False Cape State Park – Planning and Research

Camping on the beach in the offseason. Would this be a fun and relaxing trip or a disaster?

Having had a great time camping at Merchants Millpond State Park the previous winter, a coastal trip in September sounded perfect. No crowds, no bugs, beautiful sunsets and sunrises. 

Seagulls on the beach

I was looking to stretch my wings and find some new places to explore. Someone mentioned False Cape State Park so I did a little research. 

The park is located in Virginia Beach and borders the North Carolina Outer Banks area.

At first glance, the logistics seemed complicated.  Park at Little Island City Park, walk through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge being sure to follow all their rules – or you can walk down the beach, arrive at False Cape. 

But hey, I used to be a project manager. I’m a planner. Determined, I created a table and memorized all the information on all the websites. While it wound up being easier than I thought, it was still helpful to have the information ahead of time.

False Cape State Park is remote and they are clear to state (multiple times) that overnight stays are only recommended for experienced backpackers.  You’ll be on your own with limited resources, including water. I found the information provided was thorough and felt prepared. 

Because they want to be sure campers are prepared, campsite reservations are only done via phone and same-day reservations are not allowed. 

When I called, the gentleman who answered the phone went through all the information with me again and then helped me choose a site.  He was extremely knowledgable about the area and offered a few tips.

Feeling good about things, I now just had to wait two months. I may have booked a little early.

Getting to False Cape State Park

This is going to sound complicated, but it’s actually quite easy.

Where to Park

I arrived at Little Island City Park on Sandpiper Road which is where overnight guests for False Cape park. 

In October, there was no one manning the gates when I arrived so I parked and put my a copy of my registration on the dash per the instructions. 

This notifies the city park staff you’re not missing and prevents your car from being towed. 

Going through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Next up was walking the remainder of Sandpiper Road until I reached Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  It turns out the walk is less than half a mile and you can’t miss the refuge because the road literally dead-ends at the entrance gate. 

Patting myself on the back for getting this far, I started following the road into Back Bay toward the visitor center but got concerned when it seemed like a long road to nowhere. Per some bicyclists on their way out of the refuge, I was going the right way and the Visitor Center and trails were about a mile up. They were right.

Once I reached the main entrance and spoke with the volunteer at the Visitor Center, I figured out the rest of it. Depending on the time of year, you have one or two options to get to False Cape State Park. Simple, right?

There are two options if it’s between April 1 and October 31. 

Option 1:  Pay $2 per person (on foot, bicycles are more) and hike through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge using their internal East Dike Trail or West Dike Trail.

Option 2:  Hike the Seaside trail to the beach and walk down the beach to False Cape State Park.

Back Bay Wildlife Refuge looks like Africa

There’s only one option if it’s between November 1 and March 31; hike the Seaside trail to the beach. The internal trails for Back Bay are closed during this time.

I was there in September and opted to hike into False Cape via the Back Bay trails and return to my car on Sunday via the beach. 

I’m so glad I did it this way. Back Bay is something to be seen with it’s almost African like vibe on the right side of the trail and lush green on the left-hand side.  Every step I wanted to stop and take another photo of the amazing scenery.

Fields of Back Bay Wildlife Refuge
Back Bay Refuge lush and green river

Day 1: Arriving at False Cape State Park

Campsite and Water Locations

After hiking through Back Bay, I arrived at False Cape State Park and stopped near the Visitor Center for water. 

The park is one mile in width with the Currituck Bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other.  

There are multiple primitive campsites organized into four locations: Barbour Hill Bay Side, Barbour Hill Ocean Side, False Cape Bay Side, False Cape Ocean Side. 

The Barbour Hill campsites are near the False Cape Visitor Center and closest to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  Both Barbour Hill campsite areas have a water pump with the third pump located in front of the Visitor Center.

The False Cape campsites are further down as you walk towards the North Carolina border and do not have water pumps.  To reach the False Cape sites from the Visitor Center it’s about 2.2 miles using the interior trails and 1.5 miles hiking down the beach. 

Needless to say, if you’re staying at a False Cape site, stop and top up water before you head in. 

False Cape Beach Campsites

I reserved one of the False Cape Beach sites.  I liked the idea it was further away and, with a beach site, you have a tent pad but, if conditions allow, you can camp on the beach. 

Unfortunately for me, a hurricane out in the ocean was expected to kick up high tides and some pretty good winds so beach camping was not an option.  The tent site was really nice so no complaints here.

My campsite at False Cape

I put the second copy of my registration on the little clipboard and set up camp. 

There are no open flames allowed at the park which meant no fire, although you are allowed to cook with a camping stove.

Nearby was both a men’s and women’s privy (I am still amazed by this), and a raccoon hang for your food.  No bears here, just raccoons and coyotes.

His and hers privies in Virginia

Camping By Myself

When I say I was camping by myself, I mean I was the only person in the entire park overnight.  None of the other campsites were reserved and the park manager who lives on site was on vacation.

One of the Rangers came by to check me in and say hi.  He also gave me a heads up about the conditions on the beach. It was helpful to get a local’s take on how things looked. 

Since there was still plenty of daylight, after setting up, I took my day pack and went exploring. 

Along the way, I passed a lot of bicyclists. Cycling through Back Bay and False Cape to the North Carolina border and back is a popular activity in the area.

I started out hiking the park’s interior trails, exploring a few side trails which mostly led to the ocean.  It didn’t take long to get the feel of the park.

As the light began fading, I headed back to camp and made dinner.  Wanting to continue to check out my home for the weekend, I took my mug of tea and headed to the False Cape Bay campsites about a half-mile away to watch the sunset. 

There’s a path leading to a small pier for kayaks which was the perfect spot to sit and enjoy.

I was blown away by the orange and yellow light show. It was one of the prettiest and longest sunsets I’ve ever seen. I had a hard time pulling myself away to head back to camp and kept looking back.

Sunset at False Cape

Bad Storms Overnight

About an hour after getting into my tent, the wind hit.  The waves crashing on the other side of the dunes and the squeak of the trees rubbing against each other echoed throughout the night. 

Sheltered from the storm by the huge sand dunes, my little abode felt safe and cozy. Surprisingly, I fell asleep and stayed that way through most of the night. 

Day 2:  Exploring False Cape State Park

Morning Coffee on the Beach

Waking up in the morning, the wind had stopped but, when I got out of the tent, there was a layer of sand coating everything.  It was all over my tent, the picnic table, and some tree branches. 

With the sun shining and feeling good about the day, I hit the women’s privy. And yes, I checked out the men’s too.  Basically the only differences were the posters on the walls and a dead roach in the men’s privy.

After breakfast, I took my mug of coffee and headed to the beach to check out the damage from the wind.  The waves had gotten so high, there was water pooling between and behind some of the dunes. 

False Cape State park beach in the morning

When I reached the beach, it was obvious the tide had made it all the way to the dunes.  Had I camped there, everything would have been underwater. 

Putting down my little Thermarest, I sat on the beach, by myself, watched the sunrise and enjoyed my morning coffee. 

Morning coffee on the beach

It was quiet, peaceful, and perfect. 

After an hour or so, I had to get up. There was more exploring on the list.

Hiking the Trails

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I walked the beach to the Barbour Hill Ocean Side campsites for water. 

After filling up, I continued up the path to the Visitor Center and beyond to explore the Barbour Hill Bay Side campsites. 

They were nice, but a little buggy.  Overall, I felt I had chosen the best sites with the False Cape Ocean Side. 

I walked the interior trail back towards the False Cape sites again, this time taking some of the overlook offshoots.  When I got back to my camp area, I dropped off some of the water and then continued. 

There’s basically one main trail that goes through the park and into North Carolina.  A few small loops peel off of the trail and head to the beach. 

One of the interior trails at False Cape State Park

There just wasn’t enough time to hike to the North Carolina border, but I did visit the old Wash Woods community remains. 

Wash Woods was a whole town including a church, grocery store and school built by survivors of a shipwreck.  Now, the only evidence the town existed is the steeple from the church and a small cemetery. 

The steeple is housed in a small building.  It was a little difficult to see through the glass, but I could tell the craftsmanship was incredible.  From my limited viewing, I could see the pieces of wood and metal used for its construction.

Bicyclists were again out and about and they seemed to be able to easily ride the entire length of the park and back.  Next time I head out here, I will seriously consider bringing the bike.

Enjoying the Beach

I opted to head back to my campsite via the beach. While there, I dipped a toe in. You can’t go to the beach and not at least dip a toe in. 

The water was a little cold for swimming and since I was by myself I didn’t go past my knees.  Had there been a few people around, I may have considered going in further.  The currents were still pretty strong from the storm so I wasn’t going to risk it.

If you do decide to head to False Cape during the summer and play in the water, there is a small outdoor shower at the Barbour Hill Ocean sites. If you choose False Cape ocean sites, you’ll either have to walk 1.5 miles (one way) or just live with the salt.

I just lived with the salt. 

Another evening sunset

By now I had my evening schedule down.  Enjoy dinner, make tea, head the half-mile to the False Cape Bay Side sites and enjoy the sunset. 

Since I had a ton of sunset pictures already, I just sat and enjoyed this one. 

I didn’t want to think about going home in the morning so I procrastinated.  When I got back to my camp, I sat on the picnic table, had a second cup of tea, and just enjoyed the night noises. 

Finally getting tired, I headed into the tent. 

Day 3:  Heading out

After another morning enjoying the sunrise on the beach, it was time to pack and head out.  I had seen everything I needed to and my feet were getting sore. 

Morning sunrise on the beach

Since I hiked in via Back Bay, I was going to head out the other way and walk along the beach.  

The tides weren’t perfect for hiking, it’s easier during low tide, but it wasn’t too bad. Towards the end, the sand started to dry and walking became a bit more difficult, but overall, it was pretty easy going. 

My initial thought was the hike would be boring with just water and sand. What I realized is walking the beach offers you time to think. I found myself lost in my own thoughts. 

Heading home by walking on the beach

Arriving at the Seaside Trail, I headed into the main area of Back Bay and then walked the 1.5 miles down the road to Little Island City Park and my car. 

Little Island City park has restrooms and changing rooms.  There’s also an outdoor shower if your feet are sandy.  This was a nice way to prep for an almost five-hour drive.

Overall it was a great trip and will likely become one of my yearly to-dos. 

A little History

False Cape State Park is part of the city of Virginia Beach.  It’s a barrier spit approximately one mile wide that separates the Back Bay of the Currituck Sound from the Atlantic Ocean. 

It was named False Cape because ships often mistook it for Cape Henry about 20 miles north.  Many ships aiming for Cape Henry sailed into the shallow waters of False Cape and ran aground.

The Wash Woods community which built the church whose steeple remains was built by survivors of a shipwreck.  They used the cypress wood that washed ashore from other wrecks to build their town.

The community thrived for quite a few years but was eventually abandoned around 1930 after too many heavy storms made it impossible for them to continue living off the land. 

False Cape State Park – Things to Know

Camping is permitted year-round with reservations.  They do not allow same-day reservations and you cannot make reservations online.  You must call and receive a registration packet.

Read through the packet thoroughly and follow the instructions. 

Make sure you read through all of the rules for Little Island City Park, Back Bay Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park, including any fees and dates they may apply. 

Biting insects are a problem in the summer months so have lots of insect repellent.  I visited in mid-September and had to use bug spray.  Even then, I still got bit. 

The area is remote with limited access.  Overnight camping is recommended only for experienced individuals. 

You can enter False Cape State Park through North Carolina, however, I couldn’t locate information on parking or directions.  Also, consider that it would be the most northern area of the Outer Banks and could be quite a drive. 

There is no shade hiking via the beach or the internal trails of Back Bay.  Hikers should be prepared for intense sun with hats, sunscreen and plenty of water. 

The hike from your car to the campsites varies depending on the site.  Using interior trails it can be 6 to 9 miles.  Using the beach I approximate 4.5 to 7 miles. 

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