Best natural areas to visit on Virginia/Delaware coast?
August 24, 2022 8:45 PM   Subscribe

I have 2.5 days to drive from NC to Baltimore, detouring along the Virginia and Delaware coasts. The map shows a ton of nature preserves, reserves, refuges, beaches and such, and I could use some help sorting through the various options. Which spots are best for birding in Sept? For dolphins? Shells and marine life on the beach? Unusually beautiful sights? Neat science-y stuff?

Mostly looking to swim in the ocean and hike to see natural beauty and wildlife on this quick trip, but there are so many options and I know nothing about the area. I figure on day 1 I'll be around Virginia Beach where the map shows First Landing State Park, Cape Charles Natural Area Preserve, Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge, Assateague Island, Mutton Hunk Fen Wildlife Preserve, etc. Day 2 and half of day 3 will probably take me north where the map shows Delaware Seashore State Park, Bethany Beach, Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Cape Henlopen State Park, etc. Any experiences or tips or just preferences for the natural opportunities in those areas would be much appreciated. Thanks, y'all.
posted by mediareport to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oops, should have mentioned Maryland, too. Maryland coast, too!
posted by mediareport at 8:59 PM on August 24, 2022

Best answer: For birding, Bombay Hook NWR in Delaware is incredible for shorebirds plus bonus foresty birds, the loop is mostly driving with some brief walks. Recommend going around multiple times as you’ll find different species, and be prepared for bitey insects depending on the day.
posted by tangaroo at 9:28 PM on August 24, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is probably on your list, but wild horses at Assateague. I was there over Labor Day weekend a few years ago and was shocked how much of the place I had to myself. Cape Henlopen didn’t do much for me, but I might not have seen enough to give it a fair shot.
posted by jameaterblues at 10:08 PM on August 24, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge, Assateague Island

This I can highly recommend. Deer, wild horses, birds of many kinds, maybe marine mammals. Water should be warm enough to jump in or at least wade. Stay at the Channel Bass Inn if it is still there.

The Goddard space center is sort of on your way from there to Baltimore.
posted by vrakatar at 10:49 PM on August 24, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding Chincoteague/assateague. Bring bug spray, and prepare for biting flies on some of the forest trails at assateague.

nasa wallops visitor center is nearby. Limited hours but cool little museum to poke around.
posted by TheAdamist at 3:59 AM on August 25, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The Delmarva Peninsula is part of the Atlantic Flyway, a major route for migrating birds. Searching bird watching websites will probably turn up info for what birds are going by while you are there, and good lookouts. Some of the flocks are unbelievably huge.

Possibly a downside, duck hunting is big in those parts for the same reasons. I'm not sure when the hunting seasons begin and end.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:07 AM on August 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's further south than you are probably considering, but the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia is spectacular. It also has a pretty fascinating history as a refuge for escaped slaves before the Civil War.
posted by veery at 6:07 AM on August 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: +1 for Chincoteague.

Assateague Island is a barrier island and you can access it from the North (the Maryland Side) or the south (the Virginia side, via Chincoteague). You can hike, bike, swim, birdwatch at Chincoteague end - and also see the wild horses (meh) - but also you have the town should you want coffee, dinner, ice cream. The thing about Chincoteague, as compared to Ocean City and the Delaware beaches, is that the beach is part of the refuge, so there's no condo buildup along the shore itself. It's a very natural setting and IMHO a much more pleasant day on the beach than anywhere else on the mid-atlantic shoreline.

Also - it attracts more birders and fishing than straight summer vacationing, so it's not as swamped with chain restaurants, starbucks, CVS/Target. It's a lot more independent and seasonal eating. It's what going to the shore would have been like in the 50s/60s. What the Hamptons were before money found them.

Refuge Inn is a good place to stay on the island.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 6:43 AM on August 25, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here's another vote for Bombay Hook. It's one of my favorite places on earth.
posted by mcduff at 8:28 AM on August 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another option might be Calvert Cliffs State Park in Maryland for fossil shark teeth.
posted by gudrun at 6:09 PM on August 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, y'all, these are very helpful answers. I'm thinking a day each at the Great Dismal Swamp and Chincoteague (birding while kayaking sounds perfect) works for this trip, and will definitely save Bombay Hook for another trip when I have more than a day to get there and see it; it sounds wonderful and I'm thinking I should plan something a bit longer around there.

Calvert Cliffs looks very cool; I nosed around and some reviews seem to be saying nearby Flag Ponds Nature Park is actually better for finding shark teeth and other fossils; is that anyone's experience? I guess the fossils get washed up every morning so early is better?

The whole area looks fascinating and I'm seeing history sites that seem worth exploring, too - The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, e.g. Anyone been to either of those? I may just make this detour a regular part of visiting the relatives for a while.
posted by mediareport at 6:35 PM on August 28, 2022

A friend who spent about 3 weeks cruising Chesapeake Bay in his sailboat left me with the impression that there is a marine museum in every port of any significance. However, CBMM is the best known. I've only been there once, and that was for a special event of interest to me, so I don't have that much to add, but I'd suggest you look over the info on their website to see if there is anything of special interest to you.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:00 AM on August 29, 2022

Response by poster: Hi, y'all. Thanks again for the answers. I ended up spending the first day at Chincoteague, where I saw a ton of egrets and herons and other beautiful birds, and enjoyed the quiet, undeveloped beach there at Tom's Cove, which has a fairly steep slope and nice waves coming in. Beautiful spot. The Picaridin insect repellent I used (thanks to this Wirecutter page) kept the bugs at a minimum when hiking the nearby trails. The 2nd day I went to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, which was really great, and then up to Cambridge MD to see the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, which was good, and the neat Tubman mural nearby, as well as the mural of local luminary women that has Harriet Tubman next to a fabulous-looking Bea Arthur.

I've got Bombay Hook and other spots above on my list for future visits, so thanks again to everyone for the neat info.
posted by mediareport at 11:24 AM on September 25, 2022

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