Chesapeake Bay: Anchored by American history

May 03, 2018 12:41 PM

Beautiful and bustling, the Chesapeake Bay has long been a hub of recreation and commerce in the mid-Atlantic, beckoning settlers and sailors. Retreat into some of its quieter spaces to experience the wildlife and the people who have depended on its bounty for centuries.

Facts and Figures

  • The Chesapeake Bay watershed is seven times larger than the state of New Hampshire
  • It has 11,684 miles of shoreline; the Bay itself is 200 miles long
  • The watershed spans five states and the District of Columbia
  • Generally, the waters are fairly shallow, with an average depth of 21 feet
A fisherman hauls in the day's catch.
A fisherman hauls in the day's catch. The bay has been harvested for fish, oysters, mussels and other aquatic resources for more than 10,000 years.


Native Americans had long been settled along the shores of the Chesapeake when Europeans began to arrive in the 1500s. In 1607, Jamestown became the first permanent English settlement, setting the stage for both conflict with native people and centuries of environmental impact from shipping traffic, fishing and farming.

After research published in the early 1980s confirmed the Bay's degraded health, it became the first U.S. estuary (an ecosystem where freshwater and salt water mix) to fall under federal protection and restoration efforts as part of the Chesapeake Bay Agreement of 1983.

Things to Do and See

The Chesapeake Bay watershed spans over 160 parks, wildlife refuges, museums, trails and historic sites. At the northern end in Maryland, visit Susquehanna State Park to go canoeing, fishing, or take a walking tour through the Rock Run Historic Area, which has a working gristmill built in 1798. Kids also will love Steppingstone Farm Museum, with its animals and demonstrations.

The park's campground is open April through October; reservations are highly recommended on weekends. In summer, nearby Elk Neck State Park also has plentiful camping sites (reservations recommended). It sits on a peninsula between the Bay and Elk river, with spots for swimming, fishing, picnicking and birdwatching.

Chickahominy Cypress trees
Cypress trees are some of the oldest in the U.S. and many are the same trees John Smith and American Indians would have gazed upon 400 years ago.

Farther south along the bay, two refuges lie due east of Annapolis. Scout for bald eagles and butterflies at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, which has easy trails and boardwalks, and check out Wye Island for more wildlife and trails, including one that takes you past a nearly 300-year-old holly tree.

South of the Choptank River, visit the exhibits and legacy garden at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, adjacent to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge has a four-mile wildlife drive that can be explored on foot, by bike, or in a car.

Fall foliage turns the bay into a visually stunning masterpiece of colors.
Fall foliage turns the bay into a visually stunning masterpiece of colors.

Janes Island State Park is about a 75-mile drive south, with campsites and nearby ferry and boat services that run to Smith Island, famous for its crabbing history and namesake layer cake. Near the mouth of the bay, see the Jamestown Settlement, with exhibits and replicas that give a sense of life in 17th-century Virginia.

Many destinations are within day-trip distance of Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Richmond, making it easy to incorporate a city tour as part of your trip.

Best Time to Go

The milder and warmer days of spring and summer are the most popular times to visit, though Janes Island and other campgrounds are open March through November, so you'll avoid crowds if you decide to brave chillier temperatures in early spring or late fall.


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January 18, 2018 09:48 AM
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