Stephanie J.
Chattanooga, TN
Joined July 2018
Photographer, writer, and adventure mama of two little explorers.
Forest Bathing and Beauty at Greenheart Forest

(As a Ranger for The Dyrt, I am occasionally given the opportunity to stay at campgrounds to help expand the listings on the site. I was given the chance to stay at Greenheart Forest through this program.)

Located in Pisgah National Forest, Greenheart Forest labels itself as a place of healing, and that description could not be more accurate. David and Jeannette, the owners, are both incredibly nice. From our initial phone call, to meeting them, to when we said goodbye, they were so kind and conversational in all of our interactions.I spent a lot of time talking to David about his passion—and the mission of Greenheart Forest—of forest bathing and terra psychology. 

The campground itself is both small and large. There are only five sites available for booking, but they are considerably spaced out, and the sites themselves are very large. While the sites are technically“drive-in,” the road to get to them is very difficult to navigate unless you have 4-wheel drive, so when planning the trip, plan to either hike-in(about 200 yards or so), or to pay$5 each direction for David or his wife to provide portage of your gear. When we went it was raining pretty heavily and my front-wheel drive RAV-4 could not make it, so we took advantage of David’s truck. 

Site 1 is the closest to the lodge/parking lot, with a covered picnic table. Site 2 is the“glamping” site, available at an upcharge; David has a 10-person tent, 2-room tent set up that includes two cots in one“room,” and a rug and chairs in the other. This site is huge, with a large fire ring, and ample room to set up other tents. We stayed here and were able to set up a second tent and a screen shelter with room to spare. Site 3 is also very large, with wooden benches around the fire ring, a gravel tent pad, and plenty of ground space for additional tents. This is also the site closest to the“privy;” a pop up tent set up around a bucket with toilet paper and a bucket of leaves to aide in decomposition.(There is a bathroom with running water in the lodge as well.) Sites 4 and 5 are the furthest from the lodge, with site 5 being the most private and slightly downhill from the others. This site was occupied when we went so I could not get a good look at it, but the privacy it had was incredible. 

These are tent sites only; they will not accommodate RVs, and sites 3 and 5 are not accessible by vehicle, but by short trails past the other campsites. There is no electricity at the sites, and water is available at the lodge but must be carried the rest of the way. 

The road that takes you to sites 1 and 2 stretches towards the edge of David’s property, and ends in a trail that takes you to the Max Patch summit via the Buckeye Ridge Trail, about 3 miles round trip from the campground to the summit. We did not get to explore the trail, but have been to Max Patch and it is incredible and well worth the walk if your trip allows time for it. 

Even better than the wide and open campsites though, is the overall atmosphere David has created. He has a zen garden for walking and meditation, flowers everywhere, and community places set up both inside and outside the the lodge for talking to other campers. His background in Forest Bathing has led to building a place of love and healing, and it shows in everything from the moment you first turn into the driveway. We came with kids, and while everything was very child-friendly, this would be a wonderful place to come alone if you needed to get into the forest and clear your head, or with a retreat looking for a place to facilitate deeper healing or meditations.

Ranger Review: ER210 E+Ready Compact WX Radio at Little Tybee Island

Campground Review: Little Tybee Island is an undeveloped barrier island off the Georgia coast, that can only be accessed via kayak/boat. Despite its name, the island is huge--around 6000 acres--with several species of rare birds, making it a popular place for day trips in addition to camping. There is no fee to camp on the island, however the parking fee on Tybee Island, where you launch from, is $2/hour, or a maximum of $24/day. 

This island is absolutely gorgeous. While camping is permitted anywhere, the island is entirely undeveloped, and much of it is overgrown or marshland, so the best camping spots are in hammocks located near the shore on the eastern side of the island unless you are a very experienced paddler and have the confidence to explore the streams on the island's interior. When we stayed, we kayaked in to a hammock about one mile from the developed Tybee Island, to a series of hammocks just on the other side of the aptly named "oak graveyard;" where several fallen oak trees stick out of the ocean. We camped on a Sunday night, and while there were other campers who had been there over the weekend, we had the beach to ourselves once the tide started coming in and they left for the mainland. 

There are absolutely no amenities here--you must pack in all water you will need as there is not water available for filtration, and there are no services, so all trash must be packed out. The tides are extreme so choose your campsite carefully, and check tide tables before kayaking in or out (it is best to head out with the receding tide, and head back with the rising tide). The sun can be relentless and the winds can be strong, and there are also alligators, raccoons, and several species of venomous snake--this island is still largely untouched by man, and so proper preparation is needed, along with respect for the wildness of the area. All that aside, I would come back here again and again, for the beauty and solitude. It's rare to find oceanfront camping where you can pitch your tent on the sand and not be surrounded by so many other people, so if you don't mind the extra effort involved, this place is nothing short of magical.

Gear Review: As a Ranger for The Dyrt, I am periodically given gear to test and review. For this trip I was able to use the ER210 E+Ready Compact Emergency Crank WX Radio. 

This radio was perfect for this trip. It has AM/FM bands and a weather alert channel directly from NOAA that updates for your area. Being at the beach, we were able to not only listen to the weather forecast for temperature/wind speed/precipitation, but also tide tables and water current information. While we had cell signal on this island, I didn't know if we would in advance and wanted to make sure we had a way of monitoring possible storm activity, and could verify the tides since timing your trips in/out of the island are heavily dependent on the tides. The radio also has emergency alerts, sounding an alarm if there is a national weather service alert for anything from thunderstorms to hurricanes, or any other weather system that could move through your region.

The radio can charge in three ways; via USB, a solar cell, or a hand crank, ensuring you can use it in even the most remote settings or roughest weather, and the antennae extends for greater signal receptivity. There is also a flashlight with two brightness levels, and is programmed to flash SOS if necessary--another reason we wanted this specifically for this trip, so we could signal for help if we got stranded for any reason and could not use our phones. 

We used the compact version; there is a larger version of this radio that includes all of the above features, in addition to a dog whistle to assist in SAR, and the ability to charge phones/smart devices through the radio.

Great Day Use or Long-Term Stay For RVs

Cumberland Mountain has a total of 145 campsites, spread across 5 loops, plus a backcountry site on an 8 mile backpacking trail.

We have not stayed overnight here as we are tent-campers only, and while tent camping is permitted, after visiting we felt that this campground was much better suited for RV campers. However we have come here for the day to hike and enjoy the playground by the picnic area, and it is a beautiful park, with a large lake, a restaurant, and a bridge that is iconic to the Cumberland region of Tennessee.

Of the five camping loops, loop 4 offers the most shade (particularly sites 102-109, which are shaded by evergreens and some of the prettiest campsites I have seen in a state park!), although is not ADA accessible. Loop 2 offers the least amount of shade. Loops 1, 3, and 5 have mostly hardwood trees, thus offering more shade in the warmer months and mostly sun in the winter. All sites have picnic tables and fire rings, and most can accommodate trailers up to 60 feet, with a few going higher (site 145 can fit over 100'!). Tent camping is permitted, although in most sites the only space to put a tent is very close to the fire pits or on a gravel/concrete surface, and in loops 2, 3, and 5 the park prohibits tents on the grass within each site.

Amenities at this park include hiking, fishing, paddling/boat rental, biking, a swimming pool, golf, and birding. Cabins are also available to rent, many with a view of the lake. Day use includes picnic tables, picnic pavilions, and multiple playground areas for kids. This park is also further away from urban areas and is a good place for wildlife viewing--we have seen black snakes, and what looked like a raccoon!

This is a much less crowded park than Fall Creek Falls to the south, particularly if you can make it early in the season, and is convenient to I-40, premium golfing, and historical sites on the Cumberland Plateau. While there are better options in this region for someone looking to pitch a tent, if you have an RV, Cumberland Mountain is very peaceful, offering a lot of ways to spend your day and a quiet and relaxing spot to watch the stars and enjoy the sounds of nature at night.

Good For Long-Term Camping, With Lots of Amenities

Harrison Bay is a huge park, with four camping loops (3 for RVs, 1 for tents), and a large marina, located on the Chickamauga Reservoir of the Tennessee River. It is about thirty minutes from downtown Chattanooga, making it a great place to stay for awhile if you want to check out the area's numerous hiking opportunities, or if you are here to see the various downtown attractions. This would be a good park to stay at long-term as a base-camp, thanks to the numerous in park amenities and to enjoy the Chattanooga area.

Situated again the bay, the majority of the park is surrounded by water, and as such many campsites have views of the lake. Loop A is an RV loop with very little shade, and is closest to the playgrounds and picnic pavilions. Sites 7-11 and 13-14 in this loop have the most shade, with most other sites in full sun. Loop B is an RV loop with more shade on the sites on the northern end and more sun on the southern. Sites 9, 18, 22, and 25 are next to an area with poor drainage so bugs may be an issue here in the summer, and sites 29 & 30 have great views of the lake. Loop C is the last RV loop, also with a lot of shade, and sites 23-25 and 35-36 are right on the water, almost with their own private beaches. Loop D is the tent-only loop; this loop is very shaded, and the sites are fairly large and can accommodate most size tents. The northern end of the loop has clear waterfront views. Sites 13 & 14 are close to the restrooms with view of the water, and sites 15-19 have mostly unobstructed water views. These sites are very close together, but if you go on weekdays or early in the season it's unlikely there will be many other campers there.

In addition to camping, the park offers fishing, boating, hiking, a playground, a restaurant, swimming pool, interpretive center, nature viewing platform, and several picnic pavilions. In warmer months this is a popular spot for locals to come swim in the lake as well, so bring bathing suits and expect a lot of company. Most of the trails are short, however there is a 4 mile trail that goes around an "island" near the marina, and two smaller islands past the campground loops that can be combined for a 1 mile loop. These islands make excellent places to watch the sunset; the large island closest to the marina even has a bench facing southwest for this purpose.

Firewood is available for purchase at a camp store just outside the park, and residents often sell firewood roadside on the way to the park entrance.

This is not a place for solitude; it can get quite crowded during the summer between campers and locals, and there are residential areas on most sides of the lake, visible from the park. Don't come here looking for a wilderness experience. However for an outdoor vacation that has plenty of activities and is close to urban conveniences, Harrison Bay is an excellent choice!

Convenient and Fun, With Amenities Galore

This park is located about 15 minutes off I-81 just south of the VA/TN border, making it extremely convenient, and a great place to stop for anyone traveling that stretch of the country.

There are a total of 134 campsites. 94 are available year round and have electric/water hookups, and the remaining 40 sites are in an overflow section that is only open from Memorial Day-Labor Day. The overflow sites do not have electric or water hookups, and accommodate trailers up to 60 feet (site 106 only; all others sites can only fit smaller RVs). The sites open year round are primarily used for RV camping, accommodating trailers up to 40'. Sites have asphalt driveways and are otherwise gravel, with picnic tables, grills, and fire rings. Sites 94, 73, 57, and 28 are ADA accessible, and site 90 has a pull-off parking spot with the campsite set down from the road (this is an excellent tent site!). Most sites are very shady, and sites on the northern side have a view of the lake from late fall to early spring. The bathrooms have electricity and running water, are single stall and include a shower, and are some of the cleanest campground bathrooms I have ever experienced. And since we were there in late March and it was still fairly chilly, we appreciated the space heaters!

Amenities at this campground include hiking, fishing, boat rental, golf, disc golf, a swimming pool, and the best playground I have ever seen--this campground is worth it for the playground! It is huge, has an interactive story trail based on "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe," a creek that runs through it, and the best part is that it is universally accessible, so children of all abilities can enjoy the park (sensory-friendly areas, and all signs include brail!). There is also a concession stand at the boat house, and two miles of trails are horse-friendly.

My only complaint about this campground is, given the proximity to the town of Kingsport and I-81, there are still a lot of civilization noises at night. This should not be an issue if you are in an RV, but for tent-campers you will still be able to hear distant traffic while falling asleep, instead of just the sounds of nature. But while we may not choose this as a place to "get away from it all," as frequent travelers between eastern TN and central VA, this campground is a perfect place to stop, and beats a hotel any day!

Ranger Review: The Dyrt Reservations at Mountain Glen RV Park & Campground

As a Ranger for The Dyrt, I am occasionally compensated for staying at and reviewing campgrounds. I was given the opportunity to stay at Mountain Glen RV Park and Campground in order to test the new reservation system through The Dyrt. The reservation system works extremely well--it is fast and efficient, and save the trouble of using a third party reservation system after finding a campground you like on The Dyrt. I look forward to more campgrounds joining TD's network!

Mountain Glen is a new campground, located about an hour northwest of Chattanooga, and it is absolutely beautiful. There are a total of 8 tent sites and 41 RV sites, set next to a lake and a gorgeous view of a farm. Amenities include picnic tables, a playground, fishing, horseshoes, corn hole, a game room, a camp store, and laundry facilities, showers, and flush toilets with electricity (and heat!). It is also a short drive to Fall Creek Falls State Park, for anyone looking to enjoy the hiking near the falls without the overnight crowds the state park brings in. 

The RV sites occupy most of the campground, and accommodate trailers ranging from 60' to 90'. All sites have electric and water hookups, picnic tables, fire rings, and most have small grassy areas for dogs, kids, or even grown ups to stretch out and rest. RVs are also available to rent.

Tent sites 1-3 are listed as “primitive” sites and have no electricity or water, however it is a short walk to the office where water is available. The road is visible from these sites, however there is a grassy meadow both between the sites and the road, and the sites and the lake, with woods bordering site 3. 

Sites 4 and 5 are located closest to the picnic shelter, with a clear view of the lake. Sites 6-8 are next to the office/bathrooms. Site 6 is the smallest and 8 is the largest. All tent sites are fairly hilly, and accommodate small tents better than large based on limited flat space—though hammocks would work well!

There is a trail that winds around the lake, and passes a beautiful spillway on the end opposite the office which is great for getting some shade, and a chance for kids to splash in some water. This end also has a picnic table for day use. I would love to see this area eventually become a walk-in campsite as it is definitely the most beautiful area of the entire campground!

The owners here are extremely nice. We were greeted warmly on our arrival, and spent some time talking with them our second day. It is obvious they care about the campground and want campers to enjoy themselves and feel comfortable. We are tent campers and I was wary of staying somewhere more geared towards RVs, but what tent camping here lacks in privacy and wilderness, it more than makes up for in beauty, peace, and a feeling of home-away-from-home.

Small and cozy backcountry camping

The southernmost campsite on the Cumberland Trail, the Lockhart's Arch shelter is only 1.8 miles from the southern Terminus of the CT, at Signal Point. The hike in to this shelter is moderate, passing beautiful views at Julia Falls Overlook, and a cool suspension bridge as it crosses Middle Creek.

The shelter is after climbing out of Middle Creek Gorge, and follows a spur trail off the CT that is not marked, making this shelter somewhat difficult to find in the dark.

The shelter is very small, covered on three sides, with enough room to fit 2-3 adults. It has a small shelf to store gear, and a few nails to hang bags on, but does not have anything hanging from the ceiling to help protect your food from mice, so take appropriate food storage measures. The space the shelter occupies is small, but has enough room for one or two small backpacking tents if you prefer your tent to the shelter, though the ground is not very level so be aware of your tent's footprint. There is a well-established fire ring. The closest guaranteed water source is Middle Creek, so be sure to fill water bottles and filter when you cross, although if there has been a lot of recent rain there is a chance of small seasonal streams closer to the shelter.

This shelter is an excellent place to stay if you are looking for a place near Chattanooga to hike in to, if you want to take advantage of the incredible sunsets at the nearby Edwards' Point and have a place to stay without hiking out in the dark, or as a starting point on the southern stretch of the Cumberland Trail. Be aware however that the closest trailhead is at Signal Point, and overnight parking is not allowed, so plan on having a ride! A backcountry permit is also required, though is free and can be obtained through the Cumberland Trail website.

Great Recreation Area, Mid-Grade Tent Camping

Sherando Lake is a well-maintained, popular campground located in the George Washington National Forest near Lyndhurst, VA. Convenient to both Richmond and Charlottesville, it brings people in for camping and day-use alike.

There are three camping loops here; a standard non-electric loop (loop A/White Oak Loop), and two RV loops (B and C). Both of the RV loops are very flat and open, with little shade or privacy between sites. They have electric hookups and drinking water available, but do not have water hookups. The tent loop is the oldest loop in this campground, and is heavily wooded, with sites along both meadow and backing up to the mountain. These sites do not have any hookups, but most have driveways large enough for campers and RVs 28' in length or under. All tent sites have fire rings, utility poles, and large picnic tables, and tent pads that are raked clear by campground hosts between guests.

The biggest benefits of this campground are its location, and the recreation area. It's about an hour and a half west of Richmond and only thirty minutes from Charlottesville, making it a great weekend trip without having to take time away from work. And as for recreation, it's wonderful. There are two lakes--the lower lake is the largest at 25 acres, and and while the beach can get crowded during peak season, it's an easy walk from the campground, with a large swimming area roped off. Canoeing is available at the lake, and there are several hiking trails, ranging from the easy lakeside trail, to more difficult trails that connect to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and other trails in George Washington National Forest. Fishing is available at both lakes with the proper licensing. There are several large picnic areas right on the lower lake, and a few smaller creekside spaces with picnic table and grills.

All that said; for RV campers this is an excellent campsite. While the loops with hookups are lacking in shade and privacy, having an RV or camper will afford you what the site itself lacks, and the location and activities make this a great basecamp.

For tent camping, it's good if you live in one of the nearby cities and want the shorter drive time, or if you like tent camping but still want all the benefits of front-country camping. As a place to set up camp and enjoy spending time near your tent, Sherando is exceptionally maintained. There is not a lot of opportunities for foraging for firewood, which means purchasing heat-treated wood nearby, and while the sites are very shady, there is little underbrush between sites to offer a privacy barrier. Many of the sites are staggered, with one or more levels of steps leading from the driveways. Because of all there is to do this is a great site for older kids, but we learned that, especially with toddlers, the steps around the campsites can turn a relaxing trip into one of constant vigilance.

Enjoyment of this campground will largely depend on what type of camper you are. If you are mainly looking for a place to get outside of the city, where you can set up for the night and have easy access to hiking, fishing, swimming, or boating, this is a great campground. This is where we typically chose to take friends if they were new to camping, as the bathrooms are well-lit, the road is paved, and the sites are so well-maintained. Plus at $20 a night, while it's more expensive than its neighbors in Shenandoah National Park or Cave Mountain Lake, it's a shorter drive from the neighboring cities, and doesn't have the additional NPS fee. However, if you want something that feels more rugged, or with campsites that offer a greater feeling of privacy, it would be better to skip this one.

A beautiful basecamp for hikers and horseback riders

With camping just a moderate day hike away from Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia, this campground is a hiker's paradise.

There is little to no cell signal here, so coming to Grayson Highlands is one of the few state parks in Virginia where you can truly go "off the grid" during the length of your stay--and you won't miss technology, because there is so much to do at this park. From the aforementioned Mount Rogers--an 8.5 mile out-and-back, to the 1.5 mile but difficult Cabin Trail that takes you to a waterfall, to the wild ponies who will approach hikers along the Rhododendron Trail, any fitness level will find hiking they can enjoy. When we stayed the outer bands of Hurricane Michael brought so much fog and rain that we were not able to see any of the ponies, but we did hear one a couple of times, very near Massie's Gap!

As for camping there are two frontcountry campgrounds. All sites have picnic tables and fire rings, and bathrooms with electricity and flush toilets*

Chestnut Hollow Campground:

-There are 23 sites here with water and electric hook-ups May-October, and this loop is available as primitive camping March, April, and November. *During this time bathrooms are pit toilets only

-Horse-friendly; there are stables located adjacent to this loop

-These sites are very small; if you are in a tent I recommend no larger than a 4 person.

-Not a lot of privacy between sites, especially near the back of the loop. Most sites are right agains the road and have little space to move around; I would not recommend this loop if you have small children who are going to want space to run and play

Hickory Ridge Campground

-This is the larger of the loops at GHSP; there are 64 campsites ranging from standard tent sites without water or electric, to full service sites with water and electric hookups.

-Tent sites 1-18 are the furthest from hookup sites and will therefore be the quietest; they are mostly small sites and very close to the road. Sites 10, 12, 13, and 14 are set back furthest from the road. There is a path behind sites 2-14 leading to the bathhouse behind site 14. Site 13 is easily the most private--and arguably the only truly private--tent site in this campground, with the driveway going behind a cluster of trees that shields the site from the road. We stayed in site 12 which easily fit our 6 person tent.

-Sites 31 and 32 are on a meadow the campsite loops around; they have no privacy and little shade, but ample room for kids to run around, and there is a set of swings near these sites. They are however right on the road so it may be easier to just walk to the swings and keep littles in a site without as much traffic. There is water right across from both of these sites.

-Even-numbered hookup sites 60-70 are also right on the meadow with very little shade

-All other sites are heavily shaded, although you'll be close to your neighbors

The camp store near the Hickory Ridge Loop sells ice, firewood, and just about anything you may possibly have forgotten to pack--firestarters, first aid supplies, marshmallows, and has as a gift shop with blankets, outerwear, and kitschy souvenirs.

Normally I would take off a star for lack of privacy of tent sites, however there is so much hiking here that your campsite can really be more of a basecamp than a place you want to sit and hang out all day long!

Peaceful and well-maintained campsites, just a short drive from the city

Powhatan State Park is a relatively new addition to the VA State Parks system; the park itself has only been open since 2003. The primitive, canoe-in campground opened with the park, and the loop with electric and water hookups opened in 2016.

Canoe-In Campground: 

When we stayed, we stayed in the canoe-in campground, although we hiked in the approximate 1/4 mile from the parking lot, rather than coming in by boat. This is a quiet, beautiful loop, with 8 sites, each with a picnic table and fire ring. There are composting toilets here and no potable water, so you will need to bring enough water for your trip or purification methods. Proper food storage is also essential back here; while this section of Virginia does not have the bear activity you’d find in the mountains, there are still raccoons and other wildlife who should not have access to human food. There are no bear boxes, so treat food storage as you would in the backcountry. 

-Sites 7 and 8 are closes to the toilets, and back up to the woods leading towards the Turkey Trail; hikers are visible from site 8 and audible from site 7.  

-Sites 4 and 5 back up to a very wooded area, and are further back from the gravel loop. Site 4 is closest to the boat ramp and is visible; site 5 is probably the most private in the loop. 

-Sites 1,2, and 6 are in the center loop, but have more space between them than inner-loop sites usually have. Sites 1 and 2 are right against the River Trail however, so will have hikers walking directly past during the day. 

The canoe-in loop sits against the James River; there is a rack to stow your canoe/kayak overnight, and a pay by honor-system pile of firewood. Due to the thick foliage there is no actual river-view during the warmer months, but it’s easily accessbile. When we stayed in early spring there were a lot of vines that served as “natural playground” for our kids; they used them as swings, monkey bars, and enjoyed getting their feet wet at the base of the canoe ramp, so much that they declined hiking or driving to the park’s man-made playground. This loop makes a great “trial run” site for anyone considering a future backcountry trip; the walk to the parking lot is short enough to make multiple trips if you need to, and you still have access to the park amenities if you don’t mind a walk/drive to get there.

River Bend Loop

The River Bend Loop has 29 sites with water and electric hook-ups, though very little privacy between sites. The surrounding trees give all but the first three sites decent shade and a wooded atmosphere, and this is a great loop for RVs or tent campers who enjoy being close to other sites. If you are looking for a feeling of isolation however, you would be better off minimizing your gear and walking to the primitive sites, or going to a different park altogether. The bathrooms here have electricity, flush toilets, and showers with hot water. Sites 1-14 are available for advance reservation, and sites 15-29 are first-come first-served. Site 25 offers the most privacy for tent campers, and it’s very large, but if the campground is at full occupancy all sites are going to have a crowded feel.

There are several hiking trails at this park ranging from very easy to moderate, and a couple of them are horse-friendly; our kids enjoy seeing horses on the trail with them, but be mindful if you have kids/dogs who may be afraid of the horses. The park also has a playground, picnic shelters, and ranger activities on the weekends, and there are three yurts available to book.

This is a very open, well-maintained park, and the camping options should appeal to a wide spectrum of campers, and my only reason for giving it 4 stars instead of 5 is because of the lack of privacy in the drive-up campsites. It feels a lot like a hidden gem; the hookup campground fills up during warmer weather, but all of our visits here have been very quiet and peaceful. If you are looking for camping options near Richmond, I highly recommend this park!

Foggy, Quiet, and Away From the Crowds

We chose this campground specifically for the elevation, knowing we would be camping in late August and wanting an escape from the heat. It definitely delivered--at over 5300' elevation, it is much, much cooler at the campground than many of the trails lower in the Smokies. It is also extremely foggy--we did not spend much time here during the day as we were hiking, but both morning and nights we were there, clouds settled in over the entire campground, creating a very cool effect. (It also rained on us both nights, so make sure your tent is properly sealed against water!) 

We stayed in sites 38 and 39, which had been booked in advance by the friends we went with. These are very close to the entrance, to other sites, to the bathrooms, the campground hosts, and the dishwashing station, and they are right on the road. It made these sites very convenient, but not the best for us as we had 5 small children with us. The tent pad at site 38 was also a little too small for our 6 person Coleman Evanston—one corner was hanging off the wooden platform.

While our campsite was not as private as we normally would choose for ourselves, the campground itself was very quiet and very peaceful, and nowhere near full occupancy, despite the crowds on the trails below us. It is very wet, so if you want a campfire be sure to buy some of the heat-treated wood available for purchase down the mountain, and be prepared to secure anything you don't want to get wet in your cars overnight. 

My only complaint here was the interaction the campground hosts had with our children--a bear had been seen at the entrance to the campground our first night there, and one of the hosts attempted to scare one of our toddlers into staying close to her mom, which is a decision I found highly inappropriate, and the hosts in general acted annoyed anytime our children wanted to play more than a few feet away from the adults. However that is not a fault of the campground itself, and I think if we had not been so close to the host site that would not have been an issue, and would have made this a very family-friendly place to go--provided you prepare for temperatures 10-20 degrees cooler than it is at lower elevations!

Other things of note with this campground: 

-For privacy, sites 32-37 looked to be the best, although they require a couple of steps down from the car so are not ADA compliant. These sites are very grassy, with a lot of room for kids and dogs to run around without being right on the road. Site 23 was also very private compared to the others, although small; I don’t think anything larger than a 4 person tent would fit here.

-The tent-only sites, 26-31, are clustered together and very open to each other, but offer privacy from the road and the other sites in the campground, and are considered the "walk-in" sites. The walk is very short, and I did see bear boxes to store food, as proper food storage is extremely important in the Smokies--within a few miles of the campsite we saw elk, bears, wild turkey, and deer. 

-There is a dishwashing station behind site 38, with two sinks. There was some dish soap in there on our trip, but as always, be prepared with your own, and the water was cold water only. 

-Site 38 is next to an open field rolling down the mountain; the hosts told us there is a bear family that likes to cross the campsite between sites 7 and 38, so be prepared to see one if you choose a site near this crossing!

-There is a trail along the edge of this campground that is supposed to have wonderful sunset views, although we did not get to take advantage of this due to the fog.

-Because of the high elevation, Balsam Mountain has a shorter operating season that the other GSMNP campgrounds; plan your trip accordingly. 

-There are no electric or water hook-ups here, although RVs and campers may park at the sites. 

-The bathrooms have solar-powered lights for nighttime, but they are very dim, so flashlights/headlamps are encouraged.

Premium Virginia Camping

This is hands-down my favorite campground in Virginia.

To start--it's very well maintained, but has a lot of personality. The bathrooms are simple but clean, there is potable water convenient to all sites, and most sites you can park you car right at your site, but the absence of a paved road or sectioned off tent sites, and the creek that runs through the entire campground, gives a feeling of peace and wilderness that can be hard to find in front country camping. None of the sites at this campground have electric or water hookups, but all sites have picnic tables and fire rings.

Sites 1-27 are in the main loop. The creek winds through this loop providing the sound of water and a place to splash in. The inner ring is still fairly wooded but has less privacy, and the outer ring on the eastern side has long driveways to accommodate larger campers/RVs.

Sites 28-35 are on a spur off the main loop, and have a higher degree of privacy. These sites are slightly more rugged, and best for smaller tents; site 35 however is both large, flat, and private, and is next to the trailhead to one of the campground's hiking trails. The bathroom in this leg has multiple stalls, electricity, and flush toilets.

Sites 36-38 are walk-in only, though the walk is very short, and crosses a lovely bridge over the creek. Sites 37 and 38 are very small; a 1-4 person tent should be fine, but anything larger than that is unlikely to fit. The sites are bordered by a small meadow on one side, and a hill on the other. Site 36 is arguably the best site in the entire campground if you are comfortable carrying your gear a few dozen yards from the parking lot. This site has a high degree of privacy, especially from late spring to early fall when the trees have their leaves, it can accommodate 6+ person tents, and is right beside the creek which gives you a wonderful sound to fall asleep to. This one is especially great for kids!

Sites 39 and 40 also border the meadow at the back of the campground but you can park directly at the site so they work for campers, and sites 41 & 42 form a double site; because it is a double site it is more expensive to book, but you are set back from the remainder of the campground, as well as being beside both the creek and next to a trailhead. Group campsites are available closer to the day-use area.

The hosts at this campground are some of the nicest we have ever encountered, and we have been going here for years. They also frequently pile logs from downed trees next to the dumpsters in early spring, providing ample firewood if you have the means to split it yourself.

There is a lake and picnic grounds for day-use, along with a few hiking trails, however the day use areas are not regularly monitored; the lake is swim-at-your-own-risk, and there are no boat or fishing gear rentals. There is no camp store to purchase firewood or provisions, but there is a privately owned way-station a few miles before the entrance of the campground. Plan on bringing in everything you will need for your trip, unless you want to add time driving on the winding roads leading to the campground to and from the local stores.

Ranger Review: RōM Outdoors RōM Pack at Hungry Mother State Park

Hungry Mother State Park, just a short drive off I-81 in southwestern Virginia, is an easily accessible gem offering modern cabins, yurts, and campgrounds equipped for tents or RVs, with limitless activities.

We stayed in one of the cabins after Hurricane Michael rained out our plans for tent camping. This was our first time in one of the VSP cabins, and will not be our last. There are three types of cabins; log exteriors, part of the original Civilian Conservation Corps structures; wooden frame cabins with wooden interiors, and cinderblock exteriors with tile floors. Cabins range from economy to three bedroom, and all have a kitchen with microwave, stove, and refrigerator/freezer, a bathroom with a shower, and a fireplace, as well as heating and air conditioning. Most cabins also have covered porches, exterior picnic tables, and exterior fire rings.

The Creekside Campground loop has water and electric hookups, picnic tables, and fire rings. The layout is similar to most water/electric sites in state and national parks in Virginia; not much privacy between the sites, but fairly shaded, and a quiet atmosphere. This loop is true to its name, and right on the creek running through the park. We were there during the rains from Hurricane Michael and the creek was running so high that sites 10, 11, 12, 14, 16, and 19 looked like they were in danger of flooding.

The Royal Oak campground has platforms for tents set into the mountain rather than dirt or gravel tent pads, however as there are hooks in each of the pads to anchor your tent they can only accommodate tents with a 20x20 footprint. These sites have picnic tables and fire rings on the dirt beside the platforms. The two VSP Yurts at Hungry Mother are in the Royal Oak loop, along the entrance that are set up from the road. This loop overall offers a lot more privacy for each site that I have typically seen in state parks due to the platforms, though you will still see/hear your neighbors. Both camping loops have bathrooms with electricity, flush toilets, and showers with warm water.

Amenities in the park include a lake with a swimming area, boat/canoe rentals, fishing (with license), a restaurant, hiking, biking, and ranger programs. The park office also has several cool displays of local wildlife and history of the area, as well as backpacks you can check out with books and gear for tree, wildflower, and animal identification. Hiking varies from short and easy trails with minimal elevation gain, to the difficult Molly’s Knob trail with one of the most epic sunset views I’ve ever hiked in Virginia.

I love Virginia State Parks, and this is definitely a new favorite. I’m skeptical of the comfort of the wooden platforms for future tent camping trips, but the cabins will definitely be a future stay for us, particularly during the winter months, and there is so much to do in this park even the most reluctant adventurer will find fun.

**Product Review **

As as Ranger for The Dyrt, I get products to test from time to time — on this trip I tested the RōM pack, from RōM Outdoors.

I was skeptical about this pack when I first received it—it felt extremely heavy for a day pack, particularly as it doesn’t have a hip belt, and while I was impressed with the removable pockets, it didn’t seem like the pack itself had a lot of cargo capacity.

After using this pack on our trip, I am a convert. We used it to pack clothes for my husband and I, knowing we would be able to leave our clothes at camp when we went hiking. This freed up space in the car that would normally go to a larger backpack, and we got to take advantage of the pack’s ability to convert to both a poncho and a blanket, not just for review purposes, but out of necessity.

The poncho’s rain resistance held up well, considering we were hiking in the outer bands of a hurricane. The first hike we took this on we started in the rain, and my husband wore the poncho—he stayed dry for the first half mile of our hike, but by end of our mile the water had started leaking through so he did get a little wet—though mostly around the the seams/openings. On our second hike he wore it as a backpack. Because it was raining when we set out and we anticipated needing the poncho feature again, we elected not to bring the detachable pockets, but the interior of the pack was enough to hold our 5 year old’s day pack once she got tired of carrying it.

It stopped raining by the time we got to the summit of our hike, and we tested the blanket feature of the pack for a picnic. It unfolds to a size that was perfect for our family of four. The canvas is thick enough to make a great picnic blanket—it protects from damp ground and sharp rocks, and the lining makes for a very soft surface to sit on. On the way back I took advantage of the poncho. By this point it had gotten extremely windy and was getting dark quickly, and the poncho was excellent at keeping me warm. It’s very heavy, which was welcome in the strong wind, though it did make it hard to hear with the hood over my ears.

Pros to this pack:

-Versatility. In one trip we used the backpack, poncho, and blanket feature, and were grateful for all three.

-Durability. This is definitely a well-constructed pack, with heavy materials that seem like they will last for a long time.

-User-friendly. The pack looks intimidating at first, but it unfolds/folds from pack to poncho/blanket very easily. Combined with the drawstring inner pack and detachable pockets it’s easy to convert while still keeping track of your gear.

Cons to this pack:

-Space. This is great to bring on a camping trip where you can bring additional packs/bags for your gear, but it doesn’t hold much on its own.

-Weight. It only weighs in at 4.6lbs, which is less than a lot of backpacking packs, but as the pack doesn’t have the hip belt it’s a high starting weight.

-Thin straps. The width of the straps is comfortable, but they could use a little more padding.

Loud and dirty but spacious with great hiking

Foster Falls Campground has 26 sites, most of which are very large and spacious. As is common in loop campgrounds, the sites in the center of the loop--especially sites 1-13--are very open, with little privacy between sites, although they are still shady due to the extremely tall trees. The outer loop sites have more underbrush between them providing a buffer. Sites 17-26 all have relative privacy from each other, but are smaller sites in general, although many of them have specified tent pads. The sites closest to the bathrooms all had more bugs while we were there in August, and site 16, while very large, has power lines that run into the site itself.

This is a very beautiful campground. The towering trees give most sites ample shade, and there is a lot of firewood that is easy to collect from felled trees, particularly on the back half of the loop. The front half of the loop is closest to the trail to the falls, and site 8 has a trail running directly behind it that takes you to the falls overlook, and to the trailhead to walk down to the falls themselves. Our 2 and 5 year old walked from our campsite down to the falls and back up easily, and enjoyed having a trail that led to the falls overlook for nightly post-dinner walks, and it would make a great camping base for anyone looking to hike the Fiery Gizzard Trail. The picnic tables are also very large and made it easy to prepare food and for 5 people to sit comfortably, even with our stove at one end, and the tables are on concrete slabs, which helps keep bugs crawling around your feet down a little, and makes it easier to clean up any food that falls while eating. The bathrooms were also cleaned each morning, with the trash taken out and the floor swept clean of bugs and detritus.

My biggest complaints about this site are the noise, and how much trash we saw. There is a farm nearby with a rooster that spent the better part of the day crowing, which can be distracting when you have a toddler you are trying to get to sleep, and got very repetitive for the adults as well. We could also hear 18 wheelers both nights we were there during the night. We were there on weeknights so there were very few other campers, but there was a lot of trash still evident from the weekend littered across most of the campsites, and a group that stayed our first night there left their fire ring full of paper towels and banana peels. After reporting it to a ranger, he cleaned up the paper but left the banana peels which made me wonder how strictly the campground enforces proper food storage, and the ranger said that the campers had not paid or registered--despite the fact that park vehicles drove past at least twice since that group set up camp. If kept clean, I would easily give this a 4 or 5 star rating despite the noise, but I was very disappointed in the visibility of human impact--a shame, because it is otherwise a great place, and great for families with small children.

Well maintained with lots of recreational activities

Part of the VA State Park system, BCL is exceptionally well-maintained. Most of the site are RV accessible, but there are a few tent-only sites along the lake, which is where we stayed. These sites are absolutely beautiful--great lake views, and while the only swimming allowed is at the roped off beach area, there is a canoe launch and fishing opportunities right at the campsites.

The tent pads are filled with shredded tires instead of gravel or dirt, which provides a little extra cushion, but can be uncomfortable on bare feet.

All sites have fire rings, lantern hooks, and extra long picnic tables. Tent pads are of varying sizes--we stayed in site A12 and our 6 person tent fit easily, and we could have fit a second one-many of our camp neighbors had 10 person tents set up.

The water view loop was not heavily trafficked, though the water does provide a hazard if you have small children as it is not roped off in any way. Our kids loved having the water right there and we loved watching them, it just requires extra vigilance. Loops B and C have more sites that are very shady but closer together, and there is more vehicle and bicycle traffic going past campsites.

Bathrooms are clean, and have showers and electrical outlets to charge devices if needed.

The park has lots of hiking, including trails that go directly from the camp sites to the swimming area, boat/canoe rentals, cabins, fishing, and a lakeside diner that sells concessions. Campsites allegedly have Wifi though we did not test this to see how reliable it is.

Cumberland County is only at 455' elevation, so the heat and humidity in the summer is intense--we were very uncomfortable our first night because of this, so fall would probably be the best time to go as it is when central Virginia has the best weather.

Large variety of sites to meet all camping types

This is one of our favorite campgrounds in the state of Virginia. The higher elevation of the mountain means lower humidity, and while we have seen rain here more often than not, it usually moves through pretty quickly, and we have also seen some incredible sunsets.

Our favorite loop is the western side of A loop--most of the sites are walk-in sites so they offer a little more privacy and no concern of our kids wandering into the street where cars/bikes are going by. If you get lucky site A20 has incredible western views over the valley, and you can watch the sun set directly from your tent.

There are plenty of sites here for whatever type of camping you prefer--large pull-ins for RVs, large tent pads, grassy and open, shady and secluded, and sites that are near each other if you are with friends/family and want to get multiple sites together. Currently loops F&G are by reservation only, which is a shame as they are the best drive-up sites for tent-campers, so if you haven't been there before it makes it tricky to know you are getting a site that will fit your tent. F loop sites are a little larger, while G loop are a little more private.

Very, very family friendly campground, and lots of nearby hiking. One of my favorite trails for kids, Blackrock Summit, is only about 4 miles south on Skyline Drive, though you can hop on the AT directly at the campsite and have ample hiking opportunities without ever getting in the car. During the late spring through the summer it is common to see thru-hikers set up for the night.

Our last visit here was in June, but September/October is my favorite time to go, on account of cooler nights and fall color in the trees.

Easy access cabin with gorgeous views

This is one of the cabins operated by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC). This one is located in Shenandoah National Park, around milepost 59, so you will need to pay the entrance fee to SNP if you do not have an annual pass, and it is a primitive cabin, so there is no water or electric, and all trash must be packed out.

This cabin is very easy to access--park at the entrance to the fire road off Skyline Drive, and it is about a .2 mile hike, crossing the AT along the way.

The cabin has a covered porch with a picnic table and outdoor fireplace, and ample firewood available under the agreement that guests replenish the firewood that they use. There is a sawhorse and wood-splitters available for this. Inside the cabin are three sets of bunk beds, each double wide.

Amenities include:

Mattress pads for each bed, wool army blankets, interior wood-burning stove, interior picnic-table, pots and pans of varying sizes (including a cast iron skillet), flatware, glassware, ceramic bowls, plates, and mugs, and a coffee percolator.

Mice are very common here. There is a box inside the cabin to lock food in at night to keep mice out--we could hear them at night while we were there. There is a privy located a few yards away from the cabin, and a spring several yards beyond the privy where water can be obtained, though it will need to be purified.

This cabin has great views, and is a great place for people of all ages, including small children--we came here the first time for our son's 1st birthday. However the AT runs directly behind the cabin. Even in April we already saw several hikers, some stopping at the spring, others who were obviously aware of the cabin as a potential place to stop and rest. We also came in November and did not see many other hikers, and even with the very cold temperatures still stayed fairly warm inside the cabin overnight thanks to the wood-burning stove.

Peace, solitude, and the sound of the ocean

False Cape is a primitive campground that can only be accessed by walking or biking through the Back Bay Wildlife Refuge along the southern coast of Virginia. The first grouping of sites are 6 miles from the closest parking area, and the second grouping are 9 miles away. There are both ocean side and bay side campsites. For the ocean sites, you have the option of setting up your tent at the marked site behind the dunes, or at a marked location directly on the sand, although depending on the tides the rangers may prohibit camping on the beach.

There are no campfires allowed at False Cape, but the proximity to the beach and the solitude can't be beat. Beside the 6-9 mile hike/bike ride in, there are plenty of trails within the park to explore, many leading to historical landmarks.

When we went we brought our 2 and 4 year old children. My husband and I each hooked a trailer to our bikes, and I towed the kids and he towed our gear. The kids loved riding through Back Bay, and all of us enjoyed having the beach essentially to ourselves for the two nights we were there. This was exceptionally kid-friendly as there is plenty of sand for kids to play in right at the campsite, and there are very few hazards for small children aside from the ocean itself.

Bring bug spray--we went in May and the bugs were already overwhelming--including many, many ticks.