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Taking my First Steps in the Great Outdoors, Part I

First Experiences with Virginia State Parks

As someone who’s never been to any state parks, I must admit, the opportunity to do a summer internship with Virginia State Park was both exciting and overwhelming. As an English major graduating in August, I wanted to gain some valuable experience writing and blogging so I applied and landed an internship with Staci Martin, Visitor Services Specialist, who coordinates public relations and marketing for coastal state parks in Virginia.

While driving to meet Staci on my first day, I thought, what’s so special about a park? Parks have swings and slides, a few benches around, and a place for all the old folks to sit. I’ve seen dozens of those at the very least; so initially, my preconceived assumption of First Landing was that of a normal park, just a really, really big one. Looking back, I couldn’t be any further from the truth.There is a big difference between a city park and a state park.
Olivia Richardson will be doing a summer internship with Virginia State Parks.

Olivia Richardson stands on the dune crossing boardwalk at First Landing State Park along the Chesapeake Bay.
First Landing State Park, the first state park I’ve ever been to, is beautiful, but that is quite the understatement. Large grassy sand dunes, hovering over each other to shield the inland coastal forest from the Chesapeake Bay were breathtaking for this city girl.Even though I live in Hampton Roads, I’ve never seen dunes like this before. To me, sand dunes are something only found in the desert. The beach itself, seemingly untouched by man, as opposed to the bustling beach of the Virginia Beach oceanfront, let me imagine what it must have been like for the first settlers arriving by boat to the New World.
As part of my orientation, we took a hike along the Bald Cypress Trail where I saw my new favorite plant, Spanish moss. I learned that it is an epiphyte—getting its nutrients from the air. We took a tour of the campsites and buildings as well. This place is like a small city!  I met rangers, camp host, Park Interpreters, and AmeriCorps volunteers. If you're interested in volunteering, click here and if you are interested in an internship like mine, click here.
The Bald Cypress Trail has great scenic overlooks of the cypress pools.

After being slightly familiarized with Virginia State Parks, I had a vague understanding of what to expect from our next tour: False Cape State Park in the Sandbridge area of Virginia Beach.After hearing that False Cape was very primitive and being told to pack sunscreen, bug spray, and wear hiking shoes because of snakes, I got a little worried. 
I imagined that there would be no trails at all, but vines clinging to thickets of trees like snakes, casting pitch black darkness over all our heads. I imagined that wolves, bears, maybe even dragons would run wild in that darkness. It’s funny to think back on this now; I was wrong about the missing trails and dragons, but there are wild pigs!The park has a great trail system. While on the trails and beach we saw blue heron, snowy egrets, turtles, a juvenile eagle, ghost crabs, and river otters. 
 Birds are abundant on the beach and in the coastal forest
Birds are abundant on the beach and on the trails at False Cape State Park.
Yes, False Cape is pretty wild: some wet parts, some woody parts, some grassy parts, and a terrifying, ghostly graveyard in the middle of the Spanish moss draped trees, straight out of a horror movie. It is hard to image the people of the Wash Woods community surviving out here in the 1920s.  I found out that False Cape State Park and Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge are heavily managed in partnership to change marsh water levels, managing plant life, and to burn invasive grasses in order to improve habitat for birds and wildlife.
The graveyard at the site of the former Wash Woods church is a really unique spot.
The graveyard at the former Wash Woods church site is a really unique spot.

I’m only two weeks into my internship and I’m thrilled to find out that these absolutely stunning state parks are so close to me. I found out there are five state parks within 90 minutes of my home town of Portsmouth—First Landing, False Cape, York River, Kiptopeke, and Chippokes.  I can’t wait to see them all!  I also found out the parks have this great online calendar so you can what guided hikes, kayak trips, outdoors programs, and history tours are available. 

Published: 06/19/2014

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