As the temperatures drop and the humidity subsides, gather up the kids and set out for hiking trails across the Tidewater region. There are plenty of coastal, wooded and wetland trails that can engage kids of all ages, filling them with wonder as they scrutinize trees in swamps and skip across wooden boardwalks. Here are five family-friendly hikes to check off this fall.
Smithfield: Windsor Castle Park Loop
There’s a lot to keep kids engaged on a 1.9-mile loop hike at Windsor Castle Park in Smithfield, like wooden bridges, marsh wetlands, vernal pools, and scurrying fiddler crabs. There’s even a slide just off the trail for a short break from the largely forested stroll.
Kids will love the seasonal wetlands (vernal pools), which are best viewed in fall and winter months when the shallow rainwater pools are filled. Their curiosity will be roused as they spy trees strangely growing out of the water. Keep your eyes peeled for frogs, salamanders and small crustaceans that thrive in this unique ecosystem. At the park’s main parking area, there are two play areas with slides, sandboxes, and porch-style swings, as well as a shaded picnic area and port-a-potties. It would not be hard to spend a full morning hiking and playing at this charming town park.
Virginia Beach: Bald Cypress Trail
Just steps from the Trail Center at First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach is the shaded trailhead for the enchanting 1.8-mile Bald Cypress Trail. This kid-friendly trail meanders over wooden bridges, pine needles, and boardwalk crossings, affording eye-catching views of the curious bald cypress trees that flourish in the park’s freshwater cypress swamps.
Before you take that first step, however, pause to investigate the whimsical Kids in Parks brochures at the trailhead. You’ll find four different adventures, including A Quest for Dragons (as in, dragonflies) and The Need for Trees, which helps children identify trees they may spot along the trail and teaches them how trees grow.
More than a half-dozen wooden benches can be found along this trail, giving little legs a chance to take a break. It’s easy to pair a wooded, foliage-filled hike with a splash or stroll at the beach, too. Just across Shore Drive from the hiking trails is the pristine coastline of this state park’s mellow, sandy beach bordering the Chesapeake Bay.
Williamsburg: Woodstock Pond / Mattaponi Loop
Williamsburg may be best known for cobblestoned streets and historic sites, but less than 20 minutes north lies York River State Park. Here, a hike to Fossil Beach in search of Chesapecten Middlesex and Balanus Barnacles is a must for pint-size naturalists. These fossil finds are all over the beach, much to the delight of small children (big kids, too).
Explore Fossil Beach at low tide when you have the best chances of finding first-rate fossils. Every park visitor is allowed to take one fossil home, so keep your eyes open for the most intact fossils on the beach. Kids will love watching tiny fiddler crabs as they scramble across the wet sand in search of their own tidal treasures.
From the sandy beach, re-trace your steps to return to the visitor center for a 1.5-mile out-and-back hike. Or, continue on by way of the Mattaponi Trail for a 2.3-mile loop hike. By opting for the loop, you will see the brick foundation of a circa 1817 historic home with a surprise. There’s a geocache filled with treasures inside the home’s foundation.
Portsmouth: Lake Ballard Loop
Many consider the 2-mile Lake Ballard Loop at Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve in Portsmouth to be an unexpected gem. The forested loop trail encircles the 32-acre man-made Lake Ballard and is bursting with colorful foliage in fall. This protected refuge is also teeming with native wildlife, like white-tailed deer, great blue herons, snowy egrets, and river otters.
Two loops at the lake create a figure eight, so it’s a snap to shorten this hike for little ones who’ve petered out for the day. There’s still plenty of wooded and lake views to soak in on a single loop, as well as marshes where children may encounter small crabs and curious snails.
Enjoy lots of shade and few bugs in fall. It’s easier to enjoy the natural scenery when not contending with lake-side mosquitos. Stop in the nature center for hands-on children’s exhibits. An adjacent picnic area is just right for a post-hike lunch.
Warsaw: Tom Rhodes Tree Carving Trail
For a bonus hike that’s less a hike through the woods and more a walk through an enchanted forest, mosey on out to Warsaw to explore the Tom Rhodes Tree Carving Trail. This wooded section of Virginia’s Northern Neck will mesmerize kids and adults alike with wooden carvings on trees of cartoon characters, superheroes and movie favorites, like R2-D2 and Thor.
Dozens of colorful characters have been carved and painted on trees, much to the enjoyment of trail-goers. You’ll find carvings around corners and on the opposite sides of trees. See how many you and your kids can find along the network of woodland paths.
It’s a true joy to watch children’s eyes light up when they find a new carving or one they didn’t see the first time they walked a certain path through the woods. Bring a camera (or just your phone). You’ll want to snap photos of all your favorite tree carvings.
Erin Gifford spends much of her time hiking the trails across Virginia and writing about them at Go Hike Virginia. She is also currently researching and writing a guidebook on the best family hikes in Virginia (March 2022).