You don't have to drive a hundred miles to find those perfect spots filled with nature, scenic overlooks and beautiful lakes and streams -- there are lots of them just outside the Beltway.
"It seems a lot farther away than it really is," said computer engineer Rick Wilson, who lives a couple of miles away in Greenbelt but was spending his first night in GREENBELT PARK, just 12 miles from downtown. "It's not mrowded and it's pretty," he said, stirring the coals while friend Pam Bowling sat watching on a picnic bench. Their dinner, wrapped in aluminum foil, sat on the fire, nearly done. His only disappointment was that "they don't have a lake or waterfalls." He had planned to take Bowling on her first camping trip to Cunningham Falls State Park outside Frederick but they were turned away when the camp unexpectedly filled up. "We thought about going home," he said, "but we really wanted to go camping." So they found themselves in Greenbelt Park, surrounded by dense woods, without another camper in hearing range, enjoying the stillness you find only in forests when the sun is about to set. The 1,147-acre Greenbelt Park offers 178 family campground sites at $4 per night every day of the year. All the sites are designed for primitive camping -- there are no hook-ups, electric or water, at the individual campsites -- but water faucets are scattered throughout. It can accommodate tents, recreational vehicles and trailers up to 30 feet long -- a good deal longer than most area camps can handle. Each site is a largely wooded area with a paved slip for cars. A narrow blacktop road connects various campsite clusters throughout the park's low rolling hills. Restrooms, tables, fireplaces and a dump station are provided, but there are no showers. The park is "used mostly by people from out of town who are touring the city," said Ranger Robert Parker. "It's the closest camping of any sort to the city." Parker, who lives in "old Greenbelt," said he camps in the park on occasion. "I just pitch my tent, get out my lawn chair and relax. It's a good place to come and get away." A check of license plates one recent weekend indicated that a fair number of locals are spending the night in the park. Mixed in with tags from California, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Nebraska and Minnesota were Virginia and Maryland plates. Rodney Todd, also of Greenbelt, sat at his campsite picnic table with his two sons and his friends, the Blairs, having dinner. "This is my first time here and I think it's great. The only complaint is no showers! We go home daily to shower," he said with a sheepish grin. The park was his destination of choice to take his newly renovated camper on its shakedown drive. "It has a shower but the holding tank fills up too quickly." Todd and the Blairs didn't seem to mind the park's shortcomings in the activity department. They had spent the day at one of the kids' baseball games and then returned to the park for a hike on the nature trail. The woods are filled with the usual indigenous trees as well as red foxes, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, owls, hawks, bobwhites, blue jays and cardinals. And the park offers some first-class nature paths, such as the azalea trail, a 1.2-mile loop connecting the three picnic areas, and the blueberry and dogwood trails. For the camper who wants to do more, Parker suggests the public pool on Calvert Road near the University of Maryland, horseback riding in Rock Creek Park or visits to nearby shopping malls, theaters and restaurants. Seven-acre Greenbelt Lake is about a mile's drive from the park. Paddleboats, rowboats and bicycles can be rented there. The lake is closed to fishermen now while it's being restocked with largemouth bass, freshwater stripers, catf and outdoor tennis courts and athletic fields. ROBERT M. WATKINS REGIONAL PARK, eight miles from the Washington line near the Capital Centre, is a 500-acre park with 34 primitive campsites. "You're not confined when you're camping," said Marilyn Lamb of Novelty, Ohio, standing near her two backpack tents. "It's fun!" Lamb was staying in Watkins while she hunted for a job on the Hill and her boyfriend attended classes at George Washington University. All of their possessions were stacked in neat piles surrounded by empty cans of tomato juice. "What's not fun is taking a shower in tomato juice!" she exclaimed. "We killed a skunk between the tents last night after it ate holes in both tents and sprayed everything. Tomato juice is the only thing that gets the smell out quickly. We decided it's our 'Welcome to Maryland,' " she laughed. The campsites at Watkins are large and can handle large groups. The rates are $3.50 per site a night or 50 cents per person in groups. There are showers in the park, too. What's missing at the regional park, according to Lamb, is a general store, "someplace to buy neccessities like bread, milk and so on." Watkins has a mini-train for adults and kids, tennis courts, sports fields, grills, picnic tables, hiking trails and a nature center. The Chesapeake Carousel, a century-old carousel that operated in Chesapeake Beach until 1972, is an added attraction. Rides are 50 cents apiece or three for $1.25. The LOUISE F. COSCA REGIONAL PARK in Clinton is just a 25- minute drive from downtown Washington. Twenty-three family sites are open year-round at $3.50 per night, with electric and water hook-ups additional. The 500-acre park has a 15-acre lake stocked with bass, bluegill and catfish. Paddle and flat boats can be rented and there's a mini- train too. There are plenty of nature walks, with exhibits of flora and fauna along the way, plus hiking and bridle paths. But you have to bring your own horse. A $5 parking fee is waived for Prince George's and Montgomery County residents at both Watkins and Cosca. This spring, Montgomery County opened 91 primitive sites at LITTLE BENNETT REGIONAL PARK in Clarksburg. Although not fully developed, this 3,600-acre park has nature and interpretive programs, hiking trails, a camp store and a creek for trout and bass fishing. Future building plans call for a man-made lake, a lodge and golf course. Only the toughest campers would consider the 1,800-acre PATUXENT RIVER PARK in Croom, Maryland. Here's primitive camping at its, well, most primitive. "You bring a tent and sweat it out," said park aide Paula Antonacci. There are no family-style campsites in the park, only primitive back-pack sites and areas for groups of 10 to 100 people. Reservations should be made two weeks in advance. Fees are $1 per night per camper. There are 14 miles of hiking trails, canoes for rent, tours of the Patuxent River by electric pontoon boat, a public boat ramp, guided nature walks and historical exhibits, including a tobacco barn and an antique tool museum. Virginia has its share of nearby campgrounds too, with such choices as Burke Lake, Lake Fairfax, Pohick Bay Regional Park and Prince William Forest. The 888-acre BURKE LAKE park has 163 wooded campsites at $6 per night. The lake has fishing, rowboat rentals, a launch for boats with electric motors (no gas-powered or sailing vessels), a fitness trail, 18-hole golf course, miniature train, carousel and five miles of walking and hiking trails. There are no electrical hook-ups but water is available as well as showers, a coin-operated laundry, a camp st Fairfax and Burke Lake are open year-round and invite recreational vehicles up to 18 feet long. Twenty-five miles south of the city just off I-95 is POHICK BAY REGIONAL PARK in the Mason's Neck area of the Potomac River. Pohick, Indian for "water place," is excellent for sailing and boating. Canoeing through the bay's backwaters is a nature-lover's dream. About a hundred sites have electricity, with another 100 sites classified as primitive. There's also an overflow area that caters to large groups. All three sections have showers and laundromats. The park has picnic grounds, naturalist programs, miniature golf and Frisbee courses, a large swimming pool and boat rentals. Down the road seven miles to the south are 12,000 rambling acres of the PRINCE WILLIAM FOREST. Here can be found 89 known species of shrubs and trees, red and gray foxes, skunks, squirrels, beavers, raccoons, opossums, woodchucks, wild turkeys, ruffled grouse and copperhead snakes. Nearly 35 miles of hiking trails and fire roads make it almost impossible to take the same path twice. Bicycling is allowed on all roads in the park. Trout, bluegill, catfish and perch can be caught in the Quantico Creek if you have a state license. The Oak Ridge campground has 113 sites for family tent camping, with water, tables, fireplaces, trash cans and bathrooms. Trailers are regulated to Travel Trailer Village, which offers a range of facilities. Primitive campers can try Chopawamsic -- the campsites here are a half-mile to two-mile hike into the forest. Facilities are limited, making for a true "back-to-nature" experience. Cabins are also available to groups of 50 or more, but reservations should be made well in advance. Here's a list of some area campgrounds that offer you the chance to get away without really going away. They're even cheaper than staying with relatives in Elkton. Just remember that cans of bug spray rival catsup bottles in the table- top popularity contest -- be prepared for Mother Nature. MARYLAND
CAPITOL KOA CAMPGROUND -- 26 miles northeast of Beltway in Millersville. US. 50 east to Maryland Route 3 north for 10 miles, first left after Route 32 to Hog Farm Road. 60 sites for tents and trailers. Hook-ups available. Showers, dump, laundromat and playground. Rates start at $10.25. 301/923-2771. CEDARVILLE STATE PARK -- 18 miles south of Beltway in Waldorf. Beltway to Route 5 south to U.S. 301. 130 primitive sites. Showers and bathhouse. No hook-ups. Fishing in four-acre pond, hiking, nature trail, visitor's center and fish hatchery. Rates start at $5 for Maryland residents, $6 for others. 301/888-1622. CHERRY HILL CAMP CITY -- Eight miles north of Washington in College Park. Beltway to U.S. 1, west. 100 sites for tents, trailers and RVs. Hook-ups available. Showers, dump, laundromat, no reservations or pets accepted. Rates start at $14. 301/474-5069. LOUISE F. COSCA REGIONAL PARK -- 15 miles southeast of Washington in Clinton. From Beltway exit 7A to Route 5, south for four miles. Right on Woodyard Road, left at second light, one mile to right on Thrift Road. 23 sites. Hook-ups available. Showers, boat rentals, miniature train and fishing, tennis. Groups by reservation. Seven-day limit. Rates start at $3.50. 301/868-1397. DUNCAN'S FAMILY CAMPGROUND -- 21 miles south of Beltway in Lothian. Take Route 4 south to Route 408, left on Sands Road. 300 sites for tents, trailors and campers. Hook-ups availiable. Showers, dump station, laundromat, miniature golf and pool. Rates start at $9.50 for two. 301/627-3909. GREENBELT PARK -- 12 miles north of Washington in Greenbelt 1100 Hilton Avenue, Baltimore. Take Beltway to I-95, north to Catonsville exit to park. 12,000 acres, 105 improved sites. Showers, lake and river fishing, horse and nature trails, hiking. Rates start at $5. 301/747-6602. ROBERT M. WATKINS REGIONAL PARK -- Eight miles east of Washington in Kettering/Largo. Beltway to Route 214, east 3 miles then right on Route 556. 34 primitive sites. Groups by reservation only. Showers. $3.50 per night. 301/249-6200. PATUXENT RIVER PARK -- 14 miles southeast of Beltway. Five large primitive sites for groups. Reservations a must at all sites. 1,800 acres, with nature wildlife areas along tidal marshlands, hardwood swamps and river. 301/627-6074. VIRGINIA BULL RUN REGIONAL PARK -- 30 miles southwest of Washington. Take Centreville exit off I-66. 150 sites, 40 with electricity. All sites pull- through and tree-shaded. Laundromat, showers, covered pavillion, playground, swimming pool, Frisbee and miniature golf. Rates start at $6. 703/631-0550. BURKE LAKE -- Seven miles southwest of Washington at 7315 Ox Road, Fairfax Station. 168 primitive sites. No hook-ups. Showers, dump station, fishing and boating. Rates start at $6.24. 703/323-6600. FOUNTAIN HEAD REGIONAL PARK -- 20 miles west of Beltway on Hampton Road off Route 123 in Fairfax Station at widest point of Lake Occoquan. Primitive camping only on 1,000 acres. Visitors center, boat rentals and launch area. Rates are 50 cents per camper. 703/250-9124. LAKE FAIRFAX -- 20 miles west of Washington at 1400 Lake Fairfax Drive, Reston. 65 sites without electricity at $6.24 and 80 sites with electricity at $7.28. Showers and dump. 703/471-5415. POHICK BAY REGIONAL PARK -- 25 miles south of Washington off I-95 in Lorton. 453 sites, primitive, groups and hook-ups. Showers, boat rentals, launch, swimming pool, golf and laundromat. Rates start at $6. 703/339-6104. PRINCE WILLIAM FOREST PARK -- 32 miles south of Washington off I-95 in Triangle. 133 campsites in three sections offering primitive, family and group camping. No showers or hook-ups in any of these sections. Rates start at $4. 703/221-7181. 120 primitive sites for tents and small campers. Showers and dump. Rates start at $4. 703/221-7181. PRINCE WILLIAM TRAILER VILLAGE -- 29 sites with full hook-ups and swimming pool. Rates start at $9. 703/221-2474.