Thursday, November 18, 2010

Prince William Forest Park

We had our first-ever camping encounter back in the late 1970’s, when a friend introduced us to the notion on an overnight trip to Prince William Forest Park. I remember we bought a Montgomery Ward’s pup tent for the occasion, and that breakfast came from a Dunkin’ Donuts in Triangle. After that, we took quite a few car-camping trips, and even a few backbacking excursions, but once the kids came along, we could never get them all that interested in spending unplugged time with their parents in the woods. Our camping equipment sat on a basement shelf for over a decade, but this year (after a couple of good experiences camping at bluegrass festivals), we decided to dust off the gear and give camping another try with a simple overnight trip back to PWFP.

The park is lovely: 15,000 forested acres, with a bicycle-friendly scenic drive of over 20 miles, and 37 miles of well-maintained hiking trails. And it’s incredibly close to home, just a 45 min. trip up the interstate, perfect for an overnight trip.

Scenic drive through the park:

Stop at the Visitor Center to pick up your parking pass ($5) and check out the displays on the park's history:

The campground is tucked at the very back of the park, about 5 miles from the Visitor Center at the park’s entrance. There are 100 pristine campsites, some close to the small paved loop road, some farther back. Of the three sections, one is reserved for tents only, and while RV’s are allowed in two sections, there are no hook-ups and no generators allowed, which keeps things pretty quiet (well, except for the occasional barking dog or squealing child). We had such a good time that we took three overnight trips this fall, all in the space of one month, and had wonderful experiences each time.

One of the campsites on the C loop:

The more we camped, the easier it got. I tweaked the packing list, we kept most of the little stuff all together in a large plastic bin, ready to go at a moment’s notice, and we fine-tuned our menu. Because we’re retired, we were able to go without much prior planning (just a check of the weather to make sure there was no rain in the forecast), and to go on weekdays, when the park is quietest. We figured out which tent-sites were our favorites (back from the road, with fire rings rather than grills), and got practiced enough that we could erect our tent in about five minutes.

Our campsite, tucked back in the woods:

Our trip in early October was so much fun that we went back a few weeks later, and then did a third trip just last week, when we had the park almost to ourselves. Our routine was pretty much the same on all three trips: set up camp, hike for an hour or two, eat lunch, and then spend the rest of the afternoon tending our campfire, reading, playing a little backgammon, cooking dinner over the fire, toasting a few marshmallows, and then trying very hard to stay up to an hour late enough that it could, by some stretch of the imagination, be called bedtime.

A hike down to Quantico Creek...

followed by an afternoon of reading by the fire (coincidentally, I'm reading When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris).

We've perfected the campfire dinner: sausages on the grill, some homemade potato salad, good beer.

We found the whole experience to be very soothing, almost meditative. I suspect it’s a combination of being outdoors in a serene natural environment, and being completely cut off from technology. No TV to watch, no email to write, no Facebook to check. And a phone too dumb to help me out with any of it. Plus there’s something about tending a fire, with the rhythmic movement of the flames, the smoky smell, the crackles and pops, that I found addicting. The fall is the perfect time for camping, with relatively few bugs, and temperatures cool enough to enjoy a fire.

This week, the tents-only section closed down for the winter and won’t reopen until April 15, although the other two sections remain open through the year. But I think we’ll stow the gear away for awhile, and look forward to our next trip in the spring.