Despite the negative impact of COVID-19 on Virginia’s state parks, Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine has named Douthat State Park as Virginia’s Best State Park in the Blue Ridge Region for 2020 and 2021.
Douthat State Park, one of six state parks built in Virginia in 1936, became the first state park to be constructed by the WPA work crews. The crews were divided into three camps, Douthat, Malone and Carson, and the three picnic shelters at Douthat State Park bear their names today. One crew was assigned to build the spillway and the dam that forms Douthat Lake, a 50-acre body of clear, mountain water that stretches from the dam north beside Route 629 to where Wilson Creek first feeds the lake near the northern end of the park.
Another crew completed the task of building log cabins and the park’s needed structures while the other crew builds many miles of trails that offer hikers, bikers, equestrians, and nature lovers the opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty of the mountainous terrain. Douthat State Park opened on June 15, 1936.
Wilson Creek runs through the park. The stream is stocked with trout at designated times each year, and it winds past Lakeside Campground, the only campground situated beside the lake, and Beaver Dam Campground, the campground that has recently been renovated and designed to accommodate equestrian campers. Trout fishermen in the park must purchase an $8 per day fishing permit unless they choose to fish south on Wilson Creek from the curve on Route 629 where signage notifies travelers that they are leaving Bath County and entering Alleghany County. Only a regular Virginia fishing license and trout stamp are required for fishing from that point south adjacent to Route 629.
Kester F. Dingus, a 1985 graduate of Clinch Valley College (later named the University of Virginia Wise) was born in Wise, Virginia. He received his BS degree in business and public administration. Forest Gladden, the park’s superintendent in 2009, hired Dingus as business manager on July 27. Dingus remarked, “Due to the COVID-19 relief money being provided to unemployed workers, our biggest challenge at the present is to meet the level of service that our customers expect.”
Although the pandemic has forced the cancellation of some of Douthat State Park’s annual events, including the Speed Group’s Douthat Lake Run Car Show, the Campsite Cook-Off Contest, Kid’s Fishing Day and in-person interpretative programs, the swimming area will be open for swimmers to swim at their own risk without a lifeguard on duty. Also, the boat docks will be renting paddle boats and fishing boats.
Dingus explained that Douthat State Park has raised its starter’s pay from $8.50 an hour to $11.00 per hour in hopes of receiving more applications from potential workers while noting that he has received far fewer applications from those seeking work in 2021 and 2020 than during pre-pandemic years. He attributes the adverse situation to the pandemic and public relief funds that have been allocated by the federal government, and he expressed his concern that it will be difficult to hire a stable workforce by the time Memorial Day weekend officially begins another camping season. A “Now Hiring” sign is posted in the park beside Route 629.
He noted that Douthat State Park and Hungry Mother State Park are the last two parks in Virginia to have their restaurants closed by the Commonwealth of Virginia and that over the years, hiring a good cook and retaining one had been one of his most difficult challenges due to the position being a seasonal one.
For the first time during Dingus’ tenure as business manager, he no longer has to hire a cook and staff to operate the Lakeview Restaurant, which features a scenic outdoor deck overlooking the lake and an indoor-glass-walled-seating area that also provides diners with a spectacular view. Instead, he has converted the restaurant’s main indoor-dining area into a gift shop and camp store that offers campers the opportunity to purchase food items, fishing supplies, camping supplies, and souvenirs.
Dingus, remarked, “During the coming camping season, we may offer carry-out orders of French fries, burgers, hotdogs, and chicken sandwiches so that our visitors will not have to drive into town to get something to eat.”
Dingus considers his most outstanding achievement to be playing a major role in increasing the amount of sales via merchandising while effectively overseeing the business aspects of the park, including the operation of the white-sand beach and bathhouse, the boat dock rentals, the visitor’s center where campers register, and an amphitheater overlooking the lake where many weddings and concerts have been held. Moving forward, he has the camp store to manage. Racks of T-shirts and displays of items for sale now occupy the space where diners sat at tables set with silverware.
Before coming to Douthat State Park, Dingus worked in retail management, and he first came to Alleghany County as an EMT class instructor employed by the Western Virginia EMS Council headquartered in Roanoke. Working out of an office at Dabney S. Lancaster Community College in Clifton Forge, Dingus met Veneta Gunter, his wife-to-be, in 2006. Dingus moved from Roanoke to Clifton Forge, and the couple have a daughter, Jordan.
Douthat State Park has undergone many improvements since Dingus filled the position as business manager. Most notable is the addition of Whispering Pines Campground that features 27 RV campsites situated on the banks of Wilson Creek in Alleghany County. The campground is located adjacent to the park’s new playground, which was funded by Royal Canin Pet Foods as a charitable donation.
Royal Canin Pet Foods is a subsidiary of Mars, Inc. Founded by Jean Cathary in Gard, France in 1968, the company contacted Douthat State Park and offered to donate their time and company’s resources to establish the playground. Working in concert with Douthat State Park’s personnel, the combined workforce constructed the playground, which features swings, chin-up bars, and slides with nooks and crannies constructed for children to climb and explore before sliding back to earth.
Situated on the hillsides above Route 629, 32 cabins have been constructed. Dingus stated, “Douthat State Park is the only state park that features all three types of cabins offered in our state park system because the log cabins that the WPA crew build were experimental cabins to see which ones worked best, and some feature horizontal log structure while others are designed with a vertical log structure.”
He continued to explain that Douthat State Park was the first park to be built in 1936, although five others were eventually built that year, and he noted that the workers were experimenting to see what structure would work best. Also, he observed that those early cabins built are still in service and that the interiors are all different.
More cabins were added during the 1960s, and those cabins were constructed out of cinderblocks. Facades were added later in order to create a similar look for all of the cabins, and the newest cabins were built out of more durable composite materials but structured to match the others in their appearance.
Dingus added, “The way we rent our cabins has changed due to COVID-19, and rather than being able to rent them for seven days or for 14 days, we are now required to refrain from renting a cabin again until 24 hours has passed during which our cleaning staff must sanitize the cabin, leaving us to rent on a six-day or 13-day basis.”
Cleaning regulations also pertain to the boats that are rented. Each boat must be sanitized and left unrented for at least one hour after it is returned. Covid-19 has also impacted the way the Creasey Lodge, Douthat Lodge and Beard’s Mountain Lodge are rented and cleaned. Each lodge accommodates 16 guests.
In addition to the three lodges and 32 cabins that Douthat State Park’s staff must clean and maintain, there are numerous restrooms throughout the park. Each restroom must be maintained and cleaned frequently. Dingus offered, “We have a staff member on duty at all times whose only job is to keep the restrooms clean and keep them supplied around the clock, and that person drives from restroom to restroom throughout the park daily.”
Other improvements during Dingus’ years as business manager have been made, including the roof replacements on Creasy Lodge, the Lakeview Restaurant and the Beach House. Cedar shake shingles were originally used to create a motif throughout the park, and the new roofing replacement shingles look like the original ones although they are composed of composite material.
All of the RV campsites feature 30/50 amp hookups, water, a dump station and a bathhouse. Traveling north on Route 629 in Alleghany County, a traveler can view the Whispering Pines Campground across Wilson Creek on the right. Farther north, the White Oak Campground is located on the hill overlooking Wilson Creek to the left of 629. Farther north, The Lakeside Campground and the Beaver Dam Campground are on the left of Route 629 near the north end of the park that borders the George Washington National Park, as does much of the park.
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine — who ran on the ticket with Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton as her choice for Vice-President — was a frequent guest at Douthat State Park during his term as governor of Virginia.
Dingus concluded, “This past week, we hosted Gov. Ralph S. Northam for three days, and he seemed to enjoy his visit.”