I was a boy scout in high school. Sort of. I was a girl scout for a long time, and then in high school had a few friends in Venture Crew, which is a co-ed branch of BSA with a focus on outdoor adventure. Once a month we would go on a new type of adventure–backpacking, caving, repelling–and on one of those trips we went to False Cape State Park, all the way at the southern stretch of the Virginia coastline.
You can’t get to False Cape by vehicle. It’s on the other side of the Bay Bay National Wildlife Refuge, so the only ways in are to walk, bike, or take one of their electric shuttles which only does tours, but does not transport campers. When I went in high school we backpacked in. Two things about that trip have stuck with me: that it was a long, hot walk in direct sunlight for the entire 6 miles…and that it was worth every single step once we got to our oceanside campsite. On that trip we set up camp directly on the beach, and go to watch the sun rise over the ocean from inside our tents. It was pure magic, and I’ve wanted to go back ever since.
I don’t know why it took so long. I guess because it’s a three hour drive, on top of the 6+ mile walk in, and it’s been a slow process for us collecting backpacking gear. Last week was Billy’s birthday, and when talking about where we wanted to go, I decided we were doing False Cape. None of the oceanside sites at the 6 mile point were available, so I booked one of the ones 9 miles from the parking area, and we decided we would find a way to bike in.
And that’s exactly what we did. We borrowed two bike trailers from friends, packed the kids into one, our gear into the other, and at 6:30pm on Thursday evening, we finally started pedaling away from the Back Bay Visitor Center with no idea how long it was going to take two relatively inexperienced cyclists to make it while towing up to 100 pounds each.
The ride in was amazing. The weather could not have been more perfect–that late in the day we rode through the golden hour (and I cursed myself for deciding I didn’t want to worry about my camera while cycling because THE LIGHT YOU GUYS. THE LIGHT.), with low humidity and warm-but-not-hot temperatures. We watched the sun set over the bay. We saw THE BIGGEST CRAWDAD I’ve ever seen. It was so peaceful, it’s almost my favorite part of the trip.
Before when I came, I remembered the campsites being very close to the ocean–as in–just on the other side of a dune. The oceanside sites at False Cape actually have two sites–one on the island side of the dunes, and a sister location if you want to pitch your tent on the sand. We had planned on that, but our sections of sites this time was actually about 1/10th of a mile from the shore, through loose, deep, sand, and we didn’t want to deal with getting the bikes through that, so we went ahead and set up camp at the picnic table site–which was really just as well, since there was a privy right there, and we didn’t have to worry about the wind blowing away anything that wasn’t staked down.
The site itself is one of the prettiest campsites I’ve ever stayed in. It was so shady that even as the sun got high (and hot) in the sky, we were never uncomfortable. We were so close to the ocean we could easily walk back and forth as much as we pleased, and we spent a lot of our time just relaxing on the beach. We did take a short bike/hike on Friday–I wanted to cross the VA/NC border, but we didn’t learn until the next day when talking to a ranger that if you want to do that on wheels, you need to wait until low tide and ride along the coast, since the inner trail is on loose sand. We made it until that sand started, and then parked the bikes and walked to an old cemetery (we seem to find cemeteries on hikes frequently). Again, I didn’t have my camera, since I had thought we’d be spending most of our time under high noon light. One day I’ll learn.
Things of note for camping here:
- There is no potable water except at the visitor’s center. We got water on the way in, and then Billy biked out and back to fill up all of our canteens on Friday. Make sure to bring empty water containers and have a way to transport them to and from your campsite.
- Campfires are not allowed in the park. You’ll need to have a backpacking stove for cooking/heating water, and if you come in cooler months will not be able to make a fire for heat.
- Bugs. Bugs, bugs, bugs. So many bugs. Everything I read prior to our trip warned about the bugs, so heed those warnings and then add a few more. Billy and I each found 5-6 ticks a piece on us. Fortunately we got to most of them before they burrowed, but still. Eek. In addition to mosquitos, biting flies, sand fleas, gnats, and any other type of nuisance you can think of. I make bug spray because I just cannot bring myself to use DEET, and we went through the entire bottle over the course of three days. We also love Murphy’s Citronella Sticks, although the ones I ordered did not arrive in time for us to take with us–I think they would have been a great help, and highly recommend bringing, if not those, something similar. Friday evening Billy and I actually dressed a little more than was comfortable for the heat just so more of our skin was protected from bugs.
- There are no trash facilities in the park. Anything you pack in, you pack out. This shouldn’t be difficult, but is something to prepare for.
- We cheated a little on the 9 miles. The Back Bay Visitor Center is actually 1.5 miles from Little Island City Park, where overnight campers are expected to leave their cars with their reservation number in their windshield. However, during daylight hours the visitor’s center is accessible by vehicle. So we drove in, unloaded the car, and I drove back and parked, then rode in that mile and a half unencumbered. We did the same thing on the way out. Not having to tow the trailers on a paved road with vehicle traffic, and cutting off that extra mile and a half was totally worth it.
- I asked the rangers if they ever allowed campers to use the shuttle in the case of persons with disabilities, and they said they have done it before, you just have to speak to the park manager to make special arrangements. So if not everyone in your family is able to make the 6-9 mile trek in, you have options to still enjoy this incredible park!
Overall Family Friendly Rating: 4.5/5. This might seem like a really high rating for a park that requires such a long hike/ride in, but hear me out. There’s an ocean. There are miles of open sand, where you might have a few other people at most, even at full occupation. The privies are extremely clean, the sites are beautiful and sandy, so even when not on the beach the kids have something to do. There are trails everywhere. I’m only even taking off half a point because it’s not something you can drive to which involves a little more planning for comfort, but as long as you have the means to get there, that actually makes it more family friendly to me. Fewer people around, no cars to worry about, SO much open space for kids to play in. So often in the more maintained campgrounds, I feel like kids get bored quickly–neighboring campsites are so close it’s hard for them to freely explore, and constant traffic presents a hazard. Our kids spent as much time playing in the sand on the path by our campsite as they did playing in the sand on the beach, and we could keep an eye on them from a distance rather than feeling the need to keep them close. If you have the means of getting here–either via bike, or backpacks to hike your kids in–I highly recommend bringing little ones to False Cape.