Jefferson National Forest is one of two forests (the other being Washington National Forest) that stretch across the entire state of Virginia, watched over by the beautiful Appalachians. Two thousand miles of hiking trails set among neo-tropical birds in the summer and a kaleidoscopic pallet of color during the crisp fall lend to some of the most breathtaking scenery in the region.
Visitors can enjoy the forest in whatever way their wanderlust desires, whether fishing, mountain biking, camping, hawk watching, cross-country skiing, horseback riding and photographing the incredible landscapes. Additionally, 330 miles of the internationally famous Appalachian National Scenic Trail, along with 160 miles of National Recreation Trails, call the forests home. And recently, a 237-acre section of woodlands near McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs was added to the Jefferson National Forest to preserve the views from those landmarks for years to come.
The forest is divided into different districts given its massive size, with the Eastern Divide Ranger District being the nearest to Montgomery County. With so much to explore, it’s tough to know where to begin if you only have a day or two. So, here’s a guide to some of the top attractions you can easily explore during your next visit to the New River Valley.
Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory
Just 17 miles west from Blacksburg, visitors will find the Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory. A one-mile hike from the parking area leads to the peak of Peters Mountain on the Eastern Continental Divide where the observatory is located. In addition to 360-views of the stunning scenery, take in the eye-level view of migrating raptors. Raptor viewing is best in the autumn season given migration patterns; however, the hike and view are great any time of year.
Pandapas Pond Loop Trail
Pandapas Pond is an eight-acre man-made pond situated within a hardwood forest, adorned with rhododendrons and flame azalea, and is a favorite location among visitors and locals alike. The trail around the pond and adjacent wetlands is less than a mile long and is suitable for wheelchairs and strollers, while structures like boardwalk areas and bridges let hikers get an up-close glimpse of the pond’s aquatic residents. Numerous spots along the trail are great for fishing and the park claims some of the best mountain biking trails on the East Coast. The Pandapas Pond area also includes the Poverty Creek Trail, which is the main, multi-use trail at Pandapas Pond. The Poverty Creek Trail features more gently rolling slopes across a 7.1 mile one-way trail, perfect for hiking, running, horseback riding, mountain biking, or just enjoying a picnic at Pandapas Pond.
Cherokee Flats Day Use Area
After a short drive west from Blacksburg, visitors encounter a streamside, paved trail that leads to the best fishing holes along Big Stoney Creek, a stocked trout stream. The half-mile trail is lined with American holly, rhododendron and wildflowers, and is accessible to wheelchairs and strollers. In fact, Cherokee Flats was designed to accommodate wheelchair-bound anglers and features a metal ramp that allows wheelchair users to experience in-stream fishing.
Two separate two-mile trails lead to Cascades Falls, a breathtaking 66-foot waterfall that feeds into a large, rocky pool below that’s located about 13 miles west of Blacksburg. The lower trail is a National Recreation Trail and tends to bestow more scenic views, as it follows along Little Stony Creek for the entire two-mile duration. Many sections of the lower trail are carved into existing rock, featuring stone steps, walls and walkways. The upper trail is an easier walk as it is less rocky, wider, and ascends more steadily through the forest and above the creek. The locals’ preferred route is to take the lower trail up to the falls, and return via the upper trail.This is just a small sampling of the treasures that await in Jefferson National Forest. For additional information on all of the recreational activities located in the Eastern Divide Ranger District, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/gwj/recarea/?recid=77658.