12 beach options to beat the heat
From Havre de Grace, Md., to Virginia Beach, the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s 11,684 miles of shoreline offer plenty of places to jump, launch, or wade in. The Chesapeake Bay Program lists 1,278 public access points, defined as “places anyone can visit to swim, hike, paddle, or simply enjoy the history and natural beauty of the Chesapeake.” Naturally, some of the most desirable of these sites are beaches: the stretches of sand that, whatever their shape or size, open the door to a laundry list of activities. The trick, of course, is knowing where to go for the type of experience you seek. To get you started, here are a dozen strands to consider when “beaching” on the Bay.
For (Jellyfish-Free) Swimming: Betterton Beach, Betterton, Md.
Swimming in the Bay is almost always a good time, but there’s one thing that can quickly ruin it: a run-in with a Chrysaora chesapeakei or Chrysaora quinquecirrha—the species of sea nettles most commonly found in the Bay during summer. To help the public know “where and when to expect this biotic nuisance,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ocean Prediction Center maintains a website predicting jellies’ presence throughout the Bay, at ocean.weather.gov/Loops/SeaNettles/prob/SeaNettles.php.
As a general rule of thumb, your best bet for avoiding jellies is heading to the upper Bay, where the water is lower in salinity. Which brings us to Betterton Beach.
Located in Kent County, Betterton boasts 300 feet of sandy beach frontage running along surf that regularly receives an infusion of fresh, anti-jelly water from the nearby Sassafras River. Beyond this huge draw for those who love to swim sans stings, the beach also features 700 feet of shoreline access, 500 feet of boardwalk, a picnic pavilion, a stone fishing jetty, and a transient boat launching ramp—plus plentiful parking, a bathhouse with public restrooms, and no admittance fee.
Elk Neck State Park, North East, Md.
This state park sits on a peninsula separating the Elk River from the Bay. The swimmable beach is in the northeast section of the park, adjacent to the parking lot. Or take a hike out to Turkey Point Lighthouse, which sits on a 100-foot bluff overlooking the Bay. From May through October, you can climb to the top.
For the Dogs: Quiet Waters Park Dog Beach, Annapolis
If you’re focused on finding a great swimming spot for Fido, you’ll be pleased to discover that many state and county parks offer dog-friendly beaches—as long as the pooches are leashed and you’re prepped with a poop bag.
But if you’re looking for a beach made exclusively for off-leash dogs, the can’t-miss destination can be found at Quiet Waters Park.
Located right on the South River in Annapolis, Quiet Waters’ dog beach is accessible by either stairs or a sloped path, and is open to dogs of any breed and size. It’s also great for dogs of all swimming abilities, as the less experienced can stay behind the stone barriers of Loden Pond, sheltered from breaking waves, and the more adventurous can venture into the river proper. Adding to the attraction, the park provides dog waste stations near the beach, a rinse-off station and restrooms (for humans) near the parking lot, and a huge, fenced dog park (one side for bigs, one for littles) that you and your pup can visit on the way to or from your swim.
Jamestown Beach Event Park, Williamsburg, Va.
Located near historic Jamestown Settlement, this beach beckons with shady pines, a picnic area with charcoal grills and tables, a concession stand (ice cream!) that also has restrooms, and a surprising lack of people most of the time. Leashed dogs are allowed anywhere at the park, or you can head to the off-leash section to let them run free. Kayaks are available in summer season should your doggy want to pass off the paddling to you.
For Family-Friendly Fun: North Beach, Md.
For those seeking a nice site for sunning and swimming, it’s easy to make any beach day a great one, regardless of location, as long as the weather behaves and you come prepared with sunscreen, snacks, and the like. But for parents worried about their children’s patience—and their own patience with their impatient children—finding a family-friendly beach is key.
Located in the northeast corner of Calvert County, the town of North Beach offers a big and beautiful—and, unlike most Bay beaches, groomed—beach, featuring a pirate-ship playground and restrooms with showers. Nearby you’ll find a host of boredom-fighting amenities and activities including a seven-block-long boardwalk and bike path; a modern fishing pier; and rental shops offering floats, kayaks, paddleboards, and bicycles. There are also plenty of shops and restaurants within easy walking distance. Beach access is free from October through April; all other times, visitors who aren’t North Beach residents will need to pay a day fee: $25/adult and $10/child for out-of-county visitors, and $9 and $6 respectively for county residents.
Yorktown Beach, Va.
For fee-free, family-friendly fun in the sun, Yorktown’s two-acre beachfront is a great choice. Along with views up and down the York River, the beach offers picnic areas, restrooms, and not only a “Mobi-Mat” that accommodates walkers, strollers, and wheelchairs but also a “Mobi-Chair” (a beach-friendly wheelchair) that’s available for use by guests with disabilities. And, just as at North Beach, there are nearby activities aplenty, including a fishing pier and mile-long pedestrian Riverwalk; kayak, paddleboard, bike, and Segway rentals; shops and restaurants; and pirate-themed (or standard) cruises on Schooner Alliance, a 105-foot, gaff-rigged charter schooner. There’s even free public parking and trolley service.
For Adult-Friendly Distractions: Lowes Wharf Marina Inn, Sherwood, Md.
As all good Chesapeakers know, it doesn’t take much for adults to have a great day at the beach. The basic equation: sun + good company = fun. Of course, you can always dial it up a notch by adding some additional adult-friendly factors: a cold drink (or two) in your hands, good food in your belly, music in your ears, and some up-close water views.
One place where you can get all this and more? Lowes Wharf Marina Inn. Located roughly halfway between St. Michaels and Tilghman Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, “The Wharf” is a marina-inn-restaurant-bar hybrid that sits at the end of a peninsula. Surrounding two sides of the building is a huge manmade beach that offers everything you could ask for: plentiful reclining chairs and picnic tables with umbrellas; on-sand volleyball, cornhole, and ring toss; a bonfire pit; and a bulkhead ladder for swimming. There are also numerous mooring balls; great food and drinks at the restaurant, food truck, and tiki bar; and live music on the weekends. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a few summer hours. Or you can make a weekend out of it by booking one of six no-frills rooms at the inn.
The Jackspot at Sunset Beach, Cape Charles, Va.
Bring your beach chairs, sunscreen, and even your dog to this private beach, part of the Sunset Beach hotel complex. The onsite restaurant serves up casual fare like burgers and steamed seafood, perfectly paired with an ice-cold beer or frozen cocktail on a hot summer day. And everything seems even better knowing you’re not stuck in traffic at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, just a few miles away.
For History Lovers: First Landing State Park, Virginia Beach, Va.
If you’re equally focused on education and entertainment, you’re in luck, as nearly every stretch of sand along the Bay is steeped in history. One of the most interesting is the one-and-a-half mile-long beach at First Landing State Park, which claims its name as the site where English colonists first landed in 1607.
Located at the northernmost tip of Virginia Beach and the southernmost point of the Chesapeake Bay, the 2,888-acre park is a National Natural Landmark and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Whether gazing out from the tawny beach or hiking some of the 20 miles of trails that weave through the park’s bald cypress swamps, lagoons, and forest, it’s easy to imagine all types of vessels—Native American canoes, 18th-century pirate ships (allegedly including some of Blackbeard’s), and military ships from the Revolution through the Civil War—navigating up the Bay, making a quick stop to access the swamp’s fresh water, or landing for a long-term stay. The onsite Chesapeake Bay Center houses a wide array of exhibits to educate visitors on the site’s history, and the park offers cabins, yurts, and campsites so that the public can have a vicarious experience of living off the land. Just be sure to plan your trip well ahead of time, even if not staying overnight; First Landing is Virginia’s most-visited state park and they turn away guests when parking reaches capacity.
Point Lookout State Park, Scotland, Md.
This peaceful preserve located on the southern tip of St. Mary’s County has a fascinating history, having served at various times as a Confederate POW camp and as a seaside resort in the 1870s and again beginning in the 1920s. Visit the Civil War museum, open on weekends from May through October, and make plans to tour the Point Lookout Lighthouse when it reopens after extensive renovation, hopefully by the end of 2022. There’s also a 710-foot fishing pier; beach area with grills, picnic tables and a playground; 143 camp sites; and nearby boat rentals.
For Paddlers: Janes Island State Park, Crisfield, Md.
Located just outside of Crisfield, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Janes Island State Park offers two distinct environments: a 300-acre mainland section and a 2,900-acre “island section” of saltmarsh. On the former, you can spot terrestrial plants and animals while walking foot trails through the woods; relaxing at the park’s picnic areas and pavilions; visiting its nature center and observation tower; or camping at one of its 100+ campsites. On the latter, you can observe all sorts of birds, fish, and other saltmarsh dwellers while paddling your kayak, canoe, or paddleboard on the park’s seven marked water trails—trails that, traversing more than 30 cumulative miles along Tangier Sound, the Big and Little Annemessex Rivers, and various smaller creeks, have been named among North America’s best due to the variety they offer paddlers of all levels in terms of length and navigation. Off the water, you can wander miles of white-sand beach that overlook Tangier Sound.
New Point Comfort Natural Area Preserve, Port Haywood, Va.
The 63-foot-high New Point Comfort Lighthouse is the third oldest on the Bay, built on the southernmost point of Mathews, Va. in 1805. But due to shifting geology (and a 1993 hurricane), it now sits on an island, so the best and only way to see it up close is by kayak or SUP. The surrounding 105 acres are home to tidal mudflats, low woodlands, and pristine beaches—kept that way because the only way you can see them is from above, via the boardwalk, or by the water.