Hughlett Point: A fragile paradise
by Megan Schiffres
Looking out over the Chesapeake Bay from the beaches of the Hughlett Point Natural Area Preserve, it feels like you’ve reached the end of the earth. Water stretches to the horizon and beyond, causing the scene to be easily mistaken for the ocean were it not for the unusually tranquil waves and the muted saltiness of the estuaries’ spray. In the opposite direction, marshlands mesh with a dense forest to produce a ecologically diverse and fragile habitat full of wild plants, birds, and other animal species not typically found in land developed for human occupation.
Located on a small peninsula of land where Dividing Creek flows into the Chesapeake Bay, Hughlett Point is a little stretch of paradise for those who value undisturbed natural splendor. The preserve, which encompasses 204 acres of protected land and water, offers access to an undeveloped beach, both tidal and non-tidal wetlands, and a vast forest of pine trees.
Hughlett Point is owned and maintained by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. According to Chesapeake Bay region steward Zachary Bradford, the preserve was purchased by the department and dedicated as a state natural preserve on July 28, 1994. Between 1952 and 1982, the land was used as a hunt club before being purchased by a commercial developer who envisioned a resort development for the property. When plans for that development fell through, Hughlett Point became the 10th natural area preserve to be established in Virginia, which is now the home to 63 preserves across the state.
The preserve features a walking trail through the forest and two observation platforms where visitors can look out over the protected marshlands and beaches. The marsh area of the preserve is periodically flooded by high tides and provides a vital nursery for many of the bay’s fishes and crustaceans, hidden among the wax myrtle, cattail, eastern rose mallow, salt meadow hawk, black needlefish, widgeon grass, and smooth cordgrass that populate the marshland. The forested portion of Hughlett Point is home to a plethora of native species including gray foxes, songbirds, bald eagles and ospreys.
On the beach and in the waters of the bay, the preserve is also the habitat of river otters and several species of herons, egrets, rails, and shorebirds which feed in the marshes and along the shoreline.
Most of the shoreline consists of a sandy beach which is one of the few remaining homes for the threatened northeastern beach tiger beetle. These rare, sand-colored insects are about half an inch to 3/5 of an inch long and get their name from the aggressive, “tiger-like” manner that they pounce on their prey and grasp them with their mandibles. These beetles live in the sand and require a undisturbed beach habitat to survive.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, tiger beetles were described by early naturalists as very abundant on open, sandy beaches and once occurred in great swarms from Massachusetts to New Jersey and the Chesapeake Bay. Today, they can only be found at Hughlett Point and Martha’s Vineyard due to a precipitous decline in their population over the last 20 years which was caused by the development of natural beaches by humans.
In order to keep one of the last remaining habitats for these threatened beetles safe, visitors of Hughlett Point are not permitted to swim in the bay or sunbathe on the beach because of the high potential for harming the protected beetles. Low-impact activities such as hiking, bird watching, and photography are therefore encouraged as an environmentally responsible alternative. In addition to the northeastern tiger beetle, Hughlett Point also provides a habitat for the rare sea beach knotweed, a silvery blue and green branching herb that sprouts pink and white flowers. The preserve is also a nesting area for the least tern, a protected migratory bird identifiable by its yellow bill and black capped head.
The Hughlett Point Natural Area Preserve is open daily from sunrise to sunset.
Dos and Don’ts at Hughlett Point Natural Area Preserve
- bird watching
- nature photography
- operate off-road vehicles
- bring unrestrained pets
- ride bicycles
- mountain bike
- horseback ride
- bring alcoholic beverages
- remove or destroy trees, plants, animals, minerals, or artifacts
- disturb the sand including digging and removal
- place coolers, tents, and canopies on the sandy shoreline
A visitor’s perspective
It’s week three of an NC cold wave and I’m longing for our hot summer hike in Kilmarnock, Va. When traveling last summer we started looking for hiking suggestions with the All Trails app. The helpful app lets you filter and search by distance, rating, suitability for kids, difficulty and more. With it being a hot July day and having small children, we needed a shortish hike with easy water access. After a quick search we found Hughlett Point Natural Area Preserve, which had a 2 mile trail and access to the Chesapeake Bay.
The Hughlett Point Natural Area Preserve is 200 acres of undeveloped land located on a peninsula on the Chesapeake Bay, about 15 minutes northeast of Kilmarnock off Route 605. It has a large sandy shoreline, marshy wetlands, forested areas, and is home to the federally threatened northeastern beach tiger beetle. Though we didn’t see any tiger beetles, we saw several shore birds, crabs, and bugs on our hike.
After parking at the trailhead we walked along the wooden walkway through the forest. We soon saw a sign post, and turned left to follow the North Loop. Shortly after starting along the North Loop we arrived on the Chesapeake Bay’s beautiful sandy shoreline. The sudden change from forest to deserted beach was breathtaking. The girls immediately waded into the water, while the adults took in the beautiful views. Being a flat undeveloped area, every direction we looked gave different views of a sandy shoreline, endless bay water, or grassy wetlands. It almost felt like we were on a deserted island.
Despite the lack of signage, we headed south hoping the shoreline kept us on the right path. Because we hiked next to the water, the full sun beat down on us, making the little ones quickly tire. My sister and I, each, soon started carrying a little one on our backs. After walking about a half mile in the sand, we cheered as the trail met back up with the mainland.
We caught our breath at an observation deck where the swimming crabs distracted the little’s tears. This trail features a few observation decks that overlook the flat and vast wetland areas. After watching the crabs swim through the water we continued walking on the dirt trail back to the parking lot. Unfortunately, we ran into some dense bug families through the forested walk back. Since the girls regained their breath while watching the crabs, they miraculously sprinted through the dense bug fog, and made it back to the car in record time.
For this hike, I felt we arrived pretty unprepared. We didn’t anticipate half the hike being in full sun and sand, and we didn’t bring the necessary bug spray. The Chesapeake Bay’s beautiful views and undeveloped areas made up for our lack of planning. We treated ourselves to a quick stop at the Dog & Oyster Winery on our way back to Grey’s Point Camp. The girls munched on snacks, tried soft-shelled crabs and colored oyster shells while the adults tasted wines and grilled oysters – heavenly!
Thumbs up: breathtaking views, undeveloped land, crab spotting, bird watching.
Thumbs down: signage, lots of bugs.
Kris’ blog can be viewed at www.raleigh.org. Specific links to her blog entries on Hughlett Point Natural Area Preserve and Urbanna are below.