By Candyce H. Stapen
We work-weary urbanites found a way to escape to the woods during the pandemic. Yellow birch trees towered over us and ferns feathered the ground along the Upper Jungle Trail at Mountain Lake Lodge in southwest Virginia. Even in the light rain, 3-year-old James happily ran along the grass path, saying "Wow!" and Charlotte, 21 months, joyfully stomped in the puddles. We caught sight of a buck prancing through a not-too-distant clearing. No cars and no people marred our commune with nature.
After months of treading the same miles-long routes through our Washington, D.C., neighborhood, my family — husband, daughter, son-in-law, their two toddlers and I — headed for the hills, specifically Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, in search of a socially distanced, safe way to rejuvenate.
For us that meant booking a stand-alone, multiple-bedroom cabin equipped with a kitchen on acres of land near hiking trails and within driving distance of home. The lodging had to be part of a hotel because we required both the assurance of accommodations scrubbed to the Centers for Disease Control standards and an onsite restaurant for takeout dinners. (For us, cooking all of our meals wasn't a vacation.) Since our kennel closed temporarily, we also required a dog-friendly property. A rental home on Mountain Lake Lodge's Blueberry Ridge, about 2 miles from the hotel's central area, fit our requirements wonderfully.
A rare find, Mountain Lake Lodge, perched at nearly 4,000 feet, sprawls on a 2,600-acre nature conservancy. The hilltop main lodge overlooks a campus of wooden cabins, suggestive of a summer cottage colony. That's the supportive role Mountain Lake played as the backdrop for scenes from the iconic movie "Dirty Dancing," released in 1987. You can tour the movie settings with a self-guided map and also sign up for "Dirty Dancing" weekends of professional dance performances and fun sock hops.
During our getaway some guests tackled the resort's ropes course and challenged themselves with archery and bubble ball, a game in which players don plastic bubbles and bounce against opponents while playing something like soccer. But we kept to our goal of contactless fun along forested trails both on- and off-property.
Mountain Lake Lodge is both a destination and a good base for exploring southwestern Virginia's mountains and rivers. One day we drove 10 miles to the Jefferson National Forest's Cascades National Recreation Trail. The scenic 3.8-mile loop, crowned by a 66-foot-high waterfall, splits into a lower and upper path. We set out on the moderately rated lower track that hugs the stream. The towering maples, sycamores, and witch-hazels and the rippling creek amazed James and Charlotte and soothed all of us, even Lily, our Newfoundland puppy.
When Charlotte tired of walking after 30 minutes, her dad carried her back to the parking lot. We continued for another mile with James, who gamely maneuvered around the ropey tree roots and climbed the frequent stone steps although too slowly to complete the trail by naptime. We admired a small cascade before retracing our steps. Back at our cabin, we rewarded ourselves by roasting marshmallows in the fireplace for s'mores instead of at the hotel's fire pit.
My husband and I returned later to hike the less taxing upper trail to the waterfall, a worthy midpoint to a woodland fantasy. The rhythmic rush of water tumbling over rocks felt healing.
On past trips to the region we boated with our dogs on the nearby New River with Tangent Outfitters. Our guide headed us to a sandbar that created a current-free channel where our pooches dog-paddled toward the tennis balls we threw. The dogs loved swimming, something they can't do in the city. Since staying 6 feet apart on a cata-raft (a catamaran raft) wasn't possible, we passed on the trip this time.
Although Mountain Lake Lodge won't be mistaken for an upscale Adirondack getaway aimed at "1 percenters," the resort has its own allure. We like the sprawling land, the multiple trails, the comfortable cabins, the moderate prices and the friendly staff who didn't turn to ice at the sight of a bit of dog drool. In fall, when the hillsides billow with groves of red and yellow trees that pop beside the hemlock and spruce, the country charms of Mountain Lake Lodge shine incredibly bright. We can't wait to come back.
WHEN YOU GO
The 100-unit Mountain Lake Lodge in Pembroke, Virginia, offers more than 26 different room configurations. Only the two- to four-bedroom Blueberry Ridge mountain homes come with a full kitchen stocked with dishes, utensils and cookware. Some cabins have microwaves and mini-refrigerators. It's a good idea to get a description of your lodging before you book. Rooms start at $179, cabins at $299 and mountain homes at $379: www.mtlakelodge.com.
Cascades National Recreation Trail: www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/gwj/recarea/?recid=73639
Tangent Outfitters offers canoe, kayak, fishing and custom float trips: www.tangentoutfitters.com.
Candyce H. Stapen is a freelance writer at www.gfvac.com.
Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @FamilyiTrips, on Instagram @CandyceStapen. Sign-up for her "Future of Cruising" talk at the virtual Travel 2021 Summit, Oct. 7-8: www.gototravelgal.lpages.co/travel-2021-summit. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
The area around Mountain Lake Lodge in Pembroke, Virginia, is alive with color in the autumn. Photo courtesy of Mountain Lake Lodge.