Virginia's Public Lands
Celebrating the contribution public lands make to our state’s natural heritage, culture and economy.
By Daniel White
The sheer diversity of local, state and federal lands protected for the benefit and enjoyment of Virginians and our visitors is cause for pride and celebration. And celebrating is exactly what’s in store, as the commonwealth and the whole conservation community mark Virginia's second Public Lands Day.
In early 2017, the General Assembly officially designated the last Saturday in September for Virginia’s annual recognition of the contribution public lands make to our state’s natural heritage, culture and economy.
Roughly 3.7 million acres of land across Virginia is managed for public benefit. From the smallest city parks to the vast George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, our shared green spaces provide vital natural services: clean water, recreation to boost our physical and mental well-being, habitat for diverse wildlife, and economic activity and jobs.
Here’s a mere sampling of the countless benefits that Virginia’s public lands offer:
- Virginia’s 37 state parks offer thousands of campsites, hundreds of cabins, more than 600 miles of trails and easy access to activities such as boating, fishing and swimming.
- Virginia’s 24 state forests provide 300 miles of trails exclusively for non-motorized uses such as hiking, horseback riding, and biking; 81 miles of open roads; and many lakes and rivers for fishing, canoeing and kayaking.
- Virginia’s 41 wildlife management areas offer 200,000+ acres for public recreation, including traditional activities such as hunting, trapping and fishing.
- More than 2.3 million acres of national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other federal lands serve as a massive public playground for hiking, camping, wildlife watching and sightseeing.
- Outdoor recreation in Virginia generates $21.9 billion in consumer spending and $1.2 billion in state and local tax revenues, while directly supporting 197,000 jobs that put $6.5 billion into people’s paychecks.
By any measure, there’s a lot to love about Virginia’s public lands.
Explore Your Public Lands
My work for The Nature Conservancy has taken me to some of the most amazing places on Earth, including national parks from Arizona to Zambia. As the saying goes, though, there’s no place like home.
From my home near Charlottesville, a half-hour drive will take me to Shenandoah National Park or the Blue Ridge Parkway and my choice of hikes to scenic waterfalls or stunning mountain vistas. In even less time, I can be paddling my kayak on one of many tranquil lakes protected within our Albemarle County parks.
Virtually anywhere you live or visit within the commonwealth will offer similar opportunities. I will confess, though, to a certain bias not only in favor of my local parks, but also toward the public lands whose conservation stories I’ve been fortunate to help tell over the years for the Conservancy.
For more than 50 years, our organization has worked in partnership with many dedicated conservationists, from visionary individuals to local, state and federal agencies to protect more than 346,000 acres in Virginia. As a result, more than a third of all the land the Conservancy has helped protect in Virginia now lies within the boundaries of public lands.
So in addition to inviting public visitation at Conservancy preserves, such as Warm Springs Mountain and the Virginia Coast Reserve, we have had a hand in creating more than 120,000 acres of public land across the state.
Below are some of our greatest hits, by region, that you are encouraged to visit—or see again.
Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge
Expanding the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge has been central to the Conservancy’s partnership with state and federal agencies—and individuals including singer James Taylor—to preserve globally important habitat for migratory birds. Our contributions to the refuge include Wise Point, which features a popular public boat launch. Opportunities abound here for birding, photography, wildlife watching, fishing and boating.
Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
In the early 1970s, the nation’s first major corporate donation for conservation—from Union Camp to the Conservancy—protected the first 50,000 acres that would soon become Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Now exceeding 110,000 acres, the refuge is a magnet for migratory birds and a must-see if you’re looking to expand your birding life list. And your bucket list should definitely include canoeing or kayaking among the cypress trees on Lake Drummond.
Dragon Run State Forest
Virginia’s Department of Forestry acquired the first of several large tracts from the Conservancy in 2008 to create Dragon Run State Forest. Today, more than 9,500 acres of state forest anchor a network of conservation lands covering a remarkable 23 percent of the Dragon Run watershed, which feeds critical clean water to the Chesapeake Bay. The state forest is accessible for varied outdoor activities, including hunting and horseback riding, while Dragon Run itself offers one of Virginia’s finest blackwater paddling experiences.
Ivy Creek Natural Area
Over several years in the 1970s, the Conservancy worked with citizen groups and officials from Albemarle County and the city of Charlottesville to protect the entirety of the former Riverview Farm, which faced impending development. Today, the 215-acre Ivy Creek Natural Area is Charlottesville’s preeminent site for environmental education and recreation. Ivy Creek features six miles of family-friendly trails for you to explore, or for a different perspective, paddle your canoe or kayak into the natural area from the boat launch below the Woodlands Road bridge.
Great Falls Park
A 1957 Conservancy publication—undertaken with support from several partners—helped galvanize support for a park at Great Falls on the Potomac River. The National Park Service protected the land in 1960, and Great Falls Park opened in 1966. Only 15 miles from the nation’s capital, Great Falls hosts a half-million visitors annually for activities ranging from picnics and hikes to whitewater paddling.
Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve
A decade-long collaboration involving Stafford County, state and federal agencies, and private organizations came to fruition in 2008 with the establishment of Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve. The Conservancy and Army Corps of Engineers helped fund the commonwealth’s acquisition of nearly 2,900 acres on this peninsula rising above the Potomac River. Crow’s Nest is one of the most recent sites to open to the public, offering 8 miles of forest hiking, a shoreline birding/nature trail and an ADA-accessible canoe/kayak launch.
Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge
The Nature Conservancy transferred Tobys Point to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1999 to help create the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which protects land along the main branch of the Rappahannock. As part of a coalition with several other conservation organizations, the Conservancy works with the refuge toward a goal of protecting 20,000 acres along the Rappahannock and major tributaries.
Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve
The Conservancy purchased and then transferred this 1,000-acre natural area to the state in 1996. Resembling the hump of a bison charging from surrounding hills, Buffalo Mountain is an iconic landmark in Floyd County, and your hike to the summit will reward you with spectacular 360-degree views.
Pinnacle Natural Area Preserve
Since 1989, the Conservancy has worked with Russell County and the commonwealth to protect and expand the Pinnacle Natural Area Preserve. This state preserve follows Big Cedar Creek for two miles to its confluence with the Clinch River. Pinnacle offers scenic hiking, including views of the towering rock formation that gives the site its name, along with fishing in Big Cedar Creek, birding and wildlife watching.
Don’t stop here! Virginia’s public lands offer a rich variety of experiences. Check out our interactive map below and find your next public-lands adventure!
Interactive map created by Chris Bruce, The Nature Conservancy