Autumn is the perfect time of year to go camping in Virginia. The hot humid summer air is gone, replaced by clear breezes and golden sunlight. The days are made for walking through the forest and paddling along creeks. At night it’s great campfire weather. Biting insects such as mosquitos are scarce – as are the summer crowds.
A quick camping trip is easy to pull off no matter where you are in Virginia. Chances are there’s a nearby site to visit this fall. Here are six amazing places to camp that span Virginia’s Bay watershed, from rocky ridges to coastal marshes:
Seeing the blazing ridges of Shenandoah National Park in October should be an annual pilgrimage for everyone living in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The views are spectacular, as cooler mountain nights often lead to more vibrant leaf colors than much of the rest of the mid-Atlantic’s lower elevations.
I’ve got fond fall memories of Shenandoah over the years – backcountry camping in a wooded valley, stopping at an overlook to watch the sun light up thousands of trees below, passing through an apple orchard right before entering the park.
There are many camping options to choose from along the park’s 105-mile Skyline Drive. Loft Mountain Campground in the southern end is a favorite of mine for family camping, with nice hikes leading directly from the campground. The walk-in, tent-only sites are especially great for a quiet evening.
Fall is my favorite time of the year to go to Virginia Beach. The heavy visitor traffic is gone, yet mild weather often lingers late into the year. At First Landing State Park, you can beach comb along the wide, sandy shores at the mouth of the Chesapeake, stroll the boardwalk through cypress swamps, paddle Broad Bay, or cast for speckled trout and striped bass. The popular campground near the beach offers sites shaded by twisted live oaks. You can also check out the park’s rustic cabins, which have decks made for morning coffee, and fire pits made for nighttime stories.
Camping at First Landing State Park, photo courtesy Virginia State Parks
Westmoreland State Park sits along the broad waters of the lower Potomac River in Virginia’s Northern Neck. I vividly remember one November night camping out there. I walked to the high cliffs along the Potomac as the full moon hung over the dark waters and sparkled off the river’s surface. The air was crisp and still. I was just struck by the sight.
The next morning, I hunted for fossils along the beach at the base of those same cliffs. The sky and river were both bright blue, and the breeze swayed the marsh grasses. There’s something about a sunny autumn day along tidal rivers that makes you feel lucky to be alive.
The cliffs at Westmoreland State Park, photo courtesy Virginia State Parks
Kiptopeke is nestled along the Chesapeake Bay on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Back in high school, I spent a breezy autumn weekend camping at the park and soon discovered why it’s such a unique fall destination. The skies, marshes, and maritime forests were full of migrating birds funneled down to the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula.
All in all, nearly 400 species have been counted at Kiptopeke. These birds are followed by serious birders, who also peak in the fall! It’s an amazing yearly occurrence that makes for an unforgettable camping trip.
There’s also the opportunity to try something different – yurts are available for rent. Like a cross between a tent and a cabin, these are modern versions of shelters used by nomads in Central Asia.
A yurt at Kiptopeke State Park, photo courtesy Virginia State Parks
Not too far south of the D.C. Beltway sits Prince William Forest Park, a wooded oasis featuring a scenic loop drive with eye-popping fall colors. All along the way are short trails, creeks, small waterfalls, and picnic stops. While there may only be woods and ravines, the views are still striking.
The park features several nice drive-in campgrounds. I always think back to a late October night I camped out in the Chopawamsic Backcountry Area amidst the falling yellow leaves. My friend and I had the hike-in sites to ourselves, and the area filled with a tranquility that’s rare in Northern Virginia.
This sleepy park, nestled in the rolling countryside west of Richmond, is a great spot to spend a few peaceful days. Powhatan State Park is all about quiet walks along the James River, exploring meadows and woods, and floating the river. The park has a newer campground with large, well-spaced sites, and also has yurts.
Powhatan State Park primitive campground, photo courtesy Virginia State Parks
First Landing State Park is located near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay close to the spot where Captain John Smith landed in 1607. First Landing is Virginia's most popular state park with over a million visitors each year.
Kiptopeke State Park's location near the tip of the Chesapeake's Eastern Shore makes the park a prime location for bird-watching. Migrating birds congregate at this point on the Delmarva before moving on to breeding or wintering grounds.
Powhatan State Park, in the northwest corner of Powhatan County on the historic James River, has diverse wildlife habitat from open fields to upland hardwood forests.
With cross-country skiing in winter, striking fall foliage in autumn, and great spring and summer recreation spots, Prince William Forest Park is a four-season destination welcoming generations of campers, hikers, bikers and nature lovers.
Located just down stream from Bentonville, the park boasts over five miles of frontage on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. The park consists of pastures, forests and vistas of the mountains and the river.
The park extends about one and a half miles along the Potomac River and offers hiking, camping, cabins, fishing, boating and swimming. Visitors can enjoy the park's vacation cabins as well as spectacular views of the Potomac.