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Withering Heights

The cliffs may be crumbling, but Virginia's Westmoreland State Park still features dramatic scenes and great characters. And we're not bluffing.

By Rita Zeidner
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 3, 2003; Page C02

"I'd stand back a bit if I were you," Lauck Ward called out one afternoon last spring, as I got a little too cozy with the precipice of a sandstone cliff 150 feet above the Potomac River. Ward, a paleontologist, knows this unstable, fossil-rich terrain well. "You never know when another big chunk of land is going to fall into the sea."

It wasn't quite a sea down there, although the Potomac is a good six miles wide here at Virginia's Westmoreland State Park, and its water is brackish from the nearby Chesapeake Bay. But it was quite a fall, 15 stories down to a sliver of neck-snapping beach. And sure enough, a mere six weeks later, several feet of that very section of cliff gave way, sliding down the near-vertical cliff face, adding to the tumble of rocks, uprooted trees and other debris below.

(Photos Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)

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Not that there's anything wrong with that. After all, it's erosion -- mainly from wind, rain and ice -- that has given the stratified, white, gray and red bluffs that frame Westmoreland their unique character as a little bit of Dover on the Potomac. But this year, in the wake of record snowfall and rain, erosion at Westmoreland has become more formidable, moving the park's coastline westward by eight to 10 feet.

"We definitely have natural forces at work," says Paul Billings, the park's natural resource specialist, who in response to the most recent slide recommended that a small section of the park's beach be closed. "We wouldn't want anyone to be walking under the cliffs and have 40 tons of dirt fall on them."

The staff at Westmoreland has grown accustomed to accommodating nature, condemning one of its most popular visitor cabins in the 1990s when the peripatetic cliff came too close to the structure for comfort. But you don't have to be a scientist or a natural resource expert to experience Westmoreland, and you don't have to come wearing hard hats and safety ropes. The cliffs can be viewed safely from above, where a fence keeps the foolhardy out of the danger zone, or from a boat or kayak, the latter of which can be rented at the park. (The waters of the Potomac at this location are calm.) Despite the vagaries of erosion, the park -- 40 miles southeast of Fredericksburg -- remains a recreation hub of the Northern Neck, a place popular with fossil hunters, woods walkers and weekend cabin dwellers. (This Saturday, the park will host a festival celebrating the 350th anniversary of Westmoreland County.)

Visitors have been enjoying the ever-changing bluffs of Westmoreland for centuries, according to Linda Birdsong, a University of North Carolina graduate student. She and Ward -- curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History -- recently published a guide to the fossil riches of these 15-million-year-old cliffs.

Indeed, it was the view from the cliffs that inspired Thomas Lee to purchase a nearby property in 1717 and build Stratford Hall Plantation, later to become the home of two signers of the Declaration of Independence and the birthplace of Lee's grandson, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, she says.

But unlike modern developers, the elder Lee knew better than to expose his estate to the brunt of powerful environmental elements, not to mention artillery attack from the British. The main house on the plantation sits almost a mile from the river. (In contrast, several large houses in a posh riverside community near Stratford Hall sloughed into the Potomac in early July, just two weeks before the much smaller slide at Westmoreland.) Notwithstanding some recent efforts to stem the slides at the park -- including planting several dozen saplings to sop up some of the erosive rainwater -- park authorities say they prefer to see the elements work their will on the ancient landscape. After all, it's the gradual wearing away of the cliffs that provides new clues to the area's natural history.

"I asked a fisherman if he knew of any fossil bones in the cliffs," wrote Scottish geologist John Finch in 1833. "He replied some giants were buried there, but he did not like to meddle with them."

Finch had no such compunction, and the fossil hunting has been going on ever since. The "lowest stratum" Finch identified, now known as the "Calvert Formation," remains chock-full of fossilized bones, some dating back 15 million years. That was when the warmer waters of the Potomac, here and even farther north to the District, provided a nursing ground for whales and manatees, which, in turn, attracted hungry crocodiles and sharks. Beachcombers routinely find the teeth and other calcified remains on Westmoreland's sandy Fossil Beach. Ward's personal Westmoreland collection includes a palm-size tooth that once belonged to the fearsome megalodon, a 40-foot shark that was the saber-toothed tiger of the marine mammals (its name actually means "giant tooth").

Today, Westmoreland's waters are shark-free and safe for swimming. The cliffs, and the trees that line their ridges, provide choice habitat and nesting grounds for bald eagles, giant blue herons and egrets, so bring your binoculars. But those who prefer a tamer swimming environment can enjoy the park's Olympic-size pool (open through Saturday). More than seven miles of hiking trails (including a mile-long path to Fossil Beach) wind through a diverse ecosystem that includes hardwood forest, grassy meadow and even a beaver-dwelling swamp.

For my next visit, I hope to snag one of the park's Depression-era log cabins, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. (Westmoreland was designated a state park in 1936.)

But if given a choice, maybe I'll take a tip from old Thomas Lee and request one that's set back a way from the cliffs' edge.

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: Westmoreland State Park is on the Potomac in Virginia's Northern Neck, about 115 miles from Washington. Take I-95 south to Fredericksburg to Route 3 east, go about 40 miles to the park entrance, left on Route 347.

STAYING THERE: Overnight facilities include cabins, camping, group campgrounds and a large group retreat house. Cabin rentals after Labor Day start at $61 for Virginia residents, $67 for others. Winter rates, after Dec. 1, start at $51. For reservations, 800-933-7275, www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/reserve.htm. Nearest hotel accommodations are in Warsaw or Colonial Beach. Entrance fees are $3 on weekdays and $4 on weekends. Info: 804-493-8821, www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/westmore.htm.

BEING THERE: Individual kayak rentals begin at $16 for a single, $22 for a double, for two hours, and group kayak tours are offered Wednesdays, Sundays and some Saturdays, through October. Register by calling 800-933-7275. There are more than seven miles of self-guided and interpretive trails. On Sept. 6, the park will celebrate the 350th anniversary of Westmoreland County with a festival featuring Virginia artisans, musicians, storytelling, visits from local members of the Rappahannock tribe and a Civil War reenactment. Nearby attractions include Stratford Hall, Robert E. Lee's birthplace and boyhood home (485 Great House Rd., Stratford, 804-493-8038, www.stratfordhall.org), and George Washington's Birthplace National Monument, 10 minutes from the park (Route 204 off Route 3, 804-224-1732, www.nps.gov/gewa). Also, taste local wines at Ingleside Vineyards (5872 Leedstown Rd., 804-224-8687, www.ipwine.com) and pick up local produce at Westmoreland Berry Farm and Orchard (1235 Berry Farm Lane, 800-997-2377, www.westmorelandberryfarm.com), both in nearby Oak Grove.

EATING THERE: The pickings are slim, but locals recommend Angelo's Pizza, seven miles from Westmoreland (15835 Kings Hwy. in Montross), and Wilkerson's Seafood, 15 miles away in Colonial Beach (3900 McKinney Blvd.).

INFO: Westmoreland County Tourism Office, 804-493-0130, www.westmoreland-county.org.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company