With enough tidal rivers and bayside to rival any other ocean state in America, Virginia guarantees you’ll find a sandy shore to love. This August, rethink the typical beach daytrip, and explore some spots you may have yet to discover.
Back in 1607, Captain John Smith and his band of Englishmen grounded their ships at Cape Henry just a few miles north of Virginia Beach and planted a cross before making their way west up the mighty James River. Cape Henry will delight families with its serene beach and impressive history. Start with a tour and visit the nation’s first government-built lighthouse, completed in 1792 at the urging of George Washington. While you’re here, look for the Cape Henry cross that commemorates the first landing of the English voyagers. These historic sites are maintained within a military installation called Fort Story at the north end of Virginia Beach. Stay a while, enjoy the ocean view, and walk in the footsteps of the early colonists before heading to the adjacent Chesapeake Bay beaches.
Very close to Cape Henry, First Landing State Park is a fantastic place for family bike rides. Enter the park and the Cape Henry Trail at Sixty-Fourth Street and you’ll leave behind the bustling Virginia Beach streets for a magical trip into a cypress swamp. Along the easy, 6.3-mile trail, trees draped with Spanish moss create shady, forested spots to cool off on a hot beach day. Virginia is the northernmost state where Spanish moss grows. If you like to camp, the park provides more than 200 campsites along the Chesapeake Bay, but you must book early to get a spot. Two-bedroom cabins are also available by reservation.
Family adventurers looking for a wilderness experience near the ocean will want to visit the one mile-wide sandy barrier spit at False Cape State Park, which only allows vehicle access for environmental trips. Here, at the southeastern end of Virginia Beach, hiking in the soft sand is challenging. Take the easy route and sign on for a fee-based tram, the Blue Goose, which departs daily through Labor Day at 9 a.m. and returns to the Back Bay Wildlife Refuge at 1:00 p.m. Space is limited so arrive early to get a seat. The park offers nature and history programs and special events in cooperation with the Virginia Marine Science Center and Back Bay Wildlife Refuge. Wilderness camping is available at 12 sites which can only be reserved ahead of a trip. Visitors must bring two copies of a written Virginia State Parks reservation confirmation to be admitted to a camping site.
About mid-way between Richmond and Virginia Beach, two waterside communities, Hampton and Newport News, have nice beaches that appeal to families who appreciate the gentle, tidal waves that lap at the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and James River. Hampton’s Buckroe Beach has a three-quarter-mile sandy beach on the Bay with a park, walking and biking path, and children’s playground. Kayaks and paddleboats are available for rent. Nearby in Hampton, the Virginia Air and Space Museum and adjacent, ever-popular antique carousel create hours of fun for families who like to combine a beach visit with a little respite from the sun.
In Newport News, Huntington Park, with its 800-foot-long sandy beach and children’s swimming section, is filled with pleasure options for families. A summertime snack bar serves kid-friendly fare like chicken tenders, pizza, fountain drinks and ice cream. Tennis courts, a salt-water fishing pier, and children’s pier are available for sports lovers. Thanks to the impressive Huntington Park rose garden with its 75 spectacular varieties and a thousand bushes, the American Rose Society named Newport News an American Rose City.
Riverview Farm Park, about 15 minutes from Huntington Park, maintains a 30,000 sq. ft. community playground and a skate park. Skaters will love the quarter pipes, bank ramps, grind rails, and wedge flats here.
Countless family attractions should draw you to Newport News, from the impressive maritime collections at the Mariner’s Museum to the vast array of animal species at the Virginia Living Museum, which also houses a planetarium and observatory. This summer, the Mariner’s Museum hosts “Up Pops the Monitor,” a special pop culture exhibit about the renowned Civil War ironclad. The Virginia Living Museum showcases butterflies in a special exhibit through the first week of September. For Civil War and military history buffs, Newport News offers an array of attractions, including the Virginia War Museum, located adjacent to Huntington Park.
Head about an hour northeast of Richmond to Virginia’s Northern Neck where two saltwater beaches along the Potomac River cater to families. Colonial Beach and Westmoreland State Park beach both offer quiet, simple pleasures. Families love the gentle ebb and flow of the tides here along the wide, sandy stretch of Colonial Beach. A playground with climbing and swinging action is just three minutes from the beach. Consider renting a golf cart to zip you to restaurants, shops, and galleries in the village. For an historical diversion, check out the house Alexander Graham Bell owned about the time he invented the telephone. It faces the river.
Near Colonial Beach off Virginia Route 3 along the Potomac River is the wooded Westmoreland State Park where you will find your own little, teacup-shaped sandy shore. If you search hard enough, you might find prehistoric sharks’ teeth embedded in the sediment here. The park rents kayaks for use on the Potomac and also maintains a large, clean swimming pool just inland from the beach.
The Potomac and Rappahannock rivers contribute a restful ambience to the Northern Neck peninsula and large farms have kept this area virtually unchanged since colonial days. While you’re here be sure to visit the George Washington Birthplace National Monument with its colonial breeds of farm animals including oxen. Neighboring the Birthplace is Stratford Hall where Robert E. Lee was born. In nearby Oak Grove, stop by pick-your-own blackberry and raspberry heaven at Westmoreland Berry Farm where you’ll be greeted at the entrance by pet goats. As a bonus to filling baskets with berries, kids (the human kind) will get a kick out of the goats which scamper up and down a 20 ft. high walkway created by the farm owner.
Before summer ends and school is in session don’t miss the chance to enjoy at least one more daytrip to a new Virginia beach. Cape Henry, Hampton, Newport News, and the Northern Neck are all within two hours drive from Richmond, so follow the trails Captain Smith blazed, pack the sunscreen, and discover your own piece of Virginia’s sandy shores.
Sue Bland is a Richmond-based freelance writer and mother of two. She has written about the Blue Ridge Parkway, family camping destinations, indoor watery fun, and area ski resorts for RFM, all of which you can access online at RichmondFamilyMagazine.com.