There are plenty of great destinations for camping with kids within an easy drive from DC, and one of the best is Shenandoah National Park. At nearly 200,000 acres, you really feel immersed in its glorious nature. There are woods and streams, hundreds of miles of hiking trails, lofty waterfalls, breathtaking vistas, and lots of wildlife sightings. And it’s all easily accessible from the city — about a 75-minute drive to the park’s entrance, and not much farther to the nearest campground area.
Four campgrounds in the park welcome parties of all sizes, and there is one more for groups of seven or more. Earlier this summer, we pitched our tents at Matthew’s Arm, the closest one at mile 22. It’s all car camping, making it easy with kids, plus there are facilities within the area and a general store just a few miles away pretty well stocked with basic groceries, firewood, and souvenirs. We somehow lucked out and snagged a group spot, which accommodated our party of two families nicely, even though we booked it just days ahead. Usually you need to reserve much farther in advance, especially for summer weekends.
Picnic tables and a fire pit at the campsite made mealtimes convenient. And while we’d bought a cord of firewood at the store, we easily found more in the surrounding woods to keep a fire going well past s’mores time until we were ready to hit the sleeping bags.
Like all of the campground areas, there is access to nice hiking trails, including one to Overall Run Falls. The hike there and back is about three miles through the lovely woods.
But it’s what we saw along the way that made it most interesting: Bears!
We had indication that at least one was nearby before seeing them — scat on the trail that my friend Jody determined was fresh after examining it with a stick (bears do poop on the woods!). Not long after that we saw one on our hike to the waterfall. Then two more on the way back. (And a fourth as we were driving out of the park to head home.)
Black bear sightings are common in Shenandoah (though I’d never seen them on my many previous visits), and there are a lot of signs and warnings of them in park brochures with tips on encountering them safely. We made noise, kept our distance, and didn’t linger too long. And at the campsite, we made sure to clean food up well and lock it up in the bear-proof bin.
If you can’t swing an overnight at Shenandoah, it’s still close enough for a day trip. With over 500 miles of trails, there are walks in the woods to suit all ages and hiking levels. You can also just find a great area to hang out and have a picnic or take in the beautiful scenery from your car along Skyline Drive.
Campgrounds in Shenandoah open in the spring, operating on a first-come, first-served basis until early May, when you can start reserving some sites in advance. Along with campsites, there are also cabins and lodges available. Rates for campsites start at $15/night and can be reserved through recreation.gov.
Shenandoah National Park is located in Virginia, 75 miles from Washington, DC. Hours vary at facilities, so see the website for details. Admission to the park is $25/vehicle and valid for a week. An annual Shenandoah Pass is $40.
There are several Fee Free days throughout the year, a few still to come in 2016:
August 25-28 – National Park Service Birthday Weekend
September 24 – National Public Lands Day
November 11 – Veterans Day