False Cape State Park: Bike, Hike & Camp for the Win in Virginia Beach

If you’ve not yet been to False Cape State Park in Virginia Beach, let me let you in on a little secret. The absolute best way to explore this state park is on two wheels.

I first visited this coastal state park in September. I took the Blue Goose Tram in from Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, but let me first take a few steps back.

You cannot drive to False Cape State Park. Instead, you must park your car at Back Bay, then walk, bike or take the tram four miles to the visitor center.

The visitor center is on the far north end of False Cape State Park, which means that from here you have access to only a few trails and overlooks. At least, on foot.

Taking the Tram

The Blue Goose Tram runs between Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park. It departs at 9 am and arrives back at Back Bay at 1 pm.

The open-air tram does not run every single day. From April to Memorial Day and from Labor Day through October, the tram runs on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

During peak season – from Memorial Day through Labor Day – the tram runs on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

You must make reservations to take the tram by calling 757-426-7128. The tram costs $8/adult. There is also a $5/car fee to enter Back Bay.

At False Cape, you can get off at the visitor center or continue on to Wash Woods Cemetery. There are restrooms and for-purchase snacks at the visitor center.

If you get off the tram, you have 3.5 hours to explore the state park (from 9:15 am to 12:45 pm). You can hike any of the following trails in this window:

#1: Marsh Ridge Trail: This is the gravel road you came in on on the tram. It’s a .7-mile walk (one-way) with wetlands on both sides and an observation deck.

#2: Barbour Hill Trail: From the visitor center, walk east on a .7-mile gravel trail (one-way) that turns into sand. You will see camp sites and the ocean. 

#3: Sandy Point Trail: From the visitor center, take the Barbour Hill Trail west to the Sandy Point Trail to enjoy relaxing bayside views (less than 2 miles).

#4: South Inlet Trail: Take the Sand Ridge Trail to the South Inlet Trail to reach an observation point and peaceful bayside views (less than 2 miles).

The first two trails are  sunny, while the second two trails are shaded. Regardless of the trail(s) you choose, be sure to slather on sunscreen and bug spray.

If you choose to stay on the tram, you will proceed to the Wash Woods Church and Cemetery on the south side of False Cape State Park.

From the drop-off point, it’s a .5-mile walk on the Cemetery Trail to reach a small cemetery. You will also see the remains of a church steeple (now enclosed).

The park ranger who drove the tram will share the history of the Wash Woods Settlement, which had a population as large as 300 in the early 20th-century.

After the guided history lesson, the tram will return to the visitor center. Settle in on a rocking chair on the covered wrap-around porch.

For those eager for more time, consider taking the tram in to the park, then walking back to Back Bay. The fee is the same whether one-way or round-trip.

Walking to the State Park

Given time limitations of the Blue Goose Tram, many False Cape visitors choose to walk in on the easy, scenic (and very flat) gravel trail from Back Bay.

The path (a service road, really) begins to the left of the Back Bay Visitor Center. This is the West Dike Trail. After about .1-mile, the trail splits, East and West.

In the spring, use the East Dike Trail. In the fall, use the West Dike Trail. Both lead to entrances, and only one is open at a time. Both are closed November to March.

As noted above, it’s about four miles to the False Cape Visitor Center. It’s a very easy hike on a flat gravel trail.

On arrival, snap a photo of the gram-worthy “Southernmost Virginia State Park” buoy. Or, maybe pop in the gift shop for an ice cream bar and a park souvenir.

From here, your best bets in terms of hiking trails are the four listed above given their proximity to the visitor center. Then, it’s a four-mile hike back to Back Bay.

There is no fee to enter False Cape State Park. However, there is a $5/car fee to enter and park at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Biking to the State Park

At last, I have reached my favorite way to explore this state park. For real, the only way to go is to see this park on two wheels.

Similar to instructions for walking into the park, pedal along the East Dike Trail or West Dike Trail, depending on the time of year.

It’s a scenic ride through the wetlands. Enjoy the breeze and the views. When you reach the visitor center, there is a bike rack as well as a bike tire pump.

There are several areas to explore, but it’s best to start on the Sand Ridge Trail. This 6+ mile gravel trail runs north to south along the length of the park.

Note that you will not be able to reach the far south end of the park unless you have fat bike tires, though there is a caveat to that (an asterisk, maybe).

You will only be able to reach the Wash Woods Church. After this, the sand becomes very loose and impassable with average bike tires.

However, the caveat is this. If you time it right, and set out or return at low tide, you can bike on a hard-packed sand beach. Just something to keep in mind.

To access the hard-packed sand beach, you will need to walk your bike down an access path of very loose sand. For at least one-quarter-mile. Not super fun.

My bike has gravel bike tires, so they weren’t very good on the loose sand. I opted not to bike on the beach and simply turned around after Wash Woods.

Along the Sand Ridge Trail, there are a couple of bike racks, including at Wash Woods. You can park your bike and walk on select trails, like the Cemetery Trail.

On the return trip along the Sand Ridge Trail, I made side trips east and west on the False Cape Landing Trail to see the bay and ocean side camp sites.

You’ll note on the trail map that there are several overlooks that stem off the Sand Ridge Trail. These can make nice stops, but not all are well-maintained.

The most impressive stretch of the Sand Ridge Trail is between Pintail Overlook and Wood Duck Overlook. The views across Spratts Cove are breathtaking.

Once you return to the visitor center, take the Barbour Hill Trail west to connect with the Sandy Point Trail. Savor sunset views from the bay side campground.

Following your two-wheeled explorations, exit the park to return to Back Bay.

Backpacking or Bike Camping

There’s one more way to enjoy False Cape State Park. That’s by spending the night in a camp site at one of four primitive campgrounds in the state park.

It’s important to note, however, that you cannot park at Back Bay if you plan to leave your car overnight. Instead, you must park at Little Island City Park.

Little Island City Park is roughly 1.5 miles from Back Bay. To enter the wildlife refuge on foot or two wheels, the fee is $2 (rather than $5 when entering in a car).

To camp overnight, make a reservation by phone by calling 800-933-PARK. You cannot book a camp site online. You cannot make a same-day reservation.

I know, it’s a bit restrictive. Once you make a reservation, you will receive a confirmation letter by email. You will need to print out two copies.

The fee is $20/resident and $25/non-resident per camp site. Place one copy of the confirmation letter on your dashboard when you park at Little Island City Park.

Keep the other copy of the confirmation letter with you. But, before you make a reservation, you need to know which campground to choose. Here’s the scoop:

* Barbour Hill Bay (1-10): These 10 sites are mostly shaded and private, but those closest to the bay have no shade and are in a more common area.

* Barbour Hill Ocean (11-20): These 10 sites are all shaded and enclosed in live oaks. It’s less than a five-minute walk to the beach.

* First Cape Landing Ocean (21-30): These 10 sites are nearly identical to, but flatter than, Barbour Hill Ocean, and are also a short walk to the beach.

* First Cape Landing Bay (31-40): These 10 sites are large and grassy, but afford little privacy. These were my least favorite camp sites.

All four campgrounds have a potable water spigot, as well as a male and female privy. All camp sites have a picnic table and a lantern post. No fire rings.

Barbour Hill Ocean and Barbour Hill Bay are both seven miles from Little Island City Park.

The next two campgrounds – First Cape Landing Ocean and First Cape Landing Bay – are just over eight miles on foot or two wheels.

In my opinion, the Barbour Hill camp sites are the best, both ocean side and bay side. If only because they are a shorter walk or pedal from Little Island City Park.

For those opting for ocean side sites, you can pitch your tent on the beach. From the camp sites, it’s about a five-minute walk to the beach.

Reflectors are set up at the beach access point. Grab two and place them on either side of your tent (north and south) so your tent can be seen in the dark.

I camped out on the beach and it was ah-mazing. Highly recommend. The sun is immediately due east from the beach. It’s as if the sun is rising just for you.

Note that campfires are not allowed on the beach or at the camp sites. You can, however, use a portable stove for cooking.