Hiking, History & Health at York River State Park

What better reasons to visit York River State Park than hiking, history, and health benefits? As many of us find ourselves amidst stay-at-home orders for at least the next few weeks and possibly longer, I thought I’d share how a visit to York River State Park in Virginia (USA) helped me de-stress and enjoy nature during the stressful times many of us find ourselves in.

Growing up as the granddaughter of a farmer and just steps from the great Lake Erie in a small town in Ohio, I’ve always had a deep love of nature. So I wasn’t really surprised to find out that a recent study found that:

“Living close to nature and spending time outside has significant and wide-ranging health benefits — according to new research. A new report reveals that exposure to greenspace reduces the risk of Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure.”

If you’re like many who are feeling stressed and anxious about the uncertainty of the future these days, consider spending some time outdoors if your local government regulations allow it.

Even if you live in the middle of the city, nearly every place has some green space nearby. We live in a more rural area of Virginia, but I still love the chance of getting out to a park where I can do some hiking and enjoy a change of scenery from what I see in my backyard.

Every state and municipality in America decides about the rules and restrictions for COVID-19 in its own parks’ system, so check their website for specifics. At the time of this post, all Virginia State Parks were open for day-use only. The Governor’s Emergency Declaration states that people are allowed to go outside for exercise.

Virginia’s eastern border is also filled with beaches on the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. State restrictions mandate that all beaches are closed except for fishing and exercise. Surfing and kayaking are allowed as exercise, as long as safe distances are maintained. NOTE: Congregating, sunning or sitting on the beach isn’t considered exercise. Campgrounds, playgrounds, cabins, visitor centers, ranger programs, and many public restrooms are closed in parks and beaches.

Even though services are restricted, this past weekend we really felt cooped up and needed to get safely outside, so we decided to visit York River State Park, near Williamsburg, Virginia. We were greeted by a friendly park ranger wearing gloves who accepted our $5 entry fee in this fishing net, then returned our park pass and a trail map the same way.

York River State Park Ranger

The park is easy to find, just 45 miles east of the Virginia capital of Richmond, or 70 miles north of Virginia Beach. Follow Interstate 64, then exit west of Interstate 64 and head to 9801 York River Park Road, Williamsburg, Virginia, 23188.

York River State Park is open daily from 8 a.m. to dusk all year.

Pets are permitted on a leash no longer than 6 feet (about 2 meters). Do not leave pets unattended and be sure to clean up after them. You’ll find picnic tables and playgrounds around the park. Some picnic shelters can be reserved for groups. Current Virginia restrictions limit groups to 10 people or less.

There is no camping onsite in the park, but here’s a link to some of the campgrounds in the area.

When we arrived at the park we saw a reasonable amount of cars in the parking lots, but the park is 2531 acres (1024 Hectare) and offers over 18 miles (29 KM) of hiking trails, so the people were all spread out comfortably. In total there are more than 30 miles of hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails. Visitors can explore the marshes, creeks, York River, shorelines, and forests.

York River State Park has nature trails of every kind — from easy to difficult and from the half-mile (0.8 km) Beaver Hiking Trail to the Meh Te Kos Bridle Trail exclusively for horses and riders at 4.5 miles (7.25 km). If you like mountain biking, the John Blair Bike Trail is about 10 miles (16 km) long with moderate difficulty. And of course, you can combine any number of trails to stay busy all day and beyond. We were there for the afternoon and covered about 3 miles of hiking, as well as a leisurely visit to Fossil Beach (more on that below). You can find more details about the trails plus a trail map and bike map on their website here.

Taskinas Creek Trail

The trails are very well maintained. You’ll see wooden walkways in forested areas where the ground might normally be soggy. There are also raised wooden boardwalks built to cross over some of the marshy areas.

Taskinas Creek Trail

Taskinas Creek was one of the trails we hiked. It’s about 2 miles (3.2 km) with moderate difficulty and passes through fields and forests that border the marshy creek. There are several observation decks where you can look for nesting Osprey, Heron, Eagles, and more.

During our visit, we were careful to practice safe social distancing on the trails and the beach. We avoided touching handrails and even looked down to avoid breathing on or breathing in germs as we stepped off to the side of the trail when someone passed by several feet away.

I know there are many different kinds of hikers out there. Some have a goal of getting from point A to B as fast as possible. While I’m sure that’s great for your heart rate, I’m not that kind of hiker. I always carry a camera or at least my phone so I can stop and observe and capture the details of nature around me. I enjoy taking time to notice the little things as well.

We started our hike with a trail along the river’s edge, behind the Visitor’s Center. Then after a stop at Woodstock Pond, we continued along the river to Fossil Beach.

Fossil Beach

When we started out we had no idea this was here and I’d never expect to see fossils of ocean marine life along a river. The fossils are everywhere you look along the water’s edge and embedded high up in the sandy cliff. They date from 2 to 8 million years ago when this area was about 200 feet (60 meters) underwater. Many different fossils can be seen at Fossil Beach — but please don’t take them home.

Fossil Beach — York River State Park

The York River is so wide that it feels like you’re on the shore of a lake. No swimming is allowed, but you can wade in the water, walk along the shore, or even bring a picnic lunch. You’ll find sand, grass, and driftwood along with the intriguing fossils.

Searching for fossils is a fun activity for young and old alike. Several times during the year the park hosts a “Fossil Frenzy” where park rangers talk about the history of these fossils and the group, which is open to all ages, is allowed to search for fossils with the ranger helping to identify their treasures. If you participate, you’re allowed to take one fossil home. Digging into the cliffs is prohibited.

We didn’t even have to do any digging. I picked up this Chesapecten (scallop) fossil in the sand at the edge of the water and there were many more there too. Chesapecten Jeffersonius was the first fossil identified in North America in 1687 and is the State Fossil of Virginia. Amazing to think how long these fossils have been in the ground waiting to be discovered.

A piece of Chesapecten Middlesex or Chesapecten Jeffersonius — the Virginia State Fossil

The park is unique in that there are three distinctly different areas of water to explore, a freshwater pond, saltwater river and a brackish creek that has a mixture of both. There is no swimming allowed in any of these areas.

You can normally rent a variety of watercraft for use on the creek, river, and pond from April 1 through the end of October, however COVID-19 restrictions prevent that right now. Always call ahead to see what’s available based on the season and the weather. You’ll also find several fresh and saltwater fishing spots with different license requirements in the park.

WoodstockPond

This freshwater pond is a beautiful place to sit and watch birds like Bald Eagles and Northern Cardinals. You could catch a glimpse of a frog or snapping turtle along the shore as well. The pond offers freshwater fishing for Largemouth Bass and Bluegill. You’ll need a Virginia Freshwater Fishing License to fish from a boat, the shore or platforms there. Paddleboats, Jon boats, canoes, and kayaks can normally be rented for use on the pond in season. Private boats aren’t allowed on the pond.

Woodstock Pond — York River State Park

Taskinas Creek

This tidal creek has a mix of fresh and saltwater surrounded by marshes. Taskinas Creek averages about 6 1/2 feet (2 meters) deep and 65 feet (20 meters) wide where it feeds into the York River. This creek is one of four sites along the York River that make up the largest estuary in America. It was designated as a Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in 1991.

Taskinas Creek Overlook

You’ll find a small boat launch area not far from the Visitor Center. Feel free to bring or rent a canoe or kayak to paddle around and catch some dinner of Catfish or White Perch in the creek. From your canoe or one of the many viewing platforms and trails around the marsh, you may see the majestic Great Egret or Green Heron. If you’re lucky, you may even see a muskrat or a non-venomous black and white striped Eastern King Snake.

Ranger-guided canoe and kayak trips are offered at the York River State Park Visitor Center at various times during the year. You can learn about salt-marsh ecology on the Taskinas Creek canoe trip.

York River

One of the wonderful things about this region of Virginia is that so many of the rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay are massive compared to some other parts of the country. The park’s namesake York River enters the Chesapeake Bay about 5 miles east of the historically famous Yorktown. The York River is almost straight. Its width ranges from 1 mile (1.6 km) at its head to 2.5 miles (4.0 km). It runs about 35 miles from the small town of West Point, Virginia, southeast to the Chesapeake Bay. The water is brackish at West Point and becomes saltier as it flows to the Bay.

York River Overlook

You can learn about the natural and cultural history of the York River on a ranger-guided kayak trip. Personal motorboats are allowed on the river, but none of the rental boats at the park have motors.

Croaker Landing Pier offers parking, fishing, and restrooms for $6 per vehicle/per day. No fishing license is required when fishing from the 360-foot pier, but it is required if you fish from the shore, in a boat, or in other areas of the park. You’ll also find a boat ramp for access to the York River. Anglers can catch Atlantic Croaker and Striper. From March to mid-April you could find Channel Catfish in the river when the salt levels are lower. If you live nearby consider buying an annual pass for parking, boat launching, and pier fishing by calling 1–800–933-PARK.

Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab

Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab

You can also find Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab along the York River shoreline in warmer months. A fishing license isn’t needed to catch Blue Crab at York River State Park as long as you don’t use commercial fishing equipment. You can set up two crab pots (traps) per person and take up to 1 bushel (.035 cubic meters) of hard crabs or 2 bushels (.07 cubic meters) of peeler crabs each day without a license. If you buy a seasonal license, you can use up to 5 crab pots/per person.

If you’d like to see more photos of the wildlife and boating activities at York River State Park, check these out on Flickr.

Virginia COVID-19 Guidelines for Park Day-Use Visits

  • Stay close to home and keep visits short.
  • Guests should bring their own soap and hand sanitizer to use during day-use visits.
  • Groups and gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited and these restrictions will be enforced by park staff.
  • Guests should keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others at all times. While on trails, alert others of your presence and step aside to let others pass at a safe distance.
  • Parking fees remain in place. If entrance contact stations are not staffed, which is typical at this point in the season, self-pay is available. We recommend you bring cash or check for the daily parking fees

Significant History at and Near York River State Park

Have you heard the name, Captain John Smith? He was a British explorer who arrived with a small crew in this area of Virginia in 1607. At the age of 27, he was part of the first Virginia Company expedition and became a leader of the group that settled in Jamestown. In addition to his work in the settlement, he also explored and mapped over 3,000 miles of the Chesapeake Bay and adjoining rivers. His mission was to find a route to the Pacific Ocean, claim the land for England, look for natural resources like gold and minerals, and develop relationships and trade with the various tribes of indigenous people.

The 3,000 mile Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail was established from the maps and journals left behind by Captain Smith and is the first National Historic Water Trail in America. It includes stops in York River State Park. The trail includes museums, parks, driving tours, and water trails. You can download the 100-page FREE Boater’s Guide to the Historic Water Trail here. The Guide provides detailed information about the 5 states that are part of the water trail. You’ll also find recommendations for other books and websites about this period of history.

You can also find many other books about the life and activities around the Chesapeake Bay here.

Of course, another world-altering event that happened along the York River was the decisive Battle of Yorktown during the Revolutionary War. In the fall of 1781 about 25 miles south of York River State Park the American colonies won the victory over the British Army in a battle that was the turning point of the war to win independence from England.

During COVID-19 in 2020 some of these sites may be closed, but here are some great suggestions for future travel plans to the area.

Yorktown National Battlefield (Colonial National Historical Park) — 25 miles southeast of York River State Park you can find out more about this famous battle. Stop by the Visitor Center, take a battlefield driving tour and participate in guided ranger walks and talks about the defining battle of the Revolutionary War.

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown — 25 miles south — this Museum features artifacts, exhibits, and a 180-degree surround screen for the film reliving “The Siege of Yorktown”. Outside you can enlist in the Continental Army in a re-created encampment to learn about the life of a soldier and take in daily demonstrations on medical treatment, camp life, and cooking. Watch demonstrations of the firing of muskets and artillery. You can also explore a farm, based on a real-life 18th-century family. Help with chores in the house, kitchen, tobacco barn, gardens, and crops.

Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area — 12 miles south — the world’s largest living history museum — an authentic historically-preserved town with Colonial period re-enactors and craftspeople roaming the streets and engaging with visitors about life in the 18th century. Over 300 acres feature more than 40 historic sites and trades demonstrations, four historic taverns, serving foods from the period, and two world-class art museums.

Colonial National Historical Park (Jamestown) — 18 miles southwest — Visit this historical site to see archaeological digs, and re-created dwellings from 1607. Artisan craftspeople also demonstrate glass-blowing, and guided tours of the first permanent English settlement in America are offered.

James River Plantations — 40 miles east — Several different plantations are open for visitors in Charles City County, along the James River. Settlements, farms, and plantations in this area began in 1613 and much has survived despite several battles fought in the region.

Consider visiting the birthplace of generations of the statesmen of the Harrison family, Berkeley Plantation. It’s the home where several presidents lived and at least 10 presidents (including George Washington) visited. Union Major General George McClellan was headquartered on this land with his troops during the Civil War,

The Shirley Plantation is often open for tours and dates back to 1613 and is America’s oldest farm and family-owned business. 11th and 12th generation family members still live in the home and work the property.

Check out these other posts on my blog for more things to do in Virginia.

Places to Eat and Drink Nearby

Pierce’s Pitt Barbeque is less than 10 miles from the park. Pierce’s was rated as one of the “Top 10 BBQ Joints in America” by National Geographic. Their menu features smoked ribs, chicken and beef brisket, southern-style collard greens and their 80-year-old BBQ recipe. They also offer family-style meals to go. 447 East Rochambeau Drive, Williamsburg, VA 23188, 757.565.2955

Williamsburg Winery (15 miles from the park) — offers the perfect spot for a winery tour and tasting, as well as a variety of dining options and a wonderful setting to stay overnight. 5800 Wessex Hundred, Williamsburg, VA, 757.229.0999

Aleworks Brewing Company is less than 10 miles from the park. Brewery Tours and Guided Tastings are offered at this local craft brewery. Pickup and delivery are also available in the region. 189B Ewell Rd, Williamsburg, VA 23188, 757.220.3670

Originally published at https://travelingwithpurpose.com on April 21, 2020.

I’m a travel and lifestyle blogger at https://Travelingwithpurpose.com. I love learning, photography, creativity, studying people and sharing my discoveries.

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