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Family fall camping in Maryland

Camping is a great family activity, and fall is the perfect time to hit the great outdoors and head to a camping spot in Maryland.

When Nicole Vales and her family go camping, she looks forward to burning butter.

It seems silly to pack up the half-stick of butter that inevitably is left in the cooler at the end of the camping trip. So, instead, they burn it in the campfire.

“Now it’s tradition,” says the mother of three, laughing. “We call it the ‘Burning of the Butter.’ As it melts, we talk about what our favorite times were.”

Her 11-year-old looks forward the independence that comes with the trip. At one favorite campground, for example, the lake is visible in the distance, so he can go fishing alone. Her middle son enjoys the campfires best. And her youngest son, 7, likes the cozy tent and the fact that his big brothers can’t say, “Get out!”

For the Vales, camping give them a chance to bond as a family.

“It forces us to have quality time together,” says Vales. “In this age of electronics, it’s easy, even for adults, to get distracted. There’s the iPod, the iPad, the DS, the phone… We can sit in the family room for an hour together and not actually interact with each other.”

But around the campfire, on the walks to the bathhouse, or snuggled in their tent, they have conversations, they laugh, and they reconnect.

Not only that, they have family vacation at a fraction of the cost of staying in a hotel.

“I love a change of scenery, but I don’t like to spend a lot of money,” says Vales, whose family camps several times a year.

It’s also a fun way to vacation with other families, says Stacey Scofield, a mother of three from Churchton. “That way, you’re not stuck in a little hotel room,” she says. “Everyone cooks together. The kids play together… We can chat with our friends, but you don’t have to ‘entertain.'”

If you’ve been camping before and were less than impressed, try it again, says Vales. “The more you do it,” she says, “the easier it becomes.”

Five places to take the family camping

To help families either new to camping or looking for new spots to try, we assembled a selection of campgrounds that have a variety of family-friendly amenities within a few hours drive time. (*Drive times are calculated from the State House in Annapolis.)

Some campgrounds offer alternatives for the tent-challenged, including cabins, tipis, and even tree houses. Having dry ground and a roof overhead may be important, too, when the overnight temperatures begin to dip. Online reviews can also help you get a vibe for the campground – whether it caters to families, for example.

Reservations are recommended, and cabins fill up especially quickly. Also check out the suggested packing list on the next page.

1. Patapsco Valley State Park, Hilton area

Address: 1101 Hilton Avenue, Catonsville MD 21228
Drive Time: Less than a hour *

Because it’s close enough to return home quickly if the trip is a bust, this is probably the safest bet for first-time campers.

The centrally located Hilton campground also has camper cabins, which offers an alternative to struggling with a tent. Camper cabins have real beds and doors, but you still must use a shared bathhouse facility.

When making plans—whether it’s getting directions or meeting up with friends—it’s important to note which part of Patapsco Valley State Park you are searching for because the park has eight separate areas. (The Hollofield area also has tent camping.)

And, says Barbara Knisely, of the Maryland Parks Service, “There’s a lot of nice programming.”

Past programs include Owl prowls (hikes to look for owls and owl habitat), campfires, and storytelling. You’ll also love Lost Lake in the Glen Artney area, and the swinging bridge on the Grist Mill Trail in the Orange Grove area.

2. Luray RV Resort on Shenandoah River

(formerly Outlanders River Camp)
Address: 4253 US-211 W, Luray, VA 22835
Drive Time: 3 hours*

The fall foliage, the river setting, the mountains in the distance—this is the great outdoors. Here, most of the tent sites are right next to the Shenandoah River.

Fishing is popular with campers. Staff can also arrange for tubing excursions, horseback riding, boat rentals and ATV rides. Naturally, the nearby Shenandoah National Park, famous for its foliage, and the Luray Caverns are big attractions.

If you chose a riverfront site, you’ll want to pack light, because you can’t drive up to your campsite. There are handcarts to help schlep your gear and you can rent golf carts by the day to get you around the 100-acre campground.

3. Cape Henlopen

Address: 15099 Cape Henlopen Drive, Lewes, DE 19958
Drive Time: 2.5 hours*

Who needs some cookie-cutter condo on the beach when you can sleep on the sandy, pine-covered dunes at the Delaware seashore?

In addition to tent sites—most with water hook-up— there are a half-dozen camping cabins, which have two sets of bunks, a queen bed and a pull-out sofa. (That’s roomier than most camping cabins.) They don’t have bathrooms or refrigerators, but they do have heat and air-conditioning.

Maggie Miller, a mother of four from Centreville, her husband and four kids love climbing to the top of the World War II Observation Tower.
And, they enjoy seeing all types of wildlife. “We usually see dolphins,” says Miller. “That’s exciting.”

The state park also has free bicycles, boat rentals, disc golf, hiking trails and a nature center.

4. Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resort

Address: 9550 Jellystone Park Way, Williamsport, MD 21795
Drive Time: 2 hours*

The Vales family compared staying at this campground to going on a cruise. “There’s so much to do,” Nicole Vales says.

Vales, her husband and three sons stayed at the park in the fall and were surprised with a schedule full of programs, including trick-or-treating, a Halloween dance, campsite decorating contest and haunted trail walk.

There are often movie nights at the outdoor theater and arts and craft programs. Yogi Bear also has an arcade, a laser tag park, go-cart track and expansive playground. In the summer, a water park with multiple slides and fountains is a big draw.

In addition to tent sites, the campground has several types of cabins.

5. Maple Tree Campground

Address: 20716 Townsend Road, Rohrersville, Maryland 21779
Drive Time: Less than 2 hours*

This is where you can live your dreams—ok, your 8-year-old’s dreams—of your family becoming the Swiss Family Robinson.

Tree houses and tree cottages are nestled in the woods of this Frederick County campground. You even shower outdoors! (The water is hot and toilets are inside).
The tree houses will keep you warm and dry. But these are basic structures. They are not air-conditioned, and do not have running water. The tree cottages are insulated for year-round use and have mattresses.

There are also tent sites at this campground, which backs up to the Appalachian Trail. Harpers Ferry—and great tubing—and the Antietam Battlefield are about 10 minutes away.

—Laura Barnhardt Cech

What you need to pack for camping

Some families store their camping gear in large plastic bins, so there are fewer things to collect each time you want to head out. Here are some suggested items to be sure you have before leaving home.

If you’re new to the great outdoors, you can probably borrow a lot of the things you need until you know whether it suits your family.

  • Cooking utensils such as spoon, spatula, knife
  • Can opener
  • Oven mitts
  • Scissors
  • Paper plates, napkins and plastic utensils
  • Foil
  • Mugs
  • Bottled water (jugs and bottles)
  • Coffee pot and filters
  • Skillet and/or pot
  • Salt, pepper and small containers of condiments so you don’t have to purchase big bottles
  • Dish towels
  • Paper towels
  • Sponge
  • Dish soap
  • Antibacterial wipes
  • Picnic table cloth
  • Lighter
  • Marshmallow roasting sticks
  • Bungees
  • Rope
  • Bucket
  • Plastic bags (including trash bags)
  • Clothespins
  • Batteries
  • Flashlights
  • Lantern
  • Bug spray
  • Fire starter
  • Air mattress / pad
  • Air pump (if you need for mattress pad or bicycle tires)
  • Extra sheets for sleeping bags
  • Sleeping bags
  • Pillows
  • Toiletries in a container to carry to the bathhouse
  • Towels
  • First aid kit
  • Cards
  • Camera
  • Camping/ lawn chairs
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