Saturday, July 4, 2009

Hiking to a Presidential Retreat

Today being the Fourth of July, I decided to combine nature, exercise, and American History by hiking to the presidential retreat in the mountains. Camp David? No, Camp Rapidan, also known as “Camp Hoover”.

When Herbert Hoover was president, he felt the need to get out of the city. His rest home had to be close enough to Washington, DC to make it possible to travel there for weekends. It had to be above 2,500 feet elevation to make it cooler in the summer and with fewer mosquitoes. And it had to be near a trout stream, as the president loved to fish. This beautiful spot, later donated to Shenandoah National Park by Herbert and Lou Hoover, fit the bill.

My hike was nearly nine miles, my first chance to test out my foot that was still hurting from the cortisone shot of the other day. It was a loop, comprised of sections of these trails: Appalachian (I didn’t run into SC Governor Sanford), Laurel Prong, Cat Knob, The Sag, Fork Mountain, Laurel Prong again, and Mill Prong. The magenta line on the map below shows the route, running counter clockwise from the start at the upper left of the image. The green arrow and magenta circle shows the location of Camp Hoover:

Most of the route was either uphill or downhill, gaining and losing about 1,800 - 2,000 feet. There were three major uphill sections, the first being right out of the gate from the parking lot to the top of Hazeltop Mountain along the Appalachian Trail. The next was a moderately steep but short hike up Cat Knob, and the last was the hike from the camp back to the parking lot along the Mill Prong Trail. During the hike up to Hazeltop, a group of about 50 Japanese hikers went by while I was looking at my map and getting a drink. It was the largest group I have ever seen hiking together.

Most of the buildings at Camp Hoover are now gone, but the president’s large cabin and an historic cabin where the Prime Minister of England once stayed during negotiations on a treaty to limit naval power are still there. One could barely imagine a prettier site for a cabin, surrounded by mountains and with a stream on each side of the site. The two streams, Mill Prong and Laurel Prong, converge just below the cabin to form the Rapidan River, which eventually flows to the Rappahannock River, and to the Chesapeake Bay.

There are not a lot of stunning mountain vistas on this hike. The beauty is in the southern Appalachian forests and the streams. I saw lots of chipmunks while hiking, and many birds. A large and varied group of woodpeckers were visible at the start of the hike, and partway along the Laurel Prong Trail, I ran into a group of tufted titmice and chickadees. At various times, I heard towhee, wood peewee, vireos, veeries, and oven birds calling.

The weather was perfect for summer hiking, with a nice breeze most of the time. It was warm but not oppressive, and the heavy forest cover for most of the route kept me cool most of the time. The rest of my post will show some photos from the day’s hike. It sure felt great to be back in the mountains!

The fabled Appalachian Trail is the first 2.4 miles of this loop hike.

A little seen but very common vertebrate in the mountains is the red-backed salamander.

Not sure what this berry is but something must enjoy eating it. It was quite common.

Hazeltop Mountain is the third highest mountain in Shenandoah National Park, but there is virtually no view from the summit in summertime.

This partial view of mountains along the Laurel Prong Trail was one of the few distant views on the entire hike. Most of the miles were in heavy timber.

This sign at Camp Rapidan shows the layout of the original site. Only the buildings keyed in yellow still remain. The site can be reached by an "out and back" hike of about 1.8 miles each way, but it is more fun to do the loop.

President and First Lady Hoover's cabin. I'd live here in the spring, summer, and fall!

The "Prime Minister's Cabin"

When the cabin was built, the deck was built around a large tree to avoid cutting it down. The tree has since died, but you can still see the stump protruding through the deck.

The camp sits at the source of the Rapidan River, and in the shadow of some really pretty mountains. It is a gorgeous site!

Big Rock Falls on the hike out along Mill Prong Trail.

I saw no major wildlife on the hike, but I did see a total of five fawns and two does while driving. This doe and her two fawns were near the visitor center.

"Iron Mike" is a statue at the Big Meadows Visitor Center that pays tribute to the Civilian Conservation Corps. I often wonder if the time is here to try something like this again in our country, but this time for young men and women.


  1. Wow, that was quite a hike!! You certainly got your exercise that day. Great pictures and thanks for the history lesson. :-)

  2. Until this post, I thought I was fluent in Virginia history. Thanks for the information, and I am glad you had a good hike.