DAMASCUS, Va. – It’s a place for a leisurely stroll around a mile-long lake trail; an afternoon fishing from a wheelchair-accessible pier; a day splashing with your children in waist-deep water, playing in the sand and watching caterpillars traverse a long, stone wall.
Beartree Recreation Area is a quiet alternative to larger area lakes devoted to RVs and motorboats, watersports and marinas – a place to disconnect from technology and reconnect with nature.
“We don’t have cell service,” said Edie Underwood, area supervisor of Beartree and the nearby Grindstone campground. “That’s one of the draws of it.”
A trip into this peaceful world begins at Interstate 81’s Exit 19 with a right turn onto U.S. Highway 58 toward Damascus, a scenic rural highway and a sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of the Tri-Cities. After Damascus, it’s another seven miles on curvy mountain roads, shaded by forest and speckled with sunlight.
The recreation area is open April through October to camping and also to day use of the lake, trails and picnic facilities. This time of year, the temperatures are pleasant - typically in the 70s during the day and 50s at night.
The lake is open to kayaks and canoes but nothing with a gas-powered motor. Though there are basic amenities for visitors’ comfort, at Beartree, nature has the opportunity to take center stage.
That’s what has happened every time I’ve taken my daughter there. When she was a toddler, her favorite thing to do there was watch bugs – and she spent a lot more time looking at the edge of the water than actually going in it. For little people with a close-to-the-ground view, there’s a never-ending world of interesting things to explore.
Now that she’s older, she’s learning the names of the plants that grow around the lake. We’ve walked the trails together and looked into the water from the fishing pier, paddled the lake in a kayak and an inflatable raft. We’ve seen prize fish glide past us in the water, and tried the loop trail on a mountain bike.
Beyond the partially-paved loop trail, Beartree also boasts several miles of primitive trails that link to the Iron Mountain and Appalachian trails, and suggested hiking routes are available.
Underwood said locals come back year after year in search of rest and relaxation, whether it’s to camp for a week or just to visit for a day. With a $5-per-car day use fee (or $20 for the season), it’s a largely undiscovered bargain for families looking for a spot to swim.
The campground, which is 2 to 3 miles from the lake, is a popular place for visitors who come to ride the Virginia Creeper Trail. Some sites can be reserved while others are first-come, first-served. Rates range from $20 for a single site to $50 for a large group site. Day use of the large-group picnic shelter, such as for a family reunion, is $75.
Each of the two camping loops has three bath houses with showers and flush toilets, and there’s a playground between the two loops. There’s another bath house at the group camping area and another at the beach and picnic area. No RV hookups are provided, but water is available.
“It’s very quiet,” Underwood said. “Each of the camp sites is kind of secluded… so you can drive into the trees a little bit.”
Owned by the U.S. Forest Service, Beartree is managed by the Cradle of Forestry in America Interpretive Association, a non-profit organization that operates with volunteers. Typically, Underwood said, these volunteers are retirees who stay and help to manage the sites for anywhere from two to seven months.
“Mostly they’re retired people that are RVing full-time, so they come here in their RVs and park,” she said. “We provide the hosts with full hookups and they provide their work to help out, so it’s a win-win situation.”
Underwood said that’s how she, her partner Ken Whiddon, and their three dogs came to Beartree two years ago. Their stay as campground hosts was extended when the managers had a medical emergency, and they came back the following year as area supervisors. Now, they stay here full-time and travel in the off-season, when Beartree is closed.
She said she’s seen a lot of people come and camp here in all kinds of weather – even in the snow.
“Out here it’s just calming,” she said. “It’s beautiful, and you can actually forget your troubles. If you want to get away from everything, this is the place to come.”