Rare Nature, Close In

Call It Seashore or First Landing — It’s the Beach’s Crown Jewel

I like it best in winter, sheltered from the wind and cold among the tall cypresses and live oaks. Atop the forested dunes, gazing across the waters of Broad Bay, you feel as though you can see forever. And after a snowfall, bare branches transformed into crystal matrices, this place is magical. In the depths of winter, the park is about 10 degrees warmer than the surrounding area.

But it’s wonderful in the fall, when sassafras puts on a multi-colored show. Golden sweetgum leaves cover the path like bits of fallen sunshine, and the Spanish moss hangs heavy and full. Spring brings unfurling ferns and pairs of nesting osprey, when the park bursts with so much new growth and chatter it seems like the jungle primeval at the dawn of the world.

Now it’s summer, and First Landing State Park is glorious — and 10 degrees cooler than the surrounding area. It’s the best part of Virginia Beach, after the ocean. Put on mosquito repellent and dive in.

Most of what you’ll find looks much as it would have to Capt. George Percy on April 26, 1607, on the expedition of three ships led by Christopher Newport, destined to establish the first permanent English colony in America. “There we landed and discovered … fair meadows and goodly tall trees,” Percy wrote, “with such fresh waters running thorough the woods as I was almost ravished at first sight thereof … .” They named the area Cape Henry, after the elder son of King James I, a place of high dunes and maritime forest about 8,000 years old.

If it’s your first visit, enter on Shore Drive and stop at the Trail Center for a map and information. The park holds an unmatched variety of plants and animals, a unique mixture of the northernmost southern plants and the southernmost northern plants. Families with young children will want to walk the Bald Cypress Trail, a 1.5-mile self-guided tour of dark lagoons, Spanish moss, huckleberries and those famous cypress knees. A wooden bridge takes you right into the heart of the cypress pool, where you can get close to wide-based, fluted, 100-foot tall cypresses and tupelo gum trees. The curious-looking cypress knees are part of the root formation, drawing oxygen down to the roots through the mud. That tannic water, which looks darkly unappetizing to us, was treasured by early sailors for its purity and ability to stay fresh for long periods.

One of these was Edward Teach, the infamous pirate called Blackbeard. His headquarters was reputed to be on a nearby island at Lake Joyce, once open to the Chesapeake Bay, at Chesapeake Beach off Shore Drive. The legend that he buried treasure in the park was fueled by Edgar Cayce, another famous Virginia Beach resident. Cayce declared that Blackbeard’s treasure was in the White Hill area of the park, which caused some misguided folks to surreptitiously start digging. Treasure hunters, beware: Destruction of the dunes and trails is a first class misdemeanor, punishable by a year in jail and up to a $25,000 fine.

Fred Hazelwood, the affable district manager in charge of First Landing, is justifiably serious about protecting this unique environment from treasure hunters, off-path bikers and trailblazers — and non-park uses. “People don’t realize just how threatened state parks are to encroachment,” he says. “There are always threats to usurp park use, statewide.” In recent years, parts of First Landing have been actively targeted for an airstrip, a public school and as the original site for the Virginia Beach Marine Science Museum. The 1966 Virginia Beach Master Plan proposed two major roads through the park, linking Great Neck Road to Atlantic Ave. and Shore Drive to 49th Street.

Parts had already been eroded by early sand excavation and lumbering, and later by federal condemnation to create Fort Story in 1914 and expand it during World War II, and by the widening of Shore Drive in the early ’70s. Mosquito ditches, which let in too much salt water and may have done more harm than good, crisscross the marshes. The last encroachment came after the 1962 Ash Wednesday storm, when the state dug what became the lake along the south side of the Cape Henry Trail, after it crosses 64th Street.

The park almost didn’t happen. The first attempted land grabber was colonial baron Adam Keeling. In 1770, Keeling applied to the governor and the council for a patent to 5,000-plus acres known as The Desert, an uninhabited area at Cape Henry used by fishermen and roughly the area from the Lesner Bridge to Atlantic Avenue. The council protested and petitioned the governor to let “the land remain a common for the benefit of all the inhabitants of the Colony.” And so it remained until after the Civil War.

Under debt demands, in 1866 the state sold patents to individuals for timbering and fishing in The Desert. But in 1890, the farsighted Cape Henry Park and Land Development Company purchased 10,000 acres at Cape Henry for lumbering and to develop a Winter Park, selling land on the Atlantic Ocean to create the resort of Virginia Beach in 1903. The rest would come to be deeded to the State Conservation and Development Commission in 1933, through the perseverance of local civic leaders who wanted to create a park here. With an eye on the trail-blazing Shenandoah Park, newly opened in 1929, the Commission established a timeless goal for Cape Henry: “… to establish in this region while yet there is still time, a place that will give Virginians a chance to have a place to call their own forever by the sea.”

Development of Seashore State Park (renamed First Landing in 1999) began in the October 1933, when the first of 660 black Civilian Conservation Corps workers set up camp at Cape Henry. When it officially opened on June 15, 1936, the park was only 1,000 acres and included horse trails. More land was purchased from the syndicate in 1938, and the CCC continued to develop the park until 1940, when the state took over. So it is particularly ironic, though not uncommon for the period, that when four “persons of color” attempted to use the park facilities on June 16, 1951, they were denied access. They filed a suit, which led to the park being closed from 1955 to 1961 in order to preserve segregation. When the campground quietly reopened with no publicity in 1962, the first visitors were greeted by barbed wire still stretching across the gate.

Now it’s the most popular park in the Commonwealth. Here are the numbers: The park covers 2,888 acres, including 222 campsites (i.e., spaces for tents, RVs and pop-ups), 20 two-bedroom cabins, 1.5 miles of Chesapeake Bay beach and miles of walking and biking trails. More than 1,200 volunteers belong to the Friends of First Landing State Park, with a core group of 300 dedicated folks.

“We get about 1.6 million visitors a year now,” says Hazelwood, but that’s just an estimate. People like me walk or bike in from 64th Street several times a week, but who’s counting?

You don’t have to know that there are 14 distinct biological communities here, and many rare and endangered plants and animals. You don’t have to think about where the Chesapeake Indians lived and how they used Spanish moss for diapers (without the chiggers, one hopes). You don’t have to know beans about ecology to enjoy this place.

I’d never heard of the Virginia Beach bug, Pycnoderiella virginiana, until Erik Molleen set me straight. He’s the district resource specialist, who tracks salinity in the marshes and counts bat species, among other responsibilities. “The maritime forest here is globally rare,” he says, “and the Virginia Beach bug is unique in all the world.” Wow! Fred Hazelwood pulls out a full-color poster of this critter, which looks a lot like a flea to me, ominous in close-up but actually gnat-size. Since it was found in the ’80s, the Smithsonian named it and kept it. Rare it may be, but I doubt it would get any votes as the symbol of Virginia Beach.

But First Landing State Park deserves to be at the top of the list of special places. Bike from the boardwalk or the North End, enter at 64th St. and take the Cape Henry Trail all the way to the Trail Center off Shore Drive. You can follow the extension through the woods and beyond, crossing the park road as the bike path continues through neighborhoods past Great Neck Road and as far as the Lesner Bridge.

Or walk along any of nine interlinking trails, 19 miles of well-marked paths through salt marshes, over high dunes, and deep into maritime forests. “The Tidewater Striders [a walking and running club] named one trail The Dolly Parton,” Molleen tells me, “because it was so hilly, full of ups and downs.”

Look for fiddler crabs scurrying in the marshy flats and painted turtles sunning on logs in the ponds. Huge osprey nests are common, but you may spot a bald eagle feeding near White Hill Lake. Listen for the hollow tapping of a pileated woodpecker reverberating through the hush, almost invisible if not for its bright red crest. Six hundred separate species of plants live here. Wild grapes and blueberries abound, along with sweet pepperbush, whose fragrant white flowers come in late July.

And there’s this: As often as I go in, I always feel safe and nurtured. The beach is great, of course, no argument there. But First Landing is the first place off the beach that I take visitors, my favorite destination for a walk in winter, a bike ride in fall, the place to explore in spring and summer. Its beauty astounds me in every season, every condition — wet and dry, warm and cold, bare and lush.

This article originally appeared in our Aug. 2003 issue.

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