With curtains of Spanish moss and bald cypress knees jutting out of tea-colored water, the swamps of First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach seem to come out of another era. In fact, history was made in the dunes, forests, and wetlands lying between the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. In 1607 this was the site of the first landing of English colonists in what is now Virginia, and it continues to draw people today.
First Landing is now the most visited Virginia state park, but the crowds mainly stick to the beaches. Entering its wooded interior is a completely different experience. The wetlands here are not the dark, decaying swamps of stories and movies. Life abounds, with over 600 native species within park boundaries.
The Bald Cypress Nature Trail is a great introduction to this unique place. An easy loop, it comes in at under two miles and takes you into the heart of the swamp. A free interpretive booklet, available at the park’s trail center, highlights history and nature at numbered stops along the path.
I arrive with my wife and son one steamy Sunday morning, right after a late summer downpour left deep puddles across the parking lot. As soon as we hit the trail, it felt like we had entered a tropical rainforest. The steamy air was so thick with humidity that my camera lens instantly fogged up. Shafts of sunlight backlit green leaves in the canopy of live oaks and loblolly pines. Our soundtrack was the warm buzz of cicadas, the drip of rainwater falling from leaves, and the occasional laugh of a woodpecker.
We soon reach the first of several easily-accessible boardwalks that wind between cypress trees growing out of shallow water. This is one of a handful of cypress swamps in Chesapeake country, and a recent story in the Bay Journal details the important role this amazing habitat plays. I felt fortunate to be able to explore for a bit.
The larger trees have flared bases that help stabilize them in the soggy soil. Over time, each tree becomes a miniature island in these blackwater ponds, collecting debris and soil around the base where shrubs and grasses take root. Bright blue dragonflies zip between these tiny forests.
Spanish moss hangs off the cypress like old gray beards. This unusual plant clings to branches, absorbing all the water and nutrients it needs from the air. First Landing is the northernmost place in the world where Spanish moss grows abundantly, and it thrives in the humid environment.
After the boardwalk, the trail turns into a sandy path that gently rolls up and down between pines, oaks, and evergreen shrubs. These relatively dry ridges are the remnants of what were once seaside sand dunes. The wetlands formed as puddles and ponds in the valleys between the dunes. Over the years, plants took root and spread, slowly building up today’s forests and wetlands. At the same time currents and waves built up new beach and dunes.
In past centuries, the swamps were an important source of fresh water for colonists, soldiers, and pirates. Legend has it that Blackbeard hid booty between the cypress trees. Today, it’s just a wonderful place to take in the sheer abundance of nature.
We head down the path, where swallowtail butterflies float by and tiny toads jump out of the way. I watch a leopard frog hunt bugs among the soggy pine needles on the forest floor. A bit further along, a rare spotted turtle lumbers across the trail, its dark shell flecked with bright yellow dots. Nearby, a big old broad-headed skink scurries between some branches.
After the trail crosses several more boardwalks and upland areas, we reach a short pier over a small pond where herons and egrets often hunt frogs, sunfish, and perch. How did fish arrive in these isolated pools, which have no streams flowing into them? Their sticky eggs may have hitchhiked from nearby waterways on the feet of the same wading birds that hunt them, according to a waterside sign.
We return to the trail center, having observed just a small portion of the life that flourishes here. First Landing State Park is one of the best places in Virginia to take in a wide range of coastal habitat, from dunes to maritime forest to marshes and swamps. A leisurely one-hour hike around the Bald Cypress Trail is the perfect way to open your eyes to the beauty of these swamps.
First Landing State Park is located near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay close to the spot where Captain John Smith landed in 1607. First Landing is Virginia's most popular state park with over a million visitors each year.