Virginia State Parks!

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Virginia State Parks

I’m starting a series to track my exploration of Virginia State Parks. Posts will be back-dated to when I actually went to the park, and I’ll add the respective photo album from the hikes, etc. I’ll also be keeping the image below up to date as possible!

  • Bear Creek Lake (BC)
  • Belle Isle (BI)
  • Breaks Interstate (BK) *
  • Caledon (CA)
  • Chippokes Plantation (CP)
  • Claytor Lake (CL)
  • Douthat (DO)
  • Fairy Stone (FS)
  • False Cape (FC)
  • First Landing (FL)
  • Grayson Highlands (GH)
  • High Bridge Trail (HB)
  • Holliday Lake (HL)
  • Hungry Mother (HM)
  • James River (JR)
  • Kiptopeke (KP)
  • Lake Anna (LA)
  • Leesylvania (LE)
  • Mason Neck (MN)
  • Natural Bridge (NB)
  • Natural Tunnel (NT)
  • New River Trail (NR)
  • Occoneechee (OC)
  • Pocahontas (PO)
  • Powhatan (PW)
  • Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Historic (SC)
  • Seven Bends (SE) **
  • Shenandoah River (SH)
  • Shot Tower (ST)
  • Sky Meadows (SK)
  • Smith Mountain Lake (SM)
  • Southwest Virginia Museum Historical (SW)
  • Staunton River (SR)
  • Staunton River Battlefield (SB)
  • Twin Lakes (TL)
  • Westmoreland (WE)
  • Widewater (WW)
  • Wilderness Road (WR)
  • York River (YR)

Camping in the Time of Covid

I count myself extremely fortunate to have been spared any of the worst consequences of the covid-19 pandemic so far. Certainly, life has been pocked with inconveniences, but I’m grateful to have held onto the essentials (job, health, family, etc). I can even count among the things I’m grateful for in 2020 an unexpected silver lining: a re-connection with the Outdoors.

Thanks to adventurous parents, I started camping very young. I remember driving all around the rugged wild areas of Idaho, where I grew up, and the surrounding Northwest and Mountain West states to visit places of natural beauty in our pop-up tent trailer. High summer or deep mountain winter, my brother and I would dash off to find the perfect hiking stick (doubles as a spear against dragons, monsters, and bad guys) and explore the new terrain.

When I left Idaho for college in Arizona, the outdoors trips dropped off markedly. There were still a few family trips over summer vacation, and I remember taking a couple short car-camping one-nighters outside of Phoenix with dorm buddies, but generally far less outdoors time as I focused on getting a degree and the social life of an undergrad.

My first job out in the Mojave Desert of California included a resurgence of time spent outdoors, as I explored several National Parks within easy drive to my new location (including Yosemite, King’s Canyon, Sequoia, and Channel Islands… I later made it to Joshua Tree but still have yet to see Death Valley).

When I moved to Boston to teach, my outdoors time dropped off dramatically. I think this was a combination of the craziness of teaching, no longer having equipment (nor the discretionary income to buy new stuff), and a partner at the time who was not strongly into exploring nature and the outdoors. (We did make it up to New Hampshire for one camping trip, and also to Acadia National Park for a cabin stay.)

All three of the above constraints lifted when I transitioned back to engineering and moved to southern coastal Virginia, in the Hampton Roads area. It’s been wonderful to have such a variety of outdoorsy places within easy driving distance, from beach to forests to mountains! Shenandoah National Park, George Washington / Jefferson National Forests, and the numerous Virginia State Parks have been wonderful to explore.

The year 2020 has been a year of many trials for sure, but one of the main outcomes of this year that I’m grateful for has been the opportunity to rediscover the outdoors. When I could no longer travel internationally (or really, even domestically the way I used to), I moped for awhile… then re-baselined what I meant by “travel.”

Even with the resurgence, last year, I only managed three camping trips… this year I’ve camped 11 times! As a side benefit, it’s also rekindled my dormant interest in photography, which I will also try to share here. I’ll be back-dating several posts to document the trips.

  • 2/14 – 2/17 Shenandoah River State Park
  • 5/31 – 6/1 Occoneechee State Park
  • 6/13 – 6/14 Staunton River State Park
  • 7/11 – 7/12 Westmoreland State Park
  • 7/17 – 7/18 False Cape State Park
  • 7/25 – 7/26 Three Ridges Wilderness / Maupin Field
  • 8/16 – 8/18 Redwoods National Park
  • 9/11 – 9/13 Shenandoah National Park (Loft Mountain)
  • 9/25 – 9/27 TATC Cabin Maintenance Trip
  • 10/11 – 10/17 Great Smokey Mountains National Park
  • 10/31 – 11/1 Sherando Lake Recreation Area / GWJ National Forest

GSMNP Day 2 – AT / The Boulevard to Anakeesta Knob

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Great Smokey Mountains NP

On Wednesday 10/14, along with my friends Jason and Mel, I hiked 2.7 miles on the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap to The Boulevard Trail, then another 2.5 miles (roughly) to Anakeesta Knob in the northeast quadrant of the park, before returning along the same route. (Due to a late start, we judged we did not have time to actually summit Mount Le Conte further along that trail.)

Although the large number of cars during peak hours at the major parking sites (including Newfound Gap) can make GSMNP appear to be a crowded park, our experience was that the crowds disappear quickly after about a mile or so away from the parking areas. Most people seem to be just day-tripping from Gatlinburg or the surrounding area, driving through, and stopping for roadside photos or a quick mini-hike. The AT is a little more crowded than other trails, but once off of it we dropped from seeing just a few people to almost no one.

There were some nice views along the way, but the real highlight of the hike was the moss! On a whim, we started trying to name and classify all the different kinds of moss we found. Knowing basically nothing about botany or moss, this meant we just named all the mosses we found based on what they looked like to us!

Found moss types included: microfern, tempurpedic, frosty moss, mossted tips, christmas tree, spiky moss, feather moss, happy little moss, star moss, tentacle moss, off-brand tempurpedic, midsummer night’s moss, and Bob Moss Himself.

[All photographs are copyright 2020 Nalin A. Ratnayake. They are free to use and share for any non-commercial purpose, with attribution and a link to the original post on naratnayake.com, without modification, and provided that this text is also included.]

Photos posted here were taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T1i and the EF 28-105mm 1/3.5-4.5 II USM lens. Images were compressed to 1/4 resolution and 85% image quality for easier upload and sharing.

GSMNP Day 1 – Jake’s Creek Trail / Meig’s Creek Trail

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Great Smokey Mountains NP

Last week, I got to spend four full days (and parts of two more) in Great Smokey Mountains National Park. So beautiful! It wasn’t quite peak foliage, but we still got some amazing colors.

Having grown up in the West, I’ve always been biased towards the number and quality of the western national parks — and while I expect any national park to be beautiful, I have to admit that GSM was the first to really convince me that the East can be on the same level as the West in terms of natural beauty!

The broad extent of the mountains in all directions; the lush vegetation and seemingly endless forests starting to show their autumn color; the abundance of water — innumerable streams, rivers, cascades, and falls, along with the trademark fog and steamy morning mists; and the diversity of terrain all made the park level up from the expectation of “probably good” to a genuine “wow this is awesome.”

My friend Laura and I spent October 13th in the northwest quadrant of the park, starting with a 4.25-mile trail run on Jake’s Creek Trail (near our campsite in Elkmont Campground) and part of Meig’s Mountain Trail. After lunch, we hiked Meig’s Creek Trail near The Sinks, where we counted 20 stream crossings!

[All photographs are copyright 2020 Nalin A. Ratnayake. They are free to use and share for any non-commercial purpose, with attribution and a link to the original post on naratnayake.com, without modification, and provided that this text is also included.]

Photos posted here were taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T1i and the EF 28-105mm 1/3.5-4.5 II USM lens. Images were compressed to 1/4 resolution and 85% image quality for easier upload and sharing.

False Cape State Park (7/17/20 – 7/18/20)

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Virginia State Parks

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There are only two ways in to False Cape State Park: kayak in by water, or hike in through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge! No vehicles are permitted. The relative difficulty in accessing the park keeps out most of the crowds, and you can expect a more solitary and remote experience, especially if camping deeper within the park.

We backpacked in about 6 miles through the open wetlands and swamps of the wildlife refuge, only encountering three cottonmouths… not ominous at all. Summer is great weather for the beaches, but given that there only small islands of shade in the open wetlands, the summer heat and humidity can be quite oppressive, so plan your hike accordingly — we did not, especially on the way out.

Beach camping comes with beautiful views and a whole lot of sand in everything! Gotta just accept it. We traded sand in everything and no shade for being right on the ocean and avoiding the snakes in the shady grove that harbored the official campsites. Reservations are required, even to camp on the beach away from the sites!

Gorgeous sunset and sunrise, drinking and looking up at the stars, and an early morning beach run + ocean swim with not another human in sight. Pretty awesome.

A bit too awesome in fact… we got so caught up in our morning swim and lounge that we didn’t even consider that we were setting outselves up for a hike out in the hottest part of the day. We didn’t even start back until noon… and by then it was far too late to avoid the heat. The open skies and awful humidity made us broil in the summer heat. We slowly made our way out a mile or so at a time, stopping at every tiny scrap of shade to rehydrate and rest. We soaked our hats in cold water from the taps and sweated constantly through our clothes and packs.

When a thunderstorm loomed in the distance, we welcomed it with open arms — the sudden drop in temperature as the front hit us and then the subsequent drenching in cool water felt amazing. I’m sure the cars driving by us for the last mile stretch to the parking lot at Sandbridge, Virginia Beach thought we were crazy. Torrential rain, carrying loaded packs, and laughing the whole way.

Westmoreland State Park (7/11/20 – 7/12/20)

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Virginia State Parks

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Birthday camping! Since my usual “get a bunch of people together food lots of food and drink” approach was prevented by Covid this year, instead I decided to get out to the outdoors. I took a solo one-nighter up to Westmoreland State Park, which is located on the Northern Neck on the southern bank of the Potomac River.

The terrain varies quite a bit within the park, from pine forest on the high ridge lines down to sandy beaches closer to the river. Boardwalks allow trekking over the wetlands of the river valley. Amazing amount of waterfowl.

For such a large and well-visited park, the campgrounds felt nicely spread out enough for some solitude.

Staunton River State Park (6/13/20 – 6/14/20)

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Virginia State Parks

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Just two weeks after my trip to Occoneechee State Park, I found myself just a little further up the river at Staunton River State Park. Laura and I had intended to camp at Pocahontas State Park further north, but the campground was full. The waters were still high from late spring rains, but we managed to explore quite a few trails.

Occoneechee State Park (5/31/20 – 6/1/20)

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Virginia State Parks

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A quick one-nighter out to Occoneechee State Park, on the southern edge of Virginia near the North Carolina state line, about halfway across the state to the west on the banks of the Roanoke River.

After several days of hard rain, the waters had risen to inundate several campsites and trail segments. The photo of me pointing is of me indicating where the trail should be for the run I was on! Very pretty sunset on the water’s edge though.