Camping in St Mary’s Wilderness – Raphine, VA

stmarys
St Mary’s Road is very well maintained, with a parking area before the trail head.

Virginia offers a truly diverse landscape to camp. From the sandy beaches of the eastern shore and Chesapeake bay to the blue ridge mountains and highlands to the west. Without a doubt, one of favorite places to camp, is next to a gently flowing stream in the mountains. I was recently on my one week vacation and I knew that at least one of these days would be reserved for some camping. My friend Min and I originally planned on camping at Ramsey’s Draft in the George Washington National Forest however we were unable to find any suitable campsites near the entrance. Ramsey’s Draft is a beautiful wilderness area I have explored previously, where giant hemlock trees once towered by a wild trout stream. The only problem was the hike to Hiner Spring and the campsites was several miles. We planned this trip as a relaxed camping trip, with minimal hiking and mostly focused on just cooking and fishing. So, we cut our losses and booked it for St. Mary’s Wilderness, a place where I knew there would be excellent camp sites along a river bed. We left the canoe at home this time and trekked in the old fashioned way – on foot. The first day was perfect, warm, sunny and dry. It took us only about a half hour to hike in to the first campsite. It was a perfect site situated at the river’s bend and allowed us easy access to clean mountain waters.

This grill, used on canoe trips served as a handy tool to cook steak.

One of the most exciting parts of camping in my opinion is setting up basecamp. There are numerous factors that go in to creating a comfy home in the woods, albeit just a temporary one. The heart of the campsite, the fire pit is the most important part. Building a structurally sound pit that allows for cooking and efficient heat dispersion is a skill that I still build upon. Always remember to take in account, the wind direction, the location of your tent in respect to the fire pit as well as position of your seats around the fire so you are not downwind of the smoke. Finding a suitable location of your tent is also important. Flat ground can be difficult to find in the forest. It is never a pleasant way to sleep when you are sliding down an incline in your tent. Sometimes, you’ll also have to clear a suitable grid, void of sharp rocks, sticks that may damage your tent. Also keep it out of the way of any standing, dead trees that could potential topple in a heavy storm. The pathway to water is one that has to be safely mapped so it can be accessed at all hours. Access to firewood is also important and Min loves collecting and processing firewood, it is something he takes great pride in. A folding saw, and axe are two crucial camp tools that allow a members to live comfortably. It gives you the ability to topple dead standing trees, and also quickly prepare a stack of firewood to last days.

After developing a strong base of embers from the fire, we stabilized the portable grill into the fire pit and cooked up some delicious steaks. It cooked perfectly, and we served it with some baked potatoes. As the darkness set it, we threw more wood on the fire and spent the night chilling and catching up about our jobs, families and friends. In the middle of fall, I was surprised to say it felt comfortable in St. Mary’s Wilderness. We were in short sleeve shirts in the middle of the night. Camping in the valley provided us with protection from the wind and we were sitting in low 60s F weather.

We slept well that night, however awoke to rain starting at 6:00am. It continued as an autumn shower without any signs of stopping. We packed up our gear and decided to head home. It had been a long time since i had been caught out in the rain, camping in Virginia and although it can be a pain, there is certainly a beauty to it. All around us, we could hear the drops, beating on trees and plants, as leaves drifted in the forest all around. The river beds were fast to fill, especially since we were in the valley. The water was teeming with wildlife, brook trout, frogs, and countless crawfish made their appearance. The rain seemed to awaken the forest. Just goes to show you that if you only camp when the weather is nice, you’re missing half of what’s out there.

5 thoughts on “Camping in St Mary’s Wilderness – Raphine, VA

  1. I think those Trangia stoves are pretty cool… or maybe I mean hot. Anyhow, nice trip report. Speaking of rain, we’re getting hammered with it here in the northwest. See you later my friend.

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  2. Are there any good pull-off camp sites in this area? I’m not opposed to backpacking in somewhere but my friends don’t have all the gear that they’d need so somewhere that we could drive to, but still be secluded and off the beaten path, would be great. If you have any suggestions in this area, or anywhere in the general area that fits that description, let me know!! Thanks.

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    • Hey Ben, so I think you still got some options. First off, the St. Mary’s hike in is not too bad, like less than a mile to the first camp site I would say if you still want to consider it. The surrounding George Washington National Forest has several hikes but I think they are all mostly hike in camp sites. Most drive in sites, are gonna be at the state parks. The two exceptions are, Lake Moomaw and Switzer Lake. Lake moomaw is an amazing place, and probably worth the extra hour drive. There are numerous camp sites right on a beautiful lake. Switzer lake also offers the same, however to a smaller scale. The roads to switzer lake are also not as friendly, and I would recommend an SUV for that. You can’t go wrong with either one. Be safe, and have fun out there.

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