Respite in the Refuge by Laura McMahon

“A Respite in the Refuge”

After weeks of seemingly endless rain and oppressive humidity, a magnificent weather pattern graced our area, bringing with it abundant sunshine and delightfully drier air. Nature lovers that we are, as soon as we caught wind of the favorable weather forecast, my husband and I began plotting our escape from suburbia. Our “go to” spot? One of Virginia Beach’s best-kept secrets: Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. If you’ve never checked out this amazing place, you don’t know what you’re missing!
To learn about its interesting history, as well as get directions and more, click here.

We’re fortunate in that this hidden gem is a relatively short twenty-minute drive for us from doorstep to front gate. The refuge is immediately south of Sandbridge’s Little Island Park and beach, at the southern end of Sandpiper Road. Before you go, be sure to check the hours and directions, and other pertinent information, such as permits and passes, here and here. On this day, our plan was to bike, hike, and fish, but there are a variety of activities for all ages to enjoy at the refuge.
We set out fairly early in the day, and once there, we quickly unloaded the bikes, applied the SPF, and eagerly hit the trail. Weeks of work demands with relatively little play time had us desperate for a much-needed break from the grind. Getting back to nature seemed like a good remedy for our woes.


The east dike trail was open, allowing us to pedal the path that lies a bit closer to the coast. The path’s relative proximity to the ocean, along with the welcomed fair weather, allowed Mother Nature to gift us with gentle off-shore breezes and warm morning sun. We gratefully soaked up the untouched beauty of nature all around us.
We pedaled slowly in order to fully take in the sights and sounds; today’s visit was definitely not about “feeling the cycling burn”! The refuge’s paths wind through several different habitats, ranging from freshwater marshes, to dunes and beaches, to agricultural fields, to woodlands.
We love the variety! Keep an eye out for the varied wildlife, such as osprey, heron, otter, coyote, and, yes, even the occasional water moccasin! (Don’t worry, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you!). I kept my head on a swivel, not wanting to miss a single bit of it. The ecosystem’s perfect interplay of rhythm, balance, and harmony created a symphony for my senses.
There’s something I find pretty fascinating about the wildlife refuge – False Cape State Park actually lies within its interior. The park is a few miles in from the main refuge entrance, and can only be accessed by foot, bike, beach transport, tram, or boat; no pets are allowed. Be sure to check the park trail guide – it contains important information you’ll want to know about before you go.
Our goal this day was to bike on through False Cape State Park to access the beach at Barbour’s Hill. More pristine marshlands and coastal beauty awaited us within the park proper, and, true to form, my husband just couldn’t resist stopping along the way to fly fish the park’s beautiful waters.
Tip: Be sure to bring a valid Virginia fishing license – it’s required.


I somehow managed to pull him away from his angling (despite his never-ending promises of “just one more cast!”), and soon we were headed to the False Cape State Park Visitor Center. Here, there’s a nice covered front porch, complete with relaxing rocking chairs, a water fountain, and public restrooms. Inside the Visitor Center you can learn about the park’s history and upcoming events. They have cold drinks, ice cream, snacks, supplies, and souvenirs available for purchase. Our stop gave us a welcomed chance to stretch our legs.

Not to be deterred from our ultimate destination (where’s the beach!), we wasted no time and quickly mounted up again. We pedaled as far as we could due east on Barbour Hill trail, but once the path became too thick with sand, we parked our bikes in the rack and took the rest of the trail by foot.

Along the way, we spotted happy campers rising and shining, beginning to greet the beautiful day. There are several campsites along this stretch of trail, and more sites are sprinkled throughout the park. Camping is primitive and you’ll need to be aware of several special regulations and considerations before planning your trip. We promised ourselves we’d return and camp here soon, especially now that nicer temperatures had finally arrived.


At last, we arrived at our destination! We crested the ridge, our view opened up, and wow, what a view it was! The sky was a beautiful cerulean blue backdrop for the churning ocean, reeling and rolling with its chopped up, frothy waves. Countless clouds skipped across the sky, but the sun emerged victorious, piercing through them all. The result was a brilliant, ever-changing play of sparkling light on water and mirror reflection on sand.


Seabirds swooped and dove, traveling in broken formations in their never-ending quest for food.
Sand pipers darted and dodged approaching waves, dancing fluidly and effortlessly with their partner, the ocean. The pipers skillfully gleaned crustaceous treats from the soft swaths of wet sand before being sent running for cover by the next set of approaching waves. Watching the repetitive interplay was both amusing and mesmerizing at the same time.


The beach was empty except for a few other people, and from the looks of it, they had spent an idyllic night under the stars, several yards from the dunes. Other than those campers, all we could see in either direction were miles and miles of unspoiled beach. My kind of beach day!

Walking along the shoreline, I bent down to inspect seashells nestled amongst clumps of washed-up sea foam. The shoreline shimmered and gleamed with each ebbing and flowing wave, revealing all its hidden treasures. Life was in full swing around me, and I felt a deep sense of gratitude for being able to be a part of it.
Nature was in no hurry here, and neither was I.

I paused and took in several long, deep breaths – I didn’t want this feeling to end! If I could have, I would have bottled up the whole day’s experience, and taken it home for a rainy day. But for now, it was good to just be in the moment, breathing in the salty air, feeling the gentle breeze, and listening to the whispers of the ocean, with its promises of even more spectacular days ahead.


The Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge Society’s purpose is to promote and support the BBNWR in its mission to preserve, protect, and enhance natural resources through advocacy, outreach, education, fundraising, and projects for the betterment of BBNWR.
For more information regarding how to become involved, click here

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