Every year without fail, I come down with spring fever as soon as the first buds appear on the trees around my house. In spring my family and I can’t wait to visit our favorite parks and wild places. We love to walk in local forests and kayak on peaceful waterways. In fact, we take mini nature vacations as often as possible. It helps keep us sane.
We don’t have to go far to access breathtaking parks, miles of trails, playgrounds, and water activities. “We are very lucky to have so many wonderful parks,” agrees Julie Braley of Virgina Beach Parks and Recreation. “There is something for everyone.” In addition, our region offers many handicap-accessible parks and inclusive playgrounds.
Keep safety issues in mind as you plan your nature vacation. Everyone should wear sunscreen outside, but especially in the summer when the sun’s rays can do the most damage. Because Virginia is home to pesky mosquitos, as well as ticks that may carry Lyme disease, insect repellent and appropriate clothing are your friends. Lastly and sadly, nearly 1000 children die each year from drowning in the U.S., so discuss water safety with your kids and consider signing them up for swimming lessons.
You don’t have to break the bank to take your family on a nature vacation. So make a date with nature today and plan an outing to one of our beautiful local parks with your family. Have fun!
BLUEBIRD GAP FARM
While not a huge park, Bluebird Gap Farm is a local favorite. Kids and adults alike will enjoy feeding the animals and getting up close to whitetail deer, peacocks, birds of prey, as well as many farm animals. The Hampton Master Gardeners’ Display Garden and Arboretum is a wonderful area to observe butterflies and stop to smell the flowers. Browse the display barn to find farm and home antiques from various periods. Trails are easy enough for small children but enjoyable. Plan a family cookout using one of the available grills, bring a picnic, or chill out beneath the covered pavilion. Children will have fun exploring the large playground.
Why We Love It: It’s a great low-key way to spend a Saturday or Sunday morning with your family in the outdoors. It’s also convenient to many amenities and local attractions.
• Bring quarters if you plan on feeding the animals and cash for vending machines.
• Go early in the morning or later in the day if your kiddo doesn’t do crowds.
• No pets allowed.
• 60 Pine Chapel Rd. Hampton • 757-825-4750 • www.hampton.gov/139/Bluebird-Gap-Farm
GROMMET ISLAND PARK
Popular with locals and tourists alike, Grommet Island Park is the first of its kind in the U.S., thanks to its fully accessible 15,000 square feet of play space, right next to the Virginia Beach boardwalk. It’s perfect for families needing a break from the water and sand. The park is full of interactive and sensory play activities such as hand-operated scoopers designed for those in wheelchairs, as well as pretend play opportunities.
The dolphin and wave sculptures are wheelchair accessible—and perfect photo ops! Raised sand tables ensure that everyone can build castles. There are also sensory boards for those on the spectrum or the visually impaired. The shaded seating area offers shelter from the sun, a blissful respite during hot summer days for both parents and kids.
Why we love it: Grommet Island is special-needs friendly so everyBODY can play at the beach.
• Beach accessible wheelchairs are available for use at the nearby beach at no cost.
• Bring cash for parking.
Boardwalk & 2nd St. VB • 757-385-1100, www.vbgov.com
NORTHWEST RIVER PARK
Northwest River Park offers many amenities including a 40-acre stocked lake, disk golf, paddle boats, kayaking, camping, fishing, and nature programs. Birdwatchers and nature lovers will have plenty to see and hear, as songbirds serenade from the treetops. There are eight miles of trails for all skill levels as well as a handicap-accessible trail. Campers can choose from groomed or primitive sites, and cabins are available for those who prefer a roof over their heads. Shaded picnic tables are just the thing for cooling down. Equestrian trails are available for horse owners. Biking, hiking, playgrounds, and outdoor game areas make this a great place for families who want to get active in nature.
Why We Love It: The view from the water is gorgeous! Rent a boat and watch your kids light up as you navigate the waterway.
• Make sure to apply sunscreen—and don’t forget to keep everyone hydrated!
• Boat rentals are cash only, but there is an ATM on site.
1733 Indian Creek Rd. Chesapeake, 757-421-7151, www.cityofchesapeake.net
GREAT DISMAL SWAMP
Home to black bears, the Birding Festival, and one of Virginia’s two natural freshwater lakes, Great Dismal Swamp offers trails to trek on foot or by bike. Covering more than 12,000 acres of protected land, the refuge is also home to a variety of birds, waterfowl, deer, and other wildlife. The park has received special designations including the Virginia and Globally Important Bird Area designations, and the National Parks Services National Natural Landmark and Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site designations.
It’s a great location to observe butterflies and birds. Canoes and kayaks are allowed on Lake Drummond, but access from the road requires a small fee. The trails are not difficult, and boardwalks throughout the refuge allow you to peer into the fragile ecosystem without injuring the habitat.
Why We Love It: You don’t have to be an avid hiker to enjoy the trails and unspoiled views.
• You will need to pay a $5 fee to access Lake Drummond in your vehicle. Use a Duck Stamp, America the Beautiful Annual, Senior, Access, or Military pass to avoid the fee.
3100 Desert Rd. Suffolk, 757-986-3705 www.fws.gov/refuge/Great_Dismal_Swamp/
HOFFLER CREEK WILDLIFE PRESERVE
While Hoffler Creek may not have playgrounds or a lot of amenities, it does offer stunning water views and opportunities to see wildlife such as deer, fox, otters, and racoons in the wild. Scenic trails are great for birdwatching and have handicap-accessible options. Little explorers even have their own trail. Strollers and wheelchairs are welcome, but watch out for tree roots. You can rent kayaks during the season, and the preserve hosts guided kayaking tours—even during the full moon.
Why We Love It: The wildlife thrives at Hoffler Creek and it’s a great place to bring your kids to experience local critters. The view alone is worth the trip.
• Do not skimp on insect repellent. Ticks are a concern, so take the necessary precautions to keep your family healthy.
4510 Twin Pines Rd. Portsmouth, 757-686-8684, www.hofflercreek.org
Once a landfill, Mount Trashmore’s central location in Virginia Beach makes it a great option for busy families. Younger children will be thrilled with the 26,000 square foot Kids Cove Playground, which has several climbing structures, slides, elevated walkways, swings for all ages and more. The play area is fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and is barrier-free to accommodate all children. Families can walk, run, or bike on the trails, or exercise at one of the 10 fitness stations located along the perimeter trail around Lake Trashmore. Bring a picnic, fire up a grill, and throw a party!
Why We Love It: Mount Trashmore hosts numerous events for people of all ages and abilities, making it a special place for families. We’ve spent many enjoyable hours just sitting in the grass.
• The park is popular and can get crowded, especially during events.
• Bring your pets and be responsible for waste.
• Vending machines are available near the bathroom area.
310 Edwin Dr, Virginia Beach, 757-473-5237, www.vbgov.com
NEWPORT NEWS PARK
This 7,711 acre park is well worth the drive from our home in Virginia Beach. The park is a designated stop on the official Virginia Civil War Trails network and is home to Civil War fortifications. Check out Civil War artifacts on display at the Discovery Center. Then head outside, where all-terrain mountain biking and hiking will get your family moving! Bring your favorite model plane and soar over the 30-acre flying field. Practice with your bow on the archery range or work on your golf game. Camping, fishing and boating, deep forests, and numerous amenities make this a park you can spend a lot of time exploring and enjoying with your family.
Why We Love It: There is so much to do!
• Be prepared for traffic on I-64..
• Bring plenty of food and water to fuel your outdoor fun.
• Fees to use the golf courses, flying field, and archery range.
13560 Jefferson Ave. N. News, 757- 886-7912, www.nnparks.com/parks_nn.php
OCEAN VIEW BEACH
If parking fees and bustling boardwalks aren’t your thing, then Oceanview Beach is good fit. We came here a lot when we first moved to Norfolk. The gentle Chesapeake Bay waters are perfect for little swimmers, and handy picnic tables and grills enable your family to gather and eat by the ocean. Free parking close to the beach makes it easy to haul all your gear to the water. Restrooms and showers are also convenient. Look for dolphins feeding close to shore and enjoy colorful sunsets from the beach.
Why We Love It: Summer concerts at the Pavilion are a great way to relax. Bring a blanket and picnic! Check www.festevents.org for schedule.
• Always practice water safety.
• Watch out for jellyfish in the bay.
Ocean View Ave. Norfolk, 757-441-1605, www.norfolk.gov/Facilities/Facility/Details/32
STUMPY LAKE NATURAL AREA
With nearly 100 acres of forested land, a 278-acre fishing lake, and an ADA-compliant overlook with great views, Stumpy Lake is a gem. Families will enjoy hiking the 1.65 miles of shared-use trails at any time of year—perfect for birdwatching. Kayaks, canoes, and other unmotorized watercraft are allowed on the lake. The launching area is also ADA compliant. Fishing is allowed from land or water with a freshwater permit. This is our favorite park in the fall!
Why We Love It: I’ve never seen Stumpy Lake crowded, so you should have plenty of peace and quiet.
• Enjoy Stumpy all year long and take lots of pictures while you’re there.
• Hunt for the “bent tree” on your hike.
4797 Indian River Rd. Va. Beach, 757-385-0400, www.vbgov.com
Leia Safshekan is a writer, military spouse, and mother, raising her family in Va. Beach. A California native, Leia likes reading and exploring nature with her family and dogs. Leia was awarded the Dickseski Prize for Fiction and is a student at ODU.