Saturday, March 1, 2014

Hughlett Point

The Chesapeake Bay at Hughlett Point
1.6 miles round trip, 20 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Free

The Northern Neck is bounded by the lazy flows of the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, weary from their descent out of the Blue Ridge and Piedmont. Here, they become tidewater as they merge into the Chesapeake Bay, the greatest of American estuaries. Hughlett Point is just one of the many small protrusions of land into the bay, but preservation in the state-owned Hughlett Point Natural Area has saved it from the development that has overtaken the rest of the shoreline. The preserve is small but contains a beautiful stretch of tidal wetlands and a narrow sandy beach.

I have an embarassing confession to make. Although I grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the Rappahannock River, I never made it down the length of the Northern Neck Peninsula until the week before I moved out of Virginia. This post will detail not only the walk down to Hughlett Point itself, but will also briefly describe my driving trip through the Northern Neck.

I spent most of my time in Virginia exploring the mountains. In the week before I left, I felt it would be appropriate to see the other side of Virginia- the Bay. Having spent so much time near the headwaters of Virginia's great rivers, I reasoned, I should at least once visit their mouths near the Bay. So on a warm, sunny August day, I drove south on US 17 from Fredericksburg down the Middle Peninsula. I passed through the riverside town of Tappahannock, then later turned onto VA Route 33 near Saluda. Passing through Saluda, I connected onto VA Route 3 going north and crossed the wide, tidal Rappahannock River to come to the Northern Neck proper. My first stop was just north of Irvington: Christ Church, an Anglican Church built through the funding of the wealthy landowner Robert "King" Carter during colonial times and restored in the middle of the last century. The church was simple and beautiful; I was the first visitor on an early weekday morning so I had the docent-led tour all to myself.

Christ Church
Afterwards, I stopped in Kilmarnock, VA, a small town near the end of the Peninsula, picking up food before heading to Hughlett Point. I took VA Route 200 north from Kilmarnock and a few minutes later took the turnoff to the right for Route 606, Shiloh School Road. The road was not well marked, so you'll have to keep your eyes open. I drove the road to its end, where it intersected Balls Neck Road next to Shiloh School itself; I turned right at this intersection and took Balls Neck Road south, driving a short while as the road narrowed until I saw a sign for Hughlett Point and a gravel parking area to the left of the road.

Kilmarnock, VA
I parked in this small lot and headed down the only trail in the natural area. There was only one other car in the lot; I'm not sure whether visitation is usually this low, or whether it was just lower because I came on a weekday. The first part of the trail was a mix of boardwalk and dirt trail through the forest. This section quickly ended as the trail connected with a much wider trail that ran parallel to the shore, separated only by a thin line of trees. A trail sign here pointed the way to North Beach, or South Beach; although North Beach was much closer, I chose to skip it and go straight to South Beach, which connects to the actual point.

Trail through the Tidewater forest
While the hiking itself (walking, perhaps) was extremely easy because the trail was entirely flat, I soon realized this preserve had a very big annoyance: swarms of jelly-bean-sized flies. As I walked along the wide trail, the flies surrounded me, buzzing and flying at me; my efforts at fending them away were quite useless. I was thus quite thankful when I arrived at the spur trail to the first overlook about 0.3 miles past the first junction. Following the spur, I soon walked out onto a boardwalk at the edge of a marsh separated from the Bay by a stretch of beach. Happily, the bugs decided not to follow me, and I was able to enjoy the view across the wetlands to the bay. Looking out across the water, I could see a large container cargo ship, as well as a smattering of trees on the horizon- perhaps Tangier Island? But the other side of the bay was out of sight. The bay could've been the ocean, for all I could tell. I saw a heron in the wetlands, fishing for its food, and occasionally small flocks of birds would fly above the marsh, calling into the breeze.

First lookout platform
After returning to the trail and continuing towards South Beach, I found myself overwhelmed by the flies again. To keep them from flying into my ears and my eyes, I took the rest of the trail at a slow jog. After narrowing significantly and making a turn to the left, the trail brought me out onto the beach, where luckily there were no flies. The beach access point was at the southern end of the marsh that I had gazed out onto at the previous overlook and more wetlands lay south of the trail isthumus. The beach itself was a pretty shade of white and very sandy and the bay itself was bluer than I would've imagined. Driftwood was pushed up all along the beach.

The beach at Hughlett Point
I continued walking south along the beach for a quarter mile to the point itself. Looking north, I could see the development around Reedville; to the south, another tiny peninsula on the Northern Neck; to the east, the vast expanse of open water of the Bay. The point itself was a rounded stretch of beach surrounding a pretty wetland. Arriving at the point was a fairly emotional moment for me: in a way, it was my goodbye to Virginia, my home state up to that point in my life. Here, the restless waters that tumbled over the cascades of the Blue Ridge finally came to rest; the fresh water that supported the forests and fauna of the mountains now mixed into the saltwater that housed the crabs, oysters, fish, and herons of the Bay.

The beach at Hughlett Point
Wetlands at the point itself
I eventually found the motivation to backtrack, returning along the beach and then through the swarms of flies to my car. I returned along US Route 360, driving through the small towns of the Northern Neck before reaching Tappahannock and then continuing back home. That weekend, I boarded a flight and moved out of my home state for the first time.

This is a good place to visit. It's quiet and out of the way; and it is a good place to still see coastline and marshes in their natural state. It's not much of a hike- no elevation gain and quite short- but the vast blueness of the Bay is certainly a moving sight and making a day out of Christ Church and a visit to Hughlett Point would be quite worthwhile. Just remember to bring something to fend off the flies.

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