Last fall, I spent about two weeks in Jefferson, N.C., completing a commercial-restoration project for the company I work for. Being in such lovely rural country, I decided to find a campground with showers instead of opting for the kind of extended-stay hotel facility I normally inhabit when working in urban areas.
About 35 miles northeast of Boone, Jefferson is only a 15- or 20-minute drive from one of North Carolina’s best-kept campground secrets: the twin facilities at New River State Park. While working in Jefferson, I camped at both of them. (A third camping area, the Alleghany County Access, is accessible only by canoe.)
The Wagoner Road Access on Highway 88 is 11 miles upstream from its sister campground, the U.S. 221 Access. The stretch of water between them lies in the middle of a 26.5-mile, federally designated Wild and Scenic River corridor.
Where it winds past the campsites, the New River’s South Fork is wide, relatively shallow and slow-moving. It is prime canoeing-and-tubing water and a fine family destination. Both campgrounds, in fact, are designed for canoeists paddling the entire 26-mile stretch of river, giving them conveniently spaced places to stop, shower and camp. Car campers leave their vehicles in a parking lot and schlep their gear a couple of hundred yards to one of the campsites in wheelbarrows kindly provided for that purpose. (For the less intrepid, the U.S. 221 Access also offers a drive-in campground with full hookups.)
This stretch of river is also excellent smallmouth bass water. My 9’ 4 weight fly rod proved to be undersized for casting the weighted No. 8 and No. 10 woolly buggers and crawdad imitations (which the folks at Appalachian Angler in Boone had suggested as appropriate patterns), but it was fine for working smaller deer-hair-and-foam surface poppers along various structure edges. Right now, I’m told, the river is so low that the fish are congregating mostly in randomly located deep holes along the watercourse; one of these is just above the last campsite in the U.S. 221 Access, and other deep, fishy pockets are pretty easy to learn about by asking around. Muskies are stocked below the Highway 221 bridge, and hatchery-supported trout streams also feed into the New River system.
The two camping areas remain open year-round. There’s fresh drinking water and exceptionally clean showers and toilets. A walk-in campsite costs nine bucks per night; the drive-in at costs $15 per night. And either way, a park ranger comes around every evening to register new campers and collect the modest fee. The gates close at night to keep roaming ne’er-do-wells from raiding the parked cars.
About 10 miles downstream from the U.S. 221 Access, the North Fork joins the South Fork to form the New River. It meanders through a beautiful, fertile, biologically diverse valley that is relatively flat. The 290 acres of protected property include terrific transition environments that host a nice variety of avian species; the four miles of trails provide fine bird-watching opportunities.
Both campgrounds offer opportunities for environmental education. There’s an excellent, recently installed museum and visitor center at the U.S. 221 Access that’s worth checking out. There’s also a hands-on, handicapped-accessible curriculum that’s been developed for grades six to eight. Each facility includes a group campsite that would be a fine, safe place for middle-school teachers looking to take the class out for a couple of days of fun and outdoor learning. Rangers are also available to give talks, though these must be scheduled in advance.
With so many examples around us of government spending gone wrong, it’s nice to have a model to illustrate how tax dollars can be spent right. With swimming, hiking, camping, canoeing, fishing, relaxing, dark-sky stargazing, birding, tubing and hands-on learning at your disposal, the twin campgrounds of the New River State Park represent the greatest opportunity for recreational diversity within a two-and-a-half-hour drive of Asheville. To find out more, call the visitor center at (336) 982-2587, or check it out online at www.ncsparks.net/neri.html.
[Jeff Ashton lives in Weaverville.]