So the money you saved for a week at the beach just got spent on replacing your home air conditioning system. Or the Hyundai needed a new transmission. Or perhaps you wasted too many vacation days attempting to fix the transmission yourself before going to the garage. Anyway, a family vacation is not an option this summer. So you think.
What you need, beleaguered parent, is a day trip. Plenty of quick getaways within easy driving distance can be as much fun as a beach vacation and far more affordable. You can even make it a two-day trip and stay within a budget.
Swimming, camping and African animals near Natural Bridge
Barely an hour up the road from Roanoke, Cave Mountain Lake is a cheap place for swimming, picnicking and camping. Located in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, the recreation area is anchored by a 7-acre lake with a small beach. The cost is just $5 per vehicle. Camping spots start at $16.
Another place to camp near Natural Bridge is Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park and Camp Resort. The rates for camping and cabins range from $65 to about $200 for a family of five, rates that give you access to all the park’s activities, which include the pool, water park, games, dances and other fun stuff. If you stay two consecutive weeknights, you can get a third night free. Go online to www.campnbr.com for details.
A dip in the lake is a nice way to cool off after a visit to the Virginia Safari Park, where a driving tour takes you past exotic animals that include giraffes, rhinos and zebras. Weekday admission is $15 for kids younger than 12, $22 for adults.
Dino-mite fun in Henry County
The Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville holds its Dino Festival July 26-27, which includes exhibits of life-size dinosaur skeleton casts, fossils, speakers and other activities. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for youths ages 3-18. You can learn more about the festival and the museum at www.vmnh.net/dino-festival.
On your way back home, visit any of the six beaches on Philpott Lake, a quiet, lovely spot for swimming, boating and relaxing. The visitors center provides a spectacular view of the lake from an overlook, which is located about a mile and a half off Virginia 57 (otherwise known as the road to Fairy Stone State Park, another wonderful place to visit).
The beaches of Franklin and Bedford counties
It ain’t the ocean, but Smith Mountain Lake is a great beach getaway. Across the water from Smith Mountain Lake State Park on the Bedford County side lies Smith Mountain Lake Community Park on the Franklin County side. Admission is a bargain at just $2 per person to the community park’s beach, which is open for swimming and has lifeguards on duty. Find directions at www.playfranklincounty.com/sml-beach-park.
Pulaski to Wytheville to Marion
What could be better than a vacation on Interstate 81, am I right? Actually, a weekend trip to the New River Valley and beyond is filled with too many things to do than can be packed into a single day trip. But you can try.
The Pulaski Yankees’ Appalachian League baseball season is underway at historic Calfee Park, which seems to be in a constant state of remodeling and expansion. The old ballpark now can seat up to 3,000 fans, who have an increased number of food and drink options than they’ve had in years past. The Yankees schedule can be found at www.milb.com/pulaski/schedule/2019-07.
As you pass through Pulaski County, stop by Claytor Lake State Park and the Draper Mercantile, too.
Wytheville is home to a cool downtown lined with a number of restaurants and down-home diners. Not only has Skeeter’s Hot Dogs reopened, the town has other local fare that includes Graze on Main, 1776 Log House and many other eateries. You can take the family to McWane Pool next to Withers Park for the afternoon, then grab some barbecue or a hot dog before heading home.
Marion has a lot to offer, from Hungry Mother State Park to a downtown anchored by the Lincoln Theatre, which hosts concerts, plays and monthly tapings of the “Song of the Mountains” public television show. And if you want to stretch the trip into a weekend excursion, all three towns have historic boutique hotels with reasonable rates, the Jackson Park Inn in Pulaski (also home to the outstanding restaurant, Al’s On First), the Bolling Wilson Hotel in Wytheville and the General Francis Marion Hotel in Marion.
Monticello is a must-see site for any Virginian. Thomas Jefferson’s home is a cornucopia filled with mastodon bones, Native American artifacts, homemade gadgets, items collected during the Lewis and Clark expedition, biblical paintings (which I found kind of creepy as a kid), the gardens and grounds, the stories of enslaved people who built the place and farmed the land, natural beauty and so much more. Day passes range from $10 to $27 for children and adults. Learn about it all at www.monticello.org.
The tour of James Monroe’s Highland (highland.org) tells the story of how the fifth president’s home was lost and rediscovered. It’s a complicated, fascinating story of how the house we long thought was Monroe’s humble dwelling was actually the guest house. And if you really want a Charlottesville adventure, take Amtrak from Roanoke. A round-trip ticket is $30 per person, then you can Uber or taxi your way around the city. Or, if you’re lucky, have friends drive you around like we did.
The hometown getaway
Back when the derecho storm roared through Southwest Virginia in 2012 and knocked out power in my neighborhood during a week of 100-degree days, friends of mine decamped for a few nights in a Roanoke hotel, where they found the AC and swimming pool luxurious. You don’t have to travel far to feel like you’re on vacation.
When I was a kid, my family traveled to exotic Bristol, Tennessee, two straight summers where all we did was stay in a dumpy motel, swim in the outdoor pool and watch my father play in slow-pitch softball tournaments. I loved it.
You can get a room at most Roanoke hotels for a shade over 100 bucks. No, it’s not the beach, but the AC works, breakfast is free, and the pool water is fine.