What could be better than camping on the beach in the offseason? No crowds, beautiful sunsets, and sunrises.
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. It seemed perfect for a September trip.
- False Cape State Park – Planning Your Trip
- Getting to False Cape State Park
- False Cape State Park
- Campsite and Water Locations
- Which Campsites are Best
- Can You Camp On The Beach
- Exploring False Cape State Park
- A little History
- TL: DR False Cape State Park – Things to Know
- More Great weekend Camping and Backpacking Trips in NC, VA, TN
False Cape State Park – Planning Your Trip
Before you plan your trip, you’ll want to be aware that there is no car camping at False Cape State Park. You will need to hike or bike 4 to 6 miles to your campsite.
Because you can’t drive into the park, 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. Don’t worry though, the park will provide a lot of information to help you prepare.
As part of ensuring campers know what they’re getting into, campsite reservations are only done via phone, and same-day reservations are not allowed.
The wonderful staff and volunteers that answer the phones will go through all the information and help you choose a site.
There are no bears at False Cape, but there are raccoons and coyotes. The park does not allow open flames (a fire), but you can use a stove and fuel to cook.
Whether you hike on the trails or the beach, shade is minimal so consider a high SPF sunscreen. Bugs are also an issue. I was there in late September with bug spray and still came back with bites.
Getting to False Cape State Park
If you started looking into False Cape yourself, the instructions probably sounded complicated. It’s actually quite easy and I’ll walk you through the steps.
Before heading out, make sure you have two copies of your camping registration printed. After reserving your site, the confirmation form is emailed to you.
Overnight Parking at False Cape State Park
Set your directions for Little Island City Park on Sandpiper Road which provides overnight parking for those camping at False Cape State Park.
Depending on the time of year, the entrance may not be manned.
There is a nominal fee to park during the summer from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
The park gates close in the evenings so make sure you are aware of their hours before heading out. You can check times here https://www.vbgov.com/government/departments/parks-recreation/parks-trails/city-parks/Pages/little-island-park.aspx.
If you’re arriving on a holiday, there is a designated time when rangers open the gates.
Once you find a parking spot, put a copy of your campsite registration on the dashboard. This notifies the city park staff you’re not missing and prevents them from towing your car.
Since the beach is blocked from Little Island City Park to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge to protect nesting birds, you’ll need to walk down the remainder of Sandpiper Road until you reach the entrance to Back Bay. It’s less than a half a mile and the road literally dead-ends at the entrance gate.
Going through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Back Bay has its own hours and rules which you can read up on here: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/back_bay/
Dogs are not allowed in Back Bay so you won’t be able to bring along your four-footed friend unless you kayak into the park. It can be done, but the site warns there are strong currents and only experienced kayakers should attempt it.
If the entrance gate is manned, there is a fee of $2 per person to hike through Back Bay. Bicyclers pay $5.
The next part is the least fun portion of the trip. It’s a mile walk down a paved road in the hot sun from the main gate to the Back Bay Visitor Center.
Once you reach the parking lot for Back Bay with the Visitor Center and the trailheads, you may have a choice, depending on the time of year.
Between April 1 and October 31, you have two options.
Option 1: 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.
Between November 1 and March 31, there is only one option, hike the Seaside Trail to the beach. The internal trails for Back Bay close during this time.
The beach is faster and about a mile shorter by my estimation. It’s much easier to walk it at low tide or when the high tide has just gone out.
During my visit, I opted to hike into False Cape via the Back Bay trails and return to my car on Sunday via the beach.
If you have this option, I recommend trying both like I did. 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.
From one of the Dike Trails in Back Bay, you’ll see a sign for the turn into False Cape. You’ll follow a trail that takes you to the Visitor Center. There’s no need to stop here unless you want to say hello or purchase an item.
Hiking in from the beach, there’s a sign announcing your entrance into False Cape State Park and you’ll reach the Barbour Hill Beach campsites shortly after.
False Cape State Park
Campsite and Water Locations
The park is long and narrow. It’s about a mile across with the Currituck Bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. From the Visitor Center, it’s about 8 to 9 miles to the North Carolina border.
Multiple primitive campsites are organized into four locations: Barbour Hill Bay Side, Barbour Hill Ocean Side, False Cape Bay Side, False Cape Ocean Side.
Pumps with potable water are located at the 2 Barbour Hill sections and 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.
Once you reach your campsite, you’ll clip the second printed copy of your registration to the board next to the site number. The rangers will come by and officially check you in as they make their rounds.
Which Campsites are Best
Each campsite has a tent pad that can easily fit two 2-person tents and a picnic table. Raccoon hangs are also available to keep the critters out of your food and each site has a privy.
Barbour Hill Beach sites are down a sandy trail. There is the potable water pump and a small shower to rinse off the salt water. Sites are shaded and spaced well apart. This section has the most sites in one area. It’s also the easiest section to reach with the least amount of hiking.
Barbour Hill Bay sites are down a trail past the Visitor Center. They’re nice and flat with a lot of space. The bay is at the end of the trail for good views. This section seemed to be pretty buggy though.
False Cape Beach sites are in the section with the fewest tent spots, only three. It’s down a little trail and very quiet. There’s a men’s and women’s privy which is interesting. You’ll be more on your own in this section.
False Cape Bay sites are nice and large. There are no tent pads, but set areas where you can pitch tents. Larger groups would be more comfortable in this section. Kayakers could pull right up to the small dock and camp here. The sunset views from the bay are amazing.
Can You Camp On The Beach
If you rent one of the campsites at Barbour Hill Beach or False Cape Beach, you have the option to camp on the beach if the weather allows.
Exploring False Cape State Park
Hiking the Trails
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 or little overlooks towards the bay
You’ll find people on bicycles along the trails. Renting a bike and cycling through Back Bay and False Cape is a common activity for tourists and locals.
You can hike down to the North Carolina Outer Banks using the interior trail and stop by the remains of the old Wash Woods community on the way.
Wash Woods was a 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.
Housed in a small building, you can see the intricate construction used in making the steeple from random pieces of wood and metal.
Whether you make it all the way to the border or not, head back via the beach and enjoy the quiet and views.
Enjoying the Beach
You’re at the beach, you have to at least dip a toe in.
The water will likely be a little cold for swimming, but it’s not too bad. I didn’t go in past my knees since I was by myself. Had there been a few people around, I may have considered going in further.
Keep in mind if you’re staying at one of the False Cape campsite sections that there is no shower to rinse off the salt. There’s a pump with non-drinkable water, but I wouldn’t use it to “shower”.
If you prefer a shower after the beach, rent one of the Barbour Hill Beach campsites. There’s a shower near the privy on the trail housing the tent sites.
Enjoy a Spectacular Sunset
Regardless of where you’re camping, head to either the Barbour Hill Bay section or False Cape Bay section in time for sunset over the bay.
The colors are spectacular and it seems to last forever.
Morning Coffee on the Beach
One of the joys camping on the beach is sunrise and coffee with the surf at your toes.
Set down a towel or pad and just sit and enjoy the moment. No people, just you, and the beach.
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.
TL: DR False Cape State Park – Things to Know
You cannot drive your car into False Cape State Park. All campers need to hike in approximately 4 to 6 miles.
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 to 7 miles.