Brownsville Preserve: A Coastal Hike Across Salt Marshes in Nassawadox

On a recent trip to hike coastal trails on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, my 13 y.o. daughter and I stopped to explore Brownsville Preserve in Nassawadox.

Brownsville Preserve is the headquarters for The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve. You’ll find 1,000+ acres of habitats, including wooded uplands and tidal marshes.

A 3.0-mile hike on the William B. Cummings Birding and Wildlife Trail exposes visitors to salt marshes, hardwood forest, tidal creeks, even retired agricultural fields.

A printed trail guide allows you to read up on what you will see on the trail, as well as learn all about the nature preserve as you hike across the landscape.

Trail Stats 
Length3.0 miles
DifficultyEasy
Trail TypeOut-and-Back
Elevation Gain16 feet
Duration1-2 hours
TerrainMostly grass, sand & gravel trails, some wooden boardwalk
Dog-FriendlyYes (except during hunting season)
FeeFree
Driving DirectionsClick Here

Arriving at the Trailhead

You’ll find the parking area for Brownsville Preserve about half-way down Brownsville Road, a small country road in Nassawadox (25 minutes north of Cape Charles).

Look for the Trail Parking sign on the right. You’ll also see a large trail kiosk with printed trail maps, scavenger hunts for kids and guides to the Virginia Coast Reserve.

At the front of the small parking area, you’ll see a sign welcoming you to the William B. Cummings Birding and Wildlife Trail. The trail begins to the left of this large sign.

The First Steps

The hike starts on a mostly grass and gravel path, but quickly transforms into a narrow boardwalk that’s just three boards wide.

On the elevated wooden boardwalk, you will traverse salt marshes dominated by salt-tolerant wax myrtles, high-tide bushes and eastern redcedars.

As you continue along, you will enter a mature pine-hardwood forest made up of loblolly pines, white oaks, sweet gums and black cherry trees.

Finally, tall salt marsh grasses, including saltmeadow cordgrass and narrowleaf cattail, are found along the boardwalk as it comes to an end at the .2-mile mark.

Turn right onto the trail (more like a service road) made up of gravel, sand and crushed oyster shells. Retired farm lands turn up on the left side of the trail.

Following crop failures from 2000 to 2006 due to saltwater intrusion, the fields were retired. Native trees and shrubs have since been planted to restore forested habitats.

Near the .9-mile mark, you may see the effects of flooding from Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Many of the mature pines were killed by salt water that flooded the area.

As you continue along, you will see man-made wetlands on the left, including a small pond that attracts black-crowned night herons and common egrets.

At the 1.0-mile mark, keep walking straight ahead to see a screen house on the right, then a wooden observation deck across the clearing.

Climb a few stairs to enjoy a wide-reaching vista across the marsh. Keep your eyes open for egrets and waterfowl. It’s hard to believe, but cattle once grazed here.

Weathered cedar fence posts can be seen across the marsh, evidence that cows once grazed on the native saltmeadow cordgrass.

Re-trace your steps from the observation deck and turn left at the screen house to proceed on the hike. At the 1.7-mile mark, you will see a kayak launch and tidal creek views.

Here you can enjoy views across Phillips Creek and associated tidal marshes. There are three zones, including high marsh, low marsh and open water.

Continue walking alongside Phillips Creek. At the 2.0-mile mark, you will re-connect with the hiking trail. Turn left to re-trace your steps to the parking area.

Wrap-Up Notes

From the parking area, this Coastal Virginia hike took us just over one hour, including time spent looking out across the marsh from the observation deck.

Note that leashed pets are allowed, but no pets may enter Brownsville Preserve during hunting season – from October through early-January.

Visitor hours are also limited during hunting season. During this time, visitors are welcome between 9 am and 3 pm.