Maryland/Virginia Travel: Washington Area Cabins Glow With a Certain Warmth

By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009

A cabin in the woods is never just a cabin in the woods. This I've learned over time, after years of renting cabins alone and with friends, of late-night drives up winding mountain roads, of hikes along precipitous ridges, of relationships forged and tested. A cabin sounds simple, and in many ways it is: a stand-alone shelter with a bed and a roof, sometimes kitted out with city comforts, sometimes nothing more than a place to sleep, out of the elements but nestled in nature.

State parks, national parks and private owners rent cabins to visitors, some with week-long requirements, some open for overnight pop-ins. With a group, cabins are almost always cheaper than hotel rooms, and the element of privacy creates the feel of a secluded retreat for those in the know.

* * *

When I booked my stay at Lake Anna State Park in Virginia, it would be just me, all alone in a camper cabin 100 miles south of Washington on a Sunday night in May. I was sure it would be a simple affair: Roll in before nightfall, take a hike, cook my dinner over a campfire, sleep restfully in my sleeping bag, explore more in the morning, then head back to the city. No friends, no family, no snags. Yeah, right.

After nearly three grueling hours in stop-and-go traffic on Interstate 95, I turn onto narrow Route 208 and wonder how long a body needs to recover after being on the highway. Does it take 30 minutes of traffic-free scenery? An hour? Farmland rolls by and signs for new housing developments dwindle as I pass churches, small restaurants and, as I get closer to Lake Anna, billboards for boat shops and lakeside houses. The lake is a popular second-home and retirement area, the state park claiming nearly 10 miles of shoreline.

Lake Anna State Park, like many other parks in Maryland and Virginia, has both full-service cabins and smaller "camper cabins." The big cabins have two bedrooms and can fit up to six people. They're winterized, have bathrooms and kitchens, and are similar to cabins I'd rented in other parks, perfect for a group of friends or a family looking for a budget getaway in the woods.

But I'd booked one of the one-room, four-bed cabins, with no bathroom and only a fire pit outside for cooking. I purposely chose the one closest to the communal bathrooms.

At the park office, I find an envelope with my name on it just outside the door, with my cabin key and park brochures inside. Peering into the locked office, I see bundles of firewood, and my heart sinks a little. In addition to the cheese sticks and almonds I'd brought for snacks, I'd packed a pair of hot dogs, some buns and a bag of marshmallows for dinner, but I'd need to build a fire, and for that I'd need firewood. (Bringing your own is forbidden, since an invasive beetle has prompted a firewood quarantine in many local parks.) The office doesn't reopen till 8 the next morning.

Maybe I can find some firewood lying around, I think as I climb back into the car, and this thought nags me as I begin the drive toward the campground. When I unlock the door of the cabin, I'm at first taken aback, then charmed, by its tininess: bunk beds on either side, a wooden table and chairs pushed up against the back wall, two rocking chairs stashed in one of the corners. Outside, there's a fire pit and a gray plastic picnic table bolted to the concrete patio. It's more than a girl needs for a night in the woods: four beds, windows all around, a ceiling fan and even electrical outlets -- how modern! With my stomach starting to growl, I realize my only chance of a hot meal is finding firewood. I head out on foot while the sun's still up.

* * *

At a cabin in Maryland's Herrington Manor State Park a few winters back, I remember there being stacks of firewood in a shed near the cabin, all of it dry and ready to ignite at the touch of a match. The cabin's fireplace was small, but every chance we got, we stoked a roaring blaze that snapped and popped and made all our clothes reek of smoke.

That was a six-person, winterized cabin that had one room with bunk beds, a loft with two twin beds and a sleeper sofa in one corner of the large living room. The heavy log construction and ample porch space gave it a charming and cozy feel, though that November weekend it rained nonstop, and the cabin started feeling a little too cozy by the second night.

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