My family has been enjoying one of Virginia’s gorgeous parks for years – hiking the trails of York River State Park and canoeing its river. When my children were young, they attended summer camps there to study native plants and animals. Located eleven miles west of Williamsburg, it allows visitors access to an area rich in marine life. But after more than a decade living in Virginia, I had seen little else of what has been called the nation’s best system of state parks.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it used to be to get my daughters outdoors. Homework assignments and extracurricular activities have made it more challenging to convince them to strike out on screen-free adventures. Granted, my teenager traveled to Kiptopeke State Park on the Eastern Shore for an overnight school trip and had a blast with her friends, but sadly, a family outing was a harder sell. I didn’t give up on my commitment to visit more state parks because I know this: In order for my children to grow up wanting to protect our natural resources, they need to be exposed to them.
The first place we went was Twin Lakes State Park because it’s only about an hour southwest of Richmond. This 548-acre park includes six miles of hiking trails and two lakes: 36-acre Prince Edward Lake and 15-acre Goodwin Lake. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, visitors can swim at the guarded beach, but rowboats and canoes are available for rent year-round.
Until this trip, I hadn’t realized how many special programs are offered through Virginia State Parks. Our visit coincided with the Fall Festival at Twin Lakes. During the day, there were a variety of themed activities, such as a corn kernel pit and a corn hole tournament. In the evening, there was trick-or-treating in the 33-site campground, and for adolescents, ghost stories on the trails. The Haunting on the Lake ghost walk winds through the forest of Prince Edward-Gallion for a half-mile of scary fun.
We stayed in an adorable 2-bedroom cottage near Prince Edward Lake. It was extremely clean with hardwood floors and rustic decorations. We dined outside on the deck and appreciated the fire pit full of wood. The staff arranged for the canoes we rented to be waiting at the docks for us the next morning so we could make the most of our time on the water.
Our next family adventure was at nearby High Bridge Trail State Park. The 31-mile trail snakes through 1,206 acres in the counties of Cumberland, Nottoway, and Prince Edward. Visitors can hike, bike, or horseback on this former rail corridor with ease because it’s flat. We accessed the trail from Camp Paradise Road to see the park’s centerpiece, the High Bridge. Built in 1853, it soars 125 feet above the Appomattox River, and at 2,400 feet long, it offered us a fabulous vantage point to enjoy the fall foliage. Whether you opt to walk or ride the longest recreational bridge in Virginia, this historic landmark delivers majestic views that are well worth the trip.
We had so much fun on our first weekend away, we ventured to Southwest Virginia for another. I had heard about the Natural Tunnel State Park, near Duffield in Scott County, years ago from a friend. Since we were visiting the park in late November, when it was too cold to enjoy time on the water, my children had questioned if it would be worth the 6-hour trip. But the view from the massive limestone ridge – one million years in the making – erased those doubts.
More than ten stories tall, the Natural Tunnel has been called the eighth wonder of the world. There are seven walking trails at this 909-acre park, but the most popular is the 530-foot hike down to the tunnel floor. It’s not even a half-mile, but many visitors opt to ride the chair lift – especially back up. We walked along the steep path, which includes a series of steps where the incline is most severe, and then meandered along the 500-foot boardwalk, which winds through the gorge so visitors can stand at the base of the tunnel. Because the railroad that runs through the tunnel is still in use, visitors are only allowed to walk through it on Railroad Day, the third Saturday in July. Still, standing in the basin surrounded on three sides by 400-foot cliffs, my 12-year-old asked, “Why didn’t you tell us it was this incredible?” I tried – I really had! – but some things you have to see for yourself.
Since our visit occurred at the beginning of the holiday season, white lights lined the trails and spotlights illuminated the tunnel in the evening. It took the decorating experience literally to a whole new level. Dangling in the dark on the chair lift above the gorge was my daughters’ favorite part of our excursion because it accented the sheer size of the ridge.
That night, on the platform, a duo from Tennessee, called the Pea Pickin’ Hearts, played holiday tunes and country music favorites. We roasted marshmallows at one of the fire pits and drank hot chocolate while watching children take pictures with Santa. At the opposite end of the river basin was Carter cabin. We walked there as well to see the historical interpreters wearing period clothing, singing carols, and telling tales inside the cabin, built in 1775.
The next morning, perched at the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the newly built cabin where we stayed, I enjoyed my coffee in a rocking chair on the covered porch while my younger daughter nestled in front of the gas lit fireplace.
Our experiences at the Virginia State Parks we visited provided a great reminder: Sometimes the best gifts can’t be boxed or bagged. This Mother’s Day, I have asked my family for my favorite present – more time together enjoying Mother Nature. Luckily, Virginia is home to more than three dozen state parks, so we have enough adventures to keep us busy for years to come.
Every Season is Virginia State Park Season
Richmonder Dan Schardein always liked the outdoors, but in 2015, he made the conscious decision to visit every state park in Virginia. In December 2018, he accomplished this feat. His wife, Teresa, plans to finish seeing all of the parks this year (all the photos, with the exception of High Bridge Trail and the one above, are hers). The newer Widewater State Park in Stafford and Breaks Interstate State Park on the Kentucky border are on her list.
Dan and Teresa have been married for thirty-eight years. They visited their first state park when they were dating – First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach. Since then, they have traveled to many of the parks with their family – including their two grown children and three grandchildren. While Dan said people should follow his lead and try to get to all of the parks, you can turn the page and check out a list of his recommendations by season to get RFM families started. Also, visit RFMonline.com and click on Online Extras under Community for additional insight from Teresa on lodging options, activities, and more family-friendly tips and strategies for making the most of your trip.
Bear Creek Lake State Park is an hour west of Richmond and boasts a 40-acre lake. Since it’s surrounded by the 16,000-acre Cumberland State Forest, Dan says, “There’s lots for kids to do.” In addition to the 16-mile long Willis River Trail, recreational activities include hiking, fishing, boating, biking, swimming, and even horseback riding on the 14-mile long Cumberland Multi-use Trail.
Area attractions for families include Monticello, so if you’re interested in staying overnight at their cabins, lodge, or campground, there’s plenty to keep everyone in the family entertained.
Claytor Lake State Park is in Dublin, which is a 3-hour drive from Richmond and easy to reach off Route 81. Four generations of Schardeins have rented a lodge there for three summers in a row now.
“It’s got a great beach with clear water since the lake is from the damming of the New River,” Dan says. “The concessions and bathhouses make it ideal for families.”
In addition to the swimming, fishing, and boating, Dan thinks families will appreciate the seven miles of trails for gentle hikes.
While Dan thinks the Natural Tunnel State Park affords families a lot of great options in autumn, he also suggests a closer destination. James River State Park in Gladstone is 1,561 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains and only two hours west of Richmond. The fifteen miles of multi-use trails not only take visitors along the river, but to the picturesque Tye River Overlook. With sixteen cabins, two lodges, and camping, there’s an overnight facility for every budget. Also, James River State Park Outdoor Adventures provides canoe, kayak, and tube rentals in addition to shuttle services, making it easy for families to enjoy the environment.
Chippokes Plantation State Park in Surry County is home to one of the longest continuously farmed operations in the country. It’s also the site of Chippokes Farm and Forestry Museum, complete with animals and antique equipment. In addition to its historic grounds, Dan says the park’s location on the James River means adults can relax under huge bald cypress trees while kids play on the beach. At 1,947 acres, there are four cabins, a campground, and an Olympic-size pool. Dan has brought his granddaughters here twice to enjoy the twelve miles of trails, which are ideal for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders since there’s not much traffic.
Any Time of Year
While the facilities at Grayson Highlands State Park in Southwest Virginia only include a visitor center and a campground, Dan says, “The vistas are incredible. You can see for miles.”
Adjacent to Virginia’s two highest mountains, Mount Rogers and Whitetop, families can enjoy views of their peaks, which are more than 5,000 feet high. In addition, Dan explains wild ponies roam the mountain meadows, known as balds. He plans to return this summer to hike Mount Rogers, a rugged eight miles away via the Appalachian Trail.
While I realize not everyone will be moving Grayson Highlands to the top of their Virginia bucket list – like I am – I feel confident there’s a state park that’s right for your next family outing. I wish you nothing but happy trails in your adventures!
Plan Your State Park Adventure
Get Outdoors Challenge Visit five different state parks between May 18 and June 30, 2019, to earn a free 1-year Virginia State Parks Passport that covers parking fees at all Virginia State Parks. dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/get-outdoors
Trail Quest Sign up for this state program and get rewarded for your visits with five unique pins. dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/trail-quest
Sign up for the eNews Emails every Thursday feature articles, program listings, and discounted rental information. dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks
Photos: Teresa Schardein