Virginia Beach is one of the premier beach vacation spots on the Atlantic coast. Millions of visitors flock for the sun and fun each year. A few miles north of the resort area, First Landing State Park is a 2,700 acre plus oasis of undeveloped land and also the Virginia State Park with the highest annual visitation.
But today I want to talk about the other side of the beach, south of the resort area, the last strip of land in Virginia before you get to North Carolina, and one of the lowest visited of Virginia’s State Parks, False Cape State Park, 3,800 acres in one of the last undisturbed coastal environments on the East Coast.
Land locked on the Virginia side, False Cape State Park’s disadvantage is what makes it so special. The bad news, no vehicular access. The good news, no vehicular access. The restriction means it’s an adventure to get to the park and all that much more special when you get there.
Last week I was fortunate to have to visit the park on business. The end of civilization as we know it is the Sandbridge section of Virginia Beach. Years ago, it was 45 minutes from anywhere but predictably civilzation has encroached closer and closer to this sleepy community with beach rental houses and year round residents. Indeed, if not for the fact that the city sewer system finally arrived, there would be no condos. After the end of the beach houses, flanking both the Ocean and Bay sides, you hit Little Island City Park, one of my favorite public beaches.
Next stop, the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the end of vehicular access. Approximately 10,000 snow geese and a large variety of ducks visit Back Bay Refuge during the peak of fall migration, usually in December. The refuge also provides habitat for a wide assortment of other wildlife, including threatened and endangered species such as loggerhead sea turtles, piping plovers, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles. November through March is considered the sensitive time period and even access by our resident and non-resident park staff is controlled by agreement.
The trip through the refuge and into our park is special. Impoundments dot the interior and create habitat for the migrating and resident wildlife. As one of my co-workers likes to say, I am an “office weenie” so don’t expect me to regale about this and that species that I witnessed. I will admit that I did recognize the swans. I also finally saw my first feral pig. Unfortunately the pigs are an invasive and destructive inhabitant of the Refuge and Park, but I had never caught a glimpse of the little devils before. Once upon a time folks lived down at False Cape and raised a variety of livestock. When they cleared out, they just turned some of the animals loose. The pigs were fruitful and multiplied. Each year the Refuge and State Park hold a managed deer and pig hunt to try and keep the population down, but I digress.
I know I may have lost a number of folks when I mentioned the “no vehicular access” earlier. Of course adventure enthusiasts are welcome to hike or bike to the park down the beach or through the interior trail (closed November through March), or canoe or kayak down Back Bay to the park, but for the novice, I recommend taking advantage of a trip on the Blue Goose Tram or the Terra Gator. Each are unique experiences and transport visitors for a taste of the Refuge and Park. Or, sign up for one of the many educational programs the park offers. Generally attendees will park at the Refuge or Little Island City Park and ride by Tram, Terra Gator or retired school bus to the program. The park offers interesting nature and historical programming year round. For a list of programs, click here and select False Cape State Park.
If I haven’t sold you on the pristine, unspoiled, nothing but sand and Ocean for all you can see experience, or the bird watching and nature viewing opportunities, False Cape features five trails, including the Barbour Hill self-guided interpretive trail, totaling 15.3 miles. They are available for hiking, biking and exploration. The park’s location on a barrier spit, with the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Back Bay to the west, allows visitors to observe beaches, dunes, maritime forests of oak and pine, wooded swamps, marshes and the bay all in one visit. For the real adventurer, we have primitive camping (be sure to read all of the information we send when you make your reservation so you will be prepared) and also an environmental education center for groups interested in a multiple day immersion. But there is also some unique historic structures on the park to go with its interesting history.
In the 1800s, False Cape gained a reputation as a shipping graveyard. The area got its name because its land mass resembled Cape Henry, luring boats into shallow waters. One of the area’s first communities, Wash Woods, was developed by survivors of such a shipwreck. The village’s church and other structures were built using cypress wood that washed ashore from the wreck. From the turn of the century until the 1960s, False Cape was a haven for a number of prestigious hunt clubs, which took advantage of the area’s abundant waterfowl. The park’s Wash Woods Environmental Education Center is a converted hunt clubhouse.
Last week, Park Manager Kyle Barbour drove me back to my car down the beach, my favorite part of the trip. I tried not to concentrate on his maneuvering of the 4 wheel drive vehicle so as not to get stuck, and just enjoyed the untouched ocean beach. It was amazing as always. As I drove back through the resort area to get to First Landing State Park, I was struck by how truly the other side of the beach experience False Cape State Park is from the typical Virginia Beach vacation. Few of the millions that visit Virginia Beach will make it to False Cape but those that adventure south will be greatly rewarded.
Be sure and read all about the park by clicking here.