As the chlorophyll disappears from the deciduous leaves revealing their true colors, my mind always turns to camping—when nights are cool and days are sunny and crisp. What better time to share a few of my favorite family camping spots.
As my children grew, we gradually migrated from car camping to backpacking. There is a fine line that each parent must decipher—at what age are they ready for that first backpacking trip. Too early and they’ll be miserable and never want to do it again. Too late and, well, you missed out on some good backpacking years. Car camping is fun at almost any age, but particularly when they are young. Below are five car camping gems that await a younger crowd eager to swim in a chilly creek pool or catch a nice fall rainbow trout.
My Top 5 Nearby Camping Spots
- Elizabeth Furnace Campground — This small, 32-site campground is the closest I know to Del Ray at about an hour and a half away. It’s open year-round and is nicely nestled inside a wide bend in Passage Creek. Fishing is fun for the small ones and a good place to practice flyfishing. There are restrooms and even hot showers (if they still work). I like this spot because few RVs use the small sites and several are secluded and right next to the creek. It is the least expensive campground, too, at only $13 per night. There is also a group camping area for 25 or more nearby that is by reservation only—group camping with friends is what hooked my children early. Dogs are allowed on leash.
- Catoctin Mountain — This is a beautiful park with lots of hiking trails. The Owens Creek campground is geared toward tent camping, although RVs are welcome. It has 50 campsites and fees are $20 a night. If you want to try out backpacking, this is a good place. There is a nice “Adirondack” 3-sided shelter about 3.5 miles from the Owens Creek campground. Dogs allowed on leash.
- Sky Meadows State Park — A beautiful little state park located quite close to the D.C. area. This is another great place to start backpacking with younger children. In fact, all camp sites are “primitive” and require a short hike in. So be prepared for easy backpacking. In other words, no big “cabin” tents, no coolers and no double-burner stoves. Dogs are allowed on leash. Fees are $15 a night.
- Assateague State Park — If you want to camp at the beach, this is pretty much the only game in town. It can be difficult to get a campsite, so reserve one early. In October, some sites are open on a first-come, first-served basis. You won’t get any solitude on a nice weekend, but you will be able to relax on the beach. The bugs are dying down the later into October you go, but the campground closes for the season at the end of October. Assateague has lots to offer children besides the beach—wetlands, canoe rentals on Sinepuxent Bay, wild ponies (that bite) and lots of bloodsucking bugs. Dogs are permitted but only in certain areas. Comparatively expensive at more than $30 a night with service fee.
- Belle Isle State Park — One of Virginia’s newest parks, this peninsula is located near the mouth of the Rappahannock River on the Northern Neck. While I have not yet stayed here myself, it comes highly recommended by a friend. There are campsites for $27 a night or you can stay in a cabin or even a yurt. Canoes, kayaks and motor boat rentals give you a chance to explore by water and bike rentals are available too.
I really like Skyland and Big Meadows campgrounds in Shenandoah National Park too, and you might even get to see a bear before they bed down for the winter. Prince William Forest National Park is also a wonderful camping spot within an hour and a half south of Del Ray. With only one or two long weekends in the fall, leaving after school on Friday is a great way to have all day Saturday to explore whichever park you choose. So get out there and take your family camping.