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Top 10 underrated summer must-dos in Virginia

As the school year winds down to its final few weeks, now’s the time to get psyched for all things summer in Virginia.

About an hour and a half away from Charlottesville lies the Luray Caverns, the largest caverns in the eastern United States.
About an hour and a half away from Charlottesville lies the Luray Caverns, the largest caverns in the eastern United States.

With final projects underway and exam season upon us, it’s not hard to tell that school’s almost out for summer. We really are nearing the end of one long school year, and this summer is the perfect chance to relax and unwind — or, if you’re like me, to seek out new experiences. For all of those staying in Virginia this summer, here are a few adventures knocking at your door.

1. Explore the James River

Only about an hour drive from Charlottesville, the James River is a perfect escape from the indoors and a getaway into nature. With opportunities to venture down the river, fish or camp, the James River is a picturesque summer hang-out spot that’s sure to leave you feeling relaxed. There’s so much to explore, from learning about the river’s history on a guided kayak trip to becoming immersed in the riverside nature at your campsite. I hope to go rafting with friends at some point during my time as a student.

2. Hike through Shenandoah National Park

It’s fair to say that most — if not all— University students know that the Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park are in our backyard, but how often do you actually get there? This summer, make it a point to check out this natural wonder of Virginia. I’ve only gotten to explore Shenandoah from inside the car on Skyline Drive, but I cannot wait to actually get out there and experience its vibrant nature. Enjoy a moderate hike to Mary's Rock Summit, White Oak Canyon Falls or Humpback Rock and enjoy a scenic picnic with some pals. 

3. Visit Montpelier Mansion — step aside, Monticello

Both University students and Virginia tourists flock to Monticello, home to Thomas Jefferson and a staple of Virginia history. But Jefferson wasn’t the only Founding Father and U.S. President from Virginia, and his house isn’t the only one you can explore here. This summer, visit James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange County and learn about his personal and political life and the impact he’s made on the state. While there, you’ll get an up-close look at the house, the gardens and the enslaved laborer dwellings. As a history buff, this is a must-see for me next year.

4. Shop at the Downtown Mall

It wouldn’t be summer if shopping — or at least window shopping — wasn’t involved. Head out to Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall throughout the summer for some Saturday night fun with friends. Check out 2nd Act Books, a locally owned bookstore with used books, or peruse paintings and sculptures at C’ville Arts. Top the night off with some whipped cream at Chaps, one of Charlottesville’s ice cream parlors and a local favorite. I recommend trying chocolate chip — it’s my favorite.

5. Check out Carter Mountain Orchard

Carter Mountain Orchard is the place to be this summer. Only a short drive from Charlottesville, Carter Mountain will be abuzz this season. Spend a Thursday night enjoying live music and savoring fresh peach cider donuts under a spectacular blue ridge sunset. Don’t miss out on visiting this Virginia gem — if I were in Virginia over the summer, I’d be here with a picnic blanket chilling to some tunes.

6. Head out to Virginia Beach

For those of us not from the Virginia Beach area, it’s worth your while to take a trip out to Virginia Beach. Don those flip-flops and throw on some shades as you enjoy a stroll down the boardwalk. Book a weekend trip or just go for a day to soak up some sun, get blasted with Atlantic Ocean water and feel the sand in between your toes — as a Pennsylvanian, I can’t wait for a weekend adventure to one of the most beautiful beaches on the East Coast.

7. Mozy through the Thomas Jefferson Parkway Arboretum

Now before you throw your hands up and say I’m adding Monticello to this list, let me explain. The Thomas Jefferson Parkway Arboretum lies just outside the entrance to Monticello in Kemper Park, along with a gorgeous overlook, bike and pedestrian trails, a pond and a woodland amphitheater — very on-brand for Thomas Jefferson. Walk through paths surrounded with trees and shrubs native to Albemarle County. Let your mind drift off as you immerse yourself in beauty. 

8. Explore Luray Caverns — watch your head for stalactites

About an hour and a half away from Charlottesville lies the Luray Caverns, the largest caverns in the eastern United States. Check out some cool geoscience this summer and take a tour of the caverns — venture on your own or follow an 1870s tour guide for a historical tour. You’ll get to see the caverns’ stalactites, stalagmites and mirrored pools, along with other formations. This site rocks, whether you’re a geology fan or not. You’re not going to want to pass this by over the summer — trust me, I’m taking Fundamentals of Geology this semester and rocks can hold some pretty cool stories.

9. Spend a day at the Udvar-Hazy Center

You don’t have to go all that far to see the world above — that is, to see the planes and spacecraft that once took to the skies. In Chantilly, Va., the Udvar-Hazy Center — the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum annex — is a place for the curious to explore the history of flight. Check out the space shuttle Discovery, feel the thrill of a 360-degree barrel roll in a simulator, and learn about the innovations that led to the aviation we know today. I love how the flight simulators spin me head over heels. 

10. Head to Colonial Williamsburg — and own that breeches look

While you’re spending time in Virginia this summer, take a step away from the familiar and venture out to Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum. Here, you’ll be transported to the eighteenth century and walk the streets with actors donning colonial period attire. Immerse yourself in this rich history by listening to the fifes and drums of colonial soldiers, taking a carriage ride or enjoying a theatrical performance. Colonial Williamsburg offers suggested itineraries for people of varied interests — there’s a Hamilton Fans Itinerary that is calling my name.

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