If you could find a place that was within 100 miles of Washington DC, situated on a trout stream and 2500 ft above sea level (so that it would be free of mosquitoes) what would you call it? Today it is called Camp Hoover but from 1929 to 1933 it was known as Camp Rapidan. This prime location, nestled deep in the woods of Shenandoah National Park, provided a Summer Whitehouse retreat for then President Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou Henry Hoover.
Due to its remote location, few visitors who travel along Skyline Driver are aware of this recently renovated camp despite its historical significance. As there is no public road access, there are basically 2 ways to get there: hiking or reserving a spot on a van tour leaving from Harry F. Byrd Visitors Center located in Big Meadow. After discussing our options with a Park Ranger, we opted to take the 4-mile round trip hike via the Mill Prong Trail. After parking at Milam Gap, located at milepost 52.8 on Skyline Drive, we began our journey.
The trail takes approximately 4 hours round trip. It is a moderate hike that is steep in places but offers enough scenic spots where you can stop and dangle your feet in a cool mountain stream. You may even want to try your hand at trout fishing. (Note: Shenandoah National Park is a “fish for fun stream – only artificial lures can be used and all fish must be released.) Be sure to wear sturdy hiking shoes, carry plenty of water and pack a picnic lunch. As you make your way along the path, you will begin to feel the cares of the day-to-day grind slowly fade with each step deeper into the woods. This was probably the same experience the Hoover’s were seeking when they envisioned Camp Rapidan.
Once you arrive at the camp, you will find interpretive signs throughout to help you understand life as it was in 1931. In its hey day the camp hosted such famous visitors as Charles Lindburgh, the first aviator to fly non-stop from NY to Paris in 1927, and English Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, who was instrumental in working with President Hoover in naval disarmament.
All that remains of this homey retreat are three rustic cabins: The Creel – home to 2 of Presidents chief aides, the President’s Cabin (otherwise known as The Brown House) and the Prime Minister’s Cabin. The camp was donated to Shenandoah National Park at the end of President Hoover’s term and since that time it has been used for many purposes, including a Boy Scout camp. Over time the camp fell into disrepair. Gone are the town hall, the mess hall, the man-made pool, and the ornamental fountains that once added to the charm of this hideaway camp.
Today visitors can walk the same grounds where the Hoover’s spent many relaxing evenings discussing items of vital importance with high-powered officials while playing checkers, throwing horse shoes, fly fishing or chatting in front of an open fire. They can have their picture made in front of the famous outdoor fireplace that was used for many photo opportunities during the President’s term or enjoy a picnic lunch on the porch of the President or Prime Minister’s Cabin. An afternoon at Camp Hoover provides an appreciation of nature, as well as a rare glimpse into the human side of political life – not a bad way to spend the afternoon.