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10 Things to Know About State Parks

Which Park – and Why? Plus, What the Heck is a Yurt?

Over the years, our family has visited every single Virginia State Park (that’s forty parks!) and stayed in a wide variety of cabins, ranging from one-room log cabins built in the 1930s by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) to six-bedroom lodges. This past year, we stayed in the Belle Isle Mansion at Belle Isle State Park and the Price House at Chippokes State Park, a restored tenant house built around 1920. 

If you’re considering visiting a state park, there are so many ways you can narrow down your choice – be it time of year, distance, interest, and of course, availability. I hope this list of things I have learned about Virginia State Parks helps make your choice easier and your stay more enjoyable.

1. Staying at a Virginia State Park can be so convenient. 

It’s easy to check availability and make reservations by calling the Virginia State Parks customer service number (800-933-7275) or visiting reserveamerica.com. During the summer, cabins rent by the week, which is six days right now, as they have implemented a cleaning and air-out day between rentals. If there are any vacancies ninety days out, the minimum stay drops to four nights. At thirty days, the minimum stay is two nights. Non-summer stays can be as few as two nights. The cabins and lodges (not camping cabins or yurts) have complete kitchens with a refrigerator, stove, microwave, coffeemaker, toaster, dishes, silverware, and pans, plus a roll or two of toilet paper and a small bottle of dish detergent to get you started. Soap/shampoo dispensers have been installed in the bathrooms, which is why the park system won a Virginia Green Travel Award in 2018. They have recently added pillows and mattress covers that can be sanitized between stays, so just be sure to bring your own bed linens and bath towels (sleeping bags also work).

There are yurts at twelve state parks, including this one at First Landing State Park with a beautiful view of the Chesapeake Bay.

2. Lodging varies by park – the newest thing is the yurt. 

The best description of a yurt is it bridges the gap between camping tents and furnished cabins. The yurts are built/installed on a large deck, and inside you’ll find a dining table with four chairs and a queen-size bed with a pullout twin-size trundle. There are additional chairs, picnic table, grill, and fire ring outside. The yurts do not have electricity or water; you use the campground bathhouse for bathroom facilities. To date, there are yurts at twelve state parks. We stayed in one at First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach. It had a beautiful view of the Chesapeake Bay, where you can watch the large ships coming and going.

3. Douthat State Park and Hungry Mother State Park are two of the six parks with cabins built by the CCC. 

At Douthat, the CCC built different styles of cabins to test which ones would work at other parks. We loved the covered porches on both Douthat cabin #6 (a one-room log cabin with a fireplace, bed, and sofa in the main room, small kitchen, and bathroom) and Hungry Mother cabin #7 (two-bedroom cabin with a beautiful, large stone porch). 

4. The Bowen Lodge at Twin Lakes State Park is one of our favorites for kayaking or paddle boarding. 

With its large open floor plan, six bedrooms, and three baths, Bowen Lodge has allowed us to vacation with our children and grandchildren this year and still do a good job of social distancing. It has a large, covered porch all the way across the back with several rocking chairs. The lot has a gradual slope down to one of the lakes so you can very easily launch your boats and boards right from the bottom of the property. Another bonus: All the newer lodges have a dishwasher and washer and dryer.

Paddleboarding and kayaking are popular at Twin Lakes State Park.

5. Claytor Lake State Park, which was created by a dam on the New River, has a nice beach area, and the water is extremely clear. 

Most of the cabins here are waterfront and have a few docks shared by other cabins on a first-come, first-served basis if you want to fish or tie up your boat. The two-bedroom waterfront cabins are all the older cinder-block construction with screen porches, and the lodges and three-bedroom cabins are the newer style, with cathedral ceilings which make them feel very spacious. At Claytor Lake, we have stayed in cabin #18 (three bedrooms, two baths, sleeps eight) which is across the street from the lake and has a gas fireplace, dishwasher, and large wraparound open porch with rockers. Twice we have been able to get four generations together for our summer vacation at Claytor Lake State Park, not only my parents, children, and grandchildren, but also my sister’s and brother’s families. If you’re gathering with large groups, you might appreciate cabin #13 at Claytor Lake as it is universally accessible and has ADA-compliant fishing access.

The youngest generation learning with a ranger at Powhatan State Park.

6. Westmoreland State Park is only an hour and a half from Richmond. 

The cabins here are older, with some built by theCCC, but the furniture and mattresses have been updated. It is a great place to look for shark teeth and sea glass along the shore. We have stayed in both cabin #24 (two-bedroom cinder-block with screen porch) near the edge of a cliff overlooking the Potomac River and in the Potomac River Retreat Lodge. I must admit after staying in the new lodges at Twin Lakes State Park and Lake Anna State Park, one of our granddaughters was not impressed initially with the Potomac River Retreat Lodge. It is a bit unusual and appears to have been made by combining two old river houses (it has three living rooms and two kitchens). That said, it did not take long to realize this is a special place, and we cannot wait to go back. The main living room has big windows and French doors giving you a great view of the Potomac River. The large patio has patio tables and chaise lounges, a fire pit on the beach, and a pier with a gazebo at the end, just for lodge guests.

7. Kiptopeke State Park is situated on the Chesapeake Bay and a great place for birding, kayaking, and letting the little ones play without having to worry about big waves or undertow. 

The Southern Tip Bike and Hike Trail is right across the street and is the perfect place to bike to the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. Cape Charles, a neat little town, is about ten miles away. Here there are two- or three-bedroom cabins and several six-bedroom lodges, all the newer style. I would choose the one that fits the size of your group.

8. Staunton River State Park is one of the original six state parks, and they did a great job renovating all of their cabins this past year. 

Designated as an international dark sky park by the International Dark Sky Association, Staunton River State Park lends out telescopes to overnight guests on a first-come, first-served basis. There are programs hosted by veteran astronomers throughout the year. They also have a disc golf course and lend out that equipment to guests. Three other Virginia State Parks – James River, Natural Bridge, and Sky Meadows – have recently earned the same dark sky designation, so you could watch for similar programs there.

Bowen Lodge at Twin Lakes State Park is one of Teresa’s top picks for large family gatherings.

9. I favor the parks with cabins, but there are many Virginia State Parks without cabins within two hours of Richmond, making for wonderful family day trips. 

Caledon State Park is known for its old-growth forest and its many bald eagles. High Bridge Trail State Park has a trail that is thirty-one miles long with several access points. It’s great for hiking, biking, or horseback riding. This park’s centerpiece is the majestic High Bridge, which at 2,400 feet long and 125 feet above the Appomattox River, is among the largest recreational bridges in the United States. Powhatan State Park is located on the James River and has three car-top boat slides for accessing the river. They have several well-maintained trails that accommodate hikers, bikers, and horses. Pocahontas State Park has an extensive mountain bike trail system and plans to have new furnished cabins available to rent this summer. There is an outdoor concert series at Pocahontas this summer. At Pocahontas, like most other Virginia State Parks with lakes, you can rent canoes, kayaks, standup paddle boards, etc. during the summer. Exact inventory and days and hours of operation vary by park.

10. The Virginia State Parks have done a great job of adapting to the pandemic. 

Bear Creek State Park and Twin Lakes State Park recently implemented a request-a-ranger program, with a list of subject titles you can choose from, and a ranger will present a private program just for your small group. Chippokes State Park offers tours of the Jones-Stewart Mansion, a fossil walk, and several other programs repeated on a regular basis all year long. Westmoreland State Park and Hungry Mother State Park have already announced their free summer concerts which will follow safety protocol for outside events. 

I hope I have piqued your interest in our wonderful Virginia State Parks, and I hope you and your family have a chance to experience one (or more) of them for yourselves sometime soon. You can get more detailed information, along with a current list of programs, announcements, and updates, on each park’s website. 

Real Mom/Grandma Teresa Schardein has visited all forty Virginia State Parks, including the newest one, Machicomoco in Gloucester. She and her husband Dan live in Henrico and are the parents of two and grandparents of three. Teresa is an amateur photographer who loves spending time outdoors with her family. 

For more on Virginia State Parks, go here.

Photos: Teresa Schardein, Starling Espaillat

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