False Cape State Park’s Winter Wonderland

For Those Hearty Enough To Brave The Cold, There Are Rewards In This Wilderness Park’s Beaches, Marshes And Maritime Forest

False Cape State Park, a 4,800-acre wilderness park located on a 1-mile wide barrier strip between the Atlantic Ocean and Back Bay at Virginia Beach’s southern tip, is most often associated with summertime activities such as ocean swimming or fishing.

The park also offers a variety of activities during the late fall and winter, although access to the park can be more difficult. Because there is no vehicular access, park visitors must hike, bike or kayak the 4 miles across Back Bay Wildlife Refuge to reach False Cape. The interior trails are closed from Nov. 1 through March 31, which means that visitors must hike down the beach, a trek that can be cold, windy and a little difficult if the sand is soft.

For those hearty enough to brave the cold, there are rewards in the park’s beaches, marshes and maritime forest. First, for birdwatchers, winter is prime time to see migratory waterfowl, including geese, teal, the American Black Duck and a variety of other ducks that feed and rest here during their migration south. 

Visitors might also see songbirds, including yellow warblers and chickadees that feed on the Yaupon and American holly berries that grow in the park’s wooded areas, according to Virginia Beach Naturalist Vickie Shufer.

False Cape State Park, birdwatching, wildlife, heron
A heron hunting for food among the marsh grasses. Photo by Matt Haddaway.

False Cape State Park wildlife, gray fox
A gray fox walking along the beach. Photo courtesy of the Virginia Department of
Conservation and Recreation.

Beachcombers might catch a glimpse of a whale, and occasionally seals come up onto the beach to sun themselves, says Assistant Park Manager Cameron Swain. Foxes, coyotes and other mammals live in the park, and snakes sometimes come out on mild, sunny winter days.

Camping is also available year-round, and for the cold tolerant, winter is a particularly lovely time to be at the park because the low humidity and clear skies make the night sky dazzling.

The biggest challenge about winter hiking, Swain says, is that walking on the beach at high tide can be challenging. She recommends that visitors check the tide schedule before they come, and, if possible, ride a beach bike because that faster mode of transportation allows them to see more of the park on the short winter days.

For those who don’t want to hike for miles, or who prefer more organized activities, False Cape State Park also offers a variety of winter tours for visitors. Here are four winter activities to enjoy.

False Cape Terragator
The Terragator transports visitors to the park. Photo courtesy of the Virginia
Department of Conservation and Recreation.

1. Take a ride on The Terragator. This large, beachgoing vehicle transports visitors into the park each Saturday and Sunday from November to March from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Once in the park, visitors have about two hours to explore before the return trip.

2. Tour by tram. Tram tours to the Wash Woods cemetery and church site are offered on select Sundays during the winter. Visitors can explore the remains of the Wash Woods settlement, a thriving coastal community of watermen, hunters and Coast Guard employees who lived in the park during the first half of the 20th century.

3. Take a First Day Hike. Start the New Year off with a 1-mile hike through the maritime forest to the ocean, scheduled for 1 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 1. Visitors will travel to Wash Woods, where they will visit a marble monument, laid in 1887, that marks the North Carolina Virginia Border. This is the easternmost of a series of mileposts along the southern border, Swain says. From there, visitors will hike to the beach.

Visitors are advised to dress warmly and to bring water and sunscreen. Don’t forget your camera because there are wonderful opportunities to take pictures, Swain says.

All activities depart from the Back Bay Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, located at 4005 Sandpiper Rd. Reservations are required and can be made by calling 757-426-7128. For more information, or to check specific dates for the tram tours, visit here.

Jane Bloodworth Rowe

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