Camping at Burke Lake Park

Over Memorial Day weekend, my family spent four days and three nights at Burke Lake Campgrounds in Fairfax, Virginia.  We went there with three other families.  We camp frequently, but we had never been to this campground. I was excited to try out this park as it is only thirty-five (35) minutes from our home, and the park had received good reviews on Yelp.

Here is what I liked

Lots of shade.  Most of the sites are under the canopy of trees which keeps things cooler on hot days.

Close to the DC metro area. Being so close to home, but feeling that we were getting away from it all was great. Because it is not a long drive, it made getting back and forth a breeze. For most Our Kids members, travel to Burke Lake is one hour or less by car, depending on where you live in the DC metro area. Imagine the relief of being able to go back home quickly if you forget an essential item (like a tent) as happened to one family in our group. Also, because Burke Lake is so close, another family who just had a few hours to spend, but not enough time to camp, came to visit for part of a day.

Lots of stores and restaurants nearby.  A number of restaurants deliver to Burke Lake Park, making dinner prep a snap for those who prefer not to cook.  There are several grocery stores and a Walmart within a 10 minute drive.

Variety of family friendly activities.  Things to do include mini-golf, regular golf, playgrounds, boating, carousel, fishing, mini-train rides, and Frisbee golf.   There is an ice cream parlor that sells ice cream and fast food pizza.  We saw people flying kites and playing soccer on the open fields. During weekends and holidays, the train, carousel, mini-golf and ice cream parlor open at 11am.   While I am not usually one to complain about getting too much of a good thing, the ice cream servings at the parlor are too big.  There are no kids’ cones.  Each regular cone is like an adult double scoop.  My 10 year old ice-cream loving child even asked me to take off some of his ice cream.

All these activities are open to the public, whether one camps at Burke Lake or not.  The kids (ages 8 to 15 years old) had a great time with all the activities, but fishing was the highlight since they all caught either a Walleye, Yellow Perch or Largemouth Bass.  They released all the fish, except for one Walleye, which we cooked for dinner.  It was a deliciously mild tasting fish.  I doubt we would have had as much success had it not been for the fact that one of the parents is an expert fisherman and brought his boat for the day.

There is a nice shady unpaved 4.6  bike and walking path that goes around the lake, and it is a short bike ride from the campground to the area where the mini-golf and other activities are located.  My ten year old and his friends biked the entire lake.

While there was certainly plenty to do, I would have liked a few ranger guided nature activities since I take my family out so my child can I connect with nature. Every other campground we have visited has had a nature craft program along with ranger led hikes or programs, so I was surprised that Burke Lake did not have anything  like that.  Some other parks also have movies under the stars in the evening during summer weekends, which the older kids especially enjoy. We didn’t miss it the movies so much this year as the kids were exhausted and ready for bed when it was dark.

Helpful staff. The staff was polite and provided assistance when needed.

No minimum night stay.  Many other parks require a two-night stay during the summer weekends, but Burke Lake does not.  This is great for those that only want to go for one night and not pay for an extra night stay.

Here’s what I didn’t like

Dirty bathrooms. My friend muttered the words “gross” on the way out of the women’s bathroom which described the conditions inside.   We camp a lot, and these were the worst bathrooms of all the various places we have camped.  I mentioned the lack of cleanliness of the bathrooms to one of the employees, who told me because it was a holiday weekend, the facilities were dirtier than usual.   Other campgrounds have large crowds over the holidays too, but have much cleaner bathrooms in my experience.  The paint was peeling, the shower curtains were heavily mildewed, and old cobwebs were hanging down from the ceilings.  The stalls were small and the location of the toilet paper holder made it challenging to use the toilet.

The floors and the toilets were filthy, despite them being cleaned up once or twice during the day.  I used the bathhouses in both the B and C loops and they both were not clean.  Dirty bathrooms and showers are typically what turns people off from camping, so this is one reason I would hesitate to recommend this park to others, especially first time campers.

Confusing layout and signage. The roads through the campgrounds are confusing and poorly marked.   Four out of the five families got lost navigating through.  Kids and parents had a harder time figuring out how to get back to the campsite.  I made sure that all the kids were given our site number in case they couldn’t find their way back.

Lack of privacy.  Some of the tents were very close to neighboring tents. The sites are not private, and the boundaries between sites was not always easy to figure out.   Many of the sites are on an incline making it hard to find a flat spot to set up a level tent.  I was told that there are a few flat sites designated for RV’s, but they may not be available.

No security gate.  Anyone can easily drive into the campground whether they are camping there or not.

On-site camp store lacks supplies. The “store” which is really the registration office only carries wood, charcoal, lighter fluid, ice, and soda (from a vending machine).  It would be helpful if the store had a few additional basic supplies, even though there were stores close-by.

No reservations for individual families. Burke Lake Campground only takes reservations for large groups.  For individual families, it’s first-come first-served.  While this can provide an opportunity to secure a site when surrounding campgrounds are full, there is no guarantee of a spot unless you physically beat other families to the campground.

I was leery about packing up all the camping gear and planning my holiday weekend with no assurance of a place to camp.  When I arrived by 10am on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, most of sites were already taken.  Apparently, many people came the night before (Thursday evening), and paid for an extra night of camping, just so they would be guaranteed a spot for the holiday weekend.  If you live close to the park, going to the park to get your first-come, first served spot may not be a big deal, but driving from farther away adds a level of hassle and inconvenience that other parks with reservation systems don’t have.  Parents might have to take a day off of work or come earlier than planned just to get a site – and still get shut out.  It is probably much easier to obtain a spot Sunday through Thursday when the demand for sites is low. It is the long holiday and summer weekends that are tricky to get sites because demand is high.

No swimming. There is no swimming allowed in Burke Lake which is very close to the campground.  I like to be able to go swimming when the days are really hot. Swimming is allowed at the lakes at Cunningham Falls, Greenbrier State Park  and Lake Anna State Park., all of which are located about 1.5 hours from downtown DC. Lake Fairfax Campgrounds, also a part of the Fairfax Park Authority and located in Reston, is convenient to the Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole  if you want a campground that is both conveniently located and has a swimming option during the summer.

Noise.  While the campgrounds seemed to be well patrolled during the day, the quiet hours weren’t observed several of the nights we were there.  If you go over Memorial Day weekend, know that Rolling Thunder will be in the campground taking up most of the A Loop. On Sunday morning, we could hear the motorcyclists leaving the campgrounds even though our site in the B loop was far from them. They left the campground at 5:15am.  Besides that, the Rolling Thunder group was very quiet as they were away doing their activities in DC most of the weekend.

Dog Poop. Our family loves dogs, and we enjoyed petting some really cute ones.  For people that want to bring their dogs and not kennel them, this park allows them.  Not all campgrounds do.  Dogs are required to remain leashed and must not be left alone at any time according to campground rules.  While I do love dogs, I was not happy that I stepped in a large pile of dog poop when unloading our car. I do not want to clean up dog doo from a dog that is not mine.  Most dog owners are considerate, but some are not.

Bottom Line

The activities and the closeness of the Park made our trip enjoyable. We all had a fun time.  As a family that has tried a variety of campgrounds though, Burke Lake has some deficiencies that need attention.  If they deep cleaned their bathrooms, and allocated some sites that could be reserved, we would be more inclined to return.  For a close in camping experience, Little Bennett Regional Park in Montgomery County has many of the benefits of Burke Lake and more.


Photos by Danielle Werchowsky

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