Time Well Spent at Virginia State Parks

Here amid unspoiled wilderness, the sound of the wind whistling through the treetops is all you hear, and scented pine forests keep you company. Peace prevails, and it’s easy to forget the cacophony that exists on the other side of the tunnel.

Kiptopeke State Park, one of Virginia’s 34 award-winning natural areas, is close by yet far away. When I began planning a recent family gathering, Kiptopeke came to mind as a perfect destination. I had toured one of the park’s family lodges a couple years ago while exploring the Shore and knew I would come back one day. A Christmas family reunion seemed the perfect opportunity.

My elderly mom hasn’t traveled in years, but a 45-minute ride across the tunnel seemed easy enough. Brothers arrived from near and far, as well as my treasured sisters-in-law, a favorite nephew and his girlfriend, and my five-year-old grandniece. We brought provisions and presents and planned to spend a quiet few days just being together.

The lodge was perfect. With six bedrooms that accommodate up to 16 people and a spacious great room featuring a huge, fully equipped kitchen, there was plenty of room. We loved the cozy bar, extra-long dining room table, gas fireplace, and the comfy couches and chairs. A cathedral ceiling makes the lodge feel even bigger—plus there are plenty of windows offering views of golden grasses swaying in the breeze and tall, thick pine forests beyond.

Outside rocking chairs invite you to repose on the front and back porches and watch the clouds drift by. During our visit, cold temperatures didn’t encourage much porch sitting, but two of my brothers bundled up and braved the elements one sunny afternoon.  A fire pit, picnic table, and grill also didn’t get much use while we were there, but would add to the fun in warmer weather.

So what did we do for three winter days in this peaceful spot on the shore? We hiked on park trails across meadows and through silent woods. We looked for shells on the windswept beach. My husband and brothers tried valiantly to catch a few fish off the pier, but were thwarted by stiff bay breezes. Retreating inside the cozy lodge, we assembled puzzles, played cards, read, and talked about our lives as the flickering flames of the gas fireplace lent warmth and ambiance to our gathering.

Oh yes, and we cooked. Feeding a group like this takes effort and coordination, but can be lots of fun. Our first night an indoor cookout yielded juicy hamburgers and hotdogs plus healthy salads galore. Another evening we made pasta topped with your choice of sauces. My favorite dinner was our final night when my sisters-in-law and I said, “We don’t feel like cooking tonight.” Instead we made a picnic supper: a spread of crackers, cheese, smoked salmon, salami, crudités, and olives. We sat in front of the fireplace, sipped wine, and snacked on simple, delicious food. It was relaxing and, best of all, clean up was a snap!

If you’re looking for an easy idea for hosting a family reunion, look no further than Virginia’s pastoral parks. Several offer lodges large enough to accommodate 3-4 families. Besides Kiptopeke, here are a few other favorites.

• Claytor Lake State Park – Imagine a gorgeous lodge with views of rolling mountains and a sparkling lake where you can ski, fish, kayak, canoe, swim, and sunbathe on a sandy beach. Welcome to Claytor Lake State Park—not far from Radford and Blacksburg. Besides spacious lodges similar in layout to the ones in Kiptopeke, cabins also dot the lake’s shore, each one offering stunning views, grills, picnic areas, and fire pits. College friends and I have met up at this pristine park and reminisced about our younger days while enjoying the park’s amenities along with a healthy dose of fresh air and exercise.

• Douthat State Park – Also in the western part of the state, Douthat is another ideal place to rent a lodge or cabin. Like Claytor Lake State Park, Douthat also offers shaded campsites, boat rentals, and a sandy beach. Forty miles of hiking trails as well as six miles of mountain biking trails surround a 50-acre lake that’s stocked with trout, so bring your fishing pole. In addition to two modern lodges, a log lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, sits atop a mountain and offers a chance to stay in a historic property with lots of character and charm.

• James River State Park – Just a few miles north of Appomattox National Park sits one of Virginia’s newest parks nestled among 1500 acres of rolling hills and meadows. Its cabins and lodges overlook a three-mile stretch of the James River, where you can canoe and kayak or float in an inner tube down the lazy river. James River State Park, like many other state parks, also offers equestrian trails and horse campsites for visitors who want to enjoy nature astride their favorite mount.

We are blessed in Virginia to have an amazing range of landscapes—from the mountains to the sea. And Virginia state parks provide the perfect setting for exploring the beauty of nature. Make plans now to share a lodge with your extended family or a cozy cabin with a special friend. It will be time well spent.

For more information, call 800-933-PARK (7275) or visit www.virginiastateparks.gov