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.

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.