Virginia’s State Parks


Virginia’s state parks system was launched on June 15, 1936, when the six inaugural parks opened simultaneously. The creation of those parks was made possible through one of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the goal of which was to create jobs to help pull the country out of the Great Depression. The success of those first six parks in providing citizens with recreational opportunities and preserving Virginia’s natural areas led to an expansion to thirty-four state parks established in Virginia in 2008.

Developing the Parks

On March 31, 1933, Roosevelt signed the bill that created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was to be comprised of young, single, unemployed men who would be put to work improving the nation’s parks and natural areas. Originally intended to employ half a million men, the CCC employed more than six times that number during the nine years that it existed. The men’s achievements included constructing more than 40,000 bridges, planting two billion trees to restore depleted forests, making improvements to shorelines and roadways, and developing 800 state parks. Of those state parks created by the CCC, Virginia’s were the first, due in large part to the inspiration of William E. Carson, Virginia’s first chairman of the Commission on Conservation and Development, which was created by the General Assembly in 1926.

William E. Carson

That year, Virginia governor Harry F. Byrd Sr. appointed Carson to the commission, a post held he held until 1934. Dedicated to preserving Virginia’s natural heritage and committed to providing opportunities to the public for recreation in nature, Carson spent his tenure on the commission developing parks and recreational areas in Virginia, including Shenandoah National Park, often emphasizing the potential economic value of such recreational opportunities. Carson was not alone in his desire to create a state park system in Virginia. In 1929, the Virginia Academy of Science, the Garden Club of Virginia, and the Izaak Walton League came together to pass resolutions on the need for state parks in Virginia. Simultaneously, groups were forming in southwestern Virginia and the Norfolk area in order to advocate for the development of state parks in those regions.

In 1933, shortly after the CCC was created, Carson had the opportunity to spend some time with Roosevelt at the presidential retreat, Camp Rapidan, in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. While there, Carson suggested to the president that the CCC be put to work establishing state parks, at this point a task not yet part of the corps’s duties. A goal that had been on Carson’s mind for years, the development of a state park system would require significant manpower and funding (from the CCC, he hoped), and land, which he promised to acquire. Much to Carson’s pleasure, Roosevelt consented to send him the men and money as soon as locations for the parks could be determined.

The First Six Parks

The Civilian Conservation Corps in Prince George County

Getting right to work, Carson secured donations of land for the first four state parks within weeks, and purchased land for the remaining two shortly thereafter. Douthat State Park in Alleghany and Bath counties was created from land donated by the Douthat Lumber Company; Fairy Stone State Park in Henry and Patrick counties came from land donated by Junius Fishburn, publisher of the Roanoke Times and the Roanoke World-News; and a group of citizens came together to donate land to create Hungry Mother State Park in Smyth County. Another group of citizens in Norfolk were convinced by Carson to donate land to create Seashore State Park (now called First Landing State Park) rather than the Chesapeake Bay national park for which they had been planning. Following acquisition of these park lands, Carson then purchased land for Westmoreland (in Westmoreland County) and Staunton River (in Halifax County) state parks, using funds allocated by Virginia’s General Assembly.

Once the creation of the parks was underway by the CCC, Carson retired from his post as chairman of the Commission on Conservation and Development. In June 1936, celebrations marked the opening of Douthat, Fairy Stone, Hungry Mother, Seashore, Westmoreland, and Staunton River state parks. In a speech at the dedication of Hungry Mother State Park, Virginia governor George Peery said, “State parks are for all the people, and not only will they afford recreation for our own people but will bring tourists from other states … I believe these parks will contribute greatly to the national good as we go forward to the splendid destiny that awaits in the future.” In the midst of the Great Depression, the opening of the state parks provided citizens with some much-needed good news and brought with them the hope of new jobs and economic opportunities in the state.


Westmoreland State Park

Each of the six state parks was developed around significant natural areas in Virginia and included recreational facilities for swimming, fishing, hiking, and camping and also included cabins, restaurants, and, in some cases, family lodges, all built by the CCC. Throughout the rest of the twentieth century, Virginia’s state parks system continued to grow and it now includes thirty-four state parks, five undeveloped parks, and fifty-one natural area preserves (fifteen of which are open to the public); a total of 105,000 acres, with 66,500 of those as state parks.

The goal of the parks has changed little since their initial creation: to provide recreational opportunities for citizens and protection of Virginia’s natural heritage. In pursuit of that goal, the state parks now include more than 500 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding; 237 cabins; seventeen lodges; 1,834 campsites; and numerous swimming pools, beaches, picnic areas, playgrounds, and snack bars. The state parks also provide boating opportunities on Virginia’s major bodies of water, including its lakes, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay.

Attendance at Virginia’s state parks has continued to increase significantly over the decades since the first six were opened. The state parks system was awarded the gold medal for parks and recreation management at the National Recreation and Parks Association annual meeting in 2001.

State Parks

  • Bear Creek Lake (Cumberland County)
  • Belle Isle (Lancaster County)
  • Breaks Interstate (Dickenson County)
  • Caledon Natural Area (King George County)
  • Chippokes Plantation (Surry County)
  • Claytor Lake (Pulaski County)
  • Douthat (Alleghany and Bath counties)
  • Fairy Stone (Henry and Patrick counties)
  • False Cape (Virginia Beach)
  • First Landing (Virginia Beach)
  • Grayson Highlands (Grayson County)
  • Holliday Lake (Appomattox County)
  • Hungry Mother (Smyth County)
  • James River (Buckingham County)
  • Kiptopeke (Northampton County)
  • Lake Anna (Spotsylvania County)
  • Leesylvania (Prince William County)
  • Mason Neck (Fairfax County)
  • Natural Tunnel (Scott County)
  • New River Trail (Grayson and Wythe counties)
  • Occoneechee (Mecklenburg County)
  • Pocahontas (Chesterfield County)
  • Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Historic Park (Amelia County)
  • Shenandoah River Raymond R. “Andy” Guest Jr. (Warren County)
  • Shot Tower (Wythe County)
  • Sky Meadows (Clarke and Fauquier counties)
  • Smith Mountain Lake (Bedford County)
  • Southwest Virginia Museum (Wise County)
  • Staunton River Bridge Battlefield (Halifax County)
  • Staunton River (Halifax County)
  • Twin Lakes (Prince Edward County)
  • Westmoreland (Westmoreland County)
  • Wilderness Road (Lee County)
  • York River (James City County)

Natural Area Preserves open to the public

  • Bethel Beach (Matthews County)
  • Buffalo Mountain (Floyd County)
  • Bull Run Mountains (Fauquier and Prince William counties)
  • Bush Mill Stream (Northumberland County)
  • Chub Sandhill (Sussex County)
  • Cumberland Marsh (Cumberland County)
  • Dameron Marsh (Northumberland County)
  • Goshen Pass (Rockbridge County)
  • Grassy Hill (Franklin County)
  • Hickory Hollow (Lancaster County)
  • Hughlett Point (Northumberland County)
  • New Point Comfort (Matthews County)
  • North Landing River (Virginia Beach)
  • Pinnacle (Russell County)
  • Poor Mountain (Roanoke County)

Virginia's General Assembly creates the Commission on Conservation and Development, and Harry F. Byrd names his good friend William E. Carson as the agency's first chairman.
The Virginia Academy of Science, the Garden Club of Virginia, and the Izaak Walton League petition for the establishment of state parks in Virginia.
April 17, 1933
The first Civilian Conservation Corps work camp is established in Luray.
March 31, 1933
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the bill that creates the Civilian Conservation Corps.
April 9, 1933
William E. Carson spends time with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Camp Rapidan, in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, and convinces the president to put the Civilian Conservation Corps to work establishing state parks in Virginia.
June 15, 1936
Virginia's state parks system launches when the six inaugural parks—Douthat, Fairy Stone, Hungry Mother, Seashore, Westmoreland, and Staunton River—open simultaneously. All of the parks are products of the workers employed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps.
  • Salmon, Emily J. and Edward D. C. Campbell Jr., eds. The Hornbook of Virginia History, 4th ed. Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1994.
APA Citation:
Romano, Lisa. Virginia’s State Parks. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/virginias-state-parks.
MLA Citation:
Romano, Lisa. "Virginia’s State Parks" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 13 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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