Compared to the Chesapeake Bay’s many tributaries, the York River is a shorty. It only runs for about 34 miles from its mouth to West Point, VA. Compare that to the James River, which travels 348 miles, or the Susquehanna, that flows for 464 miles. However, what the York lacks in length, it makes up for in beauty and history.
As you enter the York from the Chesapeake Bay, the river narrows until you reach the unavoidable George P. Coleman Bridge, which connects Yorktown to Gloucester Point. It is the largest double-swing opening bridge in the United States. The bridge spans rotate on a single axis, providing unrestricted vertical clearance when open. It is fascinating, and a little creepy, to watch this bridge slowly swing open with the roadway out over the river.
At the south end of the bridge is Yorktown. Here, British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington’s army, freeing the colonies from British rule. There is a public marina right in town, where large and small vessels can moor by the hour or day. Much of historic Yorktown can be visited by walking from this spot. You can also find quaint shops and places to eat. In season, York County provides free transportation from the marina to Williamsburg and Jamestown.
There are two large museums in Yorktown: the American Revolution Museum (state-run) and the National Park Service Visitor Center. The Revolution Museum is the remake of what was once called the Yorktown Victory Center. Reopened in 2017, it houses 22,000 square feet of indoor exhibits. There is a wonderful outdoor living history exhibit, where visitors can experience what life was like for troops in Yorktown. This museum emphasizes the history of the whole revolutionary war. The National Park Service visitor center focuses more on the actual battle at Yorktown.
Gloucester Point was also involved in the Revolutionary War. British troops, realizing their situation in Yorktown was dire, tried to cross the York and escape to Gloucester. A sudden nighttime squall scattered their boats and prevented their escape. Today, Gloucester Point is home to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). The visitor center with aquarium is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. They have some interesting special programs described below (“special events”).
Coleman Bridge to West Point
It is roughly 25 miles from the bridge to West Point. Here, the York forks. The north fork becomes the Mattaponi River, and the south fork the Pamunkey River. Most of the south side of the York, from West Point to Yorktown, is government property. You have Colonial National Historical Park, The Naval Weapons Station, Cheatham Annex, Camp Perry, and York River State Park. Because of this, much of the south shore appears natural and scenic. Be advised that the naval piers and the areas around them are restricted, and access is strictly prohibited.
On the north side of the York, just up from Gloucester Point, is the future Timberneck State Park, also called Middle Peninsula State Park. The park is adjacent to Chief Powhatan’s village of Werowocomoco, the site where Pocahontas allegedly saved the life of John Smith. Once completed, there will be a boat ramp, cabins, and shelters as well as the interpretive visitor’s center. The boat ramp will provide ready access to the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
For those with larger vessels who want a full service marina, Gloucester County has the York River Yacht Haven on Sarah Creek. This facility can accommodate vessels over 100 feet long drafting up to eight feet. In York County, Dare Marina has a newly dredged, nine-foot channel. Both locations offer fuel, pump-out, supplies, and repairs. If you are looking for a ramp with plenty of room, Gloucester Point has a free public ramp. There is also a single ramp, with parking for about 10 trailers, at Tanyard Landing. This launch, in Gloucester County, puts you on the York between Gloucster Point and West Point. There is a paved ramp in West Point as well, along Glass Point Road.
For paddlers, try Cappahosic Landing, also in Gloucester County. On the south side of the river, there is a ramp in York River State Park. While there are plenty of places along the Colonial Parkway that look inviting for paddlers, launching from shore is prohibited throughout the park.
VIMS has a Marine Science Day scheduled for May 18. This is a free event, where visitors can tour the facilities and see behind-the-scenes laboratories where fishy science takes place. They also hold Seafood Symposiums during the year. These are designed for chefs and professionals who want to learn more about harvesting and preparing Chesapeake Bay seafood.
In Yorktown, spring and fall Market Days offer a farmers market complete with live music, food trucks, cooking demonstrations, and artists. These usually start in April and run on Saturday evenings on the waterfront.
By Kendall Osborne