Finally – school’s out and warm weather is here! We know you’re eager to get away to your nearest beach and bury yourself in the sand with a new book. But did you know there are dozens of beautiful parks and natural areas on the way to major beaches such as Rehoboth Beach, Virginia Beach and Ocean City? Here are eight places you can enjoy the beauty of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers along the way to your summer destination. After all, some of life's greatest joys are in the journey, not in the destination!
1. Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve (Portsmouth, Va.)
Just 20 minutes west of Virginia Beach, Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve provides urban wildlife in the Norfolk/Portsmouth metro region with 142 acres of tidal and non-tidal habitat. Expect to encounter foxes, river otters, oysters and crabs along the preserve's trails. Before you go, check out Hoffler Creek’s events listings for specialties like sunset kayak tours, night owl kayak paddles by moonlight, and early morning bird walks!
2. Dutch Gap Conservation Area (Chester Va.)
(Image courtesy John.Murden/Flickr)
Just south of Richmond, Dutch Gap Conservation Area surrounds Henricus, the second successful English settlement in Virginia. Bordered by the James River, the 810-acre area contains a blue heron rookery and has been described as a "birder's dream." A diversity of habitats attract a range of flying friends: in wetlands, look for pintails and kingfishers; in meadows, you'll find goldfinches, indigo buntings and kingbirds; and in forests, expect to see scarlet tanagers and red-eye vireo. Hike or bike the 4.5 mile Dutch Gap Trail, which circumnavigates a tidal lagoon. Kayak or canoe the Lagoon Water Trail (perfect for beginner paddlers), or schedule a night to camp under the stars at the area's primitive camp site.
3. Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge (Cape Charles, Va.)
(Image courtesy Xavier de Jauréguiberry/Flickr)
Drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Bay Tunnel near Virginia Beach to arrive at the southernmost tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. Here, nearly 1,300 acres of tidal wetlands and hiking trails sport colorful views of sunsets and sunrises; enjoy being surrounded by water on three sides! The area is one of the most important avian migration funnels in the country, meaning it provides vital stopover habitat for birds and butterflies migrating south for the winter and north for the summer. Return in the winter for a trip to Fisherman Island, a remote island home to sensitive bird species and untouched shoreline.
4. Nassawango Creek Preserve of the Nature Conservancy and Furnace Town (Snow Hill, Md.)
Just south of Salisbury, Maryland, one of the northernmost stands of bald cypress trees leak tannins into the Nassawango Creek, giving this pristine Chesapeake Bay tributary a deceptive tea-like color. Bald cypress trees grow completely in the water, and are most abundant in swamps in the deep southeast United States. Visitors to the 15,000-acre Nassawango Creek Preserve can paddle among these green giants or explore upland forest habitat on the preserve's many trails. Expect to see rare plants like indian pipe and pink lady slipper, and migratory birds such as scarlet tanagers and prothonotary warblers.
Along the edge of the preserve, hidden in the Pocomoke State Forest, a brick structure stands tall among the trees. It is the remnants of an iron furnace that at one time attracted hundreds of people – miners, firemen, bargemen and sawyers – to the area. From 1831 to 1850, village residents gathered iron ore from the bogs surrounding Nassawango Creek and loaded iron bars onto barges that were floated down the creek to the Pocomoke River and the Chesapeake Bay. Today, you can get a glimpse of what life was like in the 1830s mining village by visiting the Living Heritage Museum.
5. Pickering Creek Audubon Center (Easton, Md.)
(Image courtesy Pickering Creek Audubon Center)
If you're driving to Ocean City or Assateague Island, you'll likely pass hundreds of cornfields, strawberry fields and trucks full of chickens. Farming is a significant part of the heritage of Maryland's Eastern Shore, but the agricultural industry is often blamed for polluting the Chesapeake Bay.
At Pickering Creek Audubon Center in Easton, 270 acres are farmed according to "best management practices" that reduce the amount of animal bacteria, chemicals and pesticides that end up in the bay. Visitors can learn the past and future of farming in the region, or hike through hardwood forests, fresh and brackish marshes, meadows and wetlands. A Children's Imagination Garden will let your little ones connect to nature, and a display of live reptiles allows them to get up close and personal with our scaly friends!
6. Trap Pond State Park (Laurel, Del.)
Trap Pond was created in the late 1700s to power a sawmill during the harvesting of bald cypress trees from these southwestern Delaware freshwater wetlands. Fortunately, not all of the trees were harvested, and today, Trap Pond provides a home for the northernmost stand of bald cypress trees in the United States. The thick bald cypress marsh envelops visitors in a blanket of shade, making this park the perfect destination for a hot summer day.
Within the park, Trussum Pond is the best place to view the largest of these trees. Biking, camping, boating and disc golf are just some of the recreational opportunities available at the 2,700 acre park.
7. James Branch Nature Preserve and Water Trail (Laurel, Del.)
Unlike Trap Pond, which, as a state park, exists primarily for recreational purposes, James Branch Nature Preserve's first priority is protecting and enhancing a delicate ecosystem for future generations. As the largest of the state's nature preserves, James Branch's 685 acres are mostly composed of bald cypress trees – the oldest-growth in the state! Visitors can canoe and kayak the James Branch Water Trail. Since there is the chance of encountering downed trees, low-hanging branches, and floating and submerged logs, the trail is only recommended for intermediate to advanced paddlers.
8. Adkins Arboretum (Ridgely, Md.)
For some people, it's difficult to imagine your garden untouched by invasive, exotic weeds aggressively overtaking native vegetation. But at Adkins Arboretum, you can explore 400 acres of native plant gardens and wildflower meadows. Adkins is the only public garden or arboretum that focuses solely on plants native to the mid-Atlantic coastal plain. Located at the intersection of the piedmont and coastal plain, and the junction of the north and south, Adkins supports more than 600 species of native shrubs, trees, wildflowers and grasses. Visitors can understand nature through the lens of art and history; an ongoing art exhibit features natural themes by regional artists, and Adkins describes nature's relationship to the Underground Railroad throughout the region. Before you visit, be sure you check the arboretum’s list of programs and guided walks.