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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

Hike to Rapidan Camp: President Hoover's Rustic Retreat

Tucked away within the lush landscapes of Shenandoah National Park lies a hidden gem of American history: Rapidan Camp. Once the rustic retreat of President Herbert Hoover, this historic site allows hikers to step back in time to an era when the camp served as a tranquil presidential getaway and a secure venue for meetings with iconic figures like British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, Edsel Ford, Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., and others. Today, the camp's historic structures such as the Brown House, once the first family's private cabin, and the Prime Minister's quarters, offer a fascinating glimpse into the past and an opportunity to learn of the life and legacy of the United States' 31st president.

Rapidan Camp

Trailhead elevation 3,250'

Water along Mill Prong, notably at 1.1 miles

Don't miss the Prime Minister's cabin

Hike to Rapidan Camp

Starting from the Milam Gap parking area, the trail crosses Skyline Drive and follows the Appalachian Trail for about a hundred feet before intersecting with the blue-blazed Mill Prong Trail. Turning left onto the Mill Prong Trail, the path descends through a dense canopy of trees and eventually intersects with the yellow-blazed Mill Prong Horse Trail. Turning right, the Horse Trail continues to descend, paralleling the steady flow of the Mill Prong. After 1.6 miles, the trail reaches Big Run Falls, a 10-foot cascade with a shallow swimming hole beneath.

Big Rock Falls Rapidan Camp

Here, hikers cross the Mill Prong via a footbridge and continue for another third of a mile until they reach Rapidan Camp. Upon arrival, the first structure encountered is The Creel. This building, now housing volunteers who help maintain the camp, once served as the home of two of President Hoover's aides: Lawrence Richey, his personal secretary, and Admiral Joel Boone, Jr., his personal physician.

Rapidan Camp

Further into the complex, tucked between the Mill Prong and Laurel Prong, hikers will find the Brown House, which served as the living quarters for the first family during their time away from the White House.

Rapidan Camp

The cozy cabin includes the Hoovers' bedroom, a living room with a fireplace, and a sunporch. It's furnished with many of the first family's personal items, such as numerous Navajo rugs, rocking chairs, and various items either picked up locally by Mrs. Hoover or repurposed from the presidential yacht. For security reasons, photography is not permitted inside the Brown House.

Rapidan Camp

Around back, a large porch stretches across its width, providing President Hoover, an avid angler, with a perfect spot to cast a line into one of the best trout streams on the East Coast.

Rapidan Camp

When Rapidan Camp was built, each of the original thirteen buildings featured a massive stone fireplace, similar to the 51-ton one beside the Brown House. Though rarely used by the Hoovers, it provided a picturesque backdrop for photo opportunities on the rare occasions the press was allowed onsite.

Rapidan Camp

President Hoover used Rapidan Camp not only as a personal retreat but also to facilitate candid and focused discussions on controversial issues. He organized themed weekends and gathered advisors to address specific topics. Perhaps the most notable use of the camp for this purpose was in 1929 when he discussed naval armament limits with the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Ramsay MacDonald. Following these discussions, the cabin was named the Prime Minister's. Today, hikers can find it in its original location, a stone's throw from the Brown House.

Rapidan Camp

Open to the public most days of the year, the Prime Minister's cabin serves as a museum of sorts, highlighting the life and legacy of President Hoover and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover. Inside, hikers will discover a wealth of information, including letters written by the Hoovers, the camp's extensive guest list, details about life at the camp from 1929 to 1933, and much more.

At the center of the complex stands the camp's old stone "wedding cake" fountain, built at the request of Lou Henry Hoover. Originally, the fountain was fed by the nearby Hemlock Run, with water cascading into pools below before running underground and returning to Hemlock Run.

Rapidan Camp

While only three of the original thirteen Rapidan Camp buildings remain today, information placards mark the locations of several former structures. Hikers can learn about the Mess Hall, Town Hall, and the camp's construction by walking the grounds along a series of interconnected crushed gravel walkways. To fully enjoy their visit, hikers should plan to spend about an hour at Rapidan Camp, or longer if volunteer staff are available for conversation.


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