I'm thinking hard about those first vulnerable colonists who sailed across the Atlantic in 1607 as I cross the 23-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. I struggle to keep our pick-up truck, laden with bicycles and sea kayaks in my designated lane as I keep stealing glances at the startlingly wide Bay and the 4-foot swells smashing against the pylons.
This is only the mouth of the great Chesapeake. For nearly half an hour, we skirt above the water, flirting with the Atlantic Ocean, far from the safe earth. When the land of Cape Henry comes into view, it is a sweet sight, as it must have been for those first sailors.
Our destination is First Landing State Park, the site where the English ships-Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery-finally reached the North American continent after four months of sailing. They were destined to establish the New World's first permanent English colony in Jamestown. But Cape Henry came first, and First Landing State Park -Virginia's most visited state park-celebrates this historic event.
Although its rich cultural history first led the commonwealth in 1931 to designate this chunk of wild land near Virginia Beach one of its first state parks, the natural history is what makes it shine. The park, part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, is 2,888-acres of wilderness with 1.25 miles of unspoiled beach.
The park's Chesapeake Bay Center contains a history museum that tells the story of the first permanent English settlers. Life-size figures are paired with excerpts from the published accounts of English explorer George Percy, one of the expedition's leaders. The displays pose questions: "Do you think the dense forest looked like this in 1607?"
A wooden box simulating the sealed one carried by the colonists across the Atlantic is on display. It contained instructions and a series of documents that led to the first English government in the New World.
The Center provides visitors with a background to the park and includes a wet lab and aquariums operated by the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. But it is the park's more than 20 miles of trails that quickly lure visitors outdoors.
First Landing contains natural habitats found nowhere else in the state. It is the most northern location where subtropical and temperate plants thrive together. There are many rare and endangered species found here, which led to portions of the park being designated a National Natural Landmark in 1965.
The Bald Cypress Trail is one of the best places to discover this great variety of nature. The 1.5-mile trail winds through a cypress swamp. Knobby knees of cypress protrude through the murky waters, marbleized in a swirl of milky yellow pollen. Below, the dark water is stained from tannin, a "dye" that naturally occurs in the leaves and wood of acidic plants and trees.
After the First Landing, subsequent sailing ships anchored here, replenishing their water supply with the brown water, which contained less bacteria and stayed fresher on long voyages.
The Branches Trail is festooned with beards of gray Spanish moss, hanging from trees like the morbid decorations of a troll's lair. Boardwalks lead through this eerie wonderland to observation decks. Trails covered with soft, apricot-colored needles wind through stands of loblolly pines. The forest has live oaks and cypress pines which, according to surveys, are swiftly dwindling, the result of development pressure.
This is the home of the rare barking tree frog, the eastern big-eared bat, the chicken turtle and the Virginia Beach Bug, which is found nowhere else on the planet. In total, there are four rare vertebrates, 20 rare invertebrates and 21 rare plants. Out of the 14 distinct natural communities found here-eight terrestrial, six aquatic-eight are considered rare in Virginia and three are globally rare.
The park loans, free of charge, backpacks containing 20 items such as guidebooks, a magnifier, binoculars, an electronic bird song player, a journal and critter-catching jars to young naturalists for up to seven days.
Backpacks cover different themes. My son, Bryce, borrowed a swamp-themed backpack. He read aloud to our group from the trails' nature guide. Eighteen information stations along the way deepened our understanding of and appreciation for the cypress swamp and upland maritime forest. We stopped to look for turtles and watch a green heron hunt.
Walkers, cyclists and runners use the 6-mile Cape Henry Multi-Use Trail. A national running magazine rated it as one of the best-kept secrets for a cross-country running destination.
Bicyclists who have not brought their own bikes can rent them from the park store.
The first part of this trail is blacktopped and passes through a replica Chesapeake Indian Village, newly opened in 2007 in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown. There are longhouses, council lodges, fish-drying racks and dugout canoes to stop and examine. These provide an insight into the lives of the Chesapeake Indians, whose name means "Mother of Water."
A culturally significant site is found off the Cape Henry Trail, where the remains of 64 natives, dating from between 800 B.C. and A.D. 1600, have found a permanent resting place. They were unearthed from a Chesapeake Indian village in Virginia Beach in the 1970s and 1980s, stored at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in Richmond, then re-interred in the park in 1997. These Chesapeake natives lived in what is now the Great Neck area, not far from where the first English settlers landed on the shores of Cape Henry.
The English referred to the swampy, inner land of the present park as "the desert" because it was unfit for tillage. The Cape Henry Trail, which traverses the heart of this "desert," is surfaced with hard-packed sand, making it excellent for cycling and cushioned running. The trail passes over a wooden bridge spanning a salt marsh, where visitors can pause to scout for nesting ospreys. After crossing 64th Street, the trail extends through sand dunes.
The trail leads past Lake Susan Constant to The Narrows, which is also the end of the trail. Here, visitors can take a break on the wooden bench and watch cormorants hunt and the acrobats of fighter jets from the nearby naval base.
Other recreational activities in the park include fishing and crabbing, which are popular at The Narrows. Motorboats and other small craft can be launched at the Narrows boat ramp. Swimming at the beach is at your own risk.
First Landing State Park
First Landing State Park is located on Shore Drive/U.S. Route 60, north of Virginia Beach and east of Norfolk. The park is open year-round.
Reservations for camping, cabins and picnic shelters can be made up to 11 months in advance by calling 1-800-933-7275.
For information, call 757-412-2300 or visit www.dcr.state.va.us.
Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Watertrail
First Landing is one of four Virginia state parks that will be included in the newly designated Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Watertrail. The others are Chippokes Plantation, York River and Kiptopeke.
It is the first national water trail in the United States and will trace nearly 3,000 miles of Smith's 1607-09 voyages.
Staci Martin, district programs specialist for Virginia's Department of Conservation & Recreation, said signs will be erected in these parks in 2008. Everything should be in place for the 2009 spring paddling season.
Fort Story & Cape Henry Lighthouse
Adjacent to First Landing State Park is the 1789 Cape Henry Lighthouse, the first federally funded lighthouse, which is located on the grounds of Fort Story, a sub-installation of Fort Eustis, home of the U.S. Army's Transportation Corps. Visitors can climb the lighthouse's cast iron, spiral staircase to the top of the octagonal sandstone structure. There, 94 feet above the ground, is a bird's-eye view of the cape and First Landing National Memorial. The memorial -a stone cross erected in 1935-commemorates the wooden cross erected near here in 1607 after the colonists first made landfall. They claimed the land for England, and named it Cape Henry for Henry, Prince of Wales, son of King James I. There is also a boardwalk overlooking the beach.
It was somewhere between here and First Landing State Park that the colonists, overcome with relief after four months at sea, rejoiced, "Land ahoy! Land ahoy!" And here they found "goodly tall trees, faire meadows, and white hilly sand."
Although welcome, visitors should be prepared to provide identification for everyone 18 years or older and for a possible search of their vehicle before gaining access to the lighthouse/monument, as it is located on an active Army base.