Big Meadows is as close to an ideal first campground as you can get. With real bathrooms and a host of other amenities, it’s a great introduction to camping without sacrificing scenery. Here’s what you need to know before you go.
At just over two hours from DC, Big Meadows (and Shenandoah in general) is convenient to the entire metro area. You do have to take 66, meaning you will want to gouge out your eyeballs if you leave anywhere close to rush hour. This shouldn’t be an issue if you’re camping on the weekend, or if you can manage to leave by lunch on Friday.
Other than that, the drive is easy with plenty of places to stop along the way to get food or anything you forgot. Your biggest worry? Making sure you don’t speed once you’re in Rappahannock County. The cops will get you, and they have no mercy.
Big Meadows is a large campground, with a vast majority of the sites being standard drive-in sites. If you would like to try your hand at walk-in campsites, this would be a good place since the entire campground is very flat (unlike the walk to many campsites in Colorado!).
If you’re wondering, “What is she talking about…I have no clue what the difference is between those options,” then read more here. While the campground is big, the area is still quite secluded and peaceful. All the sites have ample shade and you have a decent amount of space between you and your neighbors.
There are no tent pads, but every campsite has a firepit with a grate and a picnic table. Bear boxes aren’t provided, so you will have to store everything in your car. Rangers are vigilant about enforcing this rule, so don’t get lazy!
Big Meadows is also a good place to go with friends – there are plenty of campsites large enough to accommodate groups, and sharing a campsite can make the group camping experience all the more fun.
Campground Fees and Reservations
There are a few first-come, first-serve campsites that you may be able to snag in spring or fall, but if you head out during the summer you’re going to need a reservation (unless you want to get up at the crack of dawn to take your chances at first-come, first-serve). Reservations can be made easily online at Recreation.gov.
Tent campsites are $20 per night. You’ll also have to have a national parks pass to get into Shenandoah. The annual pass is money well spent, but does cost $80. It’s free for military service members, however!
Off the hook. Big Meadows has real toilets, real sinks, electricity and running water. Aww yeah. They even have showers (although they’re very rustic!) near the campground entrance.
Equally off the hook. There is a trail leading directly from the campground that hooks up to the Appalachian Trail, and being in Shenandoah you have more trails than you can ever hope to choose from within walking or very short driving distance.
The weekend that we went, we opted for the Stony Man Trail because I was still recovering from a knee injury and needed something that was beginner-friendly. This is an easy 1.6 mile loop – it’s uphill the entire way to the overlook, but at a very reasonable grade. Children and adults of all ages and sizes easily handled the trail right along with me, and you don’t have to give up on having a awe-inspiring view.
In addition to hiking, there is also an equestrian center if some horseback fun is more your flavor. Skyline Drive, which runs through the entire park, is an iconic drive as well with countless overlooks. There’s really no shortage of things to do in Shenandoah. We stayed for only one night since I had to work that weekend and I was DYING to stay longer. Big Meadows is centrally located, so you have easy access to everything.
The amenities at Big Meadows are second to none. Not only are there real bathrooms, real showers, and high-quality campsites, there is a legit restaurant at the campground entrance and a thoroughly stocked camp store. If you’re there and decide you hate camping, you can even upgrade to the lodge that’s not too far away. Everything you could want is provided for you…but if you don’t need it, you’re not sacrificing the traditional camp experience.
If you opt out of all the amenities (assuming you still use the bathrooms instead of a tree or bush), you still get an authentic camping experience. The lodge, restaurant, showers, etc., are all spread out across the expansive campground, so if you stick to the tent sites, you’ll never even know all the other stuff is there.