National Parks in Virginia: American History and Forests

Sunset seen from Blue Ridge Parkway in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, USA
The sun setting behind House Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia near the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia. Steele Burrow / Getty Images

National parks in Virginia feature many Civil War battlefields, breathtaking forests, the first English settlement in the United States, and the homes of many important Americans, from George Washington to civil rights advocate Maggie L. Walker.

Map of the National Parks in Virginia
The National Park Service map of the national parks in Virginia. National Park Service

According to the National Park Service, every year over 22 million people visit the 22 national parks in Virginia, including trails, battlefields, historic sites, monuments, and historical parks.

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park

Appomattox Marks 150th Anniversary Of Surrender Of Lee's Army In Civil War
American Civil War reenactors dressed as members of the North Carolina 26th Infantry march during a re-enactment of the Battle of Appomattox Court House April 9, 2015 in Appomattox, Virginia. Win McNamee / Getty Images

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, located in central Virginia, includes much of the village of Appomattox Court House, where the Confederate Army surrendered to Union Army General Ulysses S. Grant, on April 9, 1865. 

Preserved or reconstructed within the park are many buildings and roadways associated with the end of the Civil War, including the Wilmer McLean House, where Lee and Grant met and signed surrender documents. Other structures include taverns, residences, cabins, law offices, stores, stables, and the county jail. The oldest building is the Sweeney Prizery, a tobacco-packing house built between 1790–1799.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Scenic grist mill, fall foliage
Mabry Mill and mill pond reflections during the peak of fall along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. aheflin / Getty Images

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 500-mile long park and roadway built along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina.

The parkway was built in the 1930s under the direction of architect Stanley W. Abbott as one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration projects. The park's green spaces are interwoven with log cabins and opulent summer houses, as well as railway and canal architectural features. 

Elements in Virginia include the 1890s farm Humpback Rocks, the James River canal lock, the historic Mabry Mill, and the Blue Ridge Music Center, which is dedicated to music history in the Appalachians.

Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historic Park

Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historic Park
Reenactors ride across the Cedar Creek battlefield at the Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historic Park, Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. DenGuy / E+ / Getty Images

Cedar Creek & Belle Grove National Historic Park, located in the Shenandoah Valley of northeastern Virginia, memorializes the first European settlement of the valley and the 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek, a decisive battle of the Civil War. 

Beginning in 1690, the colony of Virginia actively encouraged new settlement away from the seaboard and tidal rivers in order to secure the land against the French and establish further incursions into Native American territories. 

Many Native American groups, including Piedmont Siouans, Catawbas, Shawnee, Delaware, Northern Iroquois, Cherokee, and Susquehannocks, were established in the valley at the time and had built permanent and semi-sedentary villages along the river's broad floodplain. 

Settlers arrived via the Great Wagon Road, built between 1720–1761 along an older Native trail called the Great Warrior Path. The road began in Philadelphia and crossed what is Virginia, including the towns of Winchester, Staunton, Roanoke, and Martinsville, terminating in Knoxville, Tennessee, and eventually Augusta, Georgia as well.

Colonial National Historic Park

Jamestown Settlement James Fort Site Virginia Colonial National Historical Park
The James River flows past the 1611 Councillor's Row building foundation as sunlight shines on the 1686 Historic Tower and John Smith statue at the James Fort Site at Virginia's Colonial National Historical Park. milehightraveler / Getty Images

Colonial National Historic Park, located near Virginia's eastern coastline, commemorates the first European settlement of the region. It includes Jamestown, the first successful English colony in North America, and Fort Monroe, where the first enslaved African people in the colonies were brought just a decade later. The Cape Henry Memorial, where the English colonials arrived in 1607, is also part of the park.

Fort Monroe examines the beginning of human trafficking in 1619, when two dozen enslaved Africans, captured by an English privateer ship named the White Lion, were brought to Virginia's shores. 

The battlefield and other elements of the 1781 Battle of Yorktown also lie within the park boundaries. In that historic battle, George Washington brought Lord Charles Cornwallis to surrender, ending the war and ensuring American independence from Great Britain.

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park
Chatham Manor 1768–1771 Georgian-Style Mansion, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. Jeff Greenberg / Universal Images Group / Getty Images Plus

Located near Fredericksburg in northern Virginia, the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park includes the Civil War battlefields of Fredericksburg (November, 1862), Chancellorsville (April, 1863), Wilderness (May, 1864), and Spotsylvania Courthouse (May 1864).  

The park also includes Chatham Manor, a grand Georgian-style mansion built between 1768–1771 overlooking the Rappahannock River. The mansion was the site of an 1805 revolt, one of 250 or more documented uprisings involving ten or more enslaved persons.

George Washington Birthplace National Monument

George Washington Birthplace National Monument
View of the kitchen in the reconstructed house on the site of George Washington birthplace. Dave Bartruff / Corbis Documentary / Getty Images Plus

The George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Westmoreland County, Virginia, includes part of the tobacco plantation where George Washington (1732–1797), the first president of the United States was born. 

The farm was called Pope's Creek, and George's father Augustine, a justice of the peace and public figure, operated it by exploiting the labor of enslaved African people and Black Americans. George only lived there for three years, 1732–1735, before his father moved the family to Little Hunting Creek, later named Mount Vernon. George returned to the plantation as a teenager, but the family house burned down in 1779 and none of the family ever lived there again.  

The park includes a reconstructed house and outbuildings built in the style of an 18th-century tobacco farm and the grounds include groves of trees, livestock, and a colonial-style garden area. The family cemetery is located on the property, although only replicas of a few memorial stones are to be seen. 

Great Falls Park

Great Falls Park
Autumn trees reflect on the waters of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in the Great Falls Park, people on the famous Billy Goat Trail. krblokhin / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Great Falls Park, located near the Maryland border and north of the D.C. metro area, is the site of George Washington's Potomac River project—the Patowmack Canal—and the beginning of what would become the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

Washington had several issues in mind when he proposed the canal. The first was the improvement in travel: the Potomac River was narrow and winding, and it drops 600 feet in elevation over 200 miles from its source near Cumberland, Maryland, to sea level, where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay. 

In 1784, Washington was also interested in interstate cooperation between the new United States, and the 1786 Annapolis convention brought legislators from all 13 states to consider free trade on the river and develop a uniform system for commercial regulations. The shared vision prepared the way for the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site

Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site
The main grounds and house of the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site. fdastudillo / iStock / Getty Images

The Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site on East Leigh Street in Richmond celebrates Maggie Lena Mitchell Walker (1864–1934), a civil rights leader during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow period after the Civil War. Walker devoted her life to the support of civil rights advancement, economic empowerment, and educational opportunities for African Americans and women. 

An African American woman herself, Walker started out as a grade school teacher, but became a community organizer, bank president, newspaper editor, and fraternal leader. The historic site preserves her home, including her extensive automobile collection, from a Victoria carriage to a 1932 Pierce Arrow. 

Manassas National Battlefield Park

Manassas National Battlefield Park
View toward Matthews Hill, where the opening phase of combat occurred during the Battle of First Bull Run at Manassas National Battlefield Park. Visionsofmaine / iStock / Getty Images

As the center of the Civil War conflict, Virginia's national parks include many historic sites and battlefields, but none more important than the two Bull Run battles, today part of Manassas National Battlefield Park. 

On July 21, 1861, the first Battle of Bull Run, the opening battle of the Civil War, was conducted here, ending in a crushing defeat for the Union and the end of any hopes of a quick war for the North. The second Bull Run battle, August 28–30, 1862, was another Confederate victory. By the end of the four-year conflict, 620,000 Americans had died. 

In 2014, National Parks and Smithsonian archaeologists investigated the remains of a field hospital, including a pit where surgeons placed amputated limbs. They also found the nearly complete skeletons of two Union soldiers who were likely wounded on August 30, 1862, and died of their wounds.

Prince William Forest Park

Prince William Forest Park
A view of South Fork Quantico Creek in the Winter.

National Parks Service

Prince William Forest Park is the largest green space in the Washington, D.C. metro area, and is located in Prince William County, Virginia. 

The park was built in 1936 by Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps as the Chopawamsic Recreation Area, where children in the D.C. area could attend summer camp during the Great Depression. 

Prince William Forest includes an area of 15,000 acres, about two-thirds in piedmont forest and one-third coastal plain. A variety of plants and animals reside or migrate through the park, including 129 species of birds. The forest also includes petrified wood, believed to be 65–79-million-year-old Cretaceous period bald cypress trees.

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park
A partially grey threatening sky casts darkness over the Blue Ridge Mountains and valleys, an indication rain may soon fall. Photo taken on the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. Puripat Wiriyapipat / Moment / Getty Images

Shenandoah National Park, located along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Luray, Virginia, is the largest fully protected area in the Appalachian region, including 300 square miles of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Two mountains reach over 4,000 feet, and the animal and plant life is diverse and abundant. 

Most of the landscape is forested, and the water given off by this lush biosphere creates a faint haze which gives the Blue Ridge its name. The park is home to over 190 resident and migratory bird species including 18 species of warblers such as the cerulean warbler, as well as the downy woodpecker, and peregrine falcon. Over 50 mammals live in the park (white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, American black bears, bobcats, and the big brown bat), and over 20 reptiles and 40 fish species.

The underlying geology is a made up of three ancient rock formations: the Grenville Rocks—the bedrock of the long-gone Grenville mountain range, uplifted over 1 billion years ago; the lava flows of volcanic eruptions from 570 million years ago, and sediments laid down by the Iapetus ocean between 600 and 400 million years ago.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "National Parks in Virginia: American History and Forests." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, February 17). National Parks in Virginia: American History and Forests. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "National Parks in Virginia: American History and Forests." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).