Stories in Virginia

Allegheny Highlands Program

Aerial view of rolling green mountain ridge tops. A heavy bank of white fog shrouds the lower valley.
Endless Mountains View of fog settling in the valleys shortly after sunrise at Flag Rock, Warm Springs Mountain Preserve, Virginia. © Daniel White / TNC

The views from Warm Springs Mountain have remained largely unchanged since Native Americans stewarded these lands for millennia. A sea of ridges roll to the horizon—an unexpected, unbroken forest in a well-traversed part of America.

In 2002, The Nature Conservancy protected over 9,000 acres in the heart of the Allegheny Highlands creating what is now Warm Springs Mountain Preserve. Adjacent to the historic Omni Homestead resort and George Washington National Forest, our preserve represents one of the largest and most ecologically significant private forests in the Central Appalachians, stitching together hundreds of thousands of acres of conservation lands that form an impressive wildlife corridor. 

We're working to ensure that these mountains at the edge of Appalachia remain a natural stronghold against climate change, and that the Allegheny Highlands' human and natural communities are supported, restored and enhanced. Explore the links and stories on this page to learn more.

A gray and white owl perches on a branch, peering out from behind thick green foliage.
Barred Owl (Strix varia), Warm Springs Mountain Preserve, Virginia. © Daniel White/TNC

CONNECT WITH THE Allegheny Highlands

For inquiries about conducting research in Warm Springs Mountain Preserve or to learn more about our conservation work.

208 East Washington Street, Ste. B
Lexington, VA 24450
Phone: 540-839-3599

For media inquiries, please contact Kelley Galownia, media relations manager, by phone 571-403-4625 or email

  • Working to ensure the continued health of our forests, rivers, and wildlife.

    Explore the Allegheny Highlands

    Guided by science, we collaborate with a variety of partners to protect the forests, caves, rivers and unique habitats of the Allegheny Highlands.


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Our world faces complex conservation challenges.  Meet the people who are working on creative, lasting solutions in the Central Appalachians.

Program Director Blair Smyth. A bearded man wearing a blue and white checked shirt smiles for the camera.
Blair Smyth Allegheny Highlands Program Director. © Courtesy Blair Smyth

Blair Smyth, Allegheny Highlands Program Director

Blair leads our efforts in the Allegheny Highlands, a key part of TNC’s six-state Central Appalachians Program, directing land protection and forest and habitat restoration efforts, including our work to return fire to Warm Springs Mountain’s oak and pine communities.  

I enjoy getting to work at a larger scale and having a broader impact. Collaborating with partners allows us to work together to achieve lasting impacts and implement strategies like prescribed fire at a landscape level.  

A man wearing an orange vest stands on a trail. His face is striped with sun and shade from the trees along the trail.
Jean Lorber Conservation Scientist © TNC

Jean Lorber, Conservation Scientist

Jean uses his forestry and forest ecology background on projects ranging from land protection to conservation planning.  Currently, he provides scientific and analytical capacity to the Allegheny Highlands Program, focused on Appalachian forest restoration.

I love working in the Appalachians because of the sheer volume of life it holds.  In the same hike, I can find 10 salamander species, 50 birds and 100 wildflowers.  Working to keep that diversity around is an honor and a privilege. 

A woman with red hair kneels during a pre-burn briefing, listening intently to the information being shared.
Laurel Schablein At the pre-burn briefing during the May, 2017 controlled burn at Virginia's Piney Grove Preserve. © Kyle LaFerriere

Laurel Schablein, Program Conservation Coordinator 

Laurel collaborates with our diverse set of partners to achieve the program's large scale restoration and monitoring goals, including working with fire as a tool to achieve healthy mountain landscapes.

Every day is different and every time I set foot on the lands we support, I feel a renewed sense of awe in these mountains.   


Two women pose together during a controlled burn. Their smiling faces are streaked with soot.
Nikole Simmons (left) during at WTREX fire learning held in California. © TNC

Nikole Simmons, Restoration Coordinator

Fire plays a central role in Nikole’s work, using controlled burning for forest restoration in the Allegheny Highlands. She serves as a lead for the Heart of the Appalachians Fire Learning Network (FLN) and serves on the Women-in-Fire Training Exchange (WTREX) planning team.

I enjoy working in a complex and dynamic ecosystem. The most rewarding part of my job is seeing changes we make in the forest; watching the places we work become more healthy and resilient places.    

Visit the Allegheny Highlands and you’ll experience a rich sense of place—scenic mountain views, vast forests, diverse wildlife, clean waters and starry night skies. Late spring and early summer bring a profusion of wildflowers to the forest floor, while autumn offers brilliant foliage across mountain vistas that seem to stretch into infinity.

Explore the resources below and plan your visit to these endless mountains.

Hit the Trails

A yellow and green trail blaze marker is nailed to the mossy bark of a tree. A mountain ridge is visible in the distance.
Warm Springs Mountain A trail blaze shows the way on Warm Springs Mountain Preserve. © Glenna Goldman / TNC

There are three publicly accessible trails on Warm Springs Mountain Preserve: Bear Loop Trail, Ingalls Overlook Trail and the Sandy Gap Trail.  

Open to visitors during daylight hours, these three trails offer distinct experiences, from expansive mountain views to a close-up look at a globally rare pine barren, along with opportunities to extend your hike on adjoining public lands.

Use the resource list to open and download trail maps and guides. Individual trail maps are compatible with the Avenza PDF Maps Application for Apple and Android. Track your hike with GPS even without cell service or on airplane mode.

  1. Open Avenza PDF Maps
  2. Click on Maps icon at bottom of screen
  3. Click + at top right corner of screen to open the Import Map window
  4. Select From the web
  5. Type or paste the URL for the maps you want into the window, then hit Go.
NOTICE: Hunting seasons run from mid-October to early January. Please wear blaze orange during this time.

Discover The Trails

  • Bear Loop Trail

    From the village of Hot Springs, travel US 220 South for 7.7 miles, turn left on State Route 606 and travel 2.6 miles to the crest of Warm Springs Mountain. Turn left onto State Route 703 (Airport Road) and travel 6.2 miles to the trailhead, just left of the entrance to Ingalls Field Airport. 

    The Bear Loop Trail is located in Warm Springs Mountain Preserve, a keystone tract nested within a 77,000-acre unfragmented forest providing essential habitat for wide ranging mammals and migratory songbirds.

    This 3.4-mile loop trail is relatively flat, easy and wide enough for families and groups of birders and other wildlife watchers. Several overlooks offer stunning panoramic views to the East and West. Interpretive signs highlight the mountain’s diversity of wildlife species and habitats in addition to TNC’s effort to restore the region’s fire-adapted oak and pine forests.

    The trail encircles an area that is being restored through controlled burning, thus providing a diversity of open woodland and shrubland habitat for Indigo Buntings, Eastern Towhees and Chestnut-sided Warblers. Black-throated Green Warblers, American Redstarts, Scarlet Tanagers, Blue-headed and Red-eyed Vireos are also abundant. Also listen for the buzzy song of Cerulean Warblers. This is a great place to learn to distinguish similar forest species’ songs!

    Several seeps, springs and vernal pools provide opportunities to look for Wood Frogs, Red-spotted Newts, dragonflies and damselflies and even rare plants such as Fraser’s marsh St. John’s Wort. Don’t forget to look down as black bear, bobcat, eastern coyote and white-tailed deer tracks are common along the trail

    This trail is also part of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources' Biding and Wildlife Trail Allegheny Highlands Loop.

  • Ingalls Overlook Trail

    At the northern end of the preserve, park at the Dan Ingalls Overlook, located on Route 39 just outside the village of Warm Springs. Here you will find the trailhead for the 2.4-mile (round trip) Ingalls Overlook Trail.

    Interpretive signs along the first mile provide an excellent introduction to Warm Springs Mountain and the region’s natural history. The trail then climbs among a series of scenic rock formations with views of Shenandoah Mountain and the Cowpasture River valley before looping back to the main trail and returning to the overlook.

    If you arrive during the late spring and early summer, listen for the lively song of Indigo Buntings or the buzz of Golden-winged Warblers along the power line right-of-way near the trailhead. Chestnut-sided Warblers and Cerulean Warblers can also be found at this site. Ovenbirds, Scarlet Tanagers and Black-and-white Warblers are abundant summer breeding songbirds in the area but also listen for the less common Blue-headed Vireo and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

    Interpretive signs along the trail provide an overview of the natural history of the area. The trail culminates with a lookout point offering stunning views of Shenandoah Mountain and across the Cowpasture River valley and offers the opportunity for viewing the fall migration of Broad-winged Hawks and other raptors.

    There are many species of butterflies and moths to observe in spring and summer. In the early spring, look for pink lady-slipper orchids, mayapple, bloodroot and other spring ephemeral wildflowers along the trail. Visitors are advised that the trail is a moderately strenuous uphill hike towards the lookout point, but then an easy downhill hike on the return.

    This hike is part of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources' Birding and Wildlife Trail James Loop. 

  • Sandy Gap Trail

    At the southern end of the preserve, park at the small gravel lot on Route 703 (Airport Road) just past the south entrance to Bald Knob. Cross the paved road to the gravel Bald Knob service road and you will find the trailhead for the Sandy Gap Trail. 

    Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, this 3.2-mile one way trail (6.4 miles out and back) features tranquil vistas and unique stone work, travels through the George Washington National Forest, and connects to the Douthat State Park trail system.

    The trail winds through the 18,000 acre Warm Springs Mountain Restoration Project, a collaborative restoration project spanning lands owned by The Nature Conservancy and the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, where effects from land management and controlled burning can be observed. This trail can be accessed directly from State Route 703 or from Forest Road 125, in which case the views of the Falling Springs valley from the trailhead overlook make this a truly rewarding climb. Or park a car at each end and hike the trail one-way.

Geocaching: Looking for Treasure

A medium sized translucent blue plastic container is nestled under a fallen log. Small items are visible inside the box.
Treasure Hunt in Nature Geocaching is a fast growing hobby that provides an exciting way to explore the outdoors. © Settergren from Pixabay

Geocaching is a fast-growing hobby that provides an exciting way to explore the landscape and share special places with other outdoor enthusiasts. Players try to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, using a smartphone or GPS, and can then share their experiences online.

A geocache can be found at Warm Springs Mountain Preserve, part of the geocaching trail along the Appalachian Waters Scenic Byway.  Log on to to set up a free account. 

Start Your Treasure Hunt

What's Nearby

A wide blue lake is ringed with mature trees. A low dam is visible at the far end. A mountain ridge rises behind the lake.
Douthat State Park One of the six original Virginia State Parks. © Virginia State Parks

Ready to continue your adventures? Read on for our insider tips for getting the most out of your visit to the Allegheny Highlands

Go (South)East: Douthat State Park enjoys a growing reputation as one of Virginia’s premier destinations for mountain biking. After a day of riding or hiking, cool off with a relaxing dip in the lake during the warmer months. You can even hike to Douthat from Warm Springs Mountain via the Sandy Gap Trail.

Go West: Camp at Hidden Valley Recreation Area and explore wildflower meadows, the Jackson River and Civil War history in this special corner of the George Washington National Forest. In addition to camping, Lake Moomaw offers exceptional scenery, fishing and boating.

“Come to Bath County and find your perfect campsite in the national forest,” says Laurel Schablein. “The kind of spot you’ll want to return to again and again—next to a babbling creek, old shady rhododendron and a few trees for stringing your hammock.”

Go North: “Fall is the perfect time to take to the winding roads that weave through charming rural towns and the unspoiled forested landscapes of the Allegheny Mountains,” Laurel says. “Continue to the northernmost point of the Warm Springs Ranger District and you’ll reach the remote, one-of-a-kind Laurel Fork. Characterized by high-elevation Northern hardwood forest and montane red-spruce, it’s perhaps the most tranquil place you’ve ever been.”

Eat & Drink: The historic Omni Homestead in Hot Springs offers fine dining, along with plush accommodations for non-campers. Craft brews and a more casual atmosphere can be found nearby at Bacova Beer Company. In Warm Springs, the Inn at Gristmill Square’s Waterwheel Restaurant features elegant dinners, a wine cellar, and a cozy pub.  

Additional Resources

Places We Protect

Experience and enjoy TNC's public preserves in Virginia.

Warm Springs Mountain is a keystone tract that helps stitch together one of the largest undeveloped landscapes on the East Coast, offering opportunities to practice conservation at a remarkable scale.  A 13-mile border in common with the George Washington National Forest allows for collaboration and resource sharing.


A researcher wearing a blue glove holds a bat during a field survey.
Bat Survey Staff from TNC, Virginia Tech and USDA Forest Service conduct a bat survey in the field at Warm Springs Mountain Preserve. June 2016. © TNC
Black and white image of a coyote caught on a wild life camera at night.
Canid Camera A coyote is caught on a wildlife camera. © The Nature Conservancy
Bat Survey Staff from TNC, Virginia Tech and USDA Forest Service conduct a bat survey in the field at Warm Springs Mountain Preserve. June 2016. © TNC
Canid Camera A coyote is caught on a wildlife camera. © The Nature Conservancy

Warm Springs Mountain Preserve also provides a living laboratory where new science is developed to gain insight about the plants and animals of the Central Appalachians region.

Key Academic Partners

The Allegheny Highlands program has collaborated with VCU on avian studies to track the migration of golden-winged warblers and cerulean warblers as well as developing proposals for land management studies for the benefit of golden-winged warblers and other wildlife.

We also work closely with faculty and students from Virginia Tech to facilitate research and provide access to the 10,000 acre preserve.

Recent and ongoing research has included studies to determine the distribution and habitat use of eastern spotted skunks in western Virginia; a comprehensive bat research and monitoring program on Warm Springs Mountain Preserve and the adjacent George Washington National Forest (funded by the national Joint Fire Science Program); estimating population abundance and determining habitat use and movement patterns of coyotes (Canis latrans) in the Warm Springs Mountain Preserve and surrounding National Forest, state, and private lands in Bath County; and studying the predation and scavenging behavior of bobcats, bears, and coyotes on white-tailed deer and the implications of that behavior on white-tailed deer populations.

Support the Allegheny Highlands Program with your eyes, ears and muscles! 

Virginia's Preserve Volunteer Community Program provides a vital service to help up maintain and monitor our public preserves across the state, including our 10,000 acre Warm Springs Mountain Preserve.

How can you get involved?

  • Community Members—become involved with a preserve without committing time to stewardship work. Receive periodic updates about the preserve and special events.
  • Preserve Stewards—visit a preserve at least 4 times a year to assess trail and preserve conditions and perform basic trail maintenance by removing fallen branches and overgrown vegetation.
  • Preserve Leaders—demonstrated commitment to the preserve and willingness to take on additional responsibilities like managing communication & scheduling, leading workdays, guiding naturalist hikes.

Please contact the Virginia Volunteer Program by email to receive further information.

Preserve Volunteer Program Resources