8/6/2022 – It’s been 6 years since I’ve stepped foot in St. Mary’s Wilderness, located in the vast and spectacular George Washington National Forest. I’ve hiked and camped here before in the Spring and Fall however I’ve never hiked through in the heart of summer – for good reason. The trail on this hike is generally poorly maintained because it is a designated wilderness area. Pink ribbons tied to branches outline the trail and most easily visible during spring and winter when the trees are bare. I wanted to take my son and my brother to this area to beat the summer heat and swim in the cold spring waters and to get to the St. Mary’s waterfall – where there are deep pools and cliff jumping.
We arrived on Saturday morning at approximately 10:00am. The parking lot was full but we had no trouble finding parking on the side of the roads. The directions to the trail are very straight forward and the road is well maintained. The summer heat brought numerous visitors, all with towels and bathing suits ready to dip in the ice cold spring waters. The lush green vegetation blanketed everything including parts of the trail.
I realized early into the hike that we were not going to make it to the waterfall. There was heavy rain the days prior and everything was wet and it took plenty of time to navigate with my son. So we decided to just take it slow and enjoy the hike. He’s currently into mushroom identification, and he spent a good amount of time combing the forest floor. The butterflies were also in full force, so he marveled at the sight of dozens of them near the stream. He made hiking sticks with his trusty laplander folding saw. I let him pick one of the deeper pools to swim in as promised before the trip. He was thrilled at the idea of swimming in ice cold spring water.
After a much needed swim and some lunch. We slowly made our way back to the car. As we left, my son reassured me that we were coming back to get to the falls next time. He had an awesome time in St. Mary’s Wilderness.
For those that are interested in canoe camping, Philpott Lake in southwest Virginia just may be the best place to learn. This massive 3000 acre reservoir spans across three counties (Henry, Franklin and Patrick counties) and was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (from 1948-1952) in order to help control flooding from the Smith River as well as generate hydroelectric energy and serve as a place for recreational activities.
We took to the road on a Thursday morning with clear, blue skies. It was an easy, and flat 3.5 hour drive from Richmond to the town of Bassett, Virginia. Upon arrival to the lake, we were impressed with how clean and organized the park seemed to be. We stopped by the visitor’s center to ask for some maps and it reminded of very much of a welcoming center you would see at an Ontario Provincial Park. There were stuffed animals on display, with fish species charts that covered the walls. From the visitor center, we were at a great vantage point and had a beautiful view of the Philpott Dam and Lake, sparkling blue in the sunlight. We were eager to paddle these waters.
We would be camping on Deer Island, a spot where visitors can visit if they wished to do some primitive camping. In order to get there, we got back in the car and drove to the Salthouse Branch Launch Point. Here we met a friendly ranger and paid our $20 per night camping fee. We reassured us, that if we would need anything at all throughout the night, that there would be a ranger on call 24/7. We parked the car right next to the beach and launch site and began unloading our gear. Once again, this is a very well kept lake, and the launch site had every facility we could have asked for, clean bathrooms and showers, picnic tables, and water fountains. We loaded our gear off a small dock next to the public beach and set out for the quick paddle to Deer Island (less than 0.5 miles). There wasn’t a single soul camping on Deer Island so we took our time circling the land until we found a suitable campsite…..#20. The campsite was immaculate without any signs of garbage. Once our camp was set up and the firewood had been cut, I went in for a refreshing dip.
While we were camping in Virginia, my brother Brian had been on a week long road trip up north in Manitoba, Canada. He was driving home to Virginia and would be joining us at Philpott Lake before we all head back to Richmond together. He was exhausted from spending days on the road. At midnight, we paddled back out under a full moon and cut through the fog on the water back to the Salt House Branch Landing. We helped him load his gear and we brought him back to the campsite. The orange glow of our campfire guiding us home.
Paddling through fog to the access point. (salt house branch)
He was tired and covered in camping scars, after run ins with poison ivy, black flies and mosquitos. He was certainly happy to be back in Virginia, where they were literally no mosquitoes at our campsite. We were not complaining but we were wondering why there were no bugs. I wonder if this is due to the fact that Philpott is a man-made lake. The elements that make a natural ecosystem where mosquitoes would thrive are not there. I have no idea, but we are not complaining. No need for a bug shelter or even bug spray for that matter.As we cooked him some dinner, he shared tales of his adventures up north, we listened intently by the fire and our group once again reunited. The last time the three of us were together was one year ago, when we paddled our way through La Verendrye Wilderness Reserve, in Quebec.
In the morning, we paddled out to the access point for a luxury shower at the Salt House Branch beach. This was truly glamping. The washrooms at Philpott Lake, just like everything else was very clean. This was something I could get use to on canoe camping trips. It turned out to be a very lazy day for us. Brian was exhausted from his road trip, so we took it easy and explored the surrounding forest. We made fires from pine sap, cooked and relaxed. No ambitious goals, just us and the lake. Before we knew it, the sun was coming down, and the forest was cooling off. We went on more night canoe paddles and explored the other launch sites. We met a friendly ranger and a police officer and spent some time talking to them. The ranger was clearly interested in our canoe camping ensemble and asked where we were from. Turns, out that he had been to Ontario…. many times. He hunted and fished in the backwoods of Ontario near and was very familiar with Algonquin Park. Small world.
In summary, Philpott Lake is a clean, beautiful, and fun place for anyone interested in primitive canoe camping. It is the perfect place to learn all of the motions involved in canoe camping. The short paddles to the campsites make it very feasible for all ages, and the access to clean facilities make it seem like clamping. There are rangers and campers around so there is also plenty of support. The rangers patrol throughout the night at the access points to keep everyone safe. On a scale of intensity, this experience fits in between car camping, and canoe back country camping… although much closer to car camping. I would love to come back to try our hand at fishing the famous Walleye populations in this lake, perhaps in the spring time.
*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.
During the hot, summer months in Virginia, the watering holes of Shenandoah National Park are natural sanctuaries for those looking to escape the heat. No trail is better for this than the popular White Oak Canyon Trail. It is the second busiest trail in the park and for good reason – this hike is packed with picturesque pools, natural water slides and waterfalls flowing with pristine, mountain water.
The entire circuit, however, is no easy, feat. For those looking to complete the entire Cedar Run / White Oak Trail circuit, be prepared for a strenuous 8.2 mile hike that covers a steep elevation climb of over 2000ft in rocky terrain.
At the beginning of the circuit, is the Whiteout Canyon parking lot (which can fill up quickly during peak seasons). From here, as you start the trail, you will come to a fork in the road. On the left, will be the Cedar Run trail, and to the right is the White Oak Canyon trail. The entire circuit can be completed in any direction, however it is strongly recommended, to start up the cedar run trail. Completing the circuit in this direction has many advantages. The ascent up cedar run trail is a much more gradual climb with softer terrain. Once you reach the top, the horse trail and white oak fire road will connect you to the top of the white oak canyon trail where you can begin your descent towards the parking lot. Now you can relax and take in the numerous beautiful falls on this side of the trail (you will also have breath to enjoy them).
Obviously, one does not have to hike the entire circuit to enjoy a good swim. From the parking lot, it is a short 2 mile hike to get to the white oak lower falls. This is probably the most spectacular of all of them. If you’re looking for natural water slides, head to the cedar run falls on the east part of the circuit, where you can check out two awesome water slides. There are also several areas here where you can jump into the pools. Please be careful as this can be dangerous if you have not established the depth of the pools. I bring along a pair of swimming goggles to scout the water for depth and debris before jumping.
There are many other surprises on this circuit. The pools have healthy populations of native brook trout so bring your fly fishing rod. Consider a tenkara rod for these tight spaces up in the mountains. Wildlife here is also abundant and black bear sightings are common, but don’t worry, they tend to keep to themselves. The trail is so busy that the human voices will keep them away. But as always, just be smart and don’t agitate the wildlife, we are visiting their home after all.
On a hot summer day, there’s not a better place to be in Virginia. Be safe, and have fun.
What to bring:
water shoes (for swimming)
swimsuit and towel
swimming goggles (optional)
plenty of water
water filter (optional)
bug spray (especially around the ankles)
fly fishing rod (optional)
*As always, please help keep our parks clean. Take nothing but photos, and leave only footprints!
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.
Fall is the busiest time along Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, and it’s easy to see why. The crisp mountain air and the gorgeous colors have us strapping on our hiking boots as much as possible. This last impromptu hike was actually suggested by our friends. They are preparing for a trek through Patagonia and wanted to get some good hikes in to build endurance. They suggested a trail I had never been on, the Rip Rap Trail Loop in Shenandoah National Park. A strenuous 9.8 mile that starts at Wildcat Ridge, then meets up with the Rip Rap Trail to finish the loop. We entered the park through the familiar Rockfish Gap Entrance and parked in the Wildcat Ridge Parking Area.
The initial trail is a moderate descent down into the valley where we traveled along side the mountain stream known as Meadow Run. We crossed the streams several times and before beginning our ascent up to Chimney Rock. I would say that the first half of this hike is much prettier than the second half. I am partial however to hiking along the gentle streams as they meander through the valley. This hike is known for it’s beautiful watering hole at the bottom of the valley where two streams merge into one 50ft long watering hole. I’ll try to come back one day in the summer to camp and swim at this location. Peak fall colors seemed to arrive later than ever this year, attributable to the much warmer temperatures we have seen over the past years.
I often worry about how climate change will impact the fragile environment around us. This would mean hotter summers, longer mosquito seasons, a harsher environment for the brook trout that thrive in cold mountain streams. In Canada the effects can already be seen with ticks on the rise, as they are able to establish more stable populations in the increasingly warmer climates.
For those that have not seen it, Leonardo DiCaprio released his documentary “Before the Flood” last week. It highlights climate change and the barriers we face as a planet in addressing this pressing matter. I highly recommend this film to everyone. I thank DiCaprio for his efforts in raising awareness about global warming, an issue that affects us all.
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.
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.
workhorse of a tent
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.
Trangia alcohol stove
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.
The changing of the seasons is always a special time in Virginia. Although the summers can be uncomfortably hot and humid, I’m always sad to see it go. Before the official end of summer, we traveled out to the Blue Ridge Mountains in George Washington National Forest to hike Spy Rock, near Montebello along Route VA 56 West. The hike is of moderate difficulty at 3.2 miles and we paired it with a quick run up Crabtree Falls, the tallest waterfall in Virginia.
Montebello Trout Hatchery
In the mountains, the climate was noticeably different; it was at least 10 degrees cooler and the earliest hints of yellow and orange leaves signified that fall was already here. The trails at both hikes were packed filled with people as we expected on a pretty Saturday. We parked at the Montebello Trout Hatchery because the main parking lot was already full. This gave us a nice opportunity to examine the rainbows, browns and brook trouts that were being raised. While only the brook trout is native to Virginia, the browns and rainbows are a popular trout species to raise since they grow to massive sizes and promote a healthy fly fishing culture in the Virginia mountains.
The hike up Spy Rock took us along a rocky road for the initial segment until it intersected with the Appalachian Trail to take us to the top of Spy Rock. The view atop is impressive, allowing a full 360 degree view of central Virginia. We ate a quick lunch and made our descent and back into the car along VA 56 to Crabtree Falls. We then ascended the first mile up Crab Tree Falls to view the lower falls. The water was slow flowing at the end of summer but still a magical sight. On the way home we visited the Albermarle Ciderworks for a cool drink and dinner in downtown Charlottesville. I am sad to see summer go but excited for all the things fall has to offer: camping, changing colors, harvests and of course the start of the holiday season. Cheers to Summer 2016.
The Rapidan River is one of my favorite rivers in Virginia, especially the segment which courses through Shenandoah National Park. The flowing cascades, peaceful scenery and good population of brook trout has earned this river a top 100 trout stream spot according to Trout Unlimited coming in at #38.
The Rapidan plays a significant role in history as well. Originally named the Rapid Anne river after Queen Anne of England it has since changed it’s name to “Rapidan”, a combination of the words “rapids” and “Anne”. The river was also the site of numerous, bloody, civil war battles. After the war, it’s beauty continued to attract visitors from all over. It even caught the eye of one of the US Presidents. During the Hoover administration (1929-1933), Camp Hoover was built by President Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou Henry Hoover to serve as their wilderness getaway, where they fished these pristine waters. The camp still stands today, although officially named Rapidan Camp now and open to the public, situated at the beginnings of the Rapidan River.
home of the brookies
I was glad that at 15 years old, our Jack Russell Terrier was able to join us on this trip. He thoroughly enjoyed himself although he did not swim much as the current was fast flowing and the waters frigid. We leisurely climbed from stream to stream casting our flies. Before we knew it, the sun was setting and we had been out for over seven hours. Although we caught nothing (no surprise), we had several bites and I got my brother hooked on the sport. He just told me the other day, he was looking for a rod.
While we have fished all of our lives, Tenkara is a whole new ball game. It is a form of traditional Japanese fly fishing without the use of a reel. This allows everything to be packed nicely into my backpack without the need for tackle box or much gear. Essentially it is just rod, line and fly. The rod itself collapses to just over 20 inches. I found Tenkara to be a much more active form of fishing which I thoroughly enjoy. First off, your main target is trout, and here in Virginia, they are found only in the coldest and cleanest mountain waters. A hike of some sort is almost always needed. Secondly, while you’re fishing, you’re constantly casting and moving from one spot on the stream to another. The only thing about this time of year is that it is tick season! I pulled one off myself and a couple off of our dog. Nasty little buggers that on rare occasions can serve as a vector for transmitting Lyme Disease. I always try to be good with tick checks before getting back in the car. Spraying your shoes and lower legs with bug spray will definitely help as well. Ticks are typically found south of the Canada-US border although of late, climate change has changed that, with reports of tick bites becoming more and more common in Ontario.
When presented with free time and the opportunity to explore arises, it can be difficult to decide where to go. The number of destinations seem endless with each place offering something completely different: the Blue Ridge mountains to the west, the coastal tidewater to the east and the Appalachian plateau to the Southwest. I usually end up letting the season and conditions deciding for me. What better place to explore in early Spring than the St. Mary’s Wilderness Area in the Blue Ridge? I read numerous reviews about the area of its beauty and clear river beds. St. Mary’s is designated a wilderness area, and as such, the trails are poorly marked. It appeared that summer hikers frequently got lost on the poorly marked trails and overgrown brush. I hoped to avoid all of this by navigating in early spring, with bare trees and clearer paths.
St. Mary’s Falls
Pink ribbon marked the trail
My cousin from Toronto accompanied me on this outing, marking his first proper hike in Virginia. When we arrived to the trail head, I was surprised to find that the earth was scorched and the trees charred. I later learned that a wildfire just two weeks prior had burned over 800 acres of the wilderness area. St Mary’s spans over 35,000 acres making it the largest Virgina Wilderness area on national forest land. The region was previously a mining ore for manganese and iron until it was abandoned in the mid 1900s. Today it serves as a beautiful hiking and fly fishing trail along the St Mary’s River, complete with a beautiful waterfall at the end.
Making a dry crossing
There are numerous routes to get to the waterfall. The most popular route listed on Hikingupwards.com recommended starting out along the Blue Ridge Parkway. One reviewer discouraged this path, because it was poorly marked and he took numerous detours after getting lost. They recommended an easier way to get to the falls. Off of Cold Springs Rd (Route 608) is St Marys Road. This road is in excellent shape and leads you all the way down to a well kept parking area and the beginning of the trail that puts you right next to St Marys River. From there, you simply follow the river to the falls. Internet win.
The hike twists and turns through a beautiful gorge, providing a unique vista in Virginia. There was lots of rock hopping, and scaling as the trail crossed back and forth over the river five times. We tried our hand also at some Tenkara (traditional Japanese fly fishing). This style of fly fishing uses only a rod, line and fly – no reel. With flask in hand with some Nordic honey wine and packed lunches, we enjoyed the peace of spring time in the mountains.