Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Kiptopeke State Park (Blog Hike #343)

Trails: Baywoods and Songbird Trails, et. al.
Hike Location: Kiptopeke State Park
Geographic Location: across the Chesapeake Bay from Norfolk, VA (37.16902, -75.98027)
Length: 4.4 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: April 2011
Overview: An interesting hike featuring woods, wildlife, and water in nearly equal portions.

Directions to the trailhead: The entrance to Kiptopeke State Park is located on the west side of US 13 about 5 miles north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (a worthy destination in its own right).  Enter the park, pay the entrance fee, and drive down the main park road.  Where the campground road leaves to the right, turn left and park in the gravel picnic area/trailhead parking lot.

The hike: Separated from the mainland by the vast Chesapeake Bay, the Delmarva Peninsula juts 250 miles south from the Wilmington, Delaware area roughly in the shape of a big foam finger (pointing downward).  The peninsula’s name comes from the state names of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia which share the peninsula’s land mass.  Only two routes allow cars to cross the bay onto the peninsula: the US 50 Bay Bridge near Washington DC and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT) out of Norfolk, Virginia.
While the northern two-thirds of the peninsula has been well-inhabited for centuries, the southern end remained rural and isolated until the opening of the CBBT in 1964.  At that point, US 13 became a feasible 100-mile shortcut for people and goods traveling from Philadelphia and points northeast to Hampton Roads and points south.  Today as you drive US 13 over/through the CBBT, you will see many license plates from New York and Massachusetts.
Before the CBBT, the Virginia Ferry Corporation operated a ferry service from Virginia Beach to a terminal now on the grounds of Kiptopeke State Park, the destination featured here.  The name Kiptopeke is Accawmack Indian for “big water,” an obvious reference to the park’s location on the Chesapeake Bay.  The park is still in the early stages of reforestation and development, but it already features a campground, several picnic areas, a popular fishing pier, and 4 miles of trails open to hiking and mountain biking.  This hike combines several of the park’s longer trails to explore every major point of interest in the park.
Gazebo at trailhead
The trailhead (a wooden post bearing trail signs) sits to the right of a gazebo near the rear of the parking area.  A pair of two-track dirt roads leave the trailhead: the Raptor Run Trail heads left while the Baywoods Trail heads right.  This hikes starts on the Baywoods Trail, which quickly reaches the Butterfly Garden, a collection of plants designed to lure butterflies.  On my visit, several swallowtail butterflies were fluttering around the area, but I saw similar butterflies at various points along the trail.  Thus, I can’t say the butterfly garden is particularly effective at luring butterflies.
Butterfly Garden
              The Baywoods Trail splits to form a loop at the Butterfly Garden.  This description will angle right here and (eventually) return on the trail heading left.  The flat, wide, sandy trail heads into the forest, which is a mixture of pines and broadleaf trees.  The trees here are not particularly large, but they are among the larger trees in the park.
At 0.3 miles, turn right to temporarily leave the Baywoods Trail and begin the Wood Warbler Boardwalk.  Very quickly you reach an astonishing sight for this area: a wooden staircase leading down a cliff!  The stairs are rather steep, and they lead from the higher, more stable sandy soil onto the more shifty sand dunes.  Where the boardwalk splits, turn left; the trail going right leads to the gift shop and fishing pier area.
Steps descending to beach area
            At 0.6 miles, the boardwalk leads over the final set of dunes and comes out onto a very nice beach along Chesapeake Bay.  Many beaches such as this one are crowded, but on my visit on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, only a couple of people strolled along the beach.  The fishing pier can be seen to the right, but this hike turns left to begin walking south along the beach.  The row of decaying ships you see in the bay to your right are 9 surplus World War II concrete ships which now serve as a breakwater for this beach.  I found a couple of shells while walking along the beach but nothing to gloat about.
Chesapeake Bay beach
After following the shoreline for 0.1 miles, look to your left for the Peregrine Boardwalk, our route back to the Baywoods Trail.  The Peregrine Boardwalk intersects the beach in much the same way as the Wood Warbler Boardwalk did.  There are no other routes off of the beach once you pass the Peregrine Boardwalk.  Before you leave the beach, look ahead around the curvature of the bay to the sandy cliffs; you will be atop those cliffs in a couple of miles.
Peregrine Boardwalk
              The Peregrine Boardwalk, named after the peregrine falcon, rises first through the dunes and then up some more steep steps to reach the Baywoods Trail.  To continue around the Baywoods loop, turn right.  The wide blue-blazed Baywoods Trail continues through the deep woods as it gradually curves to the right.
1 mile into the hike, the Baywoods Trail reaches a well-signed intersection with the Raptor Trail.  The Baywoods Trail heads back to the trailhead by turning left, and it could be used to make a short hike of only 1.4 miles.  To explore the more remote areas of the park, turn right and begin following the orange-blazed Raptor Trail.  The two-track Raptor Trail follows an old boundary line with the deep woods on your right and very young, densely growing pine trees forming a green and brown curtain on your left.
Hiking the Raptor Trail
            At 1.3 miles, you reach a major trail intersection.  The white-blazed Songbird Trail exits to the right, and we will eventually use it to reach the Bay Overlook.  For now, continue straight and walk the short 0.5 mile loop around Taylor Pond. 
Taylor Pond is a large “borrow pit:” fill dirt was taken from here to construct the CBBT.  Water has filled the resulting depression, and the area today teems with wildlife.  Two bird blinds allow you to view the wildlife, which included some red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, and an egret on my visit.  Spend some time at the blinds and see what you can see.
Taylor Pond
The pond is not the only item of interest on the Taylor Pond Trail.  On the east side of the pond lies a new forest planting that, in a few years, will provide a nice visual and audio barrier between you and US 13.  Most of this park used to be farm fields, and the area around the pond is still in the very early stages of succession.  On the north side of the pond lie a park building and a small garden, another interesting place to spend a few minutes.
After you have walked around the pond, return to the major trail intersection and begin the signed Songbird Trail.  After passing through a narrow strip of mature trees, the Songbird Trail forks to form its loop.  For the shortest route to the Bay Overlook, I turned right here to start the west arm of the loop and hike the loop counterclockwise.
Starting the Songbird Trail
            The west arm of the Songbird Trail stays along the crooked old boundary with the deep woods on your right and the young trees on your left.  The taller trees of the deep woods shade the trail on warm sunny afternoons.  At 2.4 miles, turn right on the red-blazed Mockingbird Trail to head into the deep woods and toward the Bay Overlook.  The Mockingbird Trail is the narrowest trail in the park, but it is still wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side.
Ignore the Chickadee Trail which exits left and continue straight to arrive at the Bay Overlook at 2.7 miles.  The view is spectacular, as the blue Chesapeake Bay ripples into the distance as far as the eye can see.  The cliffs you saw earlier from the beach lie between you and the bay, so don’t try to get another beach walk.  A wooden fence keeps you safely back from the cliff, and a bench provides an opportunity to sit and watch the bay.  This is the highlight and farthest point from the trailhead on the hike, so take some time to enjoy the view.
Bay Overlook
When you are done at the overlook, continue counterclockwise around the Mockingbird Trail.  At 3.1 miles, the Mockingbird Trail ends as you re-intersect the Songbird Trail at its most distant point.  Here you are right beside US 13 at a secondary parking area; a flashing sign for the CBBT can be seen overhead to the south.
You could choose either arm of the Songbird Trail for your return route.  The left (west) arm stays closer to the deep woods, but since you have already seen most of that side, I suggest you try the right arm, which heads straight into the young pine forest.  US 13 can be heard to the right for most of this segment.
3.4 miles into the hike, you reach the old farmhouse that used to be the center of operations for this land.  Today the house is almost a pile of wooden rubble with only the brick chimney still intact.  At 3.7 miles, the trail curves sharply left just before closing the Songbird Trail loop.  Turn right and then left to retrace your steps along the Raptor Trail.
Old Farmhouse
At 4.1 miles, you reach the second intersection with the Baywoods Trail.  You could continue straight ahead to remain in the young forest on the Raptor Trail, or if you prefer the deeper woods, a left turn on the Baywoods Trail will send you back into the taller trees. With either choice, an additional 0.3 miles of level walking will return you to the gazebo and picnic area to complete the hike.

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