Hiking The Eastern Shore’s Winter Landscape

by Dana Kester-McCabe

After most of the tourists have gone home and the holidays are over, the woods, marshes, and beaches of Delmarva seem like they would be desolate places to visit. But hiking area trails during the winter is magical.

It's fun to hit the boardwalk after a snow storm and dream of summer. But in the middle of winter - happiness for people like me involves getting our hiking boots dirty. And that is exactly what you will need to do in order to enjoy what our grandparents used to call a "good stretch of the leg" in other words a nice healthy walk. Deep in the winter when even the soft sand dunes have frozen hard, there are usually still wet spots.

Getting ready to hike, I put on a couple of warm layers because I know that even when it is pretty cold I'll be shedding at least one of them. I like to take pictures but camera batteries don't perform well or sometimes at all when the temperatures get below forty. So the backup batteries go in an interior coat pocket to stay warm in hopes I'll be able to get at least a few pictures. Hat. Gloves. Yup. I am ready.

A cool easterly breeze grazes my face as I head out onto the dune trail on Assateague Island. Lately I try to get there around dawn in hopes of seeing owls or eagles on the hunt. As the day brightens the landscape transforms from blue and grey to the colors of a toasted marshmallow, off white, gold, and dark brown. In the tall grass is a shaggy copper colored horse eating breakfast, oblivious to me.

Some places on the trail are muddy. I have to walk on the edges so I don't get stuck. My trek takes me through the woods over to the bay which is calm and glassy. As I quietly approach the shore line I can see ducks playing in the water nearby and in the distance I can still hear the surf crashing on the beach. I think I would rather be doing this more than almost anything. It is such a serene experience to be in a wild place with no agenda and no time limit. Connecting with nature brightens my outlook on just about everything.

We are incredibly lucky to have a number of very different hiking experiences here on Delmarva. Because it is closer to home, I am most likely to hike on Assateague. But I have had great winter hiking at Bombay Hook near Dover, the Eastern Neck and Black Water Wildlife Refuges on the Chesapeake side, and through the Pocomoke River State Park. And that is just a few of the trails available here. In each place you can see a variety of birds and other wildlife.

Delmarva sometimes goes for a year or two when the only snow we see is in the form of snow geese on farm fields. But for the last few years we have had significant accumulation of actual snow. Though we all complain about driving in it, there is really nothing like a walk in the snow covered woods. Everything seems quieter until you hear the tap, tap, tapping of a downy wood pecker. Suddenly you become aware of all kinds of living sounds all around you, squirrels jumping from branch to branch, a belted kingfisher starts to scold. But the music of the woods has taken hold.

When winter hiking on Delmarva you can be a witness to the power of weather to change the landscape on the windswept dunes; to the magic of ice crystallizing along a grassy shoreline; to the gentle tranquility of a snow covered pond; and to the stirring majesty of our winter sunsets. And, just before you get back in your warm car and head home you'll find that you have to take just one more long look.

Delmarva Trail Links

On Assateague Island

Assateague Island State Park
Beach and easy to moderate trails including a scenic marsh boardwalk with observation blind.

Assateague Island National Seashore
In Maryland, besides the beach there are three easy to moderate trails through dunes, forest, and marsh. The latter two include easy scenic boardwalks.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
Six easy to moderate trails are available including the Freshwater Marsh, Woodland, Black Duck, Swan Cove, the Wildlife Loop, and Lighthouse Trail. Some but not all trails are paved.

In Delaware

Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge
A twelve mile wildlife drive, five walking trails with two handicapped accessible, and three observation towers

Delaware Birding Trail
Birding & hiking trail sites throughout the state of Delaware.

Delaware State Park Trails
Easy to moderate hiking trails throughout the state.

Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge
Six easy to moderate trails - two are handicap accessible

In Maryland

Adkins Mill Park
Easy scenic boardwalk trail into the cypress swamp

Adkins Arboretum
Four miles of easy to moderate paths through a variety of habitats, dry open upland meadows, maturing hardwood forest, and lush wooded bottomland.

Black Water Refuge
Wildlife drive and four easy to moderate hiking trails, the longest of which is the Key Wallace trail which is 2.7 miles through deep forest

Hazel Outdoor Center
Five easy to moderate trails through woodland. The longest trail is two miles. Prior reservation is required. This is geared toward groups.

Paul Leifer Nature Trail - Furnace Town Historic Site
A short, easy walk through bald cypress swamps and upland forests in The Nature Conservancy's beautiful, 3,000-acre Nassawango Creek Preserve.

Pemberton Park
4.5 miles of easy to moderate nature trails that lead visitors through a variety of surroundings. The longest trail is one mile.

Maryland State Parks & Natural Resources Management Areas
Easy to moderate trails in each county on the Eastern Shore

Mount Harmon Plantation
Visit the formal boxwood garden enclosed by serpentine brick walls and see 200-year-old yew trees as well as their network of nature trails through the historic Tidewater landscape.

In Virginia

Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge
Three easy trails through woodland and meadows. The longest is 2.6 miles.

Eastern Shore Loop - Virginia Birding Trail
This is a driving trail but it will connect you to a variety of birding sites some with hike-able trails on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

Kiptopeke State Park
Over a dozen easy trails mostly less than a half mile long designed just for bird watching.

A Few Hiking Tips

  1. It is always a good idea to go with a buddy or let someone know where you are going and when they can expect you to check in when you are home.

  2. Carry a cell phone in case you need help.

  3. Some parks actually ask hikers to check in at their ranger station. This is a good idea anyway for a couple of reasons. Many of our parks and wildlife refuges permit hunting during the winter. Park rangers can let you know where and when it is safe to hike, and the degree of difficulty for their trails. They can also point out closures and hazards they are asking guests to avoid. On the up side they usually know where the best sites are for viewing wildlife or if there is something really special to look out for.

  4. Pay attention to the time and tides. If you are hiking for more than an hour or two in marshland it is likely that the tide will rise or fall significantly while you are there which might mean you have to go wading to get where you need to go. Try and be close to your planned exit point at least ten minutes before dark.

  5. Stay on well marked trails, not only for your own safety but to help protect the delicate ecosystem you are visiting. Take your time and pay attention to your surroundings so you can easily back track if the trail ends in the middle of now where. Carry a trail map.

  6. Dress for the weather and in layers. Even on very cold days you can work up quite a sweat once you get going. You might find yourself wanting to shed an outer layer. Bring a knapsack to carry the extra layers.

  7. Grey days can be terrific hiking but check the weather for expected storms. If you have unexpected bad weather, seek shelter immediately.

  8. Bring bottled water in a thermos or travel mug. Even in the winter it is easy to become dehydrated so water breaks are always a good idea.

  9. Use a bathroom at the ranger station just before you begin your hike to lessen the need while on the trail.

  10. Take pictures not keepsakes. The more people take rocks, shells, and other natural treasures the fewer there are for other people to see. If you see something that looks like an historic artifact, help us maintain our cultural heritage by turning it in to the park you are visiting.

  11. Leave only your footsteps. Carry out everything you carry in. By and large most of the trails here are beautifully clean. Unfortunately trash does wash up on the shoreline or get dropped by the occasionally careless person. You can help us keep our trails clean and protect wildlife from ingesting harmful rubbish. Carry a plastic bag to pick up trash that you might find along the way.