Can you get married in a Virginia state park?
Yes! You can have an elopement or wedding at any of Virginia’s state parks. If you’re looking to have a small-ish, nature-centric, outdoor ceremony at a cheap or nearly free wedding venue in Virginia, definitely consider a state park.
Virginia State Parks are consistently voted one of the best state park systems in the nation. Virginia has 41 unique state parks, each with its own beauty, amenities, trails, and more. And when I say beauty, I mean BEAUTY! If you want to get married on a mountaintop, next to a waterfall, at a lake, in an open field surrounded by rolling hills, on the beach, at the base of a cliff, in a historic building, in a lush forest, on an island, or along one the state’s many rivers, there is a Virginia state park that can make your dream a reality.
Which VA state park should you choose for your wedding?
This isn’t a straightforward answer because the best park for you completely depends on your vision for your wedding day. Here’s how to decide which will be the best fit:
1. Choose your vibe and scenery
Imagine yourself saying your vows to your partner. What are you surrounded by? Is it the salty ocean air or a crisp mountain breeze? Are you surrounded by your family and friends or is it just the two of you, maybe your pup, and your officiant? Do you want to make your wedding a little honeymoon getaway or would you prefer to stay closer to home? The “where” is super important because some parks are over 10 hours away from one another (Virginia is big!). Decide how far you (and any guests) want to travel. What kind of scenery is important to your relationship? If you love to go boating or fishing maybe choose a park where you can hang out on the lake. Or, if you got engaged after a long mountain hike, you might want to keep the mountains close on your wedding day. Or if you two prefer dates on the beach, plan your vows and a picnic at a state park with an amazing beach!
Take a look at the photos below to get a general idea of what each park looks like. Then check out the Virginia state parks’ official website to learn more specifics about where the park is located, the terrain, and wedding amenities offered.
The Best Virginia State Parks, Ranked
FOR YOUR ELOPEMENT OR INTIMATE WEDDING
I visited and hiked every Virginia state park so you don’t have to (if you don’t want to haha)! The list below was a whole year and a week in the making as I visited a new park any chance I got in between capturing weddings and elopements. And below, I’ve ranked Virginia’s state parks from best to not-so-best.
*** A note about how I chose which state parks are best. Rating state parks is not a science. It is 100% down to personal preference and you probably have differing opinions than me and that’s okay! Here’s the things that I look for in a state park as an elopement photographer and hiker:
- Firstly I look for good views. I take into account how photogenic the park is, if there is a nice space for a small ceremony with a beautiful backdrop, and what the scenery is like.
- I look for good hikes. To me a park with good hikes has some trails that are shorter/easier and others that are longer/more challenging so that it can be good for many couples with differing hiking abilities. I love trails that have some coverage from the sun, a variety of landscape types and unique things to look at (wildlife, plants, views, rock formations, or structures). Bonus points if the trail has overlooks to stop at, clear signage, and room to hold hands side-by-side. Some parks on this list are more geared towards biking paths or canoe trails (like New River Trail State Park, High Bridge Trail State Park, and Clinch River State Park). Bird watching, fishing, learning about history, and stargazing are also popular activities at the parks. If you you have any of these hobbies, parks that cater to those activities would likely be higher on your list than they are on mine. For reference, my favorite ways to recreate in the outdoors are hiking, having a picnic, and relaxing by the water.
- I look for the ability to get away from crowds and find some secluded spots or privacy. I don’t particularly enjoy hiking with a bunch of people around and most of my couples prefer to say their vows somewhat privately or have some time to themselves on their elopement day. So I look for parks that have some quiet spots even if other parts of the park can get busy.
- I also look at what kinds of amenities the park has like public pools, lodging, restaurants, transportation options, meeting spaces and amphitheaters -although they didn’t have a huge sway in my decisions.
The photos below are of each park’s prettiest spot or most iconic view. So let’s get to it and find you a park for your wedding! Here are my favorites:
THE TOP 9 VIRGINIA STATE PARKS
Grayson Highlands State Park is by far my favorite Virginia state park. It’s home to a beautiful Scotland-like alpine terrain, panoramic mountain views, cascading waterfalls, thirteen different hiking trails, dense old growth forests, primitive camping for overnight backpacking, rushing creeks, and majestic wild ponies that roam the park. You can go from exchanging vows at the base of a waterfall to enjoying the view from the top of a mountain all in less than an hour!
Most weddings (particularly those with lots of guests) take place at the Homestead Area which is an open field with a two log cabins and a shelter that seat up to 100 people. Couples planning intimate weddings with a smaller guest count may choose the Buzzard Rock Overlook Observation Deck at the Grayson Highlands visitor center for mountain views without a hike. But, elopements and weddings can be arranged at other locations as well!
The park is 45 minutes from Damascus, VA also known as Trail Town USA, where seven nationally known trails meet, including the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Creeper Trail. Or if you’re more into climbing, the Grayson Highlands State Park is known to be the best bouldering site in Virginia. The park is also the gateway to start your hike summiting Virginia’s highest mountain, Mt. Rodgers.
But keep in mind, because you are high in the mountains here, the weather can be unpredictable and change quickly and the park is also known to be quite windy. And, not every part of the park is accessible by car year-round, so call ahead and plan accordingly.
Hungry Mother State Park has something for all types of nature lovers! The park has over 17 miles of trails that wander through the forests, and around the Hungry Mother Lake. My favorite is Molly’s Knob– which while steep, has the most beautiful mountain view in the park! Besides trails for hiking + biking, Hungry Mother also has a dam, camping + cabins, a fishing pier, boat + paddleboard rentals, a sports complex, and a swimming beach.
A Hungry Mother State Park wedding would be a great idea if you’d love to be outdoors for part of your wedding day, but want a more traditional venue experience with guests. If you’re planning to invite up to 60 guests you can rent an amphitheater on an island. It’s accessible via footbridge and wooden benches are provided. It’s such a unique location and would make for such a fun small wedding experience. There is also a gazebo available for rent at the park as well as the Hemlock Haven Conference Center, the Lakeview Event Facility with full service catering, lodges, and picnic shelters if you want something covered.
Although they do have lots of options for weddings with guests, you can certainly still have a more intimate celebration with just the two of you or your closest family + friends. There are lots of locations along the trails and around the lake that would make for a perfect elopement spot!
If you find yourself drawn more to the beauty of open fields, meadows, lush forests, and mountain views over lake/beach views, consider having a Sky Meadows State Park wedding or elopement.
The meadows are accessible from the parking lot down by the historic area if you want to have a small ceremony without hiking. Or, if you want something more adventurous, the vistas get even better as you hike up the meadowy hills. For more privacy and wildflowers, head all the way up to explore the Piedmont Memorial Overlook.
Sky Meadows State Park has over 20 miles of trails (including the Appalachian Trail which passes through) and lots of overlooks, so you’ll be sure to find a spot you love!
This state park has a special place in my heart. It’s the park I used to visit most when I was a kid hiking with my family. Now, as an elopement photographer, it’s the state park I get to work in most often (it’s only about 20 minutes away from my house)! And I’m not biased, it really does deserve to be so high up on this list.
First Landing State Park has so much to offer: wide open beaches as well as forested ones, marshy wetlands, bald cypress swamps, unique wildlife, Spanish moss, boat ramps + bay access, camping + other lodging, picnic areas, and over 20 miles of trails. If you’re looking to say your vows at a beachy, natural oasis in the heart of busy Hampton Roads, you can’t go wrong with First Landing.
Keep in mind that this is the most visited Virginia state park, so I’d recommend having your ceremony at off-peak hours and during an off-peak season if you can. Interested in learning more? Here’s everything you need to know about having a First Landing State Park elopement.
Smith Mountain Lake State Park was made for lake lovers! It’s right on the second largest lake in Virginia and has plenty of trails with lake views as well as a boat ramp. The park also has an accessible fishing pier, boat rentals, and a swimming area. Smith Mountain Lake State Park also has my favorite picnic area of any state park- picturesque, right on the water, surrounded by trees, quiet, and with shelters available for rent!
Say your vows along any trail with a small elopement or you can rent the covered amphitheater if you are inviting more than a handful of guests or need a wheelchair accessible location. But if you’re wanting something really unique, you could even say your vows out on a boat and then celebrate with a picnic back on land in the park!
This is one of the best parks for hikers! It has over 43 miles of trails, so if you want to hike on your elopement day, I’d definitely recommend a Douthat State Park wedding. My favorite trail in this park is about 7 miles total but it passes a waterfall, has views of Douthat Lake, and finishes at the Tuscarora Overlook showcasing the stunning the Allegheny Mountains. How epic would it be to exchange vows there?!
If you don’t envision yourself climbing a mountain on your wedding day, Douthat State Park has other trails on the edge of the lake that also offer beautiful views. And, if you’re planning to invite guests, the park has an amphitheater you can rent (depending on the time of year) as well as two lodges and the Allegheny Room which can seat up to 65 people indoors if you’re looking for a more traditional venue.
While Natural Bridge State Park is small, it still has over 6 miles of hiking trails that offer views of forests, meadows, and mountains in the distance. But what this park is best known for is its 215 ft (or 20 stories!) natural archway in a gorge. The main trail in this park is the Cedar Creek Trail. Along this .8 mile long trail, you can see the iconic bridge right at the start, a cave and historic Monacan village along the way, and a 30 foot cascade, Lace Falls, at the end.
Because the Natural Historic Landmark is such an incredible sight to see, this park and particularly the Cedar Creek Trail gets quite busy. If you’re considering a wedding at the base of the bridge, I’d highly recommend scheduling it right as the park opens on a weekday to avoid having lots of tourists in the back of your photos.
If you’re planning a Natural Bridge State Park wedding with guests and possibly refreshments, it costs $1000 to reserve the space. If you aren’t inviting guests and it’s just a small elopement with the couple, officiant, and photographer, you don’t have reserve the space but you do take a chance that another event will be happening at the same time. Keep in mind that the park is open to the public and ceremonies can only take place during park hours, so other hikers and families cannot be completely avoided (regardless of if you pay the reservation fee or not). If you want to rent a space for a reception following the ceremony for more privacy, the Natural Bridge Historic Hotel is right outside the park.
Natural Bridge State Park is also a great spot for an intimate wedding because the area underneath the archway is completely wheelchair accessible with the help of a shuttle. So you can get married in nature in front of an epic backdrop while still having all your closest friends and family there to cheer you on!
False Cape State Park is one of Virginia’s state parks with the least amount of visitors. Because there is no public vehicle access, many people don’t take the effort to plan a trip. With 6 miles of remote beach, many biking + hiking trails through the forest and marshes, historic structures, private camping spots, and unique wildlife, this park is a true gem.
If you want to camp for your elopement this would be the perfect spot for a beach ceremony. You could have an amazing experience from a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic ocean, to falling asleep in your tent on the beach under the stars.
In my opinion, the best way to get around the park is by bike. The park is only accessible by foot, bike, the Blue Goose Tram, or boat. To get there you’ll need to travel 4 miles from Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge– either on the beach or on the inner trails depending on the time of year. But that’s part of what makes it an incredible adventure!
York River State Park was one of the first parks I visited after moving back to Virginia. One of my favorite trials in the park is the Taskinas Creek Trail because it winds through the forest and overlooks the picturesque marshy shoreline. But, the best place for an elopement in York River State Park is Fossil Beach.
York River’s fossil beach is a popular place for families to come and explore the outdoors because it’s a short, easy hike to get there. Plus, when you get down to the beach, fossils, cliffs and driftwood are really cool – it makes you want to explore a while.
If you’re considering an elopement at Fossil Beach, plan for a weekday. It’s also important to look a tides chart when planning because at high tide there isn’t much room on the beach for a ceremony and you’ll be walking right up against the cliff base to avoid getting wet. Plan to exchange vows at low tide for the best experience.
If you’ll be inviting more than a handful of guests, I’d recommend having your ceremony at the labyrinth in the forest overlooking Woodstock Pond or at the amphitheater overlooking the York River.
SOME OTHER GREAT STATE PARKS – Numbers 10-23
Although these parks aren’t at the tippy top of the list, any of these could be an amazing place for a relaxed, intimate wedding or elopement. All of these parks have more than one type of landscape or scenery on their trail list. And, they all have spots that would be beautiful for a ceremony.
ALL THE REST
These parks wouldn’t be at the top of my recommendation list for most couples who are prioritizing “epic” photos on their wedding day. While these parks are lowest on the list, it doesn’t mean they can’t be amazing. There are just so many other incredible spots in Virginia that I’d recommend ahead of these ones for a small wedding. But, each of these could be perfect for the right couple with a particular set of needs and wants. And lots of these are still great for a visit, a hike, or a picnic too.
Check the map
See where your favorite state parks are in relation to one another and check out the nearest town or city where you might be able to book lodging if you won’t be staying in the park. Decide how far you and your guests want to travel for your wedding or elopement and see if the parks close to you would be a good fit!
2. Make sure your guest count is right for the park
The second part of choosing the best Virginia state park for your wedding is all about your number of guests. Not all state parks can accommodate large events. They might not have proper infrastructure such as parking for lots of cars, restrooms, or open areas where a big group of people won’t damage the land or native habitats the parks are trying to protect. For this reason some parks lend themselves better to elopements or ceremonies with only a handful of guests while others can accommodate over a hundred in designated areas. Your elopement photographer, a local photographer who knows the parks well, or a park ranger should be able to tell you how many guests are reasonable for a particular spot so that you can follow Leave No Trace principles on your wedding day.
Keep in mind that the state parks’ main priority is not hosting weddings so most of these event spaces that you can rent for weddings with larger guest counts are decorated simply which keeps the environment itself being the main focus! The state parks also don’t have time and resources set aside for showcasing past weddings. This is why they encourage you to call, visit the park, tour the spaces, and ask questions onsite. Call ahead to make an appointment to view a venue space so you don’t accidentally come on a day it is being used.
If you are considering a wedding with more than about 12 guests OR if you have guests who’d have trouble walking on short trails OR more than one guest will need to sit down during your ceremony, I’d highly recommend renting a designated space. Most state parks have picnic shelters you can reserve too if you want to have a laid back celebration or reception after your ceremony. Or, if you want something a little more traditional, you can go the route of picking a park with an indoor venue that you can rent for an additional fee. Reservations for these types of venues can be made up to 11 months in advance.
The table below indicates which parks have indoor banquet hall-type spaces or outdoor spaces with seating for guests that you can rent or reserve. Some parks on this list of outdoor spaces have areas where you could have a wedding but it might not be the most ideal view or location in the park. But if it works for you and your guests- that’s all that matters! If the park you’re interested in is not listed on the table below, it doesn’t have a rental space or designated amphitheater or seating area. But that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t have a beautiful ceremony with guests there- you’ll just have to ask the park!
|Park Name||Ranking from list above||Rentable Venue/ Meeting Space||Outdoor Space/Amphitheater|
(* means I’d recommend)
|Bear Creek Lake State Park||25||✓||✗|
|Belle Isle State Park||19||✓||✓|
|Chippokes Plantation State Park||22||✓||✗|
|Claytor Lake State Park||21||✓||✓*(I recommend gazebo only, not amphitheater)|
|Douthat State Park||6||✓||✓*|
|Fairy Stone State Park||11||✓||✓*|
|First Landing State Park||4||✓||✓|
|Grayson Highlands State Park||1||✓||✓|
|Hungry Mother State Park||2||✓||✓* (I recommend island only, not gazebo)|
|James River State Park||16||✗||✓|
|Kiptopeke State Park||14||✗||✓* (but beach is better)|
|Lake Anna State Park||24||✗||✓|
|Leesylvania State Park||23||✗||✓|
|Natural Bridge State Park||7||✗ (but the Natural Bridge hotel is across the street)||✓*|
|Natural Tunnel State Park||12||✗||✓* (I recommend gazebo, not amphitheater and |
not actual tunnel area except for photos)
|New River Trail State Park||29||✗||✓|
|Occoneechee State Park||27||✗||✓*|
|Pocahontas State Park||15||✓||✓|
|Powhatan State Park||30||✗||✓|
|Shenandoah River State Park||18||✗||✓*(No seating but great spot for |
an intimate wedding at an overlook)
|Smith Mountain Lake State Park||5||✗||✓|
|Southwest Virginia Museum||39||✓||✗|
|Staunton River State Park||17||✗||✓|
|Twin Lakes State Park||32||✓||✓|
|Westmoreland State Park||10||✓||✓|
|Wilderness Road State Park||34||✓||✓|
|York River State Park||9||✗||✓|
What permits do you need to get married in a Virginia state park?
To get married in a Virginia State Park, you’ll need a Special Use Permit. You’ll get that from each individual park’s website or by contacting the ranger office by phone or email. The application costs $25 which can be mailed to the park and they ask that you allow 30 days for them to process the application, so you’ll need to plan that in advance.
In the past, the DCR Virginia state park website had some conflicting information about elopements and microweddings. As of summer of 2022, their website now states clearly that “if you are interested in being married just the two of you, along the river’s edge at sunset or a scenic mountain overlook, yes, you can. You need to hire an officiant, get your wedding license at any Virginia Courthouse, pick your park and get special use permit. It is required. The permit includes photography taken by a professional photographer or commercial photography at parks where a fee is charged for the photo session or photography taken to be used in marketing materials or to sell.” I always recommend talking to the a ranger at the park you are considering to learn all about their wedding or elopement policies before you fill out the permit form.
A special use permit is still required if you aren’t having a ceremony in a state park but still want to have photos taken there.
Need a permit and wondering if you can get away without one? Check out this blog post that describes why that would be a bad idea.
Other questions to ask an official or park ranger on the phone:
- If you are just taking portraits in the park and not having the ceremony there, is a fee or special use permit required for the photographer to take photos there?
- Are elopements and weddings allowed anywhere in the park or just at select locations?
- How early should you reserve the amphitheater, picnic area, or facilities in advance?
- Does the park have any particular rules or regulations that are not listed directly on their website (days they don’t grant permits, road closures, construction, decor, tents allowed, etc)?
How much does it cost?
Anywhere from $30-$2500
In most cases, if it’s a simple elopement or small wedding with only a handful of guests, you’ll only need to pay the Special Use Permit fee of $25 and the parking fee which is usually less than $10 upon entrance to the park.
If you are planning a bigger event with more guests, you may be renting out park facilities or meeting places. These prices can have a large range from $50 for outdoor space rentals to $2500 for top tier packages. Expect to pay on the higher end ($850+) for events with over 150 guests, for some parks that offer all inclusive rental packages, or other parks where booking lodging for multiple days is required for weddings.
Even the highest price is less than most traditional wedding venues, though. So renting out a space in a Virginia state park is a great way to have an amazing, budget-friendly, outdoor wedding.
What rules and regulations are there for state park weddings?
- Some parks only allow ceremonies in designated areas.
- Throwing of rice, flower petals, confetti (biodegradable or not), releasing balloons are prohibited in all parks. Throwing birdseed is prohibited in most parks. Bubbles are allowed.
- Fireworks, including sparklers, are prohibited in all parks.
- Decorations are permitted but they cannot damage the facilities or park structures in any way, including nails.
- Depending on the location and how big an event you’re having (ie, requiring decorations or rentals) you may have the option to rent the space the day prior to set up.
- Pets are allowed in all state parks on a 6 foot leash but they are not allowed in the public buildings.
- Guests not staying the night at a campsite, lodge, or cabin on the park grounds must leave by 10pm as that is when quiet time begins. Parks without overnight stay options may require you to leave at closing time, which is usually dusk.
- No alcohol in state parks without an ABC license from a local ABC office (it can take a month to get the license).
- You are permitted to hire outside vendors.
- All vendors must provide proof of insurance.
There will likely be a few additional regulations regarding your specific park that you will be informed of when you ask about permits so check those out.
When should you have your Virginia state park wedding or elopement?
The best time to have a state park wedding is during an off-peak season or on a weekday. Memorial Day through Labor Day is the busy season for most Virginia parks. Most state park are quite flexible with wedding dates, but some, particularly the more visited ones, have rules about issuing special use permits during this time (ie. ceremonies are only approved for certain days of the week or certain times of days and not on holidays). Autumn, when the leaves are changing color, is also a time when crowds can flock to the parks. Having a weekday wedding will always be a better idea if privacy is a priority when you’re exploring the park on your wedding day.
Reach out to the state park you’re considering and ask if they have anything already scheduled for your tentative date. You may want to consider moving your date or choosing a different park if they already have a big event planned at the same time, like a race.
When choosing the season, you’ll also want to consider the weather. Fall and spring are some of the nicest times for an outdoor wedding here. Virginia experiences all four seasons and you might not want to spend the majority of your day outside in the cold of winter or the heat of the summer. Check out the Virginia Guide to Elopements for more information about average weather temperatures in different parts of the state. Go back to thinking about what you want your wedding day to feel like? What’s the weather like? Let your preferences guide your decision. Keep in mind that some parts of the park and amenities like boat rentals only open when the weather is warm.
What should we do in the case of bad weather?
Part of planning an outdoor wedding is knowing that the weather can be unpredictable. Consider renting a picnic shelter or gazebo for cover if it rains and spend some time there to wait out a little drizzle. Reserving lodging on site or an airbnb close by that you are stoked to hang out in to escape really bad weather can also be a good idea. Bring umbrellas, even if you don’t think you’ll need them (because then the rain will stay away!). I recommend the clear ones ones because they are super cute for photos while still letting in plenty of that flattering overcast light. Tents can also be rented at some parks. This is a good backup plan for rain as well as being a good source of shade when it’s hot in the summertime. If you’re having your wedding or elopement outside in the summer, be prepared for heat with plenty of extra water, and suggest that your guests dress comfortably + bring a handheld fan.
If you’re planning your wedding during a time of year where snow is possible, be advised that parts (or all) of a park may close if it snows. Or if there is ice on the road, it may be difficult or impossible to get to some parks. Having an indoor backup plan outside of the park or keeping your timeline flexible is essential.
Virginia State Park Wedding Photos
Wondering what an elopement or small state park wedding might look like? Check out some of these blog posts for inspiration.
You made it to the end -Now let’s start dreaming up your day!
I know this was a lot of information and you might have a million ideas running through your head. But when you’re ready to jump in and start planning, send me a message!
If you’re looking for someone who has a ton of experience exploring Virginia state parks and who truly believes that small, outdoor weddings are the best way to get married – I’m your gal. I’ll be there for you every step of the way through the planning process to make things easy and stress free. Then when your day arrives, I’ll capture you having an incredible elopement or intimate wedding experience that’s perfect for the two of you!