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As warm weekends beckon vacation-seeking Marylanders to the sun, sand and waves of Ocean City and surrounding beaches, summer rolls on…but traffic often does not. Particularly in recent years, most of us have become painfully familiar with the frustration of stop-and-go travel to the Bay Bridge as throngs of vacationers crawl slowly toward their ocean destination. Once over the bridge itself, drivers steel themselves for at least another two hours of travel before finally getting “down the ocean, hon.”
Yet hidden less than an hour from the Bay Bridge on the Eastern Shore, lies the “Jewel of the Chesapeake,” the charming tiny historic town of Betterton Beach, featuring an expansive Bayside beach kissed by jellyfish-free waves and offering plenty of opportunities for swimming, sun-bathing, fishing, and relaxation in a quiet, picturesque setting.
Tucked at the end of a long, farm-covered peninsula where the Sassafras River enters the Bay, Betterton Beach began as a small fishing village and a port for local agriculture. From the end of the 1800s through the 1940’s, the town grew into a renowned summer hot spot, proudly touting the title “Maryland’s Foremost Bayside Resort.” A key stop for ships traveling up the Chesapeake Bay through the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, Betterton Beach became a thriving beach resort fed by a constant influx of steamboat tourist traffic from Baltimore and Philadelphia. At least eight steamers made daily trips to Betterton, some carrying as many as 2,400 people to a town of merely 200-300 residents. Hotels welcomed guests with comfortable lodging, orchestra-filled ballrooms, daily fishing trips with watermen, and dining on the Eastern Shore’s freshest local seafood and produce.
Sadly, the town’s tourism industry began stalling in the 1930s as a result of the progressive trifecta of the Great Depression, declining steamboat travel and, in 1952, the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, providing an attractive conduit to the newly air-conditioned beachfront hotels and motels of Ocean City. As steamboat traffic declined, so did the crowds of visitors. Hotels and boarding houses were destroyed or repurposed. Some became stately homes that are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places as prime examples of Victorian architecture. Over time, this once-bustling tourist hub returned to its sleepier origins…but only temporarily.
In 1976, Kent County used state funds to purchase the bayfront property, cleared out the remaining structures, and rebuilt the beach area as a public park. The results of this rebirth are impressive. Betterton Beach is now a five acre, landscaped, family-oriented waterfront park featuring a gorgeous beach (300 feet of frontage for swimming and 700 feet of shoreline access), equipped with a bathhouse, boardwalk, shady picnic pavilion on a bluff overlooking the beach, and a fishing jetty and public pier with boating opportunities. Thanks to fresh river water flowing in, the salinity is significantly lowered so beachgoers can cool off in Betterton’s waters all summer long free of the painful sea nettle nuisance that plagues swimmers lower down in the Bay. As an added bonus, the bottom is sandy and firm and gently slopes down for a truly relaxing experience. Sweetening the deal, access to the beach and parking are completely free!
While the nearest general store is three miles away in Still Pond, Betterton features two year-round restaurants. You pass the first on the main road coming into town, a family-friendly eatery that’s great for sandwiches, burgers and pizza. There’s also a restaurant across the street from the beach park featuring a bar and deck where you can enjoy a meal while looking out over the scenic northern Chesapeake Bay.
After some relaxing beach time and an enjoyable meal, you can take a stroll to Betterton Heritage Museum in the old church on the hilltop above the beach. Open from 1–3 pm weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the museum features a collection of decoys carved by world-renowned local craftsman Charles “Speed” Joiner and a rehabbed walk-through fisherman’s shanty. While visiting you may meet “Candy,” Betterton’s mayor for 28 years, who led the town’s resurgence and now volunteers with her sister and brother-in-law at the museum.
For extended stays, there are rental cottages set along the shore of the Sassafras River with a private beach and pier. If you’re interested in exploring other nearby historic towns, Chestertown is a mere 12 miles away, or take a jaunt out to Chesapeake City less than 40 minutes away, which features restaurants and lovely bed and breakfasts along the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
Location is everything, and as lovely as Betterton Beach is, there are plenty of additional opportunities for exploration just around the corner. Just a few minutes away, Turner's Creek Park and Sassafras Natural Resource Management Area lie side-by-side along the Sassafras River. The natural harbor of Turner's Creek, once the site of a thriving local shipping port, is now home to a half dozen crabbing and fishing boats. It also features a lagoon that explodes into color in July and August when floating fields of lotuses bloom – a huge draw for paddlers. On land, a granary still stands on the site where an earlier commissary shipped supplies to Washington's troops at Valley Forge. The Kent Museum, housing many artifacts from bygone years, stands a few hundred yards up the hill from the granary and landing.
The 143-acre Sassafras Natural Resource Management Area features gorgeous views at every turn along the miles of trails and old roads. Fresh and saltwater ponds, wooded ravines, farm fields, forest, and the river itself provide prime opportunities for viewing waterfowl and many other species. Hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails wind through the forest, and bird lovers will find a surprising mix of songbirds, waterfowl, and raptors. For history buffs, Knock's Folly Visitor Center features exhibits highlighting the history of the farming community, the local Native American Tockwogh tribe, Captain John Smith's visit, and the rich natural history and wildlife of the Sassafras. All of this is less than ten minutes driving from Betterton Beach, or better yet, hop in a kayak or canoe and paddle the Sassafras River Water Trail between Betterton Landing and Turners Landing for a truly beautiful journey.
The Sassafras Natural Resource Management area consists of 991 acres of rolling woodland, farmlands, wetlands, and nearly three miles of shoreline along the Sassafras River and Turner's Creek.
Over 20 miles long, the Sassafras River traces the shores of Maryland's Cecil and Kent counties before reaching its confluence with the Chesapeake Bay between Howell Point and Grove Point.