I’ve been writing about the Chesapeake Bay for more than a decade. I appreciate its beauty — and its fragility — and I try to stay attuned to its different moods and colors. Yet, after so many years, I sometimes feel that I’ve seen almost everything there is to see, at least once.
But when my friend Franz asked me if I’d been to the Savage Neck Dunes on the Virginia Eastern Shore, I had to confess I’d never even heard of them. I’d never seen a highway sign or heard anyone report on a visit. When I was kayaking at Cape Charles recently, about 3 miles south of the dunes, I asked our guide about other activities in the area. If she mentioned Savage Neck, I didn’t recall it.
What was so special about these dunes? Franz has no expertise in the field of plants and ecology, but to him, the landscape of the dunes was unlike anything else in the area. There were ponds and scrubby pines and a dramatic landscape change within just a short walk. It seemed, he said, more like something you would see on the coast of Oregon or Washington.
Intrigued, I set out for the dunes on a sweltering July day with my 10-year-old daughter. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation offered what appeared to be straightforward directions through U.S. 13 in Eastville to Savage Neck Road. We saw no signs to point the way, but after a few miles on Savage Neck Road we saw the small parking area on our right — a grassy spot for about 10 cars. There, a small sign announced that this piece of land was Savage Neck, part of the Virginia Natural Area Preserve System.
Virginia has 21 preserves under this system. They are not exactly state parks; there is no admission fee and often, no attendant. The areas that become preserves showcase rare species, interesting landscapes and excellent opportunities for public access. Also, because they are less well-known, they are less crowded. The beach at Sandy Point State Park in Maryland or Cape Charles at the southern tip of Virginia’s Eastern Shore might be packed, but the beach at Savage Neck isn’t overrun with people. There are no lounge chairs, no French fries and certainly no umbrellas to rent. And it requires a nearly mile-long walk to the water.
“It’s self-limiting, in a way,” said biologist Dot Field, the Eastern Shore region steward for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. “There’s the limited parking, and then there’s the walk.”
But what a walk! At the beginning, the path looked like a typical landscape of the Virginia Eastern Shore — fields and grass. Then, the walk became shady and ponds came into view. Beautiful and mossy, they looked almost prehistoric. The path continued through a pine and hardwood forest with large loblolly pines. We walked a few minutes more, and the dunes emerged. We climbed them, and suddenly we towered above the Chesapeake Bay.
Franz was right. I had never seen anything like these dunes. I was used to the marshy grasses, the stand of loblolly pines, the typical Eastern Shore view. The dunes offered something much more complicated: a walk through what felt like the evolution of the landscape over thousands of years.
Indeed, these dunes are thought to be 10,000 years old. Scrub and brush peek out of the swales between them. There are loblolly pines, oaks, red cedar trees and, in one swale, the rare southern bladderwort. The Eastern Shore of Virginia is one of the most popular spots for migrating birds along the Atlantic Coast, making the dunes are a great place to see songbirds, falcons and hawks.
The 298-acre preserve features a mile of beachfront. The starkest sights, to me, were the dead trees that lay on the beach, victims of serious erosion. All over the sand, we spotted a small, industrious insect. It was the endangered northeastern tiger beetle, which has nearly disappeared from the Atlantic Coast because of habitat loss. The tiger beetle still can be found in many sites on Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline, but the dunes have one of the largest populations.
After the long walk, the swim felt refreshing. The beach lacks shade and any privacy for changing, and there are no lifeguards. The water is shallow and, on our visit, so clear we could see schools of menhaden swimming across the bottom.
On our walk back, we got lost. There are plaques along the path telling visitors about the landscape, but not much in the way of trail markers. And the heat of the day, the beauty and the isolation may have distracted me. Fortunately, I eventually found the trail, and Dot Field was waiting for us with bottles of water and an air-conditioned truck.
Field said that getting lost isn’t common. Still, I would advise visitors to pay attention to landmarks, bring plenty of water, and maybe carry a compass or GPS. Don’t rely on your mobile phone, because service is spotty. There is a preserve map on the DCR web site; I did not have it with me but, even if I did, I think the better option would have been to watch my path carefully.
Despite our misadventure on the trail, the dunes were well worth a visit. And we will be back on a day when it’s cool enough to explore further.
“This is basically an outdoor classroom for coastal communities,” Field said. “And we use it a lot for that.”
Franz may not have known the names for all the trees he was seeing, but he knew the dunes were special. And he was right. Thanks to his instincts, perhaps more people will discover this Chesapeake Bay treasure.
Visit the Savage Neck Dunes Natural Area Preserve
- The Savage Neck Dunes Natural Area Preserve is open daily from dawn to dusk. To get there, take U.S. Business 13 just south of the town of Eastville and turn onto Savage Neck Drive (Virginia Route 634). Stay on the road until you see the preserve parking area. For a map and factsheet, visit dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/natural-area-preserves/savage. Remember, mobile phone signals are spotty. Bring water.
- Savage Neck is a decent drive from most places in the watershed. Eastville is a sweet little town but, if you’re going to make a weekend trip, you might want to stay in Cape Charles. It’s only a 10-minute drive or 3-mile bike ride to the dunes. Cape Charles offers several bed and breakfasts, hotels and restaurants as well as a swimming beach. It’s one of the prettiest towns on the Shore.