Horsehead Cliffs along the Potomac River in Virginia


Westmoreland Area, Virginia

Last updated October 29, 2012



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Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four

On August 26, 2012, I put together a "bucket list." This was prompted by me having too many trips that I wanted to do. Rather than forget some of them over time, I thought I'd use my website to keep things organized.

One of these trips was to the Westmoreland area of Virginia. I first heard about this place from a kayaker by the name of Tom B. His route and photos are posted at EveryTrail - Westmoreland State Park (now a broken link). A different trip report from another person can be found at Westmoreland State Park - Kayak Trip

Not wanting to drive too far over the busy holiday and not being able to explore the creeks that are best seen during the spring, Westmoreland seemed like a good option for the Labor Day weekend. So Norma and I loaded up the bikes and my Ocean Kayak Cabo, then headed out.

Day One, Friday, August 31, 2012

Unfortunately, we got off to a late start, got disoriented in Washington, D.C. trying to avoid the beltway, then ran into heavy traffic as we approached the Potomac River Bridge. The original plan was to use this day to explore Caledon State Park. We were running out of time but decided to check the place out anyway.

Caledon is a lovely least that is the case around the visitor center, which was closed when we arrived. There were numerous butterfly bushes along with hundreds of butterflies to include tiger swallowtails (first photo) and great spangled fritillaries (second photo). Hummingbirds were also abundant. See third and fourth photos. The place has several trails and kayaking opportunities on the Potomac River for those wishing to rent a boat for a tour. But there is no launch site open to the public since their launch site is far from any general access road.

I hope to return in the early spring when their Rookery Spur Trail is complete.
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Next, we drove to Westmoreland State Park where we had a non-electric campsite reservation. Sites weren't assigned so we just picked one that was available, C23. This put us reasonably close to the bathhouse but far enough from the crowds and traffic. The site looked brand new.

Checking in at the new visitor center, we learned that many of the campsites and cabins (including ours) were rebuilt after a hurricane. We also saw just how well known this place is as a sharks tooth hunter's paradise. See photo.

We set up our tent just before dark then called it an early night.
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Day Two, Saturday, September 1, 2012

After breakfast, we showed up for the Eagles, Fossils, and Fun kayak trip led by an interpretive park naturalist. Since we had our own boat, it was easy to show up at the last minute and pay the $10 per boat fee to join in. We launched from the beach just east of the Osprey Boat House and paddled east. Fawn, our naturalist, and Heather, another park employee, led us by Horsehead Cliffs. See first and second photo and the photo at the top left corner of this page.

We pulled ashore at an area east of Fossil Beach just outside of the park boundary. In this place about 1.3 miles from the boat house on the Potomac, they had special permission to take kayakers to look for fossils.

Colanders and shifting boxes were distributed to sift for fossils. It felt a little like panning for gold. See third photo. Fawn showed us a replica tooth from a carcharodon megalodon (prehistoric great white shark). See fourth photo. As we commenced our search, we found other shark teeth, but none quite so impressive. But Norma and I found a lot of things we didn't expect to find such as a scapula from a large marine mammal, various other bones, a fossilized piece of crap (coprolite) from a salt water crocodile, what appear to be snails, petrified wood, and the ear bone from a dolphin. We also found a piece of an Ecphora gardnerae gardnerae (Wilson), the official state fossil shell of Maryland. Having a naturalist with us to point all this out was essential as most of this would have just looked like interesting rocks to the untrained eye. But after some instructions, we started getting to know what to look for.

This site is Upper Miocene Age (6 to 14 [million] years old). Shark teeth, whale bones and teeth, crocodile teeth, and turtle shell are found here. Some complete whale, porpoise and crocodile skeletons have been collected here. Occasionally even a Megalodon tooth is found here. A Megalodon is an extinct giant shark - the huge monster whose teeth can reach 5 or 6 inches long. There are also beautiful fossil shells found here, including Chesapectens and Ecphora. Some of the Chesapectens have both valves, and some of the Ecphora are complete or almost complete.
- from Mid-Atlantic Fossil and Nature Adventures

Fawn gave us a very helpful paper identifying the various fossils found in the area. See fifth and sixth photos.

Along Horsehead Cliffs, several bald eagles were seen.
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Norma and I ate lunch by the beach then got in the Cabo again. This time we headed west on the Potomac for about 2 miles to Popes Creek. It was about 4 hours until high tide so it was quite shallow at the mouth. We had to get out and walk through much of the delta. But that wasn't so bad as the bottom of the creek was fairly solid (unlike the upper Patuxent River which is muddy). The bottom was also rocky in many places so a plastic boat was ideal.

We heard lots of gunfire near the mouth of the creek on the east side. I'm guessing some people were doing target shooting.

Fawn told us that Popes Creek is supposedly one of the cleanest creeks in the Chesapeake Bay. The reason for this is because so much of the adjacent land is historic and in control of the National Parks Service. Thus, it was never developed and farmland does not drain into the bay here. Additionally, the shallow delta at the mouth helps keep pollution out. But despite its cleanliness, it looked like most other parts of the bay. It was by no means clear. I suppose the difference lies more in the bacterial count.

Our reason for wanting to kayak up Popes Creek was to see the George Washington Birthplace National Monument. The two of us paddled along the west side of the creek until we came to a modern-looking brown building near the water. We pulled ashore at a small sandy area, locked the boat and personal floatation devices (PFDs) to a tree root, then walked a short distance through some grasses to a sidewalk on higher ground. Locking up the boat wasn't so much for anti-theft but rather to keep it from floating away at high tide since I knew the water was still rising. Along the place where we walked through the tall grasses, Norma thought she saw poison ivy. I believe she was right as I ended up getting a poison ivy rash on a small section of my left hand. There were no signs prohibiting landing but we heard that it is discouraged...probably for these reasons.

We made our way to the visitor center then to the actual site where George Washington was born.
In 1718 Augustine Washington [George's father] purchased 150 acres of land on Popes Creek "with all house edifices buildings," as well as an extensive farming operation. As at Bridges Creek, improvements on the house and purchases of additional tracts of land indicated Washingtons' continued financial growth.
- from "Popes Creek Plantation" sign

Here we were met by a park ranger who gave us a tour of the place and house. He spoke for 20 or 30 minutes, stressing how Washington was handed the most powerful position in the country twice (once as a general and once as President) but both times he handed it back voluntarily because he didn't care about having power. He just wanted what was best for the country and to be a farmer. It all gave me a warm fuzzy feeling being an American.

See the first photo for one of the rooms in the house.

Outside the house, there were pigs wallowing in the mud, tobacco hanging (second photo), a blacksmith shop (third photo), and a big garden that we walked through (fourth photo).

Back at the visitor center, we saw a film that we slept through. In the bookstore, we learned about Colonel Charles Broadwater who served with George Washington. He is buried at the Broadwater family cemetery at the corner of Tapawingo Road and Frederick Street Southwest in Vienna, Virginia.
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The tide was still rising so we decided to explore the rest of the creek. It was a good thing I locked up the boat since now the beach was under water.

Paddling upstream, we saw more eagles. They are a common sight now, yet I still get a little excited when I see one. There were also a few kingfishers out (first photo).

I always sit in front of the tandem kayak and Norma always sits behind. Sometimes she splashes me then denies doing it. So it came as no surprise when I heard a big splash, then told her to quit splashing me, only to have her to say she didn't do it. But a few minutes later, another big splash was followed by something hitting my hand. Clearly, it wasn't her that did that. A little later, there was a splash then a loud thud on the boat. Norma started screaming. A nine inch long menhaden hopped up on the boat and only stopped flopping around when it wedged itself headfist between my seat and kayak. I tried to free it but it was slimy so I couldn't easily get a grip. But after a couple of minutes, I had it and set it back in the water. See first photo. I've had minnow-sized fish jump into my kayak, over my kayak, onto my paddleboard, and over my paddleboard, but I've never had a large fish jump into my kayak. This wasn't just any large fish either. Menhaden are considered a delicacy. Had I been in a position to clean and cook it, its fate would have been otherwise.

At the mouth of Popes Creek, we passed something interesting that Norma noticed. At first I thought it was just a crab pot marker since it was of that size and what I'd expect to find. But then it blinked. Looking again, I realized it was a dove. We pulled it out of the water. It was bleeding from its wing and unable to fly. I suspect some of the gunfire we heard as we paddled into the creek was aimed at this bird. Norma wrapped the dove in her hat (third photo) and we continued back to the park.

We paddled about 2.6 miles in the morning then another 8.75 in the afternoon for a grand total of 11.35 miles.

Back at the park, Norma spoke to a ranger. He said dove hunting is legal in Virginia and that animal sanctuaries won't take it since it is such a common animal and they are typically filled with other animals needing care. So we found a place for it to hide and set it free. I don't know what else we could have done.
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We washed up then drove to Colonial Beach for dinner. The place was pretty busy. We checked out Sea Side Thai and French cuisine but it looked like they already had more people than they could handle so instead we went to Riverboat on the Potomac. I read that since it is built out over the water, it is technically in Maryland, as Maryland owns the Potomac. Even though they serve food, it seems like they make most of the money from gambling: Keno, lottery, Texas Hold 'em, and off-track horse racing. Had we more time, we would have looked for someplace else to eat but we were both quite hungry. But it all worked out fine as the food was good. The lemon cake was particularly tasty.

Walking along the boardwalk and out onto a pier, we saw lots of lightning off in the distance and heard a Led Zeppelin tribute band.

Day Three, Sunday, September 2, 2012

Originally, we planned to launch from the park and paddle downstream on the Potomac to Currioman Bay past Stratford Cliffs, take out at Currioman Landing, then bike back. Such a trip would be about 8 miles on the water. But there was a good chance of rain and after seeing Horsehead Cliffs yesterday, I thought Stratford Cliffs might look too similar. So instead, we decided to spend the day on land.

From our campsite, we biked south on Conservation Corps Trail which led us out of the park. A gas station just outside of the park on Kings Highway (route 3) provided Norma with her morning coffee buzz. Route 3 is not a good road for bicycling since it has no shoulder, traffic moves quickly, and it is busy. But we were only on it for 0.7 mile. The rest of the time we were on much quieter roads. After 3.6 miles, we arrived at Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee and the boyhood home of two signers of the Declaration of Independence. A three foot long black snake (first photo) and a goat (second photo) greeted us. The goat has a pen but it has also mastered the art of escape.

We got a guided tour of the house. See third photo. It wasn't nearly as interesting as the tour at George Washington's birthplace. I found the chicken walking around the area more intriguing. See fourth photo.

After the tour, we walked around the grounds. Then we biked to the restaurant for lunch. A Maine coon cat (aka American Longhair) stood by. See fifth photo. My medium well burger was as rare as a unicorn. I need to start saying, "medium well, no pink inside."

Next, we biked to Stratford Cliffs. Then, setting the bikes aside, we walked on the Mill Overlook Trail to a mill and the beach, where we looked for more fossils. We found a few, including some shark teeth. Unfortunately, the beach area we could access was small. It was roped off with signs prohibiting us from venturing further. A little kid came from the prohibited area and showed us a carcharodon megalodon tooth that he found. I'm guessing it was about 2 inches long! Later, his parents followed. They were there with the Mid-Atlantic Fossil and Nature Adventures club who was given permission to hunt for fossils in the restricted area closer to the cliffs. I believe there might be liability issues due to falling debris from the cliffs. But for those having access to the cliff area, there is much to be found.
The cliffs overlooking the Potomac River contain fossils dating as far back as 10-12 million years ago, when this land was covered by the sea. The Potomac River itself is only about 10,000 years old - geographically very recent. As the waters receded, the cliffs were revealed. Here paleontologists have found numerous fossils, including a partial skeleton of a baleen whale, the jaw of a primitive salt water crocodile, and seven-inch-long teeth of a Carcharodon megalodon, the precursor to today's Great White Shark. A megalodon would have grown to lengths of 50 to 60 feet, about three times the length of its modern descendant.
The cliffs erode constantly, which is why visitors regularly find shark teeth, whale bones, ray plates, another types of fossils on the beach.

- from sign near Stratford Cliffs

Perhaps my best find of the day was not a fossil but a rhinoceros beetle. See sixth photo. It was about 1.6 inches long with red hairs sticking out between the crevices of its armor. It was flipped upside down, unable to get right side up so I picked it up, not knowing if it would bite. Later I learned they
are completely harmless to humans because they cannot bite or sting.
Rhinoceros beetles are popular as pets in parts of Asia, in part due to their being clean, easy to maintain and safe to handle. Also in Asia, male beetles are used for gambling fights.

- from Wikipedia - rhinoceros beetle

Norma and I also walked on the Silver Beech Trail which we thought would take us down to another beach. I guess we didn't notice that the beach on the sign was spelled "beech." Not surprisingly, it didn't take us to the water, but it did give us some views of the steep cliffs. See seventh photo. A five-lined skink was seen scurrying across the trail.

We biked back to the campground. Our total ride was about 9 miles.
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After washing up, we went out to eat at
     Bowie's Restaurant
     4009 Kings Highway (route 3)
     Colonial Beach, Virginia 22443
Unlike yesterday, we felt like we were eating with the locals, not the tourists.

Day Four, Monday, Labor Day, September 3, 2012

On our final day in the Westmoreland area, we drove to the Westmoreland Berry Farm. We were greeted by goats that sit high above the ground and walk on a bridge suspended over the road. See photo. This place is a farm open to the public where one can pick your own berries. But the berries weren't ready for picking, despite what their website said. So there really wasn't much to do there.
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We stopped in at Ingleside Vineyards. Here we were given a very interesting tour of the facility which I highly recommend. See photo. Even though I don't enjoy alcoholic beverages, I could certainly appreciate all the work they put into making their award-winning wines.
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Norma and I returned to the park. We walked on Big Meadow Trail (first photo) to Fossil Beach where we looked for more fossils. I found several bones and one tooth. But my best find was a ray dental pavement. They don't have individual teeth as we think of them so the dental pavement does the work equivalent to teeth for them.

Just off the trail was a boardwalk (second photo) that led to an observation tower where we could see the creek that I believe marks the east park boundary. Norma was photographing stuff from the boardwalk such as a big pink hibiscus (third photo).
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Wanting to beat the holiday traffic back, we started heading home around noonish. But our quest to get ahead of the other vacationers was futile. There was an accident on or near the Potomac River Bridge that kept us stuck for an hour. During this time, I studied my Virginia DeLorme map and got ideas for a future trip...perhaps next year in the spring. I'm thinking we could spend a few days in the Fredericksburg area, paddling on the upper part of the Rappahannock River and the Rapidan River at Germanna Bridge.

Once we got across the bridge, the rest of our drive was easy.

After putting away the boat, bikes, gear, and hanging the tent to dry, I scrubbed off the fossils we found then photographed them. We aquired quite a collection over the weekend. See photo.
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Norma and I have always had a deep appreciation for the beauty of the natural world. Visiting historical sites is also something we enjoy. Add some kayaking, bicycling, and hiking, and we have a nearly perfect weekend. Many of our trips follow this pattern. But what made this one different was the fossils. Since the third grade, I've been interested in prehistoric animals. I suppose most boys are to some extent. For me, however, the interest was rather extreme. As an adult, I am still fascinated by such things. And now, this fascination seems to be rubbing off on Norma, at least somewhat.

After talking to some people, I learned that Breezy Point Park and Plum Point are good places for finding shark's teeth. Of course there is Calvert Cliffs State Park but everyone and their dog knows about that place. I'm looking for the road less traveled. Both Breezy Point Park and Plum Point are just south of Chesapeake Beach (see Calvert County ADC map 7 K11). Looking on-line, I don't know how easy it is to access Plum Point but Breezy Point Park is only about a half mile north of it. There is supposedly a boat launch there too. I also heard that Brownies Beach Road, just south of Brownies Creek (see Calvert County ADC map 4 G13) might also offer some good opportunities. I should also check out Fossil Guy. I can learn a lot from him.