Mill Prong – Rapidan Camp Trail

The hike to the Rapidan Camp (also known as Camp Hoover) is probably one of our very favorite walks in all of Shenandoah National Park.  We had such a great time there today.  It was one of those really perfect mornings along the trail.

The Brown House (as opposed to the White House) is where President Hoover stayed.
The Brown House (as opposed to the White House) is where President Hoover stayed when he wanted to escape the heat, stress and formality of Washington, D.C.  Below are photos of (left to right): The main entry to Brown House has steps that lead down to the Rapidan River; the house has a large patio overlooking the river – it was a popular place to relax in Hoover’s day; the Mill Prong was running beautifully today.

Brown House historical Mill Prong

Adam Says…

This is probably my favorite hike in Shenandoah National Park.  The reason I would say this is due to the combination of the history and scenery.

The hike isn’t too difficult, but there are three sets of rock-hopping that you’ll need to do over the Mill Prong.  Due to the recent storms, we actually had to wade across the the third stream crossing since the rocks were mostly submerged and we didn’t want to risk dropping Christine’s camera gear into the water.

The Rapidan Camp was built for Herbert Hoover during his term of office to serve as the first Presidential retreat.  Hoover was an avid outdoorsman and fisherman.  Shenandoah National Park was being built around the same time.  In order to hopefully get the park approved, they encouraged Hoover to build his retreat here.  Marines were brought in to build the camp, which included the construction of thirteen buildings and electrical/phone lines.  Interestingly enough, they heavily stocked the Rapidan River with lots of trout before Hoover arrived, so he would have lots of successful fishing trips.  When Hoover left office he donated his camp (which he paid for out of personal funds) to the government.  Hoover’s initial plan was to have the Camp serve as the permanent presidential retreat.  Due to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wheelchair-confinement and his strong dislike of Hoover, he decided to establish a new retreat in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland which he called Shangri-La (it was renamed by Eisenhower as Camp David).  It is interesting to think about what it would be like if the presidential retreat stayed at Camp Rapidan and how that could have impacted the park.

There does seem to be some good trout-fishing in the areas nearby, but it is all catch-and-release.  Of course, it’s not stocked like it was for Hoover.

If you aren’t able to see inside the Brown Cabin (see Christine’s info below), you can still walk around the grounds and read about the history of the area.  I would highly recommend bringing a lunch or snack. The back porch is a great place to eat and reflect on the history of this time.

Big Rock Falls is located along the trail right before you cross the river.
Big Rock Falls is located along the trail right before you cross the river. Below are photos of (left to right): the trail is lined with lush ferns; Adam wades across the stream; a pretty spot along the Mill Prong.

Ferns Deep Water mill prong_2

Christine Says…

We’ve hiked to the Rapidan Camp many times, but today was my favorite trip down the trail ever.  It was just one of those magical mornings where everything felt especially beautiful and perfect.

We got an early start, so the only people we came across on the way down were Boy Scouts hiking back out after a weekend of camping.  As we passed them, I had to wonder how they fared last night.  We had some fierce thunderstorms that rolled through around 3:00 a.m.  I was thrilled to see how flush with water the Mill Prong and the Rapidan River were.  Even the small waterfall, Big Rock Falls, looked impressive this morning.  When a crucial rock hop proved unavailable due to the high water, I enjoyed wading barefoot across the stream.  I thought the water would be cold, but it was actually pleasant and refreshing.

Probably the best part of the hike was our tour of the Rapidan Camp.  The volunteer ranger was just opening up when we arrived and gave us a private look at the President Hoover’s cabin, also known as “The Brown House”.  Although the cabin looks rustic on the outside, the inside is quite refined and cozy.  The floor is beautifully smooth wood, there are two bathrooms, two bedrooms, two huge stone fireplaces, hand woven rugs and a lovely study/office that overlooks the headwaters of the Rapidan River.  Until 1996, the Brown House was available to high-ranking politicians and V.I.P.s.  Al Gore was actually the last person to “rent” the Rapidan Camp for personal use. (Sandra Day O’Connor and Jimmy Carter have also been guests of the Rapidan Camp.)

The cabin is open for tours most days, May through October.  Volunteers have Tuesday and Wednesday off, so if you want to see inside, hike it on another day.  Each volunteer ranger actually gets to live at the camp for their three-week tour of duty.  The volunteer stays in the nearby Creel Cabin, which is one of the only three original buildings left standing.  The volunteers maintain the property and give tours to visitors.  The camp is also accessible on a ranger-guided program.  So, even folks who can’t (or don’t want to) walk can still see the site.

There is a fantastic exhibit set up in the “Prime Minister’s Cabin”.  It has many old photos and detailed information about the engineering feats required to build the camp.  Be sure to look at the large version of the letter pictured below.  It shows a lot of the planning that went into picking the site.

President and Mrs. Hoover
President and Mrs. Hoover enjoy the deck of the Brown House. Below are photos of (left to right): a letter from William Carson explaining preparatory steps to get the camp ready for Hoover; horses crossing the river; another historical photo of the Hoovers.

letter horse crossing historical_2

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 4 miles
  • Elevation Change – 750 feet
  • Difficulty – 2. The elevation change is gradual which makes it a fairly easy hike.
  • Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is in great condition, with few rocks or roots sticking up.  The rock-hopping could be a little challenge to anyone not stable on their feet.
  • Views – 1. Only views of the streams and the camp area.
  • Waterfalls/streams – 4. If it’s good enough for a former President, it should be good enough for you. 🙂
  • Wildlife – 1. Probably not as likely to see bigger animals due to popularity of the trail.  
  • Ease to Navigate – 4. Only a few turns to get to the camp.
  • Solitude – 2. You will likely see others here, but you should be able to find your own spot to enjoy the scenery and history.

Directions to trailhead: The hike starts at mile marker 53 on Skyline Drive.  Park in the Milam Gap lot, then cross the drive.  The trail picks up on the other side of the crosswalk.  You’ll quickly come up to a park post and take a left to start the trail.