Visiting False Cape State Park, VA

What could be better than biking through a beautiful park or camping at Virginia Beach in the offseason? No crowds, beautiful sunsets, and sunrises. 

I love to hike and camp on the beach, but it can be crowded and sites are often booked. 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. It’s now one of my favorite places to go backpacking in the Southeast.

You cannot drive to the park so it can be a little complicated to get to and the instructions for visiting during the day are different than if you’re staying overnight. Driving on the beach is only allowed with a permit which is mostly provided for people that use the beach to commute.

I’ve divided this article into Day Visits and Camping to help you plan your trip.

Sandy beach with waves receding. There is a bird in the middle of the sand.

Visiting the Park for the Day

If you’re just spending the day at False Cape State Park, you can drive down Sandpiper Road to the end and then enter Back Bay Wildlife Refuge.

Note: Dogs are not permitted in Back Bay Wildlife Refuge. If you want to bring a dog to False Cape State Park you’ll have to kayak along the bay which can be difficult and is only recommended for experienced kayakers.

You’ll continue down the driveway inside the Refuge for 1 mile until you reach the parking lot. The trails have a dirt and gravel lot right in front.

Go to the Visitor Center to pay your entrance fee, then hike or bike down the trails until you reach False Cape State Park.

The trails are dirt and gravel, perfect for bicycles.

You can also take the Tram tour. These require a reservation by calling 757-426-7128. It starts at the Back Bay Visitor Center and will take you onto the beach. This is a 4-hour tour, so be prepared.

Remember that you must be out of the refuge by dusk so plan accordingly.

Camping at False Cape State Park

False Cape State Park only offers primitive camping. That means you’ll need to hike or bike 4 to 6 miles from your car to your campsite with all of your gear and supplies. You cannot drive into the park. Because you’ll be on your own with limited resources, it’s recommended for experienced backpackers.

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. You can book your reservation by calling 1-800-933-PARK.

The wonderful staff and volunteers that answer the phones will go through all the information and help you choose a site. 

Water is only available at the Barbour Hill campsites (both ocean and bayside). If you camp at the False Cape sites, you’ll either need to carry in enough water for your entire stay or resign yourself to a 3-mile round-trip hike to get water at Barbour Hill.

Sunset over a body of water with reeds in the foreground.

While there are no bears at False Cape, they do have raccoons and coyotes. The park does not allow open flames (a campfire), 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, even in early fall.

Note: Dogs are not permitted in Back Bay Wildlife Refuge. If you want to bring a dog to False Cape State Park you’ll have to kayak along the bay which can be difficult and is only recommended for experienced kayakers.

Basic Steps to Camping at False Cape State Park

Step 1: Make your reservation BEFORE you head out by calling 1-800-933-PARK

Step 2: Park at Little Island City Park and leave a copy of your registration on your dash

Step 3: Walk down Sandpiper to Back Bay Wildlife Refuge and continue on the 1-mile paved driveway to the entrance

Step 4: Hike into False Cape State Park either by using the East or West Dike Trails or the Beach

Step 5: Enter the park, locate your campsite, and post a second copy of your registration at your site

Details: Overnight Parking at False Cape State Park

Before heading out, make sure you have two printed copies of your camping registration which was sent via email when you made your reservation.

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. 

Check Little Island’s website to verify their hours before you leave. The park gates close in the evenings and are only opened once on holidays. You can check hours on the Little Island City Park website.

There is a nominal fee to park during the summer from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

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 park staff that you’re not missing and prevents them from towing your car. I recommended parking as far the lot as you can as if you were continuing to drive down Sandpiper Road.

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 Wildlife Refuge. It’s less than half a mile and the road literally dead-ends at the entrance gate. 

Hiking through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Back Bay has its own hours and rules which you can read about on their website.

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. Bicycles pay $5.

The next part is the least fun portion of the trip. It’s a mile hike down a paved road in the hot sun from the main gate to the Back Bay Visitor Center. 

Green fields with tall grass and a small building seen while hiking through Back Bay refuge.

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

Option 1:  Hike through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge using their internal East Dike Trail or West Dike Trail to reach False Cape State Park

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

Between November 1 and March 3

Your only option is to hike the Seaside Trail to the beach. The internal trails for Back Bay close during this time.

Hiking the Seaside Trail to 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. 

If you have the option, I recommend hiking the Dike Trail one way and the beach the other. Back Bay is something to be seen with its almost African-like vibe on the right side of the trail and lush green on the left-hand side. 

Expansive views of fields of grass that hid the fact a beach was nearby while hiking through the refuge.

From 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. 

A river or creek running through a field of grass with yellow wildflowers on one side.

Campsite and Water Locations

False Cape State Park is long and narrow. It’s about one mile in width with Currituck Bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. From the Visitor Center, you can hike 8 to 9 miles to the North Carolina border. 

Multiple primitive campsites are organized into four campgrounds: Barbour Hill Bay Side, Barbour Hill Ocean Side, False Cape Bay Side, and False Cape Ocean Side. 

Pumps with potable water are located at the 2 Barbour Hill campgrounds and in front of the Visitor Center

Pinterest pin with image of a yellow and orange sunset over the bay and a small wooden area for canoes to dock, and a scene of a beach in daytime with sand and waves. The text says, "False Cape State Park, VA. From Bay to Beach."

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

Needless to say, if you’re staying at any of the False Cape sites, 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 Campground is the 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. You’ll also find a privy at each of the four campgrounds.

Both the Barbour Hill and False Cape Beach campgrounds allow you to camp on the beach if conditions allow.

If you’re looking for privacy, book one of the False Cape campsites. For a shorter hike, easy access to drinking water, and easy access to the Visitor Center, head to Barbour Hill. After that, it’s your choice if you want to stay in/near the beach, or on the less sandy bay side.

A white and orange tent pitched in the sand with small trees surrounding it. There is a picnic table with a green bag on top and hiking poles leaning against it.

Barbour Hill Beach Campground

The campground is comprised of several campsites down a sandy trail. There is a potable water pump and a small shower to rinse off the saltwater near the privy. Sites are shaded and spaced well apart. The Barbour Hill Beach campground is the easiest section to reach with the least amount of hiking. 

If you have a site reserved in this section, you can camp on the beach if conditions permit.

Barbour Hill Bay Campground

This area is comprised of individual sites down a trail past the Visitor Center. The sites are nice and flat with a lot of space. At the end of the campground trail is Currituck Bay with its beautiful sunsets. This section seemed to be pretty buggy. 

False Cape Beach Campground

The False Cape Beach sites are down a little trail and very quiet. There are both men’s and women’s privy which is interesting. You’ll be more on your own in this section. 

If you have a site reserved in this section, you can camp on the beach if conditions permit.

False Cape Bay Campground

This is a nice area with the largest sites. 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. 

Two wooden privies next to each other with a small park sign in between. One privy has a sign with the stick image of a woman, and the other of a man to denote men's and women's bathrooms.

Can You Camp On The Beach

Yes! If you reserve a campsite at Barbour Hill Beach or False Cape Beach campgrounds, you have the option to camp on the beach if the weather allows. 

Things to Do at False Cape State Park

Hike or Bike the Trails

The Sand Ridge Trail is the main trail that goes through the park and into North Carolina.  A few small loops peel off and head to the beach or little overlooks toward the bay.

Cycling along Sand Ridge is a popular thing to do. Many people rent bikes and cycle to the North Carolina border and back. While it’s a bit of a hike, it’s an easy day on a bicycle.

Trails leading to the ocean, like Maple Leaf and Maritime, are sandy and more difficult than you think.

There are also trails leading to the bay like Pintail Overlook and Vir-Mar. These are swampy, buggy, and may take a bit of bushwhacking.

I really enjoyed the trails around the old Wash Woods Community. The Cemetary Trail and Wash Woods Trail are both easy, well maintained, have good footing, and are interesting.

A dirt road that goes through the woods lined with trees on either side.

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. 

Enjoy the Beach

You’re at the beach, you have to at least dip a toe in. If you don’t want to hike a lot, once you reach the entrance to the park, continue to the Visitor Center, then hike down the Barbour Hill Trail towards the beach.

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. 

Sand dunes with reeds growing on them and the beach with white crests on the waves.

Keep in mind if you’re staying at one of the False Cape campsite sections, 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. They have a small outdoor shower near the privy on the trail housing the tent sites.

Enjoy a Spectacular Sunset

You’ll need to camp at the park to see the sunsets and sunrises. The best sunset views are on the Bay side which is easy to hike to if you’re camping on the beach side.

The sunset colors are spectacular and it seems to last forever. 

Orange and yellow sunset over a body of water with wooden pillars in the foreground that appear as shadows.

Morning Coffee on the Beach

One of the joys of 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 person is sitting on the beach holding a blue travel mug in one hand in front of the water. All you can see is their hand, the mug, and their feet wearing black sandals.

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 shipwreck survivors. 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. 

Long stretch of sandy beach with sand dunes on the left and a bit of ocean water on the right.

TL: DR False Cape State Park – Things to Know

Only locals and workers with permits are allowed to drive on the beach through False Cape State Park. Campers need to hike in approximately 4 to 6 miles with all gear and supplies.

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. 

Dogs are not allowed in Back Bay Wildlife Refuge. The only way to bring your dog camping with you is to use a kayak to reach the park.

Biting insects are a problem in the summer months so have lots of insect repellent. I visited in mid-September with my clothes doused in permethrin and me covered in DEET and 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, there is no convenient place to park in North Carolina. Also, consider that it would be the most northern area of the Outer Banks and could be quite a drive. 

There is no shade as you hike along 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 campsite varies depending on the site. Using interior trails it can be 6 to 9 miles. Using the beach I approximate 4 to 7 miles. 

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