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Written by Janet Goodman, BT Contributor   
August 2017

Meet Virginia’s remote False Cape State Park 

ParkPatrol_1Planning a trip to our nation’s capital? Be sure to schedule an excursion to False Cape State Park in Virginia Beach.

In May, I took U.S. 58 east from I-95 through Hampton Roads in southern Virginia, then drove south to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge (see last issue’s “A Birder’s Paradise of Dunes and Marshes”).

This is where, April through October, you can catch the Blue Goose Tram for an eight-dollar, four-hour open-air bus tour supported by the Back Bay Restoration Foundation. Paid for with a $70,000 grant, the tram is not only a unique way to see the refuge, which is restricted to foot and bicycle traffic, but also provides access to adjacent False Cape State Park.

One of Virginia’s most remote and last remaining undeveloped areas along the Atlantic coastline, False Cape is 4321 acres purchased by the state in 1966, made up of a mile-wide barrier island and smaller surrounding islands. It’s wedged between Back Bay NWR and the North Carolina state line, just north of Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge, and the waters of Back Bay of the Currituck Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Besides being reachable by boat and through Back Bay NWR, there is a southern entrance on the North Carolina border. It is also restricted to foot and bike traffic, in addition to the seasonal tram.

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This place is named for a time when wooden ships mistook False Cape for Cape Henry, which lies 20 miles north at Chesapeake Bay. Vessels often ran ashore on sand bars in the shallow waters. According to information provided by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, early European settlers in the area were these shipwreck survivors.

One small group of people lived on the island. The Wash Woods Community’s population reached 300 in the late 1800s, made up of fisherman, farmers, hunters, and life-saving station crews and their families. In the days prior to their merger with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915, the life-saving stations were located every seven miles along the Atlantic coast, looking for mariners in distress. Each night two crewmen with lanterns patrolled the beach, one going northward 3.5 miles, the other walking southward 3.5 miles, to the next stations.

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By the 1930s, the people had gone, and all that remains are parts of their abandoned church in the woods, which was built from a shipwrecked cargo of cypress lumber, and their nearby cemetery. Our tram tour stops on Sand Ridge Trail, no longer able to navigate the narrow, winding foot paths to the church site. Remnants of its red-brick foundation are scattered in the leaves, and only the steeple survives. Recently, a glass enclosure was built to house and protect the steeple relic from souvenir hunters, who had for years chipped away at its wooden shingles. Along the secluded Cemetery Trail are graves of Wash Woods residents whose headstones bear broken seashell “calling cards” left by visitors.

This middle-of-nowhere place has an unusual Key West-lookalike mile marker and is occasionally jolted into the 21st century by F-18 fighter jets overhead, on maneuvers from nearby Oceana Naval Air Station. Our volunteer tour guide/driver is a former naval pilot himself. Retired Capt. Al Howard also served as a navigator on the aircraft carrier Independence and is a retired physics and chemistry teacher. He is a wealth of knowledge and happily chats away about the nature and history surrounding us. Driving 12 miles an hour along the 6.2 mile-long Sand Ridge Trail, he points out the five types of environments in the park to the 15 tram travelers: marsh, maritime forest, bay, dunes, and beach.

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Forests are dense with loblolly pine and live oak -- home to deer, feral hogs, coyotes, foxes, and nutria. There are rare half-glimpses of shy brown creatures in the dark woods and sunlit thickets as we roll by. Al lets us know there are no bears in the park due to the fact that there are no garbage bins. We must take trash out with us when we leave.

Birds can be seen, especially in the marshes, where great blue herons are plentiful. Bluebird and bat boxes are posted along the way. Al parks by the Vir-Mar Trail picnic area, which provides a fine view of Back Bay and Little Ball Island. Here the False Cape pier was washed out in an April storm and leftover duck blinds from hunting days rest in the waters. Wood duck nesting boxes encourage waterfowl to stay. On this day, an osprey nesting platform is active with a pair and their brood. Beachside, ghost crabs burrow in the sand and dolphins play in the waves. Luckily, late May is not mosquito and fly season, but Al warns us to check ourselves later for ticks.

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More tram stops are made for critters like turtles and snakes. Al pulls out a long metal handling stick to pick up a cottonmouth sunning itself on our path, but it slithers away before he can use it. Slow-moving turtles are easier catches. He brings them back to the tram to show the travelers, holding them at arm’s length in case a bladder lets loose.

Occasionally, banker horses wander into the park. These feral horses have roamed free for centuries along North Carolina’s Outer Banks and are descendants of colonial Spanish horses. They are returned to North Carolina, where they are protected by law.

Primitive camping (no cabins) is permitted year round and reservations are required. False Cape State Park and all other Virginia state parks are Geocache sites. Using a GPS receiver, geocachers are given location coordinates and can find hidden “treasures” within the parks, usually containers with logbooks and mementos. Last year’s Geocache Adventure allowed visitors to discover aspects of the Civil War. At False Cape, a Civil War Union boat transporting Confederate prisoners was overtaken by the captives when they learned that the Union soldiers had no gunpowder. The men escaped through False Cape onto Richmond.

 

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False Cape State Park


4001 Sandpiper Rd.
Virginia Beach, VA 23456
757-426-7128


Park Rating

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Hours: Dawn to dusk
Picnic tables
: Yes
Fishing: Yes
Foot and Bike Trails: Yes
Tram tours: Yes
Canoes and kayaks: Yes
Camping (no cabins): Yes
Swimming: No

 

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