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Virginia's Eastern Shore
By Bob Difley
The Delmarva Peninsula, a dangling appendage 180 miles long that is suspended between the Delaware and Chesapeake bays, is attached to the mainland only by a thin sliver of land less than 15 miles wide where the states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware come together. In fact, the peninsula is really an island, since the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal connects the upper Chesapeake with Delaware Bay, so that you can only get to the peninsula by crossing a body of water.
The only connection of Virginia’s Eastern Shore – the fingerlike tip at the bottom of the peninsula – with the rest of the state is a 17.6-mile bridge tunnel across the gaping mouth of the Chesapeake Bay (although you could drive 110 miles down the peninsula through Maryland). The bridge-tunnel complex opened in 1964 and consists of more than 12 miles of low-level trestle, two one-mile tunnels, two bridges, almost two miles of causeway, four man-made islands, and 51/2 miles of approach roads, with a second parallel bridge completed in 1999.
The great watery expanse separating this isolated peninsula from the mainland has helped to insulate the 70-mile-long Eastern Shore from urban sprawl and preserve much of its natural character and cultural history. Crossing to the peninsula is much like a time-machine journey, leaving the fast lanes of the real world to the west. You could easily imagine a land of a hundred years ago, with quaint white clapboard farmhouses, working fisherman’s harbors, and historic hamlets on a narrow strip of land squeezed between the sand-swept beaches and barrier islands of the Atlantic Ocean and the marshy inlets, tidal creeks and mudflats of the Chesapeake Bay.
A bird-watcher’s paradise, the peninsula’s wildlife refuges, national seashore and state parks offer vast, unspoiled areas to explore and commune with Mother Nature. If you were not already a bird-watcher when you arrived, you will be when you leave.
Traveling the Heritage Trail
Begin your tour on US 13 at the Maryland/Virginia border and head for Chincoteague Island, known for its oyster beds and clam shoals – Virginia’s only resort island. Take time to wander the Maddox Avenue galleries and shops where the many resident artists display their creations. Just before crossing the bridge over to the refuge, the Oyster and Maritime Museum illustrates what life was like for an oysterman and the history of the Eastern Shore’s major industries – oystering and the seafood business.
Chincoteague is the gateway to the Assateague Island National Seashore and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), covering more than 14,000 acres of maritime forest, marsh, dunes and beach on the southern end of Assateague Island, as well as parts of Chincoteague Island and three barrier islands.
This strategic stopping point on the Atlantic Flyway attracts hundreds of species of shore, wading and song- birds, and more waterfowl than you can count. As many as 900 peregrine falcons have been counted during migration, and two pairs of bald eagles now nest in the refuge.
The importance of Chincoteague NWR and Assateague Island National Seashore as a feeding, resting as well as nesting haven for the migrating water birds has been recognized as one of the United States’ top five shorebird migratory staging areas this side of the Rocky Mountains and has been designated along with the other barrier islands of the Eastern Shore as an International Shorebird Reserve and a World Biosphere Reserve. Our Department of the Interior also recognizes these natural habitats as a National Natural Landmark.
The Chincoteague is also known for the “Chincoteague Ponies,” descendants of colonial horses brought to Assateague Island by planters in the 1600s and celebrated in Marguerite Henry’s children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague, and the movie that followed. White-tail deer graze in the meadows and at the edges of forested areas, as well as sika – a small oriental elk (adult weight: 75 pounds) released to the wilds in the 1920s. The sika have adapted quite well to both the barrier island weather and the environs. Also be on the lookout for muskrats and river otters in ponds and marshes, and for dolphins and whales offshore.
Built in 1833, the red-and-white-striped Assateague lighthouse soars 142 feet above the Chincoteague NWR, accessible by a 1/4-mile trail from Chincoteague Island.
RV camping (without hookups) is available in the Maryland section of Assateague Island National Seashore and at Assateague State Park, as well as at the area’s private campgrounds and RV resorts.
On the other side of the peninsula, the 5,500-acre Saxis Wildlife Management Area also provides a breeding area for a variety of wildlife and birds.
As you head south you will find many small, historic towns and fishing villages whose shops, galleries, restaurants and museums encourage leisurely lingering. Along the way, there are numerous natural marshes, grass-covered dunes and windswept beaches you can explore.
Beautiful and Historical
Following are just a few of the many stops you will likely want to make.
The town of Parksley, created when the railroad came through in 1884, has many well-preserved Victorian-era homes, and several preserved railroad cars and the old railway station at the Eastern Shore Railway Museum.
Upon moving the Accomack County seat to this central location, in 1786, homes immediately sprang up around the courthouse. You can stroll among many historic homes and churches on the Back Street/ Front Street loop.
The town of Onancock (Native American for “a foggy place”) grew up around the mouth of Onancock Creek, a natural and safe harbor for sailing ships bringing in supplies and taking on oysters and seafood to market on the mainland.
Take the ferry from Onancock for an afternoon on Tangier Island 12 miles out in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, where you don’t have to worry about getting hit by a car – there are none. However, you can rent bikes and golf carts if your legs get tired. Ferries also run to other isolated island communities like Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton. While only a few miles offshore in the bay, these tiny towns feel vastly removed from the rest of the modern world. There are few cars and no police force. Many islanders speak a dialect derived from the Elizabethan English used by the area’s original settlers who arrived in 1659.
You can launch your canoe or kayak for a bird-watching paddle up Pungoteague Creek at the boat launch at Harborton Landing, a noted bird-watching site. If you need additional maps or information, stop at the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center in Melfa.
The Virginia Coast Reserve, the longest coastal wilderness on the U.S. Atlantic coast, includes beaches, maritime vegetation, forests, salt marshes as well as sandy barrier islands. The Nature Conservancy owns all or part of 14 of the 18 Virginia barrier islands, which buffer the coastline against storms and provide the diverse habitats that support a variety of plant and animal life.
From their Virginia Coast Reserve offices in Brownsville, the Conservancy focuses on habitat protection and restoration, expansion of refuges, marine conservation and preservation of the natural coast habitat from resorts, condos, marinas and fast-food restaurants. As a result, the barrier islands remain in their natural state and provide a haven for more than 380 species of nesting and migratory birds.
Eastville, the county seat of Northampton County – one of the original eight shires of Virginia – supports a population of barely 200, but its courthouse has the oldest continuous court records in the United States, dating from 1632. The courthouse complex, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is unusual in that it retains its early inn, a part of which dates back to 1724. The Eastville Inn restaurant, operating in the inn, is a must-do for amateur historians and lovers of good seafood.
Eyre Hall Garden, north of Cheriton, a formal garden of magnolia, yew, boxwood and crape myrtle, is considered to be the “best-preserved 18th-century plantation complex” in the state. Just below Cheriton, the typical fishing village town of Oyster has an active working harbor.
Cape Charles was founded in 1884, as the southern terminus of the new railroad extension from which steamships carried passengers and freight across the bay to Norfolk.
The Eastern Shore Railroad still operates a 26-mile rail/barge ferry to Norfolk. Many large homes of varied architectural styles remain, originally built to house rail executives and the newly affluent merchant class.
A walking tour of the historic town is available from the Cape Charles Museum and welcome center. And if you are having golf withdrawals, the Arnold Palmer-designed course at Bay Creek Resort can fix that.
Stroll boardwalks across the dunes, camp, bird-watch (there is a bird-banding station here), comb the beaches for wind-tossed treasures, hike through upland forests, swim (lifeguards are on duty in the summer), or fish off of the pier at Kiptopeke State Park, on the bay side near the tip of the peninsula.
Just south of the park, near the bridge/tunnel entrance, the Eastern Shore Wildlife Refuge offers yet another opportunity for communing with the natural side of this end of the peninsula.
In late August through early November, large groups of migratory birds gather here to await favorable winds and weather for crossing the broad Chesapeake.