Hiking Trails of the -sometimes forgotten- Eastern Shore of Virginia
Growing up in Maryland, I didn’t even know Virginia had an Eastern shore until I was probably in high school. I seriously thought the land east of the Chesapeake Bay was all Maryland and Delaware. And it was only in college that I realized Chincoteague was in Virginia, and yet I still didn’t realize the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay was another 75+ miles to the south.
I’ve come to learn though, that I’m not the only one who was once oblivious to Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Sometimes it’s left off Virginia maps completely! And what a shame. The shore’s natural beauty and deep-rooted coastal heritage is something that I think everyone should take the time to experience. There is so much untouched land that the stories of yesterday seem to come alive when you’re immersed in the landscape. History and nature are intertwined on the shore like few other places I’ve ever experienced.
While I could probably write a whole book about paddling the waterways around Virginia’s Eastern Shore (I also write for Virginia Water Trails), I wanted to shed some light on the hiking trails around the region, because some of the landscapes may take you by surprise, or do I dare say - take your breath away!
So without further adieu, here’s my roundup of the best spots to explore the shore’s natural landscapes by land.
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (NWR)
The Chincoteague NWR is probably the most well known hiking option on the shore. The refuge has over 7 miles of trails to explore, many of which are paved and open to biking as well. The Wildlife Loop is a great 3.1-mile loop to catch some glimpses of waterfowl and deer. The Woodland Trail is your best bet for spotting the famous wildlife ponies out in the marsh. You can really get some miles in if you venture out on the beach or up the service road from wildlife drive.
Mutton Hunk Fen Natural Area Preserve (NAP)
Moving on down the coast, and what feels like a world away from Chincoteague, is one of Virginia’s Natural Area Preserves (NAP). These preserves are designated as such because they harbor a significant natural resource such as a rare ecosystem or a rare species. Mutton Hunk Fen NAP is open to public visitation and has 1.5 miles of trails to explore, with glimpses of Gargathy Bay and Metompkin Island in the distance. I am no expert on the rare sea level fen community that is protected here, so to learn more, visit the Department of Conservation & Recreation’s page about Mutton Hunk Fen NAP here. Please keep in mind that when visiting any natural area, it’s important to follow Leave No Trace ethics, stay on the designated trails, and if the parking area is full when you arrive, respect the established carrying capacity and come back another time.
The Nature Conservancy’s Brownsville Preserve is such a gem, particularly if you’re bringing children along for the hike. The trail is about 1.4 miles to get to the furthest point away on the loop, so you can log a total of nearly 3 miles at the property. The scenery is a nice mix of marsh, meadow, and wooded areas, with an observation deck that overlooks the barrier islands in the distance. My son was 4 years old when we visited Brownsville for the first time, and the little nature shack, located about halfway down the trail, was a huge hit.
Savages Neck Dunes NAP
I was hesitant to even list Savage Neck Dunes Natural Area Preserve in this article because I know how fragile this spot is. I discovered it only when everyone else did, when an article was published by Only In Your State - you know, that tourism blog site that has click-bait headlines all the time? It’s truly a magical spot located a little north of Cape Charles, VA, but it’s imperative that when visiting, you stick to the designated trails and never climb the towering dunes. The beachfront is located about a 0.7-mile walk from the parking area. It’s critical habitat for the federally-endangered tiger beetle and the shorelines are very susceptible to erosion. If the parking area is full, please return at another time. If you’ve traveled a distance, go grab a bite in Cape Charles and come back!
Edward S. Brinkley Preserve & Oyster Village Horse Island Trail
A great alternative to Savage Neck Dunes - you know, if the parking area is full - is directly east on the seaside of the peninsula near the little village of Oyster, VA. In fact, there are two trails to explore near Oyster. First, the Edward S. Brinkley Nature Preserve, located a little north of Oyster, skirts the perimeter of the county landfill! It doesn’t sound scenic, but this 0.7-mile trail wanders through meadow, a little forested area, and ends with a boardwalk and observation deck overlooking the barrier islands and Mockhorn Bay.
After you’ve had your fill at Brinkley, head to the south side of Oyster and check out The Nature Conservancy’s Oyster Village Horse Island Trail. There’s no meadow or forest here. This sunny 0.7-mile trail stays close to the shoreline with some of the best waterfront views on the seaside!
Cape Charles NAP
I always say “everyone loves a good boardwalk.” There’s just something about the ease of walking through otherwise difficult terrain, usually with an elevated view, that seems to make everyone happy. If it’s a good boardwalk and some shade that you’re after, definitely check out the Cape Charles Natural Area Preserve. Located near the industrial part of town, the trailhead is practically in the parking lot of a corporate building, and when you’re driving back there, it’s hard to believe a trail is nearby. The trail is only a 0.4-mile trek, but it makes for a nice walk in the trees after exploring the historic district of Cape Charles. Please note that there is no beach access here, even though the trail dead-ends at the shoreline. Remember those fragile dunes and endangered tiger beetles? They’re here too.
Kiptopeke State Park
My husband and I celebrated our one-year wedding anniversary at Kiptopeke State Park. It was my first time visiting the park, and trust me when I say that I have jumped on every chance I’ve gotten to visit again since then! Paddling around the old, concrete ships is always an adventure, the campground is lovely, and I’m eager to rent a yurt or a lodge at some point. But the thing I love most about this park are the hiking trails. There are over 5 miles of trails to explore, with varying landscapes like meadows, freshwater ponds, forest and a hawk watch. But the Brown Pelican Trail takes the cake with its stunning views of the Chesapeake from way up on a ridge. This area too is very fragile, so it’s crucial to stay on the trail. Whenever I walk this trail, my mind is still boggled that I’m on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. At times I feel like I’m exploring a foreign country because seeing the water from that elevation just doesn’t seem possible on Delmarva!
Magothy Bay NAP & Eastern Shore NWR
If you’re exploring all of the Eastern Shore’s trails from north to south, the last places to explore before heading over the bridge-tunnel are the Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve and the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge. These two spots are just a stone’s throw from each other so it’s worth visiting both if you’re in the area.
I’m not sure what the history of the Magothy Bay NAP is, but it seems to be an old farm that’s been preserved as wildlife habitat. There are over 3 miles of trails here, with one leading out towards the bay, on what appears to be an old road or raised dike. Whatever it is, that stretch of trail was my favorite, as it offered a nearly 365-degree view of unobstructed, seaside landscapes.
The wildlife refuge only has about one mile total of walking trails, but its geographic location on the tip of the peninsula makes it an incredible birding spot. It also has some rich WWII history to explore.
BONUS TRAIL: The Eastern Shore Rail Trail
There may only be a few miles of this trail completed so far, but eventually, the Eastern Shore Rail Trail will extend 49 miles from the Eastern Shore NWR, all the way up the shore to Hallwood. As you explore the Eastern Shore and travel up and down Route 13, take note of the railroad that is slowly being removed to create an incredible bike trail!