Virginia and Maryland state parks offer something for everyone, in every season
by Amanda S. Creasey, Outdoors Writer
In the summer of 2020, Cole Jensen’s friend, Matt Sullivan, approached him with an idea: He wanted to visit every state park in Virginia. “I was instantly on board and fully committed to the concept. It was totally impulsive and spontaneous,” Jensen, a Virginia native, says.
The challenge to visit every Virginia State Park, formally known as Trail Quest, is open to everyone. Participants simply create an account on the State Park website and log their park visits to earn several attractive and collectible pins, receiving them after visiting one park, five parks, ten parks, twenty parks and finally, all Virginia State Parks, a feat resulting in “Master Hiker” status.
Terri Mewborn of Clarksville, Va., began her Trail Quest at Leesylvania and Mason Neck State Parks, though she had spent a lot of time at her home park, Occoneechee, before embarking on the challenge.
Mewborn and her now 18-year-old German shepherd, Lula, completed Trail Quest in April 2022, having car camped and hiked together at each park. Lula, who was 16 when Mewborn began the challenge, joined Mewborn at every state park except False Cape, the entry to which involves traversing a wildlife refuge where dogs are not permitted. Nancy Heltman, Virginia State Parks Visitor Services Director, explains the park system does “make a special dispensation to dogs so that they can skip the visit to False Cape,” allowing both Lula and Mewborn to enjoy Master Hiker status.
“This girl,” Mewborn says of Lula, “has seen me through many things in my life that would have been insufferable without her. When she was a puppy, I had to keep up with her, but now she can’t keep up with me. If we hadn’t done Trail Quest when we did, it would have been a missed opportunity.”
Completing Trail Quest with Lula is one reason Mewborn encourages families to complete Trail Quest together. “The rapport we established as we learned to road trip and camp together was really special.” Mewborn believes families can strengthen their bonds by visiting the state parks together. It gives people an opportunity to get to know each other better and “just really enjoy each other,” she says.
Despite its diminutive size, Virginia’s neighbor, Maryland, boasts more than 75 state parks where people can recreate, and offers interactive programs, like Virginia’s Trail Quest, that invite visitors to engage with the parks more deeply. One such program is Healthy Parks Healthy People, a partnership between Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, local health departments, and regional healthcare providers. Offered at many state parks throughout Maryland, Healthy Parks Healthy People encourages the use of Maryland State Parks for overall good health.
Melissa Boyle Acuti, Chief of Interpretation for Maryland State Parks says, “Being outdoors and being in nature can improve not only your mental health, but your physical health and your overall well-being.” The program began with a grant provided by the state health department and was at first called Park Rx. It entailed medical professionals’ writing prescriptions for their patients that required them to spend fifteen minutes engaged in physical activity outside. “Some of the doctors were giving park passes to their patients,” Acuti recalls.
A VARIETY OF OPTIONS
Several Maryland parks also offer Senior Rangers programs, modeled after Junior Rangers. The program consists of six sessions for those “62 and up, but we started to get requests from people 55 and up,” Acuti says. “If you consider yourself a senior, you’re welcome to participate. It involves some physical activity. It’s educational and builds a sense of community. Lots of people who are recently retired but still want to get out participate.” Many people who begin as Senior Rangers end up becoming more involved with the parks as regular volunteers.
Overall, the programs offered by both Virginia and Maryland state parks encourage deeper visitor engagement, aim to include as many people and ability levels as possible and foster a love of the outdoors and conservation. Stephanie Yon, a native of France, moved to Virginia after several years teaching English in North Carolina. Yon’s Virginia State Parks’ Trail Quest experience has had a lasting impact.
After seven years in the U.S., she is preparing to leave Virginia and head home to France. “Now that I’ve visited so many state parks and done so many adventures,” she says, “it has inspired me to want to do more things like that in France.”