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Virginia’s Parks: Hike and Paddle

Virginia, well-known for its historical sites, also features many thousands of acres of state and national parks as well as the U.S.’s first national water trail. For those who like mountains, hike and geocache in Shenandoah National Park and for those who seek water, paddle the historic trails and waterways of Virginia’s Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula.

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia’s most well-known park, celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2011. The park’s 197,438 acres of forests, mountains and streams preserves the region’s legendary beauty. Washington, D.C., is a mere 75 miles from the park’s Front Royal entrance. With more than 100 hiking trails covering 500 miles, the park has paths to suit most everyone. Located near the Byrd Visitor Center, the Dark Hollow Falls trail, a favorite of ours, is a moderately difficult hike of 1.4 miles to a view of the falls.

You can add to the challenge and the fun with EarthCache Adventures, educational scavenger hunts that use a GPS device like your smartphone. To play, sign on to Geocaching and sign-up. The basic member ship is free. Then select a region of the park and an EarthCache link or trail. (You can also download and print the information out ahead of your visit). At each of the several places along the route, you are given information and asked to observe something and write down what you see or think.

Water—creeks, streams, ponds, rivers, and the bay—define Virginia’s Northern Neck and its Middle Peninsula. For more than 400 years people have been drawn to this region. Captain John Smith and his crew landed on the Powhatan (James River) in 1607.

The Northern Neck, bounded by the Potomac River on the north, the Rappahannock River on the south, and the Chesapeake Bay on the east offers more than 1,200 miles of tidal coastline as well as 6, 00 acres of natural areas, including marshes, state parks and preserves. The Middle Peninsula has the Rappahannock River on the north and the York River on its south, as well as hundreds of miles of coastline.

In Belle Isle State Park, Lancaster, paddle some of the 7.5 miles of the Rappahannock River shoreline on a guided canoe or kayak trip. You can bring your own equipment or rent a canoe or kayak.

The region also features America’s first national water trail, the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. This 3,000 mile routs takes paddlers along waterways explored by Captain John Smith in the 17th century as he sailed the Chesapeake Bay, the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula rivers and their tributaries in Virginia and Maryland.

Virginia has three of the trails six “smart buoys.” These relay weather, water quality and other information as well as tell you what the Chesapeake was like in Smith’s time. Simply put down your paddle and input the address below from your computer or smartphone.

For more information, see my book An Explorer's Guide to Virginia (Coountryman Press).

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