Family Camping, Adventures in Virginia’s State Parks

by Tracy Carmichael

My husband Jim and I enjoy camping, and we want to give our children a love and respect for the outdoors. Jim, an Eagle Scout, learned the ways of the woods long ago. For him, camping is as natural as breathing. It endowed him with life skills, confidence, and memorable experiences that he often vividly recalls. Much to his chagrin, we suspended backwoods backpack camping once the babies came. Yet, in our transformation to the craft of family camping, we gained so much more than we lost, like, more stuff in the car! Our kids will always know the earth and its rhythms. They will tell our stories, like the time it poured for two days and all we had to entertain us was a pen and paper, as well as delight in their own. We still camp and revel with some of the scouts from Jim’s youth, along with their wives, and now their children. Instead of a camping couple we’re now a camping community. Their scout uniforms just don‘t fit the way they used to, though. But then again, neither do my Levi’s cutoffs!

I must confess: I was a hard-won camping devotee. Though my childhood was spent in my own woodland paradise, the thought of giving up my luxurious indoor sleeping habit was dreadful and downright ludicrous. I kept asking why. What, exactly, was rewarding about schlepping half our belongings crammed in our car through hours of suburban traffic to lie in the woods? Camping required a complete reorganization of priorities and perspectives. Then there was the food. The food itself and the prerequisite hygiene, or lack thereof, could virtually kill me. We ate meals of a mysterious origin that we couldn’t quite perceive in the murky twilight. Thank heavens for the ambience of natural lighting! And how could I forget the moment I was introduced to Dr. Bronner’s Magic Pure-Castile Soap? “Wait! I’m washing my hair, my skin, and the dishes with that?” I asked Jim in amazement. The next day, we would cram it all back in the car, vehicle and people crusted with dirt, and turn around to fight the traffic back home. Somebody had to convince me this was worth it. I think Jim spent more energy persuading me there were favorable answers to my questions than he did earning his Eagle Scout rank. We have two kids now. We love nothing better than to haul twice as much stuff as we used to into the woods, escaping into our next camping adventure. Perhaps someday, you will too.

A universal appeal of camping is that anyone can do it. Accommodations suit all types and ages, with ample opportunities to explore your own interests. It is an ideal way for a family to work together for a common purpose—having fun! Most of the time we’re relaxing in our familiar back yard in the Blue Ridge Mountains. For first-timers, camping in your own back yard is an excellent way to ease your kids into the overnight, outdoor experience. We like to use glow sticks for fun and safety, and everyone has his own flashlight. This is enough excitement for the under-5 crowd! For older kids, preparing meals, navigating a hike, touring surrounding attractions, or simply going fishing can teach patience, organization and self-reliance. We also bring cards, board games, paper and pens, and balls. Lake Sherando is “our” campground. For the kids, turning a day at the beach into a camping weekend is the difference between ordinary and extraordinary.

Extraordinary, like when we load the car and reenact the annual camping pilgrimage to our friend’s place in Pennsylvania - 400 acres of pristine beauty. This is a sacred ritual unsurpassed by any celebration not related to candy. The kids laugh and play, roam freely and explore the countryside, roast marshmallows over the fire and crawl in their sleeping bags as tired as Mom after the winter holidays. Camping can be hard on the body, but it’s soft on the soul. After 15 years, this campout, like those credit card commercials say, is “priceless”. In this high tech , go-go, and “Just Do It” world, how wonderful it is to step outside of our fast-forward lives to reconnect with each other and the timelessness of the wilderness.

History, natural beauty and one’s true nature have a peculiar way of revealing themselves during a campout. You abandon the frustrations and pressures of work and the slowpoke at the checkout that held up the line for eternity. You adopt an exquisite environment, a healthy escape and the challenge of becoming an independent survivor (well, except for the car, and the bathhouse, and the cooler...) When the only things you forgot this time were the clean towels, or the storms are swiftly approaching, or your son starts throwing up, you find out what you’re really made of.

It’s this process of reconnection, revelation and reliance that compels us to return to the woods time and again. We revisit our favorite camping sites and places and also revisit sites and places within ourselves. I urge you to begin thinking about your next family campout and start now to enjoy a family adventure filled with Virginia’s breathtaking natural beauty. It’s not necessary to venture far from Charlottesville to find some great places for a relaxing picnic or a two-week campout ! Most parks are situated in picturesque locations on lakes or rivers and also offer guided trails, exhibits, hands-on activities, festivals, special events and the Junior Ranger Program--all of which help to support the Virginia Standards of Learning.

So roll up those sleeping bags, load the picnic basket, grab the lantern, sunscreen, and more fixings, and visit some of Virginia’s best locations! Virginia State Parks charge an admission fee of $2-4/car, along with minimal facility fees for camping, swimming, and water and electric hook-ups. Campground amenities such as restrooms, showers, and trailer dump stations (excepting Lake Anna), as well as electric and water hook-ups for trailers and water hookups for tent camping, playgrounds, hike and bike trails and picnic areas are standard. To make reservations at any of the following state parks, call the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation at 1-800-933-PARK. The phone numbers listed below will connect you with local rangers who can provide you with general information but cannot accept reservations. Another way to find out more about our 34 state parks and nearly 30 natural areas is to visit their very comprehensive Web site (withdriving directions, too!)

According to legend, when fairies learned of the death of Christ they wept tears that crystallized to form the rare beautiful crosses of brown staurolite that give Fairy Stone State Park its name. The park is also well known for its 168-acre lake adjoining Philpot Reservoir that offers lake swimming, fishing, rowboats, canoes, paddle boats, hydro-bikes, and two playgrounds, including one in the water! Overnighters can choose from cabins or tent sites. Location: Central Virginia (540) 930-2424

False Cape State Park is accessible through the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge only by foot, bicycle, boat or Terra Gator, a specially designed beach transporter that minimizes impact to the Park’s unique natural environment. False Cape is a mile-wide barrier spit between Back Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The park provides an extensive environmental education program in one of the last undisturbed coastal environments on the East Coast perfect for families who enjoy rugged adventures far from the modern world. Facilities are primitive, with only 12 tent sites. Similar in shape and size to Cape Henry, False Cape lured boats into shallow waters, thus earning its reputation as a ship’s graveyard in the 1800s. . Reservations are required for both camping and riding on the Terra Gator (800-933-PARK). Those wishing to merely get a “taste of the park” can ride the tram that provides round trip transportation from Little Island City Park during the warm months. Location: Southern Virginia Beach (757) 426-7128

Explore the seashore, lagoons, marshes and giant cypress trees and imagine how it all looked nearly 400 years ago,when the 100 or so settlers who continued up the James River to build Jamestown established the first elective government in English America here. First Landing State Park and Natural Area attracts more than a million visitors each year to enjoy the 19 miles of hiking trails, guided kayak ecological tours, a swimming beach, boat ramps, kayak rental, bicycle trails and the Chesapeake Bay Center featuring aquariums and a wet lab. Location: Tidewater/Eastern Shore. (757)412-2300

According to legend, Molly Marley and her child were among the survivors taken by Native American raiders following the destruction of several settlements on the New River, south of what is now Hungry Mother State Park. Mother and child eventually escaped and, after wandering through the wilderness with only berries to eat, Molly collapsed. When help finally arrived, the only words the child could utter were “hungry mother.” A search party found Molly dead at the foot of the mountain now known as Molly’s Knob. Families can enjoy canoe tours, nature hikes, campfire storytelling, Critter Crawl (aquatic sampling), and junior naturalist programs. Monthly summer programs include kids’ fishing tournaments, folk dances, and music. Choose from lodge, cabins, or tents for overnight stays. Location: Southwestern Virginia (276)781-7400

Gold was first discovered in the Goodwin Gold Mine at Lake Anna in 1829. Peaking in the 1880s, panning for gold has become popular again with children visiting Lake Anna State Park. The last gold to be found was in a zinc mine during the 1940s but the little prospectors have hope for another “big find”. Families can also swim at a guarded beach, go boating and fishing on the lake, use the playground, and fish at a specially designed pond for children and people with disabilities. Location: Northern Virginia (540) 854-5503

The creation of Natural Tunnel began more than a million years ago in the early glacial period when groundwater bearing carbonic acid percolated through crevices and slowly dissolved surrounding limestone and dolomite bedrock. Many fossils can be found in the creek bed and on tunnel walls (take the free chairlift to the tunnel) that give clues to the natural history of Virginia. Visitors to Natural Tunnel State Park also enjoy wild cave trips, canoe trips, swimming, a visitor center, an amphitheater and interpretive programs. Location: Blue Ridge Highlands (276)940-2674

Whether your family is searching for a scenic hike, a rugged outdoor adventure, or a peaceful getaway that offers everything from lectures to folk dances, Virginia’s State Parks offer something for everyone!

Tracy is a Charlottesville mom and enjoys family camping and adventure traveling and delegating during both. Park profiles written by John Mathis and Samantha Masone.

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