Stretching along the iconic, misty ridges of the Appalachian Mountains in west central and southwest Virginia, the 1.8 million acres of the jointly managed Washington and Jefferson National Forests make up one of the largest blocks of public land in the eastern United States. Steeped in American history, the area was once home to Native American populations and early colonists who survived on the abundance of the land. During both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, the mountainous landscape of the forests served as the background for many historic battles.
Around 1820, mining became a lucrative enterprise in the region and the need for iron and lumber to fuel the great iron furnaces spelled destruction for the area’s forests. Soon, as a result of repeated cuttings, wildfire and destructive floods, the landscape was close to complete deforestation. Due to loss of habitat and over-hunting, many of big game populations were also driven close to extinction. Fortunately much of the forest has returned in the form of growth hardwood and hemlocks.
Today, not only do these newly forested landscapes draw visitors from around the country, but they also are deeply entwined with the local economy; one in six manufacturing jobs in the region are dependent on forest products. The area is also once again home to a wide array of wildlife. In addition to black bears, white tailed deer and nearly 100 species of freshwater fish, 160 kinds of songbirds, owls and hawks, including colorful neotropical species, can also be found in the forests.
Just a few hours’ drive from the nation’s capital, the forests are a popular recreation destination, receiving more than 3 million visits a year. Together, the Washington and Jefferson manage 23 Wilderness Areas and 325 miles of the iconic Appalachian Trail . Although hiking, fishing, camping and mountain biking are the most popular activities in the forests, there are also abundant opportunities for other recreational pursuits including birding, horseback riding, orienteering and cross-country skiing.
One unique recreation opportunity offered by the forests is the Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail , the product of a “rails-to-trails” project that turned a rugged mountainous railroad route between Abingdon, Virginia and the Virginia-North Carolina border into a multi-use trail. More than 30 miles of trail are open to non-motorized recreation and are popular with hikers, bikers and horseback riders. Ride or walk your way across 47 historic trestles and visit the two visitor centers, which were both once train stations along the route.
So, whether you’re taking in the landscape from the old railway trestles of the Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail or from the high ridges of the Appalachian Trail, the Washington-Jefferson offers up some impressive views with a rich history just waiting to be explored.