Snakes on Trails
“How much you wanna bet we see a snake today?” Mitch said as we settled onto our bikes, bumping over the rocky dirt trail. (Mitch turns everything into a competition.) Even though it had sprinkled earlier, the sun felt intense as it broke through the clouds. The first warm day of a long, nasty winter – Mitch knew it was perfect snake conditions. But to me, the Back Bay Wildlife Refuge seemed pretty big, and it borders the even bigger False Cape State Park. Why would the snakes be on the trail when they had plenty of other opportunities to sun bathe unharassed? I took the bet.
The Back Bay Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park are in the Virginia Beach area, immediately south of the small beach town of Sandbridge, VA. But you can’t shoot straight down the coast from Virginia Beach to get there. The route itself was snake-like, curving around military bases, over creeks, through marshes, and past little farms. Without Wayz we’d probably still be circling.
We were in the area to drop off kayaks to a school group for a camping trip. We’d parked in the Little Island parking lot, a public beach access spot with a bay kayak launch directly across the road. Once we got the kids situated, we hopped on our bikes and headed south.
It was about a half a mile to the entrance of the wildlife refuge and then about a mile to the Visitors Center where the trail began. The trail is made of dirt and that perfectly annoying size of rocks that make your tires bounce around. We’d brought our road bikes, (we knew it was a dirt trail so I don’t know what we were thinking!) so we had nothing except our wrists, shoulders, and rear-ends to absorb the bumps.
In the wildlife refuge the trail mostly runs on top of a dike and is a loop. However, the east dike trail was closed, so we went out and back on the same trail section. Every so often, a culvert ran under the dike to allow the bay water into the impoundment ponds. On the bayside of those culverts, schools of enormous alligator gar hovered, waiting for whatever poor unsuspecting morsel funneled through. We stopped to watch them as they rolled to the surface and dove back down, their long, cylindrical bodies and toothy snouts beautifully ugly.
Mitch can watch things like that forever. My attention wandered. I looked at the bay water, the sky, the dunes to the east. And as I gazed at the trail ahead of us, a snake, short and black, scooted across it and disappeared into the tall grass near the water. I quickly glanced at Mitch. He hadn’t seen it. I was torn. Mitch loves seeing snakes. He’s not one of those crazy people who want to pick them up or have them as pets. But he appreciates their function in nature and likes to try to identify them, etc. So, I could either keep my mouth shut and win the bet, or tell Mitch so he could geek out over it. Sigh. I told him.
“Where did it go?” He quickly walked to where I’d pointed and scanned the area. “There it is,” he said excitedly. “In the water.”
Sure enough, it was quickly slithering across the surface. “I think it’s a cottonmouth,” Mitch said. “Its body is on top of the water and he’s holding his head up.”
I did not want to believe him. I don’t have a problem with snakes – as long as they don’t surprise me. I scream at anything I’m unprepared for. But a cottonmouth – that’s kinda scary.
Once it had disappeared, we got back on our bikes. The trail went through a beautiful wooded area, back out on the open dike, and then it split, the southerly trail leading to False Cape State Park which we took. This section was through tall pines. We passed many smaller trails leading to overlooks and campsites (the state park has hike, bike, and boat-in camping opportunities). The trail wasn’t as rocky now, which was a nice break. A tram from the wildlife refuge visitors center travels this route also so the dirt was hard-packed.
We’d gone a little over a mile in the state park when we came upon the False Cape Visitors Center. With its wide front porch sporting clusters of rocking chairs, it looked more like a southern home than a state park building. Inside was interpretive wildlife and environmental displays as well as a decent variety of snacks and ice cream bars. It was an incredibly nice facility. And it seemed almost like a secret since only those who biked, hiked, or rode the tram could experience it. We ate our granola bars enjoying the peacefulness.
After our snack we headed back as we had to get home to Delaware that afternoon. We’d been on our bikes for only about five minutes when we saw another cottonmouth. Coiled in the middle of the trail, it was not moving. We waited. It waited. Mitch tried to get close to get a good photo. It didn’t budge. But finally, begrudgingly, it moved its girth off the path and disappeared into the grass. Then, when we rode through the wooded area, we saw another cottonmouth. It was small and moved right away. Three, not just snakes, but cottonmouths, in a 3 mile stretch of trail over the course of an hour! Yikes!!
We’d had to turn back before we’d explored much of False Cape so we decided we’d bring our mountain bikes two days later when we came to pick up the kayaks. The weather was very different the second time – a strong north wind and much cooler. The bumps didn’t bother us with our suspension and fatter tires so we made good time and had soon passed the False Cape Visitor Center. We took the Sand Ridge Trail further south. I wanted to see the old cemetery and church ruins from the town of Wash Woods that once existed on this skinny piece of land.
We passed a few hikers and a couple of bikers but it felt like we had the entire park to ourselves. The wind sang through the pine needles high above us and, at the bay overlooks, the whitecaps stretched as far as the eye could see. But the trail was very protected. At one point the annoying rocks reappeared. I don’t think the fattest tires in the world could smooth those out. But, thankfully, it was only a couple of miles of them.
We were about 1.5 hours in and we still hadn’t found the old town remains. We would have to turn around soon. Once again we had to get back to Delaware that evening. Finally we came upon the Cemetery Trail. The sand got very deep very quick, so we abandoned our bikes. The trail marker had said .25 miles. We walked and walked. Over dunes, through forests, along a boggy area. But no cemetery. The trail split. To the church was .25 miles (again), the cemetery .9. Mitch said, “Forget it,” but I’d committed to the cemetery so that’s the direction I went. I kept walking and walking and looking at my watch. I told myself I’d turn around after the next curve, then the next. Sadly, I never found the cemetery. Maybe it was a trick – search for it long enough and you become the cemetery!
That’s ok, though. It just means we’ll have to go back at least one more time to finish exploring.
We didn’t see any snakes on our second trip. But we talked to a hiker/photographer who’d seen three on the trail that morning. One black snake, one cottonmouth, and one he’d gotten a great picture of – a beautifully dangerous copperhead.
There are many options for distances and routes. But this is what we did:
First Trip – Little Island City Park to West Dike Trail to Sandy Point Trail which took us to the Visitors Center. Then we took the Marsh Ridge Trail back to the West Dike Trail back to our vehicle. Total distance: 12 miles
Second Trip – Little Island City Park to West Dike Trail to Marsh Ridge Trail to the Sand Ridge Trail ending at the Cemetery Trail head. We retraced our route back for a total distance of about 19 miles.
Little Island City Park parking fee (during summer months only) – $5 non-residents; $10 for RVs
If you drive into the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge it costs $5 per vehicle. It is $2 to bike in.
I’d recommend a bike with either fat tires or suspension. The rocks are tough on skinny tires and, although the sand on the Sand Ridge Trail was hard packed as far as we went, it would be tough on a road bike. The trail beyond where we stopped was very deep sand.