Top 10 Student-Favorite Outdoor Activities Near Southern Virginia University
The fall is an especially beautiful time to be in the Shenandoah Valley, when the Blue Ridge mountains turn shades of crimson and ochre. As the pandemic has restricted indoor interactions and activities, Southern Virginia University students are adventuring outdoors more than ever.
“It’s a great way to meet new friends,” said Will Edwards (’23). “During [the pandemic], it’s been hard to meet new people, but when you’re outdoors, you can have a safe, socially distant activity.”
Here are the Knights’ all-time favorite outdoor activities:
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway carves nearly 500 miles through the mountains from Virginia to North Carolina, winding past parks and breathtaking panoramic views of the countryside. Only 8 minutes from campus, the Buena Vista access point leads straight to a popular overlook where students frequently watch sunsets.
“The Parkway is one of the prettiest places in the fall time because all the leaves are changing colors,” said Madison O’Brien (‘23). “One of my favorite things to do at the parkway is to bring a volleyball and play with my friends. You get a nice view and the weather is really nice.”
Panther Falls is a natural waterpark only 20 minutes from campus. With multiple pools of water to swim and dive into and a naturally carved-out waterslide, it is one of the most popular weekend activities. Charles Ferry (‘20) considers Panther Falls a staple of the freshman experience, recalling many semesters hearing cheers of “Jump! Jump! Jump!” as friends gather on the large rock formation that hangs over the springs.
“It’s a good bonding experience to get everyone cheering for that person,” said Ferry. “Panther Falls is a good mix of fun and the adrenaline of jumping off the rocks.”
A quick and easy quarter-mile hike leads to the falls, which are adorned with foliage and large rock formations where students like to picnic in the warmer months and gather around campfires during the winter.
The most photographed place on the Appalachian Trail, according to AllTrails, McAfee Knob is an intermediate level hike about an hour away from campus. The knob is an overhanging ledge at a peak of 3,197 feet, giving hikers a 270-degree view of the valley below. According to Edwards, the 8-mile hike in the early hours of the morning is an effort worth making to see the incredible sunrise from the top.
“It leaves me speechless every time,” said Edwards. “It’s a beautiful view of Virginia’s rolling hills and valleys.”
Running alongside the outskirts of Buena Vista, the Maury River has moments of both calm, still waters and small rapids. Although tubing and wading are arguably the most popular activities to do in the Maury, many students also take advantage of the calm water to kayak, paddleboard, and fish.
“Tubing in the Maury is peaceful and refreshing,” said Tyler Day (‘21). “These Virginia summers can get so hot, so the accessibility of the Maury just can’t be beat.”
There are multiple parking lots and picnic areas running along the river, available for sunbathers and trailblazers alike. The nearest access point to the river is minutes from campus, where students can walk or bike on the flood wall running adjacent to the water.
Devil’s Marbleyard is configured of hundreds of natural rocks covering the entire side of the mountain, from smaller, climbable stones to boulders as big as trucks. Hikers can scale the boulders to reach various campsites at the top of the mountain. This outdoor attraction is 45 minutes away from campus and is a great place to hike, cool off in streams, or enjoy a workout in nature.
“[Devil’s Marbleyard] is wonderful. It brings a lot of perspective and peace,” said Hannah Crave (‘22). “I find a lot of perspective and motivation out of spending time in nature and enjoying the beauty of God’s creations. Virginia itself is the perfect place to do that.”
The Chessie Trail runs alongside the Maury River, spanning 7 miles between Lexington and Buena Vista.
“I’ve biked on the Chessie twice,” said Holly Johnson (‘24). “It takes a couple hours for me, so I usually leave around mid-morning and stop for lunch in Lexington. Last time, I actually biked a mile more into downtown Lexington and went to The Chocolate Shop!”
The flat, mostly shaded trail has been around for decades, and passes by some historical sites and private farms.
“It goes through three private properties, and they all have cows. They’ll move out of the way for you, but it’s pretty fun to be so close to them,” added Johnson. “There’s also some historical sites along the way, like Zimmerman’s Dam and the ruins of a canal from the 1800s.”
Frequented by students and locals alike, the Buena Vista entry point is a quick 2-minute drive from campus.
The James River Footbridge
A total of 0.12 miles in length, the James River Footbridge is the longest pedestrian-only bridge on the Appalachian trail. Located 25 minutes from campus, the high views from the bridge reveal still waters, occasional wildlife and fauna, and green, rolling mountains.
“There’s some cool hiking trails and places you can climb, and the view is gorgeous,” said Cooper Wright (‘24). “You can see all the hills and mountains going along the river. We went at the beginning of fall when the leaves were changing colors.”
Those looking for a splash can swim below the bridge and see the stunning contrast of the industrial bridge against a wash of green.
“The water is a little chilly but it’s definitely refreshing,” continued Wright. After visiting several times with friends, he gives an insider tip: “There’s actually a hidden platform in the water where you can swim to and climb on to hang out.”
Natural Bridge State Park
Natural Bridge State Park contains over 6 miles of accessible trails throughout the scenery of the James River valley, and its most famous attraction is the 215 foot naturally made limestone bridge, previously owned by Thomas Jefferson. The Cedar Creek and a walking trail run under the bridge, allowing visitors to explore under the monument and feel the drops of condensation leaking down the sides of the rock. Upon careful observation, the carved initials of a young George Washington can even be seen carved on the inside wall of the bridge.
At just 20 minutes away, “this is a perfect fall activity,” says Blake Tebbs (’22). The slight breeze from Cedar Creek will cool you off as you hike past the bridge to the Monacan Indian village site. If you continue on to the end of the 0.8-mile trail you are rewarded with a beautiful view of Lace Falls.
“It’s just so breathtaking to actually see the bridge,” said Tebbs. “You can go bundled up if it’s a little colder, or just go in jeans and flip-flops. It’s not a hard hike.”
Statons Creek Falls
Statons Creek Falls descends 140 feet off the mountainside in multiple cascades into shallow pools. Below, students can wade in the smaller pools or jump into the popular 8-foot deep pool.
“It’s just a small, [25 minute] drive with a fantastic view. You don’t just get one waterfall—you get many” said Devon Riddle (‘23). “My favorite part is just wading through the shallow waters or climbing on the rocks. It’s a great place to go with friends or even by yourself.”
Students who are experienced hikers have named House Mountain as one of their favorite hikes. The challenging trail located 33 minutes away includes sharp inclines and narrow paths, and leads to vast and colorful views of the Shenandoah Valley.
“Hiking is especially beautiful during the fall time right now,” says Karen Rackleff (‘22). “I grew up somewhere where I didn’t really experience the seasons, so seeing all the colors is just really beautiful and fun to experience.”
Trails include trips to either the Big House or Little House mountain summits. The steep Big House Mountain climb leads to the Goat Point Overlook and Tabletop Rock, two large rock formations balanced on top of another. The Little House Mountain trail is a little less intense, but slightly longer, and has a small campsite adjacent to the foggy Little House Mountain overlook.
“There’s a lot of wildflowers up in the mountains, so I’ll go with my friends, pick flowers, take cute pictures, and just have a good time,” added Rackleff.