Coastal Virginia possesses some of the best scenery along America’s Eastern Seaboard. From the picturesque and historic ocean-fronting villages along the Eastern Shore to the sandy coasts of Virginia Beach to the wildlife-rich tidal waters of Chesapeake Bay to the unsung and untouched reaches of the Great Dismal Swamp, coastal Virginia makes an ideal natural getaway, especially with so many parks, refuges, and preserved beaches for you to explore.

Doe Creek Wildlife Management Area

Doe Creek Wildlife Management Area

Photo Credit: Meghan Marchetti, @virginiawildlife

And there’s still more! Virginia’s Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) provide additional places you can savor a slice of the seashore. Virginia’s coastal WMAs can take you to where the rivers meet the sea and where the land meets the ocean, to view wildlife, ride your bike, hike a boardwalk or beach, paddle a kayak, take a guided nature tour, or perhaps van or tent camp.

To that end, Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) has developed an online tool to help us discover and navigate the outdoor possibilities at Virginia’s WMAs. Known as Explore the Wild, the online tool  is your ticket to successfully discovering and sightseeing Virginia’s Wildlife Management Areas from the mountains to the sea.

Not only does Explore the Wild highlight the state’s WMAs, it also describes and suggests other nearby non-WMA natural destinations, such as national, state, county and city parks and forests, where your outdoor dreams may be pursued. You can discover one of Virginia’s coastal WMAs, then explore additional outdoor parks or refuges nearby.

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Photo Credit: Sam Dean, @sdeanphotos

For example, from Princess Anne WMA near Creeds, Explore the Wild will also lead you to Munden Point Park—with its boat ramp and paddler-only launches on Oakum Creek and North Landing River, picnic shelters, and preeminent birding. Explore the Wild also suggests Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where tram tours, bicycling, wildlife viewing, hiking and more fill out the agenda. The always-interesting Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Museum, with its fascinating undersea life and fun outdoor adventure park, is another Explore the Wild suggestion for you while near Princess Anne WMA.

So that’s how it works. The outdoor fun increases with each click between the Virginia WMAs and other nearby places highlighted by Explore the Wild.

Virginia Wildlife Management Areas: Know Before You Go

All Actions Listed Below Can Be Executed on the Explore the Wild Virginia Online Tool

  • All WMAs require a valid Virginia hunting or fishing license, boat registration, or DWR daily access permit, all of which allow you to access any Virginia WMA on that day. Annual access permits are available and are a good value.

  • Licenses are required to fish and hunt on Virginia WMAs.
  • DWR camping authorizations, which are free, are mandatory for campers on WMAs. You will need to obtain a free customer ID number if you have not previously registered with DWR’s GoOutdoorsVirginia licensing system. Camping authorizations are located under “Special Licenses” in the online license catalog. There is currently no charge for camping, but you must hold a daily WMA access permit, hunting or fishing license, boat registration, or Restore the Wild membership along with the camping authorization to camp. Camping is dispersed, with no designated sites or facilities of any kind.
  • WMAs may have seasonal access closures due to certain hunting seasons, wildlife hatches, etc., which will be noted on Explore the Wild and on the WMA’s dedicated webpage.
  • Download the map for each WMA you plan to visit to help you when on the ground.
  • Pack out your trash while visiting WMAs. 

Note: The primary mission of Virginia’s wildlife management areas is to enhance habitat for the state’s flora and fauna. Therefore, Virginia WMAs are managed in a more primitive fashion – generally no amenities such as visitor centers, campgrounds, or restrooms.

It takes a little more effort to learn the ins and outs of exploring Virginia WMAs. That is where Explore the Wild   pays dividends, rendering obtaining the necessary permits and licenses, as well as details for each WMA (and suggested non-WMAs), a breeze.

Consider that the more primitive experience at Virginia WMAs also means getting closer to nature., and don’t we all want to get a little closer to nature? To help you get started, here are four rewarding Wildlife Management Areas in coastal Virginia that you can discover. Additionally, for each WMA listed, you can learn about three additional nearby coastal destinations found in Explore the Wild  to enhance your Virginia outdoor experience.

Exploring Virginia’s Coastal Wildlife Management Areas

Ragged Island Wildlife Management Area

Nearest Town: Newport News

Potential Activities: Wildlife viewing, hiking, paddling, fishing

Why Go There: Walk out to the shoreline near Fishing Point

What You Need to Know: The tidal creeks are ideal for paddlecraft

Primary WMA Access Coordinates: 36.965268, -76.514189

Ragged Island Wildlife Management Area

Ragged Island Wildlife Management Area

Photo Credit: Meghan Marchetti, @virginiawildlife

Tucked away along the lowermost James River across from downtown Newport News, Ragged Island WMA is an estuarine gem. Consisting of marshlands and tidal creeks along with wooded islands and sandy shoreline, this 1,537-acre parcel forms a literal oasis of unspoiled Virginia in the Hampton Roads metroplex. Consider the 2.0-mile there-and-back walk to the tidal James River, encompassing multiple habitats along the way. First, saunter amidst swaying pines, then trek along tidal Cooper Creek, next stroll over reedy marsh via boardwalk to reach the untamed banks of the James River and an observation platform. Boaters can launch at Huntington Park municipal boat ramp across the river in Newport News to wander up Cooper Creek or bigger Ragged Island Creek, expanding fishing and wildlife viewing possibilities. You may spot deer on shore or varied waterfowl on the water. Ragged Island WMA is a designated site on the Virginia Bird and Wildlife Trail. Anglers can vie for flounder, croaker, or striped bass, while freshwater catfish and perch can be caught in the upper tidal creeks. Anglers also access shoreline near the US 17 bridge over the James River.

Additional Outdoor Destinations Near Ragged Island WMA Found Using the Explore The Wild Virginia App

The Mariner’s Museum Park

Nearest Town: Newport News

Potential Activities: Hiking, maritime historical study, picnicking

Why Go There: Walk the famed Noland Trail around Mariner’s Lake.

What You Need to Know: Private park is free and open to the public, though there is a small fee for entering The Mariner’s Museum

Primary Access Coordinates: 37.055374, -76.488491

Mariner's Museum

Mariner's Museum

What an asset for greater Newport News! Privately owned but open to the public, the museum features enlightening displays all about sea life in Virginia and beyond. The Mariner’s Museum has been around for nearly a century and delivers top notch interpretive information with changing exhibits and programs, as well as the USS Monitor. Next, explore beyond the museum walls, trekking the 4.8-mile Noland Trail. Immaculately maintained, the path leads you over a total of 27 trail bridges spanning quiet lake coves, as well as through fragrant piney woods. Savor the view from fabled Lions Bridge, separating Mariners Lake from the James River. Rather not walk? Rent a single or tandem kayak and paddle 167-acre Mariners Lake.     

Sandy Bottom Nature Park

Nearest Town: Hampton

Potential Activities: Tent camping, hiking, paddling, nature study

Why Go There: Overnight at a walk-in tent campsite

What You Need to Know: The city of Hampton’s premier park is an environmental success story

Primary Access Coordinates: 37.878868, -77.504950

Once a forgotten sand pit and illegal dump, Sandy Bottom is into its third decade as an environmental success story, a nature preserve where you can pitch your tent at one of the walk-in tent campsites. Bike or hike over the 12 miles of nature trails, learn a few things at the sizeable Environmental Education Center, or paddle park waters, including Crystal Lake. The Trillium Trail is the park’s most popular walk, as it loops by restored wetlands, open waters and flowery woods in 3.3 miles. Paddlers can tool around Crystal Lake in their own boat or rent a canoe, paddleboat or kayak. Only electric motors are allowed on Crystal Lake. Bring a meal with you and use the picnic sites and shelters.

Fort Monroe

Nearest Town: Hampton

Potential Activities: Beachcombing, lighthouse visiting, swimming, RV camping, boating, fishing, picnicking, historical study

Why Go There: Claim your spot on miles of oceanfront beaches with lifeguards in season

What You Need to Know: Fort Monroe is a big, sprawling complex collectively managed by the National Park Service, Fort Monroe Authority, the US Army and the city of Hampton

Primary Access Coordinates: 37.005542, -76.307801

Fort Monroe

Fort Monroe

Photo Credit: Bill Crabtree Jr.

Strategically located at the mouth of the James River, the lands that became Fort Monroe have undergone many incarnations over 400-plus years. These days the changes favor outdoor recreationalists, especially visitors who like to tramp the sandy shores stretching along the east shore of the fort. Lighthouse lovers can pay a visit to Old Point Comfort Lighthouse, two centuries and counting of lighting the waters of greater Chesapeake Bay. Other histories you can study include the first landing of Africans in what became Virginia, the moat-bordered, preserved brick structure that is Fort Monroe, as well as the Casemate Museum, specializing in the military history of the fort. The road-laced greater fort grounds are fun for bicyclers and E-bicyclists. Don’t forget the on-site RV park here, or the fishing pier.

Cavalier Wildlife Management Area

Nearest Town: Chesapeake

Potential Activities: Primitive camping, hiking, bicycling, fishing

Why Go There: E-bike the gravel roads at sunset

What You Need to Know: Much of the WMA was reclaimed land that was once part of the Great Dismal Swamp

Primary WMA Access Coordinates: 36.601175, -76.326230

Cavalier Wildlife Management Area

Cavalier Wildlife Management Area

Photo Credit: Meghan Marchetti @virginiawildlife

Cavalier Wildlife Management Area is simple and primitive, set against the North Carolina state line. Once part of the Great Dismal Swamp, the land was drained and farmed two centuries back, but now the 3,800-acre tract is managed for wildlife, with a mix of forests, fields and wetlands. A system of open and gated roads open the tract to visitation. I have tent-camped here and recommend tooling the hard packed dirt and gravel roads on fat tire bikes or E-bikes, enabling you to explore the terrain. Wildlife from black bears to turkeys to whitetail deer roam the WMA. A quiet pond also provides a freshwater fishing venue. An additional 800-acre tract borders Great Dismal Swamp Canal and is accessible by the Dismal Swamp Canal Trail.

Additional Outdoor Destinations Near Cavalier WMA found using Explore the Wild

Dismal Swamp Canal Trail

Nearest Town: Chesapeake

Potential Activities: Running, walking, bicycling, paddling, wildlife viewing

Why Go There: Travel dedicated trail along swamp canal

What You Need to Know: Multiple trailheads, restrooms, benches, parking areas and boat ramps are scattered along the paved path

Primary Access Coordinates: 36.689069, -76.358967

Located close to Cavalier WMA, what once was old US 17 is now a fun trail that travels along a canal cut through the Great Dismal Swamp (This canal is the oldest continually operating manmade body of water in the United States). A peaceful setting allows you to pedal the 8.6-mile one-way path or walk along the quiet waterway. Runners love this safe and scenic route. I have both paddled and pedaled here, starting in one spot, paddling the canal, then riding my bicycle back to my point of origin. Every time of year offers a seasonal delight. Highly recommended.

Northwest River Park

Nearest Town: Chesapeake

Potential Activities: Camping, hiking, paddling, bicycling, horseback riding, disc golf, fishing, mini-golf, horseshoes

Why Go There: Do a little bit – or a lot – or everything at this amenity laden park

What You Need to Know: Northwest River Park is ideally located for exploring the lowermost Virginia coast

Primary Access Coordinates: 36.586136, -76.152650

This is a fine park, a forested preserve along the banks of the Northwest River.  The 66-site campground contains shaded electric and non-electric sites, hot showers, and a campground shelter. They also avail two cabins for rent, and a separate equestrian camping area. Make it your base camp for exploring the town of Chesapeake, the coastline or the interior. But there’s plenty to do at Northwest Park, too. A network of trails allows you to fashion loops of your own length and choosing. Consider a 4-plus-mile circuit, traversing lots of bridges on the Molly Mitchell, Otter Point and Indian Creek Trails. You’ll also find river overlooks and picnic shelters along the way. Rent a kayak and paddle the main lake as well as tour cozy wooded creeks.

Lake Drummond

Nearest Town: Suffolk

Potential Activities: Paddling, fishing, nature study

Why Go There: This is a natural and unique lake in the heart of the Great Dismal Swamp

What You Need to Know: Lake Drummond is 3,142 acres big but only 6 feet deep max

Primary Access Coordinates: 36.591493, -76.488113

Great Dismal Swamp

Lake Drummond

Photo Credit: John Henley

This special body of water, a natural lake, is one of Virginia’s best kept secrets. Completely encircled by the Great Dismal Swamp, Lake Drummond is an aquatic Virginia treasure. Its tea-colored waters spread over a shallow bottom, while the edges of the lake are dotted with nature-sculpted cypress trees rising from the water. The tannin-colored lake isn’t the best for fishing, but if you are looking for an off-the-radar, nature-heavy place to paddle or motorboat, it doesn’t get much better. A boat ramp on the west side of the lake allows paddlers to launch directly onto Lake Drummond, winding amidst rising cypresses extending from the dense shoreline. Paddlers can also access Lake Drummond’s east side (from Arbuckle Landing) via a canal. But you must cross a low dam on the way via a boat portage track.

Doe Creek Wildlife Management Area

Nearest Town: Onancock

Potential Activities: Primitive camping, hiking, wildlife viewing

Why Go There: Experience an off-the-beaten path destination on the Eastern Shore

What You Need to Know: The woods, marsh and fields are bordered by tidal creeks opening onto the bay side of the Eastern Shore

Primary WMA Access Coordinates: 37.766583, -75.729802

Doe Creek Wildlife Management Area

Doe Creek Wildlife Management Area

Photo Credit: Ron Messina

What better way to enhance a trip to the serene, marine-rich Eastern Shore than a visit to Doe Creek WMA? Tidal Doe Creek and its woods bordered tributaries complement small ponds and fields elsewhere in this tranquil 447-acre parcel, known for wildlife viewing. It also borders an additional Department of Wildlife Resources property known as the Mink Farm Tract, creating an even larger wild space for wildlife. Waterfowl use the WMA impoundments during spring and fall. Visitors construct loops out of the WMA roads, which make for easy walking or fat tire bicycling. Paddlers launch at the Johnson Wharf boat ramp on nearby Hunting Creek then curve around Flannegan Point to enter Doe Creek, exploring its shores.

Additional Outdoor Destinations Near Doe Creek WMA Found Using the Explore The Wild Online Tool

Tangier Island Water Trails

Nearest Town: Tangier

Potential Activities: Paddling, fishing, beach walking, town-exploring

Why Go There: Visit an isolated island, then paddle its designated water trails

What You Need to Know: Tangier Island is accessible by scheduled ferry from the town of Onancock on the Eastern Shore, as well as Reedville on the Virginia mainland

Primary Access Coordinates: 37.711815, -75.755340

Tangier Island

Tangier Island

Photo Credit: Big Orange Frame

Talk about immersing yourself into Eastern Shore aquatic life! Start at the coastal town of Onancock then take a ferry to the isolated island of Tangier. Once there, discover this Virginia jewel of a settlement either before or after endeavoring some of the designated paddling trails, shown on an electronic brochure accessible via the Explore the Wild online tool. Also consider renting a bike and rolling around the island or simply walking the beach here, which stretches into a long spit. Spend the night on the island or dine after the return trip to Onancock.  

Saxis Wildlife Management Area

Nearest Town: Saxis

Potential Activities: Boating, paddling, primitive camping, paddling, fishing, bicycling, hiking

Why Go There: Paddle miles of natural shoreline with the possibility of primitive paddler camping on this big WMA

What You Need to Know: Saxis WMA is stretched out over several peninsulas adjacent to the Maryland state line

Primary Access Coordinates: 37.904065, -75.683392

Saxis Wildlife Management Area is one of the bigger parcels of public land on the Eastern Shore. Despite the large size of the WMA5,678 acres strong set on three peninsulas jutting west into Chesapeake Baywater remains the most popular access, especially with the Hammock boat ramp set on tidal Messongo Creek, in the heart of Saxis WMA. Take off from here in your paddlecraft or motorboat, exploring the isles, wetlands and small beaches bordering the waters of Saxis. Waterfowl gather in the marshes in season. The south bank of Messongo is a no-hunting waterfowl refuge. Those wishing to stay on the land have a fine option in visiting Guard Shore Beach, an underpublicized sand strip accessible by auto and a short walk. Here you can stroll the sandy shore with other wildlife-oriented beachgoers.      

Gargatha Landing

Nearest Town: Gargatha

Potential Activities: Paddling, boating, fishing, beachcombing

Why Go There: This public ramp launches you to explore Metompkin and adjacent coastal islands and beaches

What You Need to Know: You must have an Accomack County parking permit, available online, to park here

Primary Access Coordinates: 37.774981, -75.561520

Gargatha Landing is a small Accomack County boat ramp well situated to access the Atlantic Ocean facing Metompkin Island and Gargatha Beach. Boaters and paddlers use Gargathy Creek (Correct spelling, both Gargathy and Gargatha are used in these parts) to wind easterly about 2.5 miles to the north end of Gargathy Beach, a natural Atlantic Ocean shoreline, part of the Metompkin Islands, where you can beachcomb. Segments of this area are owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy. Please be respectful of the resource and stay below high tide line. You can also head southeast through Gargathy Bay to Metompkin Bay to still more beaches that proudly remain the real, natural Virginia. Paddlers should be mindful of the tides and have some form of navigation on board to make your way amidst these scenic tidal creeks.

Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area

Nearest Town: Creeds

Potential Activities: Wildlife viewing, bicycling, paddling, fishing

Why Go There: Access the untamed southwestern part of Back Bay

What You Need to Know: The three tracts of Princess Anne WMA are completely water oriented, with very little land recreation.

Primary WMA Access Coordinates: 36.590254, -75.992167

Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area

Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area

Photo Credit: Meghan Marchetti, @virginiawildlife

Back Bay is a large and ecologically significant tidal basin. Located in the extreme southeastern segment of Virginia, bordered by barrier islands and the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the state of North Carolina to the south, the waters and lands around it draw in birds (and birders), featuring over 300 species of winged wonders. The tidal complex of which Princess Anne WMA is a part consists not only of barrier islands, tidal basins and winding creeks, but also marshy interior islands and manmade freshwater impoundments and limited maritime forests and managed fields. The diversity of environments makes this area an important piece in Virginia’s natural puzzle. Princess Anne WMA features a large boat ramp with a short canal opening onto Back Bay. Much of this part of Back Bay is very shallow, favoring kayaks and limiting boats to shallow draft models. Scan for snow geese, swans and ducks as well as songbirds during the winter migration. Other sought for bird sightings include teal, grackle and egrets. Paddle around the boggy islands of Pocahontas Marsh, scoping for wildlife. You will see many first-come, first-serve bird blinds on the shores of Princess Anne WMA.

Additional Outdoor Destinations Near Princess Anne WMA Found Using Explore the Wild

Munden Point Park

Nearest Town: Creeds

Potential Activities: Boating, paddling, picnicking, disc golf, fishing, bicycling

Why Go There: Search out heron rookeries on the North Landing River

What You Need to Know: A paddler only launch puts you directly on intimate Oakum Creek

Primary Access Coordinates: 36.582554, -76.037918

Beloved Munden Point Park has been around a while and just keeps on improving. Set on the banks of tidal North Landing River, the 100-acre preserve has a first rate boat ramp for the motorboat set and a separate canoe and kayak launch for paddlers. Oakum Creek is a fine place to explore for paddlers, especially when the winds are howling, as the stream narrows to its headwaters. If you get out on North Landing River, it too narrows as you head north, or try marsh-bordered Blackwater Creek, a tributary of North Landing River. Motorboaters can head south on North Landing River, soon to reach the state of North Carolina. Munden Point Park also has traditional park offerings such as playgrounds, picnic shelters, restrooms, corn hole stations, ball fields and the like. The park has a reputation for being clean and well kept. Outside of natural amenities, Munden Point Park is best known for its disc golf course, where tournaments are regularly held.

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Nearest Town: Sandbridge

Potential Activities: Tram touring, bicycling, wildlife viewing, paddling, hiking  

Why Go There: Take the tram tour and walk an untamed beach

What You Need to Know: This refuge has protected Virginia’s southeast coast since 1938

Primary Access Coordinates: 36.688022, -75.921777

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Photo Credit: Sam Dean, @sdeanphotos

Birding is big at this sizeable 9,175-acre refuge, as Back Bay NWR is situated on an important parcel of the Atlantic Flyway. Not surprisingly, most visitors are nature minded. Interpretive programs are regularly scheduled for outdoor learners, while the beach, refuge roads and trails can be combined to help you execute loop hikes short or long on foot or bicycle. Bike touring is very big on the refuge. The popular guided tram tours give less-mobile visitors a chance to appreciate the sands, forest, marshes and waters of Back Bay NWR. A paddler launch is just behind the refuge visitor center if you want to scull the eastern side of Back Bay. The beach side of the refuge is ever popular and parades an undeveloped sandy shore.

Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center

Nearest Town: Virginia Beach

Potential Activities: Boat tour, nature programs for all ages, ziplines, aquarium touring

Why Go There: To admire exotic saltwater and freshwater fish as well as reptiles. There may even be a few human divers in the aquarium

What You Need to Know: Fees apply for admission and tours

Primary Access Coordinates: 36.821030, -75.983294

You can enjoy a wide array of fish, mammals, reptiles and other wildlife inside (and outside) the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Life Science Center. Set on Owl Creek in the town of Virginia Beach, the aquarium and science center fuses outdoor education, wildlife viewing and entertainment into one fun outdoors-oriented experience. Delight in a dolphin watching tour during the warm season. Head to the adventure park for woodsy ziplining. The aquarium tours will deliver up close and personal looks at creatures you otherwise would be unlikely or desirous to see in the wild. Take a “Behind-the-Scenes” tour to see how this fun destination interfaces with the wildlife within. The comprehensive aquarium website will help you narrow down your choices to best experience the Virginia Aquarium.


Want to explore more Wildlife Management Areas in Virginia? Check out these guides to continue your outdoor adventures!