Fall Camping in Virginia

I love to go camping. I like setting up my little outdoor home. I like cooking outside. I like sleeping with the sounds of the woods all around my tent. I like the smell of camp fire. I like eating hotdogs cooked on skewers over that campfire and a meal topped off with a s’more or two. Luckily I have a family who enjoys camping as much as I do… so if we have a long weekend in October we are going to spend it camping!

Of course just about everyone and their mother may also choose to go camping on a lovely fall weekend in October.  If you plan on hitting a campground you may just be hitting it with a bunch of other folks. Our new digs have us within an hour of the Shenandoah National Park. This is a gorgeous stretch of land with a winding road traveling along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a popular destination for many a city dweller who wants to check out beautiful fall foliage. There are four campgrounds in the park and most of the spots are first come, first serve. There are hundreds of spots and so we think we should find something for the weekend. There had to be some room… especially if we got there early on Saturday. Plan: wake up early on Saturday with car already packed, get on the road ASAP, arrive at Shenandoah National Park, secure camp site, commence having outdoorsy fun. What actually happened: woke up early-ish, spent hour packing the car and checking the tire pressure and filling up tires, got on the road, got hungry, stopped at Chic-Fil-A, arrived at Shenandoah National Park where sign at gate said ALL campgrounds were full. Crap. 

We did have a plan B because we know us and getting on the road at the crack of dawn to beat traffic, or crowds, or heat of the day just doesn’t happen. Plan B was to head a little further west to the Gorge Washington National Forest. Not only are there several campgrounds in the forest but National Forest is just that… Forest for the Nation and it’s totally OK just to camp anywhere you darn well please. (Just be prepared if you do this. There will be no camp store to buy firewood, or ice, or a faucet where you can get drinking water, and no toilets. Not even a stinky pit one.) The super nice Park Ranger at the gate of Shenandoah National Park gave us a heads up where we may be able to find some sweet spots to camp. “Head east on 211 towards New Market. You’ll head down our mountains, cut across a valley, and head up the next mountain. When you get near the top of the next mountain, before you get to New Market, take a right at the road with a brown sign that says to something camp. It’ll be  paved for a bit but then turns to dirt. There are a bunch of places to camp on this road.” So we did what she said and we found the mother of all camp sites.

Nestled in a valley, just below the forest road, by a babbling stream with awesome climbing rocks we found a site that has been used many a time… and it’s no wonder. It’s perfect. There’s plenty of flat space for a tent (or more), a nicely constructed fire pit, woods to tromp in, a stream to play in, and no one around for miles. Sure cars would go by from time to time, but come night-time it was just our little family having a super time. We explored the woods, Buddy pooped in a hole for the first time, and our dog frolicked and played. We found two nice little kid friendly hikes within a couple of miles of our site. The first is just off of route 211 on forest road 274 and is called Story Book Trail. It is an easy 1/4 mile paved trail that ends at an overlook. From here you can see all of the Shenandoah Valley. When we visited, the leaves were just beginning to change and there was a swath of color you could see on the mountains. The other trail we found was about 5 miles north from route 211 on forest road 274 and was called The Lion’s Tale. This was a short 1/2 mile nature walk. Along the way it told the story of a mountain lion who had lived on the land a very long time ago. The lion explained what the land looked like when she lived there and how it had changed. The kids thought this was great and talked about their friend the lion for the rest of the weekend.

After our two nights in the woods (all uneventful except for the day we left. There was a white SUV that kept driving back and forth very slowly down the forest road. The last time it passed an old man, with a long white beard, wrapped in an old quilt was walking along the road next to the car. Just past our camp site he veered off into the woods. I have no idea where the old guy went and we didn’t see the SUV again. Odd, huh?) we packed up and started heading back to civilization. We decided to drive back home through the Shenandoah National Park. We entered at the entrance on Route 211 and headed north towards Front Royal on Skyline Drive. This is one of the most beautiful places in the US. And while the park is crowded, and you share every overlook with people galore, the vistas are breathtaking and the colors of the leaves changing made the views all the more stunning. And, if you stop and hike into the woods on any trail, you’ll have a little bit of privacy for a while.

We don’t camp as much as we’d like. Weekends are often filled up with soccer games, birthday parties, chores and life. When we do get away, we like to head somewhere beautiful and if it’s off the beaten track then so much the better.  Our original plan may have been foiled, but it was OK because plan B ended up being much, much better.

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