Switzer (Skidmore) lake is one of my favorite places in Virginia. This sparkling, blue lake is located high up in the Virginia mountains of George Washington National Forest at over 2000 ft. The reservoir serves as the water supply for the city of Harrisonburg and is also stocked with brook trout. It is the perfect place to paddle in some of the clearest waters in Virginia.
My friend Min and I have not canoe camped since Quebec in the summer of 2016 and we were itching to get out there. We planned a simple overnighter, despite the impending rain that was forecast to hit hard on our second day. No matter. Rain does little to keep us indoors these days. My brother and I have survived torrential downpours in the backcountry of Ontario in Temagami and Algonquin Park. From these experiences, I’ve learned that the rain can actually bring many positives experiences to a camping trip. For one, there is always an awesome cloud display in the mountains afterwards. You are also presented with the opportunity to test the quality of your tarp setup in a situation that counts. Ray Mears once said if you wait for good weather to camp, you end up missing half the opportunities to get outside.
Our last trip to Switzer Lake was in the fall of 2015, where we spent a day exploring the lake and surrounding areas by foot and canoe. Two years later, I can say that the region has changed very little. The roads have received a marked upgrade. They have been flattened and well paved, even now very suitable for a sedan to navigate comfortably.
We head out on a weekday morning when we knew the campsites would be empty. This lake can be particularly busy during the weekend, so don’t expect peace and quiet. The area is frequented by numerous outdoor enthusiasts, mostly students from the nearby James Madison University campus.
Upon our arrival, we spent some time searching for a place to camp and settled in after an hour of searching. We got to work collecting dry, dead wood, setting up the tarp for impending rain, and fishing and exploring the area. One of the most useful pieces of cooking gear up north is the simple grill grate which can be easily rested between rocks so you can have steaks anywhere you go. Once our fires were hot enough and we created a large enough ember pile, we put on some steaks and corn and listened to the sounds of the forest as we ate. Perfect. The rain eventually did come at around 8:30pm, however it came in intermittent showers and we were more than prepared with our tarp and tent. The rain scared away the last kayaker on the lake so we had the whole area to ourselves.
While you might not get the true, backcountry canoe camping experience in Virginia, Switzer Lake comes pretty darn close. There are also many advantages to camping here versus the Canadian backcountry. First and foremost, the bug situation is infinitely better at this time of year. May and June are peak black fly and mosquito seasons in Ontario and make canoe camping pretty much unbearable without bug jackets. High up in these mountains, the bugs were scarce and we came out with hardly a scratch. We saw numerous frogs, butterflies, caterpillars and hawks. I also sleep a little easier in the Virginia woods knowing that the black bears are generally much smaller. Overall, this place offers a canoe camping experience that can certainly hold it’s own.
*A word of caution, to those interested in camping, I have heard of several who have received fines for camping immediately next to the lake. Apparently it is not allowed, however there are numerous campsites just a short walk deeper into the woods away from the lake. I would call the local forest office before planning a trip here to find out which camping sites are open to use.
*As always, for all visitors and campers, please remember to pack out whatever you bring in. Please keep this beautiful lake clean for all to enjoy and for future generations to come.