Cartographic looks can be deceiving.
Certainly, this is the place to be with a paddle in your hands. Intimate creeks, mysterious swamps, expansive sounds, rich marshlands, the Atlantic Ocean — you’ll find everything here, even whitewater if you count surfing the waves (and you should). The website Kayak Virginia Beach lists 33 separate waterways in the region with 100 access points, while VisitVirginiaBeach.com reports that that city alone has more than 121 miles of navigable waterways, 35 miles of ocean and bay beaches, and more than 18,600 acres of state parks and wildlife refuges.
It’s a great place to be a novice kayaker, a great place to be a calloused vet. And it matters not whether you prefer to sit when you paddle or stand.
But there’s so much more.
If you’re a trail runner, you’re looking not at one or two decent places get in some miles: we’ve come up five top-notch venues with about 100 miles of trail. A hiker? Sure, it’s great to head to the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah for some of the best hiking in the country. But if you’ve only got the day you’ve got great options locally.
We’ve got one of the biggest municipal parks in the country (7,700-acre Newport News Park, with 30 miles of trail), a state park with great hiking that you have to hike to hike (False Cape State Park), and remote paddle trails that start in the middle of town
About the only thing the area doesn’t have is a mountain — or, rather, didn’t have, until Virginia Beach rectified the situation by converting a landfill into Mount Trashmore, now a 165-acre park popular with runners. No need to drive three hours for a hill workout.
In fact, no need drive far at all with so many options out your front door.
These nearby trail networks offer escapes ranging from a few hours to a few days. Lose yourself in the woods without losing your mind in traffic.
- Great Dismal Swamp NWR, Suffolk. You needn’t drive for a couple hours to lose yourself in the woods; simply head to Suffolk and hang a left. Miles of natural surface trail named for, and following the ditches that once tried to drain the 175-square-mile swamp offer multiple days of deep escape. More info here.
- False Cape State Park, Virginia Beach. Who doesn’t love a park that plays hard-to-get-to? The best way to get to False Cape is via a three-mile hike from the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Once in the park, the 6.2-mile Sand Ridge Trail runs its length (to the North Carolina state line), with numerous short side trails venturing to the beach or into the maritime woods. More info here.
- Northwest River Park, Chesapeake. Need some added incentive for your hiking-reluctant friends or family? How about a round of miniature golf? Or a canoe trip? Once you’re at the park, the nearly eight miles of trail take you into wetlands and along three rivers — Smith and Indian creeks, and Northwest River — where the reluctant will be converted. More info here.
- Merchants Millpond State Park, Gatesville, N.C. Merchants Millpond is known for its paddling on the bald cypress- and tupelo-pocked 760-acre millpond, but the park also has nine miles of trail that take you through the its varied eco-systems. Good birding opportunities as well, with more than 200 species spending all or part of their time in the park. About an hour’s drive. More info here.
- Pocahontas State Park, Chesterfield. OK, so this stretches the “nearby” claim. But in just two hours you’ll find 80 miles of trail in 8,000-acre Pocahontas State Park. Some trail is shared with mountain bikers, some with equestrians, but most are limited to hikers. Lots of options for a long day or three on the trail (yes, there’s camping). More info here.
These trails offer the opportunity for long (or short) runs on foot-friendly tread through scenic terrain: a combination that will make the miles fly by.
- First Landing State Park, Virginia Beach. It’s hard to imagine a better place to run, for beginners and marathoners alike. The foot-friendly natural surface trails (save for a mile or so of pavement on the 6.1-mile Cape Henry Trail) are smooth and offer just enough up and down (again, save for Cape Henry) to make a run entertaining. Scenic, too, passing through bald cypress swamps, over forested dunes, and along open water. More info here.
- Great Dismal Swamp NWR, Chesapeake, Suffolk. The Chesapeake side of the swamp is anchored by the 8.3-mile Dismal Swamp Canal Trail, a k a Old Route 17 (it’s paved), the Suffolk side is where you can loose yourself on a series of mostly connected, natural surface ditch trails, the bulk of which can be accessed at the end of Jericho Lane. Flat, good surface for running. More info here.
- Indian River Park, Chesapeake. What a great use of 91 linear acres. No more than 100 yards wide, the park runs along a small creek and offers remarkable insulation from the urban world beyond. Several miles of frisky trail roll through hardwoods and pines. Share the trail here with BMXers who like the quick rollers for acrobatic purposes. More info here.
- Sandy Bottom Nature Park, Hampton. Twelve miles of flat, well-tended trail explore this 456-acre park that, not all that long ago, was a dump — literally. Today, the only evidence of its past are its scenic lakes, which resulted from pre-dump sand mining. Quick access from adjoining I-64 and Hampton Roads Center Parkway. More info here.
- Newport News Park, Newport News. This remarkable 7,700-acre city park offers just about every recreational opportunity, from archery to golf to a remote-control airplane field. It also offers 30 miles of trail: a popular run is the 5.3-mile natural surface bike trail out of the campground, which connects with at least twice as many miles of hiking/running-only trail. Flat trail through forest dominated by pines. More info here.
Talk about variety! With so much water, both intimate and open, and so much access, it will take a lot of paddling to exhaust your options.
- Northwest River Park, Chesapeake. Everyone, it seems, paddles — except you. Whatever the reason, you can see what all the fuss is about in the safe confines of Lake Lesa and the quiet waterway that explores the interior of the park. $6 for an hour’s worth of discovery. (If you have your own boat, ramps off Indian Creek Road and Baum Road let you explore the waters of Indian and Smith creeks, and Northwest River, which border the park. More info here.
- Back Bay NWR: Contact Station put-in, Virginia Beach. If you like kayaking open, but protected waters, the access at the Visitor Station for Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge offers hours of intimate marsh paddling in this 9,000-acre preserve. If you’re equipped for cold-weather you’ll be further rewarded by the tundra swans, snow geese, red-breasted mergansers and other waterfowl that spend the winter here. More info here.
- Carolanne Farm Park, Virginia Beach. Virginia Beach has a number of Clark Kent-to-Superman access points: drive through a mild-mannered neighborhood, pull to the side of the road and moments later emerge as Kayak Guy! (or Gal!) on the north branch of the Elizabeth River — a stretch of the river that’s about as intimate as the Elizabeth gets. Quick access, close to home. More info here.
- Stumpy Lake Natural Area, Virginia Beach. This may be the only natural area you’ll find with a golf course, though that’s not what we like about this beginner-friendly paddle. One, it is beginner friendly, a 278-acre lake with a nook or two to explore. And, you don’t need a boat: Wild River Outfitters has seasonal kayak rentals starting at $21 for two-hours of one-seater paddling. More info here.
- Dozier’s Bridge/West Neck Creek, Virginia Beach. Many access points in the area are open to motor boats as well. Not this one. A quiet put-in, a quiet paddle on intimate West Neck Creek. Caveat: low water (this, like many waterways in the area, is tidal influenced) can be an issue; check before heading out. More info here.
With so many great SUP opportunities in the Virginia Beach area, these stand out because they’re on protected water, are in areas with few or no motor boats, and are frequented by other stand-up paddleboarders.
- Back Bay NWR, west side, off Horn Point Road, Virginia Beach. Marsh paddling on protected creeks and inlets is the big draw here on windy days. On calm days, head out onto Back Bay and enjoy the open water. A seasonal put-in; closed during winter months for migrating waterfowl. More info here.
- First Landing State Park, 64th Street, Virginia Beach. Most of the motorboat traffic at this popular park is found above The Narrows; put in just south, off 64th Street, and paddle the extensive waters of Linkhorn Bay, where you’ll find both big water and intimate nooks and crannies. More info here.
- Hutton Circle Launch, Virginia Beach. Hutton Circle is another of Virginia Beach’s “here’s-a-slice-of-land-leading-to-the-water/let’s-build-an-access” innovations. It’s a short walk on pavement from the limited cul-de-sac parking to a put-in on the Lynnhaven River, where you have two options: head north to bigger water, south for more intimate paddling. More info here.
- Oceanfront, Virginia Beach. Let’s face it: flat water SUPing is fun, but at some point you’ll want to see what standup paddleboarding is really about. When that time comes, head to any one of the regional public beach access points. An especially good bet: Virginia Beach’s Little Island Park, where a 775-foot beach north of the pier is dedicated to surfing (swimmers have the 2,000 feet to the south). More info here.
- Back Creek Park, York County. Provides access to the mouth of the York River and the Chesapeake Bay beyond. For a nice long paddle (7.5 miles) head out to the Goodwin Islands, lap ‘em, head back. More info here.