Machicomoco State Park: A “Special Meeting Place” on the York River
Photos by Jim Pile
“Machicomoco State Park is a place where Virginia’s cultural, historic and natural resources intersect,” says Dr. Melissa Baker, Director of Virginia State Parks. “In addition to being a special place where visitors can enjoy a wonderful outdoor experience, through interpretive educational displays and ranger-led public programs, people can learn more about the Indian tribes specific to this region of eastern Virginia.”
At Virginia’s newest State Park—its 40th, to be exact— you can spend a relaxing vacation in a furnished yurt equipped with its own private deck and fire pit. You can picnic under the shade of a spacious pavilion or individual shelter, explore scenic views via an ADA accessible canoe and kayak launch, or enjoy the park’s amenities from a primitive walk-in tent location or camper-ready site. There’s a bathhouse with hot showers, bike and nature trails, and a dock with boat slips for convenient water access to the park.
But no matter how you choose to experience Machicomoco’s wide open spaces, the park is infused with the spirit of the Native American peoples who have inhabited Virginia’s coastal plain for thousands of years. Machicomoco is an Algonquin word that means “special meeting place.” The name was proposed by tribal members in the region who were consulted about the park’s design and interpretive themes highlighting the Algonquin Powhatan cultural and geographical landscape.
Machicomoco occupies land previously owned by the Catlett family who operated a large agricultural concern known as Timberneck Farm. In 2007, the land was purchased by a residential developer and slated for a large housing development. Fortunately, through the efforts of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), the Conservation Fund, and funding provided from Dominion Energy’s Surry-Skiffes Creek and Surry-Whealton transmission line mitigation letter of agreement, Virginia now has an additional 643 acres of land preserved for public enjoyment—managed by the DCR with environmental and cultural stewardship in mind.
The park is situated in Gloucester along the York River off Route 17, between Hayes and White Marsh. It’s adjacent to the Catlett Islands, which because of their value to the diversity of the estuarine habitat are part of the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Virginia system, and are off limits to visitors. Ongoing research conducted at the reserve advances understanding of coastal habitats and estuarine systems.
Machicomoco is also flanked by Timberneck Creek and Cedarbrush Creek, and the Catlett islands are bisected by Poplar Creek. These brackish bodies of water present visitors with a variety of recreational opportunities and contribute greatly to Machicomoco’s scenic vistas. The surrounding estuarine environment consisting of marsh, wetlands, maritime forest and shrub provides context for the park’s educational displays describing the dynamic relationship between the area’s Native peoples and the Chesapeake Bay region’s waterways.
Machicomoco’s thoughtfully designed interpretive pavilion is an open-air contemporary take on the traditional, regional style of longhouse favored by tribes of the Algonquin-speaking Powhatan domain in Virginia. Here, visitors will learn about the Algonquin-speaking group’s agricultural practices, modes and patterns of artistic expression, and how they adapted their lives to conform to a changing landscape.
The overall design and construction of the park was directed by the prestigious firm of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBW). NBW describes the intent of the design process: “The NBW team designed a landscape that honors and expresses the deep Algonquian roots connecting the general public to this captivating history. The interpretive plan creates an engaging lens inviting visitors to consider the breadth of the land’s cultural and ecological legacy as they enjoy and experience the diverse landscape of Machicomoco. Recreational and educational opportunities for the surrounding communities and park visitors are programmed around revealing the Algonquian landscape throughout the park, in unexpected ways.”
Other exciting projects are in the works at Machicomoco. Along a lovely spit of land at the park, a pathway leads to the farmhouse that was built for the Catlett family around 1800. Currently the building is under lease from DCR, and the Fairfield Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to archaeological and historic research, is working with specialists to conserve the historically significant home and eventually turn it into an exceptional lodging option and interpretive events center for guests.
There’s something for everyone at Machicomoco State Park. It’s a welcoming place where visitors can discover more about our region’s Native American history while relaxing and enjoying the fruits of a land conservation project that reflects Governor Ralph Northam’s ConserveVirginia strategy for our Commonwealth. Machicomoco supports ecosystem diversity, provides scenic views, and showcases cultural and historic preservation initiatives. It’s also just happens to be a very cool place to camp, walk, bike, and boat.
For more information about Machicomoco State Park, visit DCR.Virginia.gov/State-Parks/Machicomoco.