Take a hike
Outdoor activities drive visits to rural Va.
“Since the pandemic started, people have wanted to get out of their homes and explore,” says Virginia Tourism Corp. Communications Manager Andrew Cothern, “and there’s so much to do in Virginia that outdoor recreation was a natural thing that people gravitated toward, so whether it was biking trails, hiking trails, ski resorts — whatever they’re interested in — there’s a lot of opportunity for them to get out.”
In 2021, Virginia State Parks saw 6.3 million day visits and a total visitation of 7.9 million people — a 1.5% increase over 2020 and a 15% increase over 2019. Virginia also opened Machicomoco and Clinch River state parks last year.
Last fall, Virginia Tourism Corp. received $50 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to assist the state’s 133 localities with destination marketing.
Cycling and hiking are Roanoke’s focuses, says Catherine Fox, Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge vice president of destination development. The organization markets the region as a “metro mountain adventure,” and it sees the most visitor interest in the Blue Ridge Parkway and the hiking “triple crown” of the Virginia Appalachian Trail — McAfee Knob, Dragon’s Tooth and Tinker Cliffs. In January, the Team Twenty24 pro women’s cycling team, which has earned 14 Olympic and Paralympic medals over the past 17 years, announced that it would relocate from Idaho to Roanoke and rebrand as VBR Twenty24.
Virginia’s rural regions have seen the largest increase in outdoor recreational tourism, Cothern says.
AJ Robinson, Tazewell County’s director of communications and tourism, says, “In general for our region, we’re just attracting people who want to be in rural areas [with] clean air [and] lots of space, who are just kind of getting away.”
Converted railroad trails such as the Virginia Creeper Trail have brought tourists to rural Southwest Virginia and aided development in towns like Damascus, which in January hired a recreation program director and a recreation project manager to grow outdoor tourism.
Former Gov. Ralph Northam included $245 million for outdoor recreation in his outgoing budget proposal, part of which would fund the establishment of the Shenandoah Rail Trail — a 48.5-mile former Norfolk Southern railroad corridor running from Broadway to Front Royal. As of early February, the General Assembly had not approved the next state budget.
“It will be a game changer for people being able to even get more safe activities through the towns,” says Brenda Black, Shenandoah County’s tourism and economic development coordinator.
Shenandoah just ended its “Find Your Way Back” social media campaign, with the tagline “to wide open spaces.” One of its visitors centers saw more than 35,600 people in 2021.
Other increasingly popular trails are those that accommodate all-terrain vehicles and other motor vehicles. In October 2021, Northam and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan rode ATVs on the Spearhead Trails network during the Appalachian Regional Commission’s annual conference. In January, the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority awarded a $50,000 grant to the Southwest Regional Recreation Authority for renovations to the Spearhead Trails Adventure Recreation Center in Coeburn.
Tazewell County’s main attractions are the Spearhead Trails and the 32-mile Back of the Dragon, Virginia’s only designated motorcycle route. From 2020 to 2021, the county saw a 10%-12% increase in overnight guests who came for its ATV trails alone.
Outdoor offerings have proliferated. In Shenandoah County, disc golf took off, Black says. Adventure parks offering climbing and ziplining in Virginia Beach have become popular, says Erin Goldmeier, Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau’s public relations director. While in Buchanan County, Breaks Interstate Park and Southern Gap Outdoor Adventure offer elk viewing tours.