Nestled between rural homesteads, soybean fields and the loblollies that cradle the York River around 10 miles northwest of Williamsburg, modern explorers will find one of Virginia’s spectacular natural achievements: York River State Park.
High on a bluff between West Point and Yorktown, at the tiny town of Croaker, about 2,500 acres of field and forest give way to salt marsh meadows and, ultimately, the York River. As a result, York River State Park is home to an unusual collection of natural communities, wildlife and exemplary coastal habitats not often experienced in a single location.
It is more than just a natural marvel. Ongoing work is unraveling the rich tapestry of human settlement which influenced, and was influenced by, those natural features over the centuries.
One of the first things to catch the eye will be the lush gardens leading to the rustic Visitor Center. The Native Virginia Wildflower Garden features species—wild columbine, bloodroot and wild ginger, for example—that not only smell and look good, but also attract wildlife and conserve water. Even mountain laurel, normally found at much higher elevations, thrives here because of the rich marl deposits left by marine fossils in the soil.
The entranceway offers a teaching moment about conservation for everyone passing by. Maintained by volunteers, this spectacular garden and others on the site help to explain why this particular park has earned a nickname across the state as the “environmental park.”
It is now part of the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, and park manager Russell Johnson said the designation will create opportunities to tell visitors about the park’s heritage, as well as how it is influenced by the Bay.
The park has much information to draw upon, having enjoyed a long partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Taskinas Creek, which snakes through a rich estuarine and salt marsh community, is part of one of four research stations in NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve–Virginia system. Research at the site, which is administered by Willy Reay of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, is aimed at improving the understanding of the functions of an estuary—the tidal areas where fresh water meets sea water. Scientists are not the only ones who benefit: Reay said that the partnership between the reserve and the park has enhanced the outreach efforts of both entities.
Indeed, Taskinas Creek serves as a popular outdoors laboratory for environmental education. The creek teems with students from across the state in the fall and spring.
Chief ranger Brad Thomas incorporates local history and ecology into their salt marsh experiences. He delights in sharing with students how Native Americans used cordgrass to bundle thatch for houses or how they applied mud to their bodies to mask body heat and naturally repel insects.
But it is the water that has drawing power: The park’s most sought-after education programs involve canoeing or kayaking Taskinas Creek in daylight or by light of the full moon.
For those who want to enjoy the outdoors but worry that they may lack the required skills, York River State Park has introduced a new program this summer called “Outdoors for Beginners.” This monthly feature provides a two-hour orientation covering the basics of what the park has to offer: paddling instructions, how to use and maneuver a canoe or kayak, planning a hiking or paddling trip, estimating distance, for example. The idea is to give potential participants the confidence needed to try something new.
And with more than 26 miles of trails—for equine, hiking and mountain bike use— a lot of outdoors enthusiasts are drawn to the park in search of the solitude found within deep forest cover. Others grab their tackle box and head for a number of angling opportunities: freshwater fishing in the 7-acre pond, fishing at Croaker Landing on the newly constructed pier, or fishing from a boat launched at the landing. “There’s something going on every weekend during the summer months; usually, a morning hike followed by an afternoon fishing tournament,” Thomas said.
Weekend programs are augmented by camps and special activities throughout the summer—including a new event for dog lovers that lets owners show off their canine’s quirky talents and tricks. Other events include bike races, a trails day, night explorations and the park’s signature celebration—Estuaries Day—at the end of summer. This daylong festival brings into focus the park’s mission of environmental education and outreach, reminding all who visit of the delicate nature of estuaries.
Set for Sept. 22, this year’s festival marks the 20th anniversary of Estuaries Day. Natural resource agencies and conservation groups across Virginia will converge on the park to showcase Bay-related research and education programs.
As co-host, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science plays a pivotal role in the event, offering seining opportunities to net creatures from the creek as well as excursions aboard their research vessels. And with the exception of food and parking, everything at the park is free on Estuaries Day.
All of these programs and related support are made possible by a potent volunteer force. At present, more than 60 people contribute their energies and talents either year-round or on a seasonal basis, performing tasks from trail maintenance and water monitoring to grass cutting and gardening. “We’ll gladly accept the help, and we will find a use for you!” said Mary Apperson, volunteer coordinator at the park. Many volunteers also belong to the Friends of York River State Park, a local nonprofit that exists solely to support the park through deeds and financial assistance for discrete projects.
The need for volunteers may mushroom with the advent of archaeological digs under way. That work is being spearheaded by staffer Jerome Traver, who was a longtime volunteer at the park and always curious about the history of the property. A professional archaeologist and keen observer, Traver made a series of discoveries during his hikes through the park that ultimately led to the uncovering of paleo-Indian artifacts, a Colonial plantation and a 19th-century plantation.
His digs this summer are helping to fill in the missing pieces of the history of Taskinas Plantation—site of a 17th and 18th century tobacco warehouse.
Much of his research is obtained from old church records maintained in the local library, or from post-Civil War tax records and land deeds. (Earlier records were burned.) Through careful analysis, Traver has stitched together a history of the park from roughly 1750 to present. He has uncovered the brick foundations of several structures belonging to former plantation owners, farm overseers and slaves for three distinct time frames.
The first dates to 17th-century owner, Richard Clarke, who built his plantation home close to the riverbank. Gun flint, pottery remains and hand-forged nails are just some of the artifacts found at the site. Clarke lived in the area during the days of Bacon’s Rebellion, when frustrated settlers on the frontier rose up against the colonial government in Jamestown.
Fast-forward to 1750, when John Blair occupied the plantation. Blair was a brick mason and helped to construct the first and second capital buildings in Williamsburg. On his death in 1771, the property passed to his son, John Blair Jr., who became an influential man in Virginia politics. The younger Blair was one of the three Virginia signers of the U.S. Constitution, and was appointed by George Washington to the nation’s first Supreme Court.
A third discovery in the vicinity dates to 1817, when son-in-law James Henderson occupied the land.
Trevor’s excitement over these developments is contagious, and while still in the early stages, promises to add a new dimension to the park as a tourist destination. It is just one more reason to discover York River State Park.
York River State Park
York River State Park is open 8 a.m. until dusk year-round. The “interpretive season” for programs/events runs from April 1 through October. Croaker Landing—the fishing pier and boat launch—opens at 6 a.m. from May 1 through Labor Day.
Directions: From Interstate 64, take the Croaker Exit 231B. Go north on Route 607 (Croaker Road) for one mile, then right on Route 606 (Riverview Road) about one and a half miles to the park entrance. Take a left turn into the park.
For information about York River State Park, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, call 757-566-3036, or visit www.dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/yor.shtml
For information about Taskinas Creek and the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve–Virginia, visit www.vims.edu/cbnerr/reservesites/taskinas.htm.