I once read something saying that if you’re lucky enough to live in the mountains, then you’re lucky enough. I agree and I find it a shame I don’t explore the mountains I live within 15 minutes of. So this year, I asked my kids to take me hiking for Mother’s Day—both as a way to spend more time with them and to get us physically active as a family. I quickly learned I need to get a lot more physically active before braving the Rose River Loop Trail off Skyline Drive again. But that won’t stop me from continuing my quest to explore those mountains. I’ll just work my way up before I visit that one again.
Where to go in Charlottesville
While we’re very lucky to live so close to the Blue Ridge Mountains, there are fun and challenging hikes here in Charlottesville, too. The most well-known is probably the Rivanna Trail, which circumnavigates the City of Charlottesville. The Rivanna Trails Foundation, a non-profit organization, completed and maintains the more than 20 miles of hiking trails. There are numerous places to enter the trails throughout the system and the trails are listed on the Rivanna Trails Foundation’s website, where they’re rated as either easy, moderate, and difficult.
Pen Park, off Rio Road, includes a 1.5-mile trail along the Rivanna River. There is a wider main path, but also side trails that bring you closer to the river. The main path is good for jogging and hiking. Visit the City of Charlottesville website for more information about trails within the city, including directions. With the numerous fitness and nature trails listed on the site, you should find a way to enjoy the day while being physically active.
Albemarle County Trails
Currently, Albemarle has 28.5 miles of trails, which can be used for walking, running, and hiking. Trails are rated for difficulty on the Albemarle County Trails website to help you pick the best one for length or whether you’re walking with children or pets. Trails listed on the website include Humphris Park Trails; Chris Greene Lake Trails, Mint Springs Trail Map; Walnut Creek Trail Map; and information about the County Greenway Plan. Additional information is on the Albemarle County website about play equipment or picnic tables at each of the parks so you can plan to make a day out of the trip.
The Ivy Creek and the Ragged Mountain natural areas offer numerous trails that take you close to the awesome wildlife in our region, including animals and plants. Ivy Creek Natural Area is located off Earlysville Road and borders the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir. There are six miles of trails, and maps of all of them can be found on the Ivy Creek website. While you can take the trails at your own pace, there are often events held here that are open to the public. The website includes a calendar. Important to note: you may not bring your pets or bikes on these trails and jogging is prohibited, as well.
The Ragged Mountain Natural Area parking area is located off Fontaine Avenue and includes mature forests, two lakes, and more than four miles of shoreline along the Ragged Mountain Reservoir. The same rules about pets, bikes, and jogging apply to this natural area, too. It might take two-three hours to walk the main loop trail of the area. Visit the Ivy Creek Foundation website for a PDF file of the Ragged Mountain Trail Maps.
Adding beautiful scenery with a bit of history will bring you to the Saunders-Monticello Trail off Route 53. The trail is about two miles and takes you up Carter Mountain from Kemper Park near the intersection of Routes 53 and 20, across the Saunders Bridge to the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith History Center at Monticello. The trail is made up of finely crushed gravel and raised boardwalk and is open to walkers, cyclists, and those with mobility impairments. Pets are not permitted on the trail but are allowed in Kemper Park. There are no bathrooms or drinking facilities along the trail but both the Saunders-Monticello Trail and Kemper Park are open all year, sunrise to sunset.
We are so lucky to live so close to the Blue Ridge Mountains. To the north and west of Charlottesville is Skyline Drive—which runs from Front Royal to Waynesboro. There are four exits/entrances onto Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park with its 500 trails for hiking. One at Waynesboro, one off Route 33 in Greene County, one near Sperryville and one at Front Royal. Traveling through White Hall and down Sugar Hollow Road, day hikers can park outside the park’s boundary and access trails in lower Sugar Hollow. Some of the trails lead to waterfalls or viewpoints and others penetrate deep into the forest and wilderness—101 miles of the Appalachian Trail is within Shenandoah National Park.
Most trailheads are located along Skyline Drive. A few, such as the popular Old Rag Mountain are best accessed from the boundary. Note: Old Rag Mountain is one of the most popular and challenging trails within the park. If you have mobility impairments, visit the Shenandoah National Park Guide website for information about which trails along the drive are designed for accommodations.
There is a cost to access Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park—but 80 percent goes back to Skyline Drive for repairs and upkeep. From December-February (off-season) the cost per non-commercial vehicle will be $10 and from March-November the cost is $15. But if you know you’ll go more than twice a year, buy an annual pass for $30. Shenandoah National Park is always open, but Skyline Drive, the only public road through the park, can be closed during inclement weather and at night during deer hunting season, mid-November through early January. Visitors can still enter the park on foot to hike even when the drive is closed. Call the park’s recorded information line at (540) 999-3500 if you’re unsure.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is to the west and south of Charlottesville and connects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park. One of the most popular trails is Humpback Rocks (Milepost 5.8)—near Afton. Trails and overlooks along the parkway offer stunning views, waterfalls, picnic areas, and campsites, and there are also interpretative exhibits. Humpback Rocks’ visitor center contains a mountain farm exhibit and a picnic area. Milepost 16 leads to Route 814 and Sherando Lake in George Washington National Forest—including swimming, picnicking, and camping sites. I have hiked High Point at Apple Orchard Mountain (Milepost 76.5)—altitude is 3,950—and walking back up from the waterfall will be quite steep. My dogs helped pull me back up. For more trails and information, visit the Blue Ridge Parkway website.
The Right Stuff
Make sure you have water for you and your children and pets (if you bring them). Snacks are always a good idea to keep your energy up—I always bring granola bars and fruit snacks because they travel well and you don’t have to worry about keeping them in a cooler. Shoes are very important—no flip-flops or open-toed sandals. The tree roots can be sharp and such shoes can snag on them once your legs get tired. Bring bug spray, sunscreen, and a first-aid kit. If someone falls and scrapes their knee, you’re not going to want to walk back to the car for a Band-Aid and Neosporin. If you’re planning to walk often, keep these things in a bag in the garage or laundry room so you can grab them and go when the urge strikes.
Know your limits
Finally, know your limits. I cannot stress this point enough. I have been walking a couple of miles a day for a few months now and recently graduated to jogging, so a four-mile circuit hike sounded like a piece of cake—especially with the word “moderate” after it. Do not be fooled by that word. There is something very different about walking a narrow earthen path rather than the asphalt (and completely level) track at the local high school. Next time I will start at around a two-mile outdoor course and work my way up to taking the more “strenuous” or “steep” hikes later. We’re in the mountains, and lucky enough, so we should take advantage of the opportunities they provide. Enjoy!