Camping in Shenandoah National Park (with a 3 year old)

Shenandoah National Park is a mere 1 hour 1/2 from Washington, DC. It’s a great place to hike, camp, see wildlife and disconnect from the usual habits of city life. It’s also not as remote as other national parks, which for us made it a great choice for a first multi-day camping trip with our 3 year old Little Mangosteen.

Lush green mountain views in Shenandoah National Park
Mountain views of the Shenandoah National Park

This was our first real camping trip with our little M, and we nailed it. We came prepared, we did a trial one-night camping escapade close to Princeton beforehand and we learned valuable lessons from it. For example that an inflatable mattress that you must plug to a power source is not very practical in a place with no power outlets… or even if you were to take said mattress to the nearest plug, you would not be able to fit it through the tent’s door… Important lessons only learned through experience! Ha! We also learned that Little M, although very excited about her sleeping bag, once fully asleep wanted nothing to do with it. And so, all night we worried about how to keep her warm because it was a very cold early spring night.

Two tents in campground at the Shenandoah national park
Our tents in the almost empty Mathew’s Arm campground, right after the Memorial Weekend (national holiday)  rush – Shenandoah National Park

In Shenandoah we camped for 3 nights in the Loft Mountain campground in the southern part of the park, and 1 night at Mathews Arm in the north section.  We came prepared (over-packed car, way too much food) and it was amazing. We saw more animals than we expected, closer than we expected (BEARS), and we reacted to the close encounters better than we expected (we didn’t run). We even managed to do a little hiking (this was before we saw the bears on the trails). Highly recommended trip!

Grandfather and grandchild walking the Story of the Forest path in the Shenandoah National Park
Story of the Forest nature trail- Shenandoah National Park
A deer grazing and partly hidden by vegetation in the Shenandoah National Park
Story of the Forest nature trail- Shenandoah National Park

My father, let’s call him Abuelo Loco, newly retired and feeling very adventurous and free (yay!), drove all the way from Florida. He saved the day by arriving before the rest of our party and reserving our camp sites. This was during the very very busy Memorial Day weekend, a big holiday here in the US, apparently characterized by outdoorsy activities, barbecuing and/or camping.  The rest of our party was my little brother (<3) and his amazing girlfriend, both of whom Little M adores.

We were probably the only campers not grilling anything on the campsite fire. They made the mistake of letting me take over the planning and shopping for food. I think we were the only ones, in the whole of Shenandoah, eating steamed broccoli, with farro, and feta, New Jersey asparagus with barley and nuts, marinated portobello mushrooms,  and pasta with pesto, walnuts and cherry tomatoes,accompanied by grapes, apples and bananas.

It’s tougher than I imagined planning vegetarian meals for 5 days without a refrigerator in warm weather!

The little “hiking” we did was great. It is a tough time with Little M right now because she is too heavy  for me to carry her in a carrier, but too little to be expected to walk long distances or at any comfortable pace for the adults not to go crazy. So we did the Story of the Forest nature trail, near the Big Meadows Campground, a comfortable flat loop of 1.8 miles, half within the forest and half next to a road by the forest. Little M walked half of it, the other half we had to carry her and we were glad it was a short flat walk. It was pretty but we didn’t see much wildlife. We loved another walk we did,  though the Big Meadows, following the little paths though the shrubs and tall grass. It’s a very peculiar place. Little M loved the walk. This is not a trail, but little paths that criss-cross the meadow. We saw plenty of bugs and birds and deer. Then we wanted to walk the Frazier Discovery trail  near the Loft Mountain campsite, a 1.3 circuit, but as soon as we reached the trailhead a mama bear and 2 cubs were waiting by the side of the dirt path. We did not venture any further. We all are scaredy-cats ( a word I learned during this trip). The impending rain gave us a nice excuse…

Expansive view of the Big Meadows with cloudy weather, Shenandoah National park
Walking in the Big Meadows- Shenandoah National Park
View of the Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park with a deer grazing
Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park

We were going to see many more bears in the following days (not nights, thankfully), specially around the Matthews Arm campground; some small and newly independent bears, some big, and two mothers and their small cuddly cubs. Although the black bears in this region are quite small compared to say, the grizzly of the western US, they are still intimidating. They are also curious, always looking for food, and very quiet. The regulations are strict in the campgrounds about not leaving any food around, not getting any scented anything inside your tent, and actively “shooing” them away if they are roaming too close and  getting too comfortable around people. Besides bear, we saw many cottontail rabbits, chipmunks, a vole, white-tailed deer (and fawn <3), a snake, and many birds (catbirds, cowbirds, pilated and downy woodpeckers, goldfinch, robins, indigo bunting, northern flicker, eastern towhee, cardinals, blue jays, turkey vultures, and an incredibly cute eastern screech owl….)

A black bear sneaking away near the barbecue pit in a campground in Shenandoah National Park
Bear in the Mathew’s Arm campground, Shenandoah National Park

We loved Shenandoah and hope to be back again someday, hopefully to do some real hiking when Little M is bigger. For now we are glad we had the opportunity to bond with my family, to only shower once in 5 days, to have no phone or internet connection, to wake up to the incredibly noisy chirping of the birds in the trees above our tents and get in touch with the primal fear of being eaten by a bear! We ❤ camping in Shenandoah!


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