Wild Swimming at Smith Mountain Lake State Park

I should have started this challenge with the parks that are the furthest away. Doing the closest ones first was a mistake. As the days get colder, it’s getting harder to motivate myself to get out there and the long drive times aren’t helping.

Smith Mountain State Park is about a two hour drive from Charlottesville. The weather forecast for Sunday called for clouds with partial clearing later in the day and temperatures in the mid seventies. Not ideal, but I’m not sure how many more warmish days we’ll have this year. I decided to just do it. I drove for about an hour in a light rain. When I stopped for gas near Lynchburg, the wind had picked up and I felt cold in my running shorts and jacket.

The weather matched my mood, though. Or my mood matched the weather. I’m reading a book that is really dark (good, but dark), the stray cat that I’ve been feeding had missed two of her feedings so I was worried about her and my anxiety in general has been pretty high lately. The creepy Halloween decorations in the hazy gloom (an entire zombie family by the side of the road gave me a genuine scare for a split second) didn’t help matters. Nor did the murder mystery podcast I was listening to. I had a familiar wired, jittery sensation in my chest (anxiety), my stomach hurt and I had a feeling of impending doom. For no real reason. I wasn’t so sure it was the best day for one of my state park adventures but regardless, I was on my way.

All of the other Virginia State Park websites with lake swimming say that there are no lifeguards on duty, but swimming is still available. The Smith Mountain Lake website doesn’t say that. It just says that the beach and concessions are closed. So I had called to check and was told that the gate and bathrooms are closed, but swimming is allowed granted I’m willing to hike in.

I parked at the picnic/playground lot just before the gate to the beach and headed out on the Striper Cove trail. I soon found myself wishing I had put bugspray on my legs. The trail was narrow and overgrown with tall grass. It was pretty, but there were definitely going to be some stops for tick checking. Other than the grassy areas, the trail was mostly wooded and more rocky, rooty and hilly than I was expecting. My knee has been bothering me again and I was hoping for a flatter run. It only hurt on the steepest inclines though.

There were a few views of the lake and many mushrooms.

Ticks!
Lemon meringue pie?

After the Striper Cove trail, I did the Turtle Island trail, and what a delight that was! It’s short, but takes you out on a peninsula, over a little footbridge to a tiny island. The sun came out for a few seconds while I was on the island (I ran around it twice) and it felt kind of magical. I couldn’t help but think how much fun it would have been to have access to that when I was a kid. I spent most of my time playing in the woods and building forts. How fun would it have been to have your own private kid-sized island to play on?

From there, I made my way along the Opossum Trot trail and then back along the Tobacco Run, Beaver Den, Buck Run, Turkey Foot and Walton Creek trails.

The views of the lake from near the Discovery Center were pretty spectacular. I thought I ran a portion of the Lakeview trail, but looking at the map now, I’m pretty sure I missed it entirely. I need to go back, because I bet it’s quite nice even though it’s really short.

The coves along the Buck Run and Walton Creek trails were pretty cool. They’d be fun to explore in a kayak or SUP.

I was really tired by the time I made it back to my car. I grabbed my towel and jogged down to the beach, which I was ecstatic to find I had all to myself. It was the most impressive swimming area of all of the state parks I’ve visited so far. There is so much room to swim!

Wild swimming is about swimming for pleasure, and that’s what these swims are for me. It feels so good to submerge yourself in a cool lake! I marveled at the fact that I could comfortably swim in October and thought it was bloody fantastic that I was the only one who seemed to be in on the secret. It was probably a good ten minutes before I started to feel chilly.

The loop I did was just shy of ten miles and there were several trails I skipped. I definitely want to go back and hit them all.

Maybe I’ll try a November swim?

I called Brian before I left and he told me that Pippy (the “stray” cat who I more accurately should call our cat at this point) had finally returned.

On the drive home I realized that all of my physical anxiety symptoms had disappeared. Everything seemed a lot less gloomy even though the weather hadn’t changed at all. In fact, it was raining again.

Wild Swimming at Douthat State Park

It takes about an hour and a half to get to Douthat State Park from Charlottesville.

Brian came with me, which is pretty amazing because he doesn’t like running and thinks lake water is disgusting.

It’s really hard for me to fathom. 

We had been to the park twice before for the Odyssey Trail Running Rampage.

I ran the half marathon in 2018 and we both did the marathon in 2019. After each race, I had really wished I could jump in the lake but I hadn’t thought to look at a map ahead of time to figure out where the beach was. Now that I know how close I was and how easy it would have been I’m really regretting my laziness.

Brian ran 50 miles last weekend, so he didn’t want to do more than five miles. (another reason I was shocked he was going with me. I mapped out a route that started at the beach (or what I thought should be the beach, it was really hard to tell on the trail map) and included the Tobacco House Ridge Trail, which I really wanted to do because there was supposed to be a nice overlook of the lake from that trail.

There are 40 miles of trail in the park, so it wasn’t easy to decide which to do.

It’s not a coincidence that I didn’t do any of my wild swimming between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Hordes of people kind of ruin nature for me.

I was worried the park would be really crowded on such a beautiful October day, but it wasn’t. There were some people fishing and hiking, but the trails further from the lake were nice and quiet.

From the lake, we took the YCC trail out to the park road and then ran on the road to the Beard’s Gap Hollow trail to Locust Gap Trail to the Blue Suck Falls Trail to the Tobacco House Ridge Trail and then retraced our steps on the road and YCC Trail. This was a slightly modified version of my original plan because we turned early at one point. It worked out fine, though. It was just a bit more climbing than we anticipated. 

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IMG_20211002_130714868_HDRThe trails were well marked and well maintained. I loved the Locust Gap Trail, which was nice and smooth along the ridge. The Tobacco House Ridge trail was nice, too (after the short but very steep first tenth of a mile or so). The view I had been so excited about was not as amazing as I had hoped. It’s probably better in the winter. 

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The Blue Suck Falls Trail was rocky and steep and I did not like running down it. You run up it in the Odyssey race and I much prefer that. The rest of the trails were really nice, though.

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When we got back to the lake I was happy to see that it was still empty. The water felt cold at first, but really nice once I was in. I stayed in for a while and could have stayed in longer, but I knew Brian was eager to get going.

I didn’t take a selfie after my swim because Brian said he got a picture of me in the water.

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This is his picture.
Can you find me?

Wild Swimming at Holliday Lake State Park

I realized on the drive there that I had forgotten to bring cash. Luckily the park office was open and I was able to pay with my credit card. This was a huge relief because the park is in the middle of nowhere. I was looking at a half-hour drive EACH WAY if I had to backtrack to a town for cash.

Each state park I visit is even better than the last!

This one was beautiful, immaculate and quiet. I love quiet.

I got a late start because I wanted to give the day time to warm up for the swim. I had even considered waiting until afternoon. What I hadn’t considered was the fact that I am not at all acclimated to running in the heat. Waiting until later would have been a huge mistake. I struggled enough as it was.

A big part of that was probably the fact that I didn’t carry any water. The trail I was planning to run (Lakeshore) was only 6.5 miles. I run 6 miles all the time without water. But I generally do it around sunrise. It’s a little different by ten in the morning. I also had a little trouble following the trail and the run ended up being a little over 7 miles (another reason I really should have been carrying water!)

Lesson learned. I will carry water when I explore new trails from now on.

The trail is fairly well marked, but you have to pay attention. At one point I came out at a road crossing and the trail didn’t continue on the other side. I went down the road a little in each direction looking for the trail and didn’t see anything. Eventually I decided to go back the way I’d come to make sure I hadn’t missed a turn and soon discovered that I had.

When I got to the dam, there was a sign that said “Danger. Authorized Personnel only beyond this point.” I backtracked again (this wasn’t so bad because it was actually one of my favorite sections.) I ran about a quarter mile before I saw one of the blue blazes that I was supposed to be following. I hadn’t missed a turn, so I ran back to the dam. I then realized that the sign was referring to the area under the dam, not the dam itself.

There was very little mud and only two small creek crossings that required getting my feet wet.
Wildflowers everywhere!
My first lady’s slipper sightings of the year. I saw two.
The section of trail that I got to run four times. There were so many wild azaleas along the shore.

The deepest of the two creek crossings (deeper than it looks in the picture). It came late in the run and I was so hot by that point that I was happy to see it. I stopped and rinsed the sweat from my eyes and splashed some water on my neck.

The last couple of miles were tough. I actually stopped to walk a few times. 

Back at my car, I downed an entire (icy!) thermos of Nuun before heading to the beach. It was quite possibly the best beverage I’ve ever had.

The water felt colder than my previous two swims, but I think that’s just because I was so hot!

 

Wild swimming at Bear Creek Lake State Park

This one was also just about an hour’s drive from Charlottesville. It felt more like it was in the middle of nowhere though. Some of the roads I took to get there weren’t even paved.

It was quieter than Lake Anna State park, which I really liked.

I ran the Channel Cat Loop Trail, then took the Lakeside Trail over to the Lost Bar Loop Trail and then back again for a little over 6 miles.

The trails were well marked and great for running. I passed a few hikers and a runner on the Lakeside Trail but had the two loop trails all to myself.

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While I was running by the lake, saw a kayaker in the water and realized there were two people swimming along behind it. That made me feel happy and also a little less crazy for wanting to swim on a not exactly hot day in April.

The sun was occasionally peaking out from behind the clouds and the air temperature was 68. I had some salt stinging my eyes by the time I finished my run, but was far from overheated.

The water felt chilly when I got in, but not bad at all, even with a good wind blowing across the lake. The wind made the water a little choppy, which was kind of fun to swim through. I stayed in a lot longer than I did at Lake Anna, breast-stroking back and forth between the buoys.

The coolness of the air and water and the lack of other swimmers made this swim feel a little more “wild.” I do realize that swimming within buoys at State Park beaches is probably the most tame form of wild swimming there is, but wild swimming just sounds cool, so I’m going with it.

It was so quiet I got to enjoy the soft rippling sound of the waves I make when I’m swimming. I love that sound. I also love the smell of lake water (and ocean and river water.)

In addition to all the trails I explored, the park also provides access to the Cumberland Multi-Use Trail (14 miles) and the Willis River Trail (16 miles) so there are plenty of options for longer runs.

I would definitely go back.

Two down, four to go.

Wild swimming at Lake Anna State Park

The drive time from Charlottesville was just about an hour. I was a little surprised that there wasn’t anyone at the entrance booth, but it was a Tuesday afternoon in early April, so I guess it makes sense. I stopped and put my money in one of the provided envelopes and tore off the parking tag for my rear view mirror. The weekday fee is $7. I had a ten dollar bill and four ones. I just stuck the ten dollar bill in there and figured I was fine giving the state park an extra $3. The park office was open so I could have stopped and got change if I really wanted to.

I parked at the beach parking area. There were about a dozen other cars there, but it was a big lot so it still looked pretty empty. I was really disappointed to see that the beach was actually closed, though. The website had said it was open, but it was roped off and a bulldozer was spreading out piles of fresh sand.

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There were people wading and splashing about in the water on either side of the roped-off section, but the website said swimming was only allowed at the main beach. I decided to go for my run and hope that they finished with the bulldozing by the time I was done, but it didn’t look like that was going to happen.

I started out on the Fisherman’s trail, which is a short trail along the water that connects the swimming area to a fishing and picnic area. From there, I got on the Ware Creek Trail, which was by far my favorite trail of the day. There’s a nice section down by the water and then a more wooded section. It felt secluded and peaceful and I didn’t pass a single person. There are several exercise stations along the path.

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I headed back by the beach to the Railroad Ford trail and took mental notes of places I could possibly swim along the way. I passed a few groups and couples, but it was still far from crowded. I was getting hot and thirsty and starting to wonder if I’d made the hour drive and paid $10 just to run on some trails. The Railroad Ford trail connects to the Glenora trail and I had planned to take it, but there was a sign that said “Registered campers only beyond this point.” I didn’t really think that meant only campers could use the trail, but I was also really thirsty (it was almost 80 degrees and there weren’t any leaves on the trees yet, which meant I had been running for 40 minutes with the sun beating down on me) so I decided to head back to the water fountain I’d seen at the beach.IMG_20210406_142625231_HDR

I was happy to find the water fountain in working order and took a nice long, refreshing drink. Instead of heading out on the questionable Glenora trail, I decided to just do another loop of the Railroad trail, knowing that there were a few places along the way I could swim if I decided to. The park website had said that swimming was prohibited anywhere other than at the official beach, though. And I do generally try to follow the rules. So I ended up just running around the loop and back to the beach. 

I saw a couple of rangers talking to some of the people who had been swimming in the area right next to the beach and went over to see what they had to say. I figured they were telling them they weren’t allowed to swim there, but that wasn’t the case. The beach was indeed closed, but when I asked if they were telling people they weren’t allowed to swim outside of it, they said no, that it was a public lake and people could swim wherever they wanted to. I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear that.

I found a fairly secluded spot along the Fisherman’s trail and had myself a nice little swim. The water was clear near the shore, but quickly turned murky. I didn’t wade too far out before I dove in. The water was cold, but not bad at all. The swimming holes here in the mountains are colder in the middle of summer than this water felt the first week in April. Since I was alone, I didn’t swim very far out, but I did swim around a little bit. 

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I didn’t do quite as much swimming as I would have if the big sandy beach with the buoys around it had been open, but my private little swim was really nice, too.

There is no way I would go to Lake Anna State Park on a busy weekend in the summer, but I would love to go back on a weekday before the beach officially opens and explore the rest of the trails and spend a little more time swimming.

One park down. Five to go.

Wild Swimming State Park Challenge

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I just finished reading Waterlog by Roger Deakin. The book is his account of “swimming through the British Isles.” I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it has inspired me to do a swimming challenge of my own. My plan is to visit every Virginia State Park with a natural body of water for some wild swimming. I’ll probably do some running, too. My goal is to hit the six parks that are within a two hour’s drive before the end of the year:

  • Bear Creek Lake State Park (Cumberland, Va)
  • Holliday Lake State Park (Appomattix, Va)
  • Pocahontas State Park (Chesterfield, Va)
  • Twin Lakes State Park (Green Bay, Va)
  • Lake Anna State Park (Spotsylvania Courthouse, Va)
  • Douthat State Park (Millboro, Va)

Wild swimming isn’t new to me. I grew up swimming in ponds, lakes, rivers, bays and the ocean. After cross country meets in high school, if there was a body of water anywhere nearby, I always jumped in. Occasionally some off my teammates would join me. Ever since, swimming after a run has been one of my favorite things in the world.

I can’t wait to get started!

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Snake hole after a long run.
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My cousin Jess and I after the Zooma Cape Cod half marathon.

 

From Waterlog:

This was a more leisurely swim; the black water, exposed to the sun, was less cold than the river. My breaststroking sent a bow-wave wobbling the reeds along the banks, and the eels shifting in the mud. From the water, I could see Burrow Hill rising steeply to a single tree at its summit. A tiny figure was sitting on a swing under one of its branches, silhoutted against the blue.
In the afterburn of the swim, I raced to the top of the dramatic hill, where the man on the swing, who owned a pair of white goats grazing nearby, politely offered me a turn. The view from the swing is one of the finest in England, across the Levels for miles in every direction until the fields and rivers disappear in mist. Being airborne, and already high from a cold dip, it was like floating above the world as you sometimes do in dreams.

Swoon.

That is a man after my own heart. 

 

Winter drags on

Before I turned forty I actually liked winter.

A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Since I’ve gotten that under control, I no longer have the constant horrible feeling of my insides being frozen, but I still hate the cold. I mean I really hate it. Almost as much as I hate goat cheese.

I’ve started over-dressing for runs on purpose. I’d rather roast for the majority of the run than freeze for even a little bit.

I also don’t like the snowy, icy, muddy, frozen slop that makes winter running treacherous.

Definitely needed the Yak Trax today.

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I’m dreaming of sweaty summer runs and swimming holes.

Sunrise run

I asked Brian if he’d mind if we left the house a little early again so we could see the sunrise on our run. The Blue Ridge Parkway was closed to traffic and I’d gone for a walk up there earlier in the week and had been thinking ever since how nice the view of the sunrise would be.

It was a much easier sell than I thought it would be. There was hardly any protest or grumbling at all, which I’m still a little suspicious about.

The weather forecast almost convinced us not to go. There was an ice storm warning that night, but the temperature was supposed to climb steadily after midnight and be close to 50 degrees by 7 am. I hoped that was enough time to melt the ice.

It was foggy and 34 degrees when we left Charlottesville.

By the time we parked at Rockfish Gap, it was mostly clear and 47.

The moon was bright and the horizon was already pink and orange. It was light enough that we didn’t need our headlamps. The wind made it a little chilly, but not bad at all.

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There was a group of about five people with cameras set up at the first overlook. We didn’t see anyone else until we got back to the car at the end of our run. It was so quiet and peaceful. The only sounds were the wind in the trees and birdsong.

And Brian complaining about the climb and telling me that his legs hurt from his 14 mile run yesterday. My hamstring and butt weren’t feeling great, either. I’m pretty sure I strained my hamstring again and I hadn’t run at all for a week.

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I thought we were doing 5 miles, because Brian had told me the day before that he needed five more miles for the week. He thought we were just running up to the second overlook to watch the sunrise, then going back to the car.

We compromised and did three miles. Well, a little more than that because I didn’t tell him when my Garmin hit 1.5 miles. He called me a fart potato.

We saw a pile of bear poop that looked like a small volcano.

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All in all, it was a really nice morning.

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I love it when the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline drive are closed to traffic. I went back in the afternoon hoping to do a bike ride without having to worry about cars, but they had already opened the gate back up. I was disappointed, but went for a walk in the woods instead.

2020

2020 was a little different.

Running

I only ran three races:
WazUPwidis 5k (February 1, 2020)
Hashawha Hills 50k (February 29, 2020)
Yeti 100 Miler (September 25, 2020)

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Photo credit: Samantha Smith Taylor

Despite running my first 100 miler, my mileage this year (1374.5) was not very high. 

Brian and I did explore a couple of new trails in 2020, though. And the very cool Blue Ridge Tunnel Trail finally opened. 

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Everything Else

Running wasn’t the only thing that was different this year. 

We didn’t travel at all.

I was unemployed for several months and had time to do some things that I’ve been meaning to do forever:

I finally got around to learning how to knit on circular needles. 

And read some classics that I’ve never read. I Googled “classic literature that isn’t boring” or something like that for recommendations. There were plenty of articles to choose from. I’m obviously not the only one who wants to be well-read, but not bored. 

I give thumbs up to:

“Rebecca” by Daphne Du Maurier
“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte
“Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay
“Peyton Place” by Grace Metalious

And thumbs down to:

“Go Tell it on the Mountain” by James Baldwin (I didn’t hate this book. The story was interesting, the style of writing just made it a really difficult read for me.)
“Love in the time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (this has replaced Moby Dick as my least favorite of the classics I’ve read).

I’m planning to read more classics in 2021. Do you have any recommendations? 

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2020 had it’s moments, but I’m not too sad about saying goodbye.

Bring on the New Year!