Back Bay Wildlife Refuge Loop

  • Highlights: Birding, ocean views, wildlife 
  • Distance: 9.5 mile loop
  • Elevation change: 35 feet
  • Difficulty level: Moderate/strenuous
  • Trailhead Parking: Visitor Contact Station, 4005 Sandpiper Road, Virginia Beach VA; park entry fee required
  • Website: Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, AllTrails, and False Cape State Park
  • Beer Pairings: Reaver Beach Brewing Co.—Hammerhead IPA & Soup of the Night English Porter

The Hike:

The Back Bay Wildlife Refuge is home to over 300 species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and fish. The refuge contains over 9,000 acres and its diverse habitats include beach coastline, freshwater marsh, dunes, and forests. The refuge is an ideal location for outdoor recreation and birding. 

Check the refuge website for seasonal closure information. While the refuge is open all year, the main trail is open from April 1 to October 31. Also, the return for this hike is along the beach which is best hiked at low tide so check the tide schedule. There is very little shade on this hike so load up on sunscreen and water. Dogs are not permitted at the refuge at any time.

The Visitor Contact Station is just past the Ranger Station and has rest rooms, trail maps, and information. Two multi-use trails (or roads) traverse the refuge: East Dike Trail and West Dike Trail. One of these trails will be closed to protect wildlife and their habitat. Both trails travel from the Visitor Contact Station south to False Cape State Park. The East Dike Trail was open during our visit.

The multi-use trail surface consists of gravel and there will be more bike riders than hikers. Service vehicles also use this road. A freshwater stream runs along the left side of East Dike and numerous freshwater ponds are on either side of the road. Migratory birds use the barrier islands and freshwater ponds of the refuge throughout the year. 

The trail (road) is flat and gets rather boring. However, we saw many different species of birds and wildflowers along the way. In 4.1 miles, East Dike reaches False Cape State Park. Continue past the state park trail on the left and the trail becomes the gold-blazed Barbour Hill Trail. The trail passes through a pine forest providing the only shade on this hike. 

At 4.9 miles reach the False Cape State Park Visitor Center. The path becomes sandy as you get closer to the ocean. Follow the trail over a sand dune and reach the ocean at 5.7 miles. At low tide this is an easy hike at the ocean’s edge. At high tide walking through soft sand can be difficult. Turn left and head north. 

At 9.0 miles you will likely start to see more people on the beach. Look for a small brown sign with an arrow pointing to the left. This is the Dune Trail. Turn left here and pass over the dunes to an observation platform. Climb the steps and follow the boardwalk to the junction with the East Dike Trail. Turn right here to return to the parking area and your vehicle.

Hike Photos:

Click on an image below for an enlarged view.

Beer Pairing: 

Reaver Beach Brewing Co. in nearby Virginia Beach is located just 30 minutes from the refuge. They are the oldest craft brewery in Virginia Beach and have been at this location since 2010. Reaver Beach has 15 taps and they specialize in IPAs and sours. The brewery has indoor and outdoor seating and a variety of weekly events. They don’t serve food but outside food is welcome.

Kathy really liked Hammerhead IPA (6% ABV, 63 IBU) a west coast style IPA with lots of hop flavor and aroma. Pete gave high marks to Soup of the Night (5.7% ABV). Not to be confused with “soup of the day”, this English-style porter is brewed with imported malts and has rich notes of caramel and chocolate.

Hike and drink responsibly. Never drink and drive. Stay safe, be responsible, and leave no trace.