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.

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. 

Screenshot 2021-10-03 12.54.17 PM


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. 


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.


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.


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!