Outdoors at UVA Recommends 5 Cost-Free Hikes To Kick Off the New Year

December 19, 2023 By Renee Grutzik, amn8sb@virginia.edu Renee Grutzik, amn8sb@virginia.edu

Start the new year on the right foot by taking advantage of Virginia State Parks’ fee waiver on Jan. 1. Parking fees at state parks will be waived, offering guests an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and start the new year with a day of cost-free recreation. 

If you’re unsure of which trail to blaze this New Year’s Day, Outdoors at the University of Virginia can help. Devoted to getting UVA students, alumni and community members to embrace nature, Outdoors at UVA is one of the largest student-led organizations on Grounds with more than 800 active members. 

Members led more than 700 trips in 2023, exploring the beautiful backdrop Virginia offers and even venturing beyond state – and international – borders. 

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UVA Today asked five club members to recommend their favorite trail located in a Virginia State Park. Here’s what they shared.

Long Creek and White Hill Loop, First Landing State Park  

Located north of Virginia Beach, First Landing State Park is Virginia’s most-visited state park. The park holds a special place in fourth-year student Ed Aten’s heart. 

“I don’t always go to state parks,” the Outdoors at UVA president, who is majoring in environmental thought and practice, as well as poetry writing, said. “But [First Landing] is pretty special to me because it was the first or second time I ever went camping without my parents.” 

While Outdoors at the University of Virginia President Ed Aten first hiked the beachy terrain of Long Creek and White Hill Loop during high school, the trail still stands out as a memorable experience. (Contributed photo)

On a trip to First Landing during his junior year of high school, Aten completed the Long Creek and White Hill Loop, a 7.6-mile hike that takes about two and a half hours to hike. The consistently flat trail is beginner-friendly and gives visitors a good sense of the dune ecosystem at First Landing. 

“It’s a drive from [Charlottesville],” Aten said, “but it’s totally worth it if you want to get some nice backcountry beach time.” 

Bald Cypress Trail, First Landing State Park

If you’re looking for a shorter hike in First Landing State Park, look no further than Bald Cypress Trail. Class of 2023 alumnus and former club member Evan Riegle recommends the trail for those looking for a quick trek with slight inclines. 

“All the other trails I’ve done are pretty much the same – you either hike up a mountain or hike up a waterfall,” the global environments and sustainability major said. “But this one is sweet because you’re hiking through a swamp.” 

Located in First Landing State Park, Bald Cypress Trail passes through a swamp that is home to many species of amphibians and reptiles. (Contributed photo)

The 1.7-mile loop has boardwalks over a swamp, home to lively reptile and amphibian populations. While much of the swamp population brumate in the winter, Riegle recommends checking out the bald cypress trees scattered along the path, where the trail gets its name. 

If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a phenomenon called a “swamp rainbow,” which naturally occurs when decomposing plants release oils that rise to the water’s surface. When observed in proper lighting, the surface of the swamp displays an array of colors. 

Rhododendron Gap, Grayson Highlands State Park

Grayson Highlands State Park is located in Mouth of Wilson, close to the North Carolina border in Southwest Virginia. While it might be the farthest from Charlottesville on this list, fourth-year architecture and Spanish double major Renee Erickson says the trip is worth it. 

“Grayson Highlands has really unique wildlife, like flora and fauna, because it’s kind of a different climate than the rest of Virginia,” she said. “There are really interesting meadows and rock formations, too.”

Erickson has been hiking Rhododendron Gap with her family since she was a child. While considering it an intermediate-level trail, she has successfully completed the 6.9-mile hike with young children. 

Renee Erickson, a club officer, notes that you can see three states at once while hiking Rhododendron Gap. (Contributed photo)

“There are portions of it that are kind of steep because you’re going up from a low valley area,” she said. “Because it’s so gorgeous, you can really take your time and make a day out of it.” 

One of Erickson’s favorite features of Rhododendron Gap is a view of three states at once, including the tallest mountain in Virginia, Mount Rogers. 

Erickson recommends parking at the main visitor center lot near Massie Gap. 

Wilburn Ridge, Grayson Highlands State Park

Like Erickson, second-year student and club member Stevie Meyer recommends exploring the unique ecosystem of Grayson Highlands State Park. 

When Meyer first arrived at Grayson Highlands, he thought it was a scene from “The Hobbit.” The music and linguistics double major said the terrain was nothing like he has seen in Virginia before. 

Wilburn Ridge is a 4.4-mile, out-and-back hike that takes approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes to complete. While the trail begins with a moderate uphill stretch, Meyer recommends the trail for beginners because you can adjust the length of the hike by simply turning around. 

If you hike at Wilburn Ridge, you might come across some cows and wild ponies — but make sure to observe them from afar. (Photo by Emma Todd)

Similarly, Wilburn Ridge has several spur trails along the route that can add more mileage to the hike. One of the spur trails leads to Mount Rogers.

“If you stay there for a while or you walk around, you will eventually encounter the wild ponies that get super close to you,” Meyer said. “They’re so cute, but don’t touch them because they’re wild. 

“How many hikes could you go on with ponies and cows right there? In the middle of winter, there’s nowhere else where you can hike with ponies.” 

Beards Mountain Loop, Douthat State Park

Douthat State Park is in Millboro, about an hour and a half west of Charlottesville. As one of the six original state parks in Virginia, the park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to its historical significance. 

Max Titov, a third-year computer engineering major, recommends checking out Beards Mountain trial, a 6.1-mile loop. While Titov biked this trail, he says the terrain was not overly difficult, but noted there are some steep stretches that beginners might find harder. 

Douthat State Park was one of Virginia’s six original state parks, earning it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. (Contributed photo)

The trail takes you to the ridgeline of Beards Mountain and close to Douthat Lake. 

“You get so many good views, but you don’t have to put a lot of work into getting there because it’s beginner-friendly, for the most part,” he said. “But also, at the same time, it’s an engaging trail, so it’s not boring.” 

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