Nestled in the shadow of the Blue Ridge, offering scenic views and miles of Shenandoah River shoreline, Virginia's newest state park officially opened yesterday, welcoming anglers, canoeists and campers who have long complained about the state's lack of public river access.
The Raymond R. "Andy" Guest Jr. Shenandoah River State Park -- named for the former delegate from Warren County -- lies 70 miles west of Washington, off Route 340. It is one of Virginia's 28 state parks, and has been long-awaited by many Northern Virginia outdoor enthusiasts.
"Virginia has had a crying need for river-access parks for many years," said Joe Elton, director of Virginia's state parks. "This park will alleviate a frustration, and as word gets out, we're going to draw a lot of people from Northern Virginia and Washington."
Farther south along the James River in Buckingham County, 60 miles west of Richmond, the state will dedicate another river park today.
Heather and Dwight Bardot were among the hundreds of visitors who came yesterday to explore the 1,600-acre Shenandoah River park and its 5.6 miles of river frontage, just south of Front Royal. They had driven from their home in Bristow with their 15-month-old daughter, Madison, who did her exploring while snuggled in a high-tech baby backpack complete with mosquito netting.
"It's got the best water access north of Interstate 64," said Dwight Bardot, who threatened to come back with his canoe today to mark Father's Day. "Usually all you get is a parking lot with a boat ramp and no bathroom."
Canoeists and fishermen say they are delighted to finally have a place they can tuck in for the night without trespassing on private property along the Shenandoah. There are admission fees ranging from a $2-per-car weekday charge to an $8 charge for an overnight camping site.
There are two other state parks in Northern Virginia that give visitors an opportunity to visit the Potomac River -- Leesylvania State Park in Prince William County and Mason Neck in Fairfax County -- but neither offers overnight camping, except for large groups, and access to the river is geared toward power boats and sailboats that can handle big water.
This newest park, on a site rescued by environmentalists from designation as a landfill, offers a variety of picnic shelters with covered pedestal grills for barbecuing, picnic tables shaded by canopies of trees, and canoe and walk-in campsites along the river, each with a picnic table and fire ring.
Improvements blend into the landscape, and even the stone work was done to fit in with the heavily wooded surroundings, planners said. "We didn't want that industrial '50s look," said David Brickley, director of the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation. "It's just a gorgeous facility, and it's close to Washington. People are going to come in droves."
Diana Kedigh, 52, took the short trip from Front Royal with her family to have a picnic lunch and play in the river.
"What's not to like?" Kedigh asked. "It's so beautiful and so well organized."
Planners said they have completed the first phase of the park's construction and have their sights on the second, which will include overnight cabins and other extras.
Virginia's 28 state parks comprise about 56,000 acres of land, putting Virginia 41st among the 50 states, based on the amount of public park acreage per capita, with Alaska devoting the most space to state parks and Rhode Island chipping in the least.
Virginia officials estimate that the state's parks generate more than $100 million in state and local revenue each year, as visitors purchase gasoline, bait and camping gear and eat in restaurants. The parks take in about $5 million annually in admission costs and other fees.
Sharon Long took the drive from Washington yesterday with friends to picnic near the Shenandoah River. Standing in the shade of a stand of trees, holding the leash of a very eager Chesapeake Bay retriever named Bicho, Long said the park more than met her expectations.
"The area's the best," Long said. "The river's nearby, and the park is close to D.C. That's a lot of pluses."