A patchwork of scenic natural beauty and abundant cultural and historic sites, Virginia offers many outstanding opportunities to enjoy a road trip or scenic driving tour. In addition to five designated National Scenic Byways, there are several themed heritage and history trails to explore with a day trip, weekend getaway, or full vacation road trip itinerary. Few states in the U.S. can compare to Virginia when it comes to mixing breathtaking landscapes with early American history.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
Designed as a recreational motor road connecting Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway is a designated "All-American Road," the highest distinction that is given by the Department of Transportation—meaning the road is unique in the country and is a tourist destination in itself. Following the high crests of the central and southern Appalachian Mountains for 469 miles in Virginia and North Carolina, the Parkway is the most visited unit of the National Park System.
The Virginia portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway is 217 miles long and much of it travels through the George Washington and Jefferson national forests. Popular places to stop in Virginia include a recreated mountain farm near Humpback Rocks, James River, Peaks of Otter, Rocky Knob Mabry Mill (the most photographed Blue Ridge Parkway site), and the Blue Ridge Music Center.
Skyline Drive follows a north-south route along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park and is the only public roadway through the park. One of the country's most picturesque drives, Skyline Drive features 75 overlooks with scenic vistas of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the gently rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont to the east.
Travel along Skyline Drive is leisurely with a speed limit of just 35 miles per hour, taking about three hours of driving time from beginning to end in good conditions. Although Shenandoah National Park is open year-round, portions of Skyline Drive sometimes may need to be closed because of inclement weather. There are four entrances to Shenandoah National Park, including Front Royal near Routes 66 and 340, Thornton Gap at Route 211, Swift Run Gap at Route 33, and Rockfish Gap at Routes 64 and 250. The Rockfish Gap entrance is also the northern entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Colonial Parkway
While only 23 miles long, the Colonial Parkway spans 174 years in terms of colonial history by connecting the historic sites of Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, and Yorktown, known as America's Historic Triangle. The Parkway is part of Colonial National Historical Park, a multifaceted unit of the National Park Service.
With a speed limit of 45 miles per hour, total travel time to drive the Colonial Parkway is about 50 minutes; however, most visitors will want to spend a day or longer exploring the interesting archeological sites, living history attractions, monuments, and battlefields that this fascinating historic area offers. Other popular things to do include guided tours, hiking and biking, nature watching, shopping, dining, and more.
George Washington Memorial Parkway
Located primarily in Northern Virginia, the George Washington Memorial Parkway winds along a route that follows the picturesque Potomac River from Mount Vernon at the southern terminus northward to Great Falls, Virginia. Carefully planned and designed as a grand gateway to the nation’s capital, the road passes directly by Washington, D.C. This landscaped parkway connects a number of naturally and historically significant sites, including many of the country's most iconic monuments and memorials.
Just a few highlights to explore and enjoy along and near the George Washington Memorial Parkway include Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, Historic Old Town Alexandria, The National Mall in Washington, D.C., Arlington National Cemetery and Arlington House, and the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial. In addition, there are several scenic parks, walking and biking trails, and wildlife preserves. The entire length of the parkway is only 25 miles, but considering all of the places to stop along the way, you could easily spend a couple of days in the area, or more if your itinerary includes Washington, D.C.
Keep in mind that the George Washington Memorial Parkway is a major commuter route in and out of Washington, D.C. Weekday rush hour traffic is very heavy and should be avoided when planning your road trip itinerary. The worst of the rush hour usually lasts in the morning from about 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and in the afternoon from about 3 p.m. until 7 p.m.
Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Scenic Byway
Designated a National Scenic Byway in 2009, the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Scenic Byway extends 180 miles through the states of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania in a zone known as the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area. The entire region is famous for its countless historic sites and the route is essential for anyone with a serious interest in American history. You'll pass through battlefields from the Revolutionary, French-Indian, 1812, and Civil wars; over 50 historic villages; important stops on the Underground Railroad; nine presidential homes; and more.
The route starts in Charleston, Virginia, at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and continues north to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. To drive straight through takes about three and a half hours, not including time to stop at the numerous places along the way. Plan out which places you must see before embarking, because stopping at them all would take you weeks.
The Crooked Road Music Heritage Trail
Celebrating and preserving the heritage of authentic mountain music, The Crooked Road is Virginia's Music Heritage Trail. Meander along the winding roads through 10 counties in southwestern Virginia's Appalachian region while exploring the roots and traditions of old-time mountain music. Enjoy country music jams on the porches of local shops and restaurants, browse the workshops of luthiers and fiddle makers, and experience the unique culture and heritage of the region.
For a brief Crooked Road sampling, several sites are located near the Blue Ridge Parkway, making this a convenient and unique Blue Ridge Parkway side trip. Or, plan an in-depth experience to visit many sites along the approximately 300-mile trail during a weekend or longer driving tour. It winds through Southwest Virginia, starting in Franklin County and continuing along the southern border until wrapping back up toward Dickenson County.
Virginia Wine Trails
Home to six American Viticultural Areas (or AVAs) and over 200 wineries, Virginia's many wine trails offer an array of options for a memorable driving tour. Wine trails are located in every region of the Commonwealth, from the Eastern Shore to the western mountains, near charming towns, historic sites and attractions, and scenic vistas. You just have to choose which area stands out most to you.
Although wine trails may be explored all year long, the month of October— designated as Virginia Wine Month—is one of the best times of the year to plan a Virginia wine trails road trip. In celebration of Wine Month, there are many unique wine experiences, wine festivals, winery tours, and travel packages planned across the state throughout the entire month. The number of options is dizzying, so choose an area to focus on and then look into that zone's top wineries.
Virginia Civil War Trails
As home to the former capital of the Confederacy and the sites of the first and final major battles of the American Civil War, Virginia has a significant number of key Civil War sites. The Virginia Civil War Trails program consists of five interconnected campaign driving tours across the state, featuring hundreds of landmarks and significant places that are available to visit. Trail routes and stops are marked with interpretive markers and informational trailblazing signs.
The routes are organized by historical events rather than geography, so you can choose to follow the progression of the Peninsula Campaign or General Lee's Retreat, for example. Guides are available to download for free, so you can meticulously follow the route you choose and have all of the information you need at your fingertips.
Eastern Shore of Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel
The Virginia portion of the Delmarva Peninsula stretches leisurely along Route 13 from Chincoteague in the northern section to Cape Charles at the southern end, near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Visit the famous wild horses of Chincoteague and Assateague, explore quaint coastal villages, enjoy fresh local seafood, and visit a few wineries.
If time permits, plan to include an overnight visit to Tangier Island for a uniquely Virginia experience. The famous 17.5-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is well worth a drive across at the start or end of your Eastern Shore road trip.
James River Plantations
Virginia State Route 5, which connects Richmond and Williamsburg, provides a glimpse of yesteryear as it winds along the scenic banks of the James River past several gracious and storied historic plantations, known collectively as the James River Plantations.
Having survived three wars, these preserved James River manor houses and plantations recall the sophisticated lifestyle of wealthy Virginia gentleman farmers. Each home is privately owned and sets its own operating hours and admission prices, so check individual webpages to confirm visiting information before you head out.