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False Cape Is Virginia's Secret State Park

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The Secret State Park: False Cape

One Of Virginia’s Least Visited State Parks Offering A Unique Opportunity To Escape The Busy Resort Scene And Immerse In The Natural World

False Cape [Courtesy/False Cape State Park Staff]

One of Virginia’s least visited state parks, False Cape isn’t on the way to anywhere. But, with a location just south of Virginia Beach, the park offers a unique opportunity to escape the busy resort scene and immerse in the natural world.

“The peacefulness and tranquility here are what I love,” Cameron Swain tells The Buzz. “This is a chance to get out of the crowds… to see what this coast used to look like one hundred, even two hundred years ago.”

Cameron is the assistant park manager at False Cape and lives on site, overseeing the park’s nature-based programming. “I’m a big observer of wildlife,” she says, “and this place has so much to offer. Every summer the sea turtles come up on our beach to lay their eggs. I love babysitting the nests as they get close to hatching.”

Each season brings something different for nature lovers, Cameron says. “We are on one of the top flyways for migrating birds in the country. In winter, the waterfowl come through - all the species of ducks, swans, snow geese - and hang out. In spring and fall, we get the migrating raptors and songbirds. In summer, the wading birds arrive, herons and egrets and shorebirds. We have bald eagle pairs who nest here, so they hang out all summer.”

The park’s isolation creates a secure habitat for birds and other wildlife. “We have no public vehicle access,” Cameron says. “The options are to hike or bike the four to five miles from the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge just north of us, or take the tram that runs from there. Or you can come by boat. There are a lot of boat access points on the bay side of the park. Kayaking is very popular. Or you can anchor off-shore in the ocean and swim in.” Boats aren’t allowed to land on the beach.

Kayaking Through The Peaceful Waters [Photo Credit: Virginia State Park]
Swans At False Cape [Photo Credit: Renee Wright]

The open-air trams, which run on weekends, April 1 to Oct. 31, from the parking lot in Back Bay NWR, and daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, have opened up the park to many new visitors. During the winter, guests can make reservations aboard the Terra Gator which transports visitors down the beach, avoiding sensitive bird habitats.

Although you can’t drive to the park, visitors can still arrange to spend the night. Cameron says that 12 primitive campsites are available by reservation. “You can camp directly on the beach or up under the live oaks in our maritime forest.”

False Cape, located about 20 miles south of Virginia Beach, sits on a narrow spit of land, just a mile across at its widest point. It is sandwiched between two national refuges, Back Bay NWR and Mackay Island NWR, both noted birding destinations, and it backs up to the North Carolina state line. A fence separates the states, to keep out both the wild horses and traffic from North Carolina, Cameron says.

The park, about 7 miles long, has a spine of loblolly pine and live oak forest, with a line of natural dunes along the oceanfront, and marshy areas in between. Many different animal species make their homes here, including deer, coyotes, otters, fox, bobcats, and, according to Cameron, “abundant reptiles. And be prepared with bug spray,” she advises.

Until the last decade or so, visitors also would notice numerous feral hogs roaming the island. “They were really becoming a problem,” Kyle Barbour, park manager at False Cape, says. “In 2005, the scientists did a DNA study of the hog hair and determined we had in excess of 700 hogs running wild. They were digging up big areas and damaging the habitat for the birds. Then in 2009, we had our first confirmed sighting of a coyote in the park. Numbers of hogs have been dropping since then. The natural predator dealt with the problem. We rarely see a hog these days.”

False Cape Lifesaving Watchman [Courtesy/False Cape State Park Staff]
Methodist Church At False Cape [Courtesy/False Cape State Park Staff]
The Beautiful Nature At False Cape [Photo Credit: Renee Wright]

Kyle says that besides attracting those interested in nature, the park has a lot to offer history buffs as well. “False Cape got its name because ship captains thought this was Cape Henry, the entrance to Chesapeake Bay just north of here, and would wreck their ships on the shoals,” he explains.

“This was the Graveyard of the Atlantic,” Cameron adds. “We still have a wreck, the Clythia, just off-shore that you can see at low tide. It was a wooden masted ship carrying Italian marble, and it went down in 1894. It’s fun to paddle out and dive around it.”

Survivors of the many shipwrecks took shelter on this shore, building shacks from driftwood and boards salvaged from the ships. A Life-Saving Station was situated here by 1900, and a community called Wash Woods grew up that included two churches, a grocery and a school. By the turn of the 20th century about 300 people lived in the isolated community.

Storms in the 1920s and ‘30s washed over the spit and caused people to move away. Today, Kyle and Cameron say, there’s not much left. “There’s a part of a steeple from one of the churches, and an old graveyard,” Cameron says. “A lot of people hike out there. It’s about a mile walk from the end of the tram line.”

Though shipwrecks are fewer these days, you still never know what will wash up on the beach, Kyle says. “A few years ago, some containers from Ecuador burst open on our beach. A couple of them were full of plantains, 40 tons of them. The local wildlife didn’t like the fruit. We had to get a front-end loader to haul it away.”

The opportunity to be all alone in nature is the best aspect of False Cape for Kyle. “What’s neat is to get out on the beach and realize you are the only one there, for as far as you can see,” he says.

“Every day here is unique,” Cameron says. “Yesterday three bald eagles flew right over my head. And I hear owls every night.”


Renee Wright

A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping.

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