Editor’s note: This PaddleVA blog is the second in a series where we’ll highlight some of our favorite blueways, parks and paddling spots in our great commonwealth. For this edition, we’re exploring Virginia’s coastal regions. Curious about our first pick? Take a minute to read the James River Edition.
A concrete fleet, Native American history and some of the best kayak fishing in Virginia? You’ll find them all at Kiptopeke State Park.
Set on Virginia’s Eastern shore with recreational access to the Chesapeake Bay, Kiptopeke offers paddlers the opportunity to explore the same area that Captain John Smith sailed through in the early 1600s. The original home to the Accohannock and Accawmack tribes, Kiptopeke is named for the latter chief’s younger brother and means “big water” in the Algonquian language. The 562-acre park boasts 1.5 miles of coastline that opens to the “big water” just along the Atlantic flyway. Paddlers can discover a diverse range of saltwater species, rich fishing grounds and native and migratory birds.
Park Manager Sean Dixon loves introducing people to the park. An avid saltwater fisherman, he has worked for Virginia State Parks since 2010 and been manager at Kiptopeke for the past two years.
Dixon noted that paddlers have full access to the south beach. They can also put in from a section of the boat ramp reserved specifically for cartop launching. Boats cannot launch from the northern beach, which is set aside for swimming. Dixon also explained that, because the park is located on the Chesapeake Bay, Kiptopeke’s water features all depend on the weather.
“With light winds, you’ll have pretty smooth, flat water with some rolling swells coming through from time to time, but if the wind starts blowing hard then you’ll get heavy waves and rough water. That’s why it's really important for paddlers to take a look at the weather forecast and the marine forecast before they come out.”
Paddlers should also pay attention to the currents.
“We have really strong currents,” Dixon said. “Those currents have been known to cause inexperienced paddlers and younger paddlers trouble as they try to fight them while coming back in.”
Still wondering about that concrete fleet?
Kiptopeke’s sunken concrete fleet lies about 150 to 200 yards off the shoreline. That’s also where you’ll find some of the best kayak fishing and birdwatching in the Commonwealth.
Originally built in 1943 when steel was scarce, the concrete ships, known as the McCloskey Ships, hauled freight to the South Pacific. In 1948, nine were purchased and sunk to form the Kiptopeke Breakwater for ferry passage. Today, the ships serve as a protected habitat for nesting birds and a number of species of fish. Plus, they draw paddlers who are curious about their history and the ecosystem they support, as well as kayak fishermen hoping to land a big one.
“It’s been a really popular place for fishing for years,” said Dixon. “One of the biggest groups we have down here is your kayak fishermen. Most of them target tautog or sheepshead, but there are a lot of other species, including flounder. In the wintertime, striped bass are a big draw, and in the fall season, speckled trout and redfish are pretty popular too.”
In fact, fishing is exactly what Dixon loves so much about Kiptopeke.
“Being out here on the water and having such close access to the best fishing in the state of Virginia is a huge draw,” he said. “My favorite time of the year out here on the water is wintertime. We get large striped bass that migrate into the bay to begin their spawning run, and it's possible to catch a 50- or 60-pound fish.”
If you’re not into fishing, Kiptopeke also offers the best birding around.
“The ships are home to a large population of birds: brown pelicans, pigeons, gulls and terns,” said Dixon. “A lot of birds nest on the ships where they’re out and protected.”
While beginner paddlers will appreciate the short trip to the sunken fleet, Dixon notes that it’s important to keep your distance and not paddle close to the ships. Under no circumstances should you try to paddle inside.
“You have to be careful around the ships,” he said. “They're old, and they're beaten. A lot of concrete is starting to crumble and fall into the water, so it's really important that people stay out of the ships. You could get stuck. You could get hit by a falling piece of concrete. There's a lot of really sharp, rusted rebar and structural steel inside. If somebody were to flip a kayak in there, it would be extremely dangerous.”
So make sure not to miss this opportunity to experience a unique blend of wildlife and history up close, but follow park guidelines and keep a safe distance!
Plan Your Trip
Start at the Big Water Visitor Center, a great resource that just opened two seasons ago. Learn about Kiptopeke State Park through educational displays on the history of the Eastern Shore, local bird and pollinator populations, and a gift shop. Check on ranger-guided tours, which are also posted on the events and programs section at the bottom of the website. The Big Water Visitor Center is open Friday through Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
From the visitor center, head to the waterfront where you’ll find a section of the boat ramp specifically reserved for cartop kayak launch. You can also launch directly from the south beach.
Beginner paddlers can spend an hour or two exploring the 1.5-mile Kiptopeke shoreline, as well as the concrete ships.
More experienced distance paddlers can travel up to Cape Charles and all the way around the Chesapeake Bay, which opens into the Atlantic. Dixon noted that the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, just down the road from Kiptopeke, also offers a cartop launch. From the refuge, seasoned paddlers can access some of Virginia’s barrier islands and beaches.
Ready to make a weekend of it? With 130 campsites, four yurts, four cabins and five lodges, Kiptopeke offers a variety of accommodations as well as easy access to nearby Cape Charles, a 10-minute drive from the park. A quiet, waterfront town, Cape Charles has everything you need while you’re not paddling: bars and restaurants, small-town shopping, a brewery and a distillery.
Don’t Forget the Logistics
Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Pier open 24 hours April through December. Swimming areas open Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Park Fees: $7 parking fee for standard vehicles; $5 boat launch fee with trailer; no charge for cartop launching.
Park Restrictions: The park asks that you not paddle right next to or inside the sunken ships for safety reasons. The northern beach is reserved for swimmers and does not allow kayak launches.
Weather Conditions: Before setting off on your paddle, always check the weather forecast as well as Kiptopeke’s marine forecast on the National Weather Service website.
Boat Safety: As always, make sure you have your PFD, water, sunscreen and some form of communication, such as a cell phone or radio. Dixon strongly recommends that all paddlers wear a life jacket while on the water at Kiptopeke — not just bring it with them. Conditions can change suddenly due to the wind and the tides, and if you go over and get separated from your boat, you could be in trouble without a life jacket.
Written by Jessica Broaddus
Photo credit: Kiptopeke State Park