Region: Middle Peninsula
Length: 5.75 miles, one-way
Experience Level: Advanced
Highlights: Picturesque inlet into marsh creek, birding & wildlife, sandy beaches
Ideal Conditions: Incoming tide, winds from the west at <10 kt, early morning for the sunrise over the bay
It’s nearly 6 miles of pure kayaking bliss when you paddle from Horn Harbor to Bethel Beach. The shorelines are sparsely populated, the wildlife sightings can be like none other, and you’ll leave the busy life of the mainland for a few hours of tranquility – and a little taste of adventure! Grab a friend with a kayak and a car, and setting up your one-way paddling adventure will be a breeze.
It’s best to paddle this trail on an incoming tide (if the tide is on its way out, we recommend starting at Bethel Beach and finishing at Horn Harbor). Begin by leaving a car at Bethel Beach and then driving to Horn Harbor to launch; just make sure you have keys to both vehicles before you launch! Wildlife is abundant on this trip, so much so, that you may even spot something cool before you even get in your kayak. Check out this Northern water snake that greeted us briefly before launching:
As you paddle out of Horn Harbor and around the point to head into the bay, you’ll see tons of sandy beaches that are perfect to get out and explore. Please keep in mind that these beaches are on privately-owned land, so be respectful and stay below the high tide line. Osprey are frequent sightings in this area, as well as the occasional bald eagle. They could be soaring above, perched on a tree branch, or possibly sitting on the beach itself, so stay alert as you paddle on by.
Once you’re about two miles into your journey, the scenery will change and you’ll be heading through an inlet into a protected creek through the salt marshes. The inlet itself is a beautiful sight and it’s probably one of the most fascinating features of this paddling trip. The eroding bank on the mainland adds some significant height to the topography of this trip, and the water flowing into the creek with the incoming tide adds a bit of excitement when paddling through the inlet. This very spot is the reason we recommend paddling this trail on an incoming tide, so you don’t have to fight the current coming out of the creek on an outgoing tide (but if the tide is on it’s way out, you simply reverse your plans, launch at Bethel Beach, and head south).
The sand bar between the creek and the bay near the inlet is a very picturesque spot to get out, stretch, and explore a little bit. This sand bar likely gets completely inundated at high tide, and it also may be a completely different shape after a big storm, but it provides stunning views of the bay and the creek nonetheless. If you visit this area between late May and early July, you will likely spot evidence of nesting diamondback terrapins, as that is prime nesting season, for these brackish water turtles. If you’re lucky you may even spot a terrapin on land, looking for a spot to nest. In our case, we just saw a lot of turtle tracks in the sand, as well as ghost crab tracks!
The next 1.5-2 miles will take you through some peaceful, meandering salt marsh creeks. If you didn’t spot a terrapin on land earlier, you’ll most likely see some swimming in these creeks as they pop their heads above the surface of the water to come up for air. The surrounding marshes in this area are also wonderful birding opportunities. Great blue herons and egrets are frequent sightings, and clapper rails will be calling from their hiding spots in the grass.
Once the creek empties out into open water again, it’s time to head back out into the bay and continue heading north to Bethel Beach. At lower tides, exposed sand bars offer some stunning opportunities to get out, stretch, and snap some photos. At times the water is so blue, and the sand so white, your friends at home will think you were paddling in the Caribbean when they see your photos from this trip!
Please be aware that as you approach Bethel Beach Natural Area Preserve, some of the sandy beaches and islands in this area could have some important nesting habitat for a variety of rare nesting birds, as well as the globally rare tiger beetle. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do some birding from your kayak! Black skimmers, Forster’s terns, least terns, pelicans, American oystercatchers, and even swans can be spotted in this area! Should you wish to get out of your kayak, it’s vital to stay below the high tide line and stick to sand bars that are only exposed at lower tides. Confused yet? This image may help:
As you wrap up your 5.75-mile paddling adventure, you’ll be pulling up on the beautiful (pedestrian-friendly) beaches of the preserve. Enjoy a picnic lunch on the beach, or head back to grab your cars and stop for lunch in the quaint little town of Mathews, VA! Happy water trails!