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Five great camping spots in Virginia
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Five great camping spots in Virginia

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I unzipped the tent and was immediately greeted by an eager breath of crisp mountain air. The first hues of sunlight melted skyward from behind a neighboring ridge, and a thin veil of mist hovered above the dewy undergrwoth that carpeted the nearby forest.

I emerged from my cocoon of sleep, heated some water for coffee and pondered the silence of the morning while contemplating the many opportunities for adventure ahead of me.

There are few better ways to greet the morning than from the outdoors, and Virginia is rich with opportunities. From its three dozen state parks to millions of acres of public lands, there is no shortage of gorgeous spots to pitch a tent. If you prefer open vistas or quiet trails, splashing in a lake or scaling a mountain, there's a spot for you with a campsite nearby.

On this particular day, Sherando Lake, tucked away in a vernal Blue Ridge Mountain valley, would be our playground. We'd start with a hike around a glassy lake, enjoy a picnic lunch next to a multilevel playground, spend the afternoon lounging on a sandy beach, enjoy a campfire dinner under a canopy of trees and finish the evening with a firefly-lit stroll next to a babbling stream. And we'd do it all without leaving the campground.

From my own experience – with a wife and two young daughters in tow – here are five great sites that represent some of the best all-around camping that Virginia has to offer.

Douthat State Park

Bath/Allegheny counties

In the Allegheny Mountains not far from the West Virginia border, Douthat has it all – mountain trails, a centerpiece lake with a swimming beach, playgrounds and picnic areas, cabins and tent sites. One of the highest compliments I can pay this park is that, although I had never visited that part of the state, I found no reason to explore outside the park during a recent weeklong stay. There was enough to experience within the park's wooded boundaries to keep our family entertained, and we didn't come close to seeing it all.

One of Virginia's six original state parks, Douthat is a particularly great place for young campers, with daily youth-focused nature programs (in season) and even a kids-only fishing area. But campers without kids can enjoy the park from its 40 miles of hiking and biking trails, a rented boat or just a quiet, screened porch on one of the park's cabins.

(540) 862-8100; www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/douthat

Sherando Lake Recreation Area

Augusta County

This popular camping area actually is home to two lakes – its namesake, which has a swimming beach as well as boating access, and the upper lake, which is ringed by a quiet trail. The park has tons of amenities to keep families happy, from RV and tent camping to hiking and water activities. There also is a playground and plenty of open space for kids to run around.

The entire campground, part of the George Washington & Jefferson National Forests, is nestled in southern Augusta at the feet of the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains, which provide a picturesque backdrop in every direction. And several trails lead into those mountains for excellent views of the lake and the ridges beyond.

(540) 291-2188; www.fs.usda.gov or recreation.gov (for both, search "Sherando")

Todd Lake Recreation Area

Augusta County

You may be noticing a pattern: Many of the state's natural areas are centered around lakes or other water features. Todd Lake is no different. Here in the northern part of Augusta, visitors can enjoy outdoor activities such as volleyball, horseshoes and a playground in addition to the large beach by the 7½-acre lake.

Camping is a little more primitive here, with no electrical hookups, but there are restrooms and showers. And you can access plenty of trails that are popular among hikers and mountain bikers.

The area, also part of the national forest, was closed for the 2015 season for reconstruction of Todd Lake Dam, but the U.S. Forest Service expects the work to be complete in time for summer visitors this year.

(540) 432-0187; www.fs.usda.gov/gwj (search "Todd Lake")

Loft Mountain

Albemarle County

Loft Mountain is a deceptively large campground on top of the 3,400-foot Big Flat Mountain at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park. It's the largest campground in the park, but it doesn't feel crowded thanks to a proliferation of low, dense vegetation between sites.

During our most recent visit we chose a walk-in site, which meant we had to carry our supplies a few hundred feet from the parking area. But we were rewarded for that minor inconvenience with a sense of silent solitude, even though the campground's 200 sites were full.

From its perch on top of the mountain, the campground offers stunning views of nearby ridges and valleys, and its location makes it a perfect base for exploring the park's southern regions.

(540) 999-3500 (option 2); nps.gov/shen (select "Camping in Shenandoah") or recreation.gov (search "Loft Mountain")

False Cape State Park

Virginia Beach

Let's leave the mountains and head to the beach. You can't access this park by vehicle, so any camping you'll do here will be of the more primitive variety. But there aren't many other places where you pitch a tent right on the beach amid such pristine surroundings. Sure, you might get a little sand in your sleeping bag, but you'll also fall asleep to the sound of gentle waves and awake to the sunrise over the Atlantic.

Spend your days exploring the marshes, forests and dunes, and check out the wildlife that teems in the air, land and sea (you might even spot one of the area's wild pigs).

To get into the park you'll need to hike, bike, boat or take the tram that runs from the nearby Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. But the experience is worth the effort.

(757) 426-7128; www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/false-cape




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