them).
Speaking of cabins, we’d be remiss if we failed to point out that the Shenandoah Valley’s Luray-Page County is the so-called cabin capital of Virginia. And there—specifically, at the tour-worthy Luray Caverns—you’ll find Logs of Love, a LOVEworks installation made entirely of cabin-evoking wood.
Virginia’s River Realm
Though it sounds almost like a corner of Westeros or Arendelle, the River Realm is a real-life (but still magical) part of Virginia. The region is, as you might guess, named for the river that runs through it: the Rappahannock, which starts in the aforementioned Blue Ridge and flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The confluence of river and bay is what makes this area so dreamy—and one of the best places in the state for people who love to get out on the water.
Kayaking, stand-up paddling and sailing are practically obligatory here—there are 465 miles of shoreline, 22 marinas and all manner of sailing schools—but landlubbers will appreciate the the healthy assortment of hiking opportunities at Belle Isle State Park, Baylor Park Nature Trail and Holly Point Nature Park.
And that last park is home to more than stunning nature trails: At the onsite Deltaville Maritime Museum (in itself worth a visit), you’ll find one of the state’s largest LOVEworks: a graphic red installation with letters big enough to pose inside (each is eight feet tall and four feet wide).
You can camp, glamp or inn-hop your way through (in fact, Belle Isle State Park offers both camping and historic lodges)—and stop for the famed local oysters at every possible opportunity.
Across the Chesapeake, you’ll find Virginia’s stunning peninsular stretch: a 70-mile sliver edged by the bay to the west and the Atlantic to the East. Known as the Eastern Shore, the area is also made up of gorgeous barrier islands, not least, Assateague, home to a famed historic lighthouse—and even more famed wild ponies. Sometimes called the Chincoteague Ponies, they’re the stars of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, where a kayak (or other boat) tour will also introduce you to some of the 300 or so bird species—from osprey to peregrine falcons—that populate the unspoiled, wide-ranging refuge. And the local LOVEwork—a series of massive (but climbable) Adirondack chairs—is the perfect place to reflect on what you've seen.
If you really want to heed the call of the wild, check out the regional barrier islands that are run by the Nature Conservancy. Not all of these uninhabited islets are open to the public, but several are, and the birding, hiking and beachcombing are well worth the trip.
Another local wildlife haven worth visiting? Kiptopeke State Park in Cape Charles, where mid-to-late summer kicks off a famed influx of migratory birds, whose habitats neighbor your own—from camp sites to cabins to yurts—in the state park. And don't leave without checking out the so-called Concrete Fleet, the decaying remains of rare World War II-era concrete ships that now constitute an eerily beautiful breakwater off the park's fishing pier. And if you've been lighthouse-hopping your way through the region, tick Cape Charles Lighthouse off your list before leaving, too.
Also in Cape Charles? Another of everyone’s favorite LOVEwork installations, in this case, by a fishing pier: The L is filled with sea glass and shells, the O is a tractor tire (agriculture is big here), the V is made of two kayaks and the E houses a succession of crab pots.
Know before you go: Another Eastern Shore icon, the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, may well reopen to the public relatively soon. If the Visitor Center is open by the time you're there, you'll want to stop in for everything from exhibits to behind-the-scenes launch intel.
The Appalachian Trail
Virginia claims more of the Appalachian Trail than any other state: almost 550 miles worth of fresh air, pristine nature and good, healthy fun. If you’re not planning on through-hiking the trail—and hats off if you are—you can still experience it on day hikes where the access is particularly easy.
One of the best areas to see what we mean is a glorious stretch between Abingdon and Whitetop Mountain: the nearly 35-mile path known as the Virginia Creeper Trail that intersects repeatedly with the Appalachian Trail.
This hiking and biking path runs along a historic rail corridor—and though the steep, mountainous grades posed a challenge for the old trains (thus the Creeper nickname), the downhill ride couldn’t be easier or more fun for bikers. In fact, the neighboring towns have become increasingly fun, too, with a whole craft brewery trail springing up alongside the Virginia Creeper Trail (don’t miss stops in Bristol, Damascus and Abingdon).
Another don’t-miss in Abingdon: a pair of highly ‘grammable LOVEworks installations, one at the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center and Marketplace, another downtown. The latter has a particularly cool backstory: In a nod to Abingdon’s earlier name of Wolf Hills, a wolf howls inside the Love’s O.
Breaks Interstate Park
A glorious refuge area along Virginia’s southwestern border (thus the Interstate appellation), this 4500-acre expanse harbors all manner of adventures in the great outdoors, from zip-lining to rafting to elk viewing.
In fact, the eye-popping local LOVEworks installation telegraphs these offerings with its design: Celebrated muralist Ellen Elmes added hiking scenery to the L, zip-lining figures to the O, a menagerie of wildlife to the V and a rapids-runner to the E.
For more zip-lining—the most you can do in any one spot in Virginia, actually—head to Sandy River’s lush, 24-acre retreat outside Farmville, where you’ll find the state’s largest aerial adventure park, among other outdoor adventures (plus log cabins and Glamping Tipis).
You’ll also find another amazing rails-to-trails spot in the area: The aptly named High Bridge Trail State Park takes hikers and bikers 125 feet above the Appomattox River along a 19th century locomotive bridge that ranks on the National Register of Historic Places.
And for anyone who’d rather be on the river than above it, there’s gorgeous canoeing and kayaking to be done: The Farmville Blueway—a protected stream corridor—takes you from Wilck’s Lake to Buffalo Creek and then down the Appomattox.
In fact, kayaking is so ingrained in local life, there’s a LOVEwork here made entirely of decommissioned boats—whitewater kayaks, recreational kayaks and a fishing kayak, to be exact. And we defy you to find a better use of upcycling.