by Charles McGuigan
Bike trails are finally popping up all over Virginia. I’m talking about bike paths here. Bikeways that are paved in asphalt or concrete or finely crushed gravel. These paths are dedicated to cyclists, they are not sharing space with automobiles. And although Richmond has made great strides in entering the 21st century, it has yet to devise a comprehensive transportation plan that would include bicycle-only paths through the city—major arteries, east to west, and north to south. Not bike lanes, but paths exclusively for cyclists. This past summer my son and I were able to sample some of the best bike trails in Virginia, including two right here in Richmond, along with a trailhead, which is a gateway to a capital ride.
No matter where we are, when traveling along the Eastern Seaboard, my kids and I have always sought out segments of the East Coast Greenway. In Brunswick, Maine there’s a great trail along the Androscoggin, a vast tidal river that once powered many of the towering mills that have since been condominiumized. And in deepest of the Deep South, there is the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, which utilizes the rail beds and bridges of Henry Flagler’s doomed Overseas Railroad. Last summer my son, Charles, and I rode a thirty-five mile stretch through the Lower Keys; it became our main mode of transportation from Big Pine Key to Key West. When the East Coast Greenway is completed, it will link together scores of cities along a 3,000 mile stretch of off-road bike paths that will begin at the Canadian border in Calais, Maine and end at the Caribbean-lapped shore of Fort Zachary Taylor on the southernmost tip of Key West. It’s an ambitious project begun almost thirty years ago, but today fully one-third of it is complete.
Starting back in late May, Charles and I decided to visit as many of Virginia’s bike trails during the summer as time permitted. It seemed fitting that we would begin where Virginia begins, and where Virginia began.
At First Landing State Park on Cape Henry we shared a cabin, for one night, with Nick Kambourian and his mothers, the two Melissas. Established in 1933 as Seashore State Park, this was the first park in Virginia’s system. The cabin we slept in was built during the dark days of the Great Depression by African-Americans who worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps.
My daughter, Catherine, and her beau, Tyler, joined us and we all headed down to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, just below the town of Sandbridge.
All seven of us rode along the dike roads sandwiched between the endless ridge of sand dunes to our left and the wide expanse of Back Bay, mother of Currituck Sound, to our left. The first couple miles of the trail are flanked by open land, dominated by brackish marshes and waving fields of pea-green spartina, or cord grass, which form the incubators for many marine organisms. The air here is salt-rich with a faint hint of sea-decay.
In a sort of cul-de-sac at the end of one of the lagoons bordered by the dikes, we counted a total of eighteen freshwater turtles sunning on half-submerged logs, and in the very next lagoon, a very thick, five-foot long cottonmouth that slithered on the surface of the water in a feat of total buoyancy.
We penetrated a thick maritime forest composed of wax myrtles, gums, loblolly pines and wind-sculpted live oaks, and when we entered False Cape State Park, we made our way across a veritable desert before crossing thirty-foot high sand dunes to wade in the Atlantic. The round-trip was just a little over twelve miles.
Catherine and Tyler left that evening, and the next afternoon the Kambourians headed back to Richmond. Charles and I spent another night in the cabin and early in the morning hit the Cape Henry Trail, first cycling west on a path that runs through the backyards of a residential neighborhood. When the path ended we rode along a lightly traveled street, and meandered over to Lynnhaven Inlet.
We returned to First Landing, and then biked the eastern portion of the Cape Henry Trail. Here it is wild. There is an ancient cypress swamp on one side of the trail, and a thick maritime forest on the other. And this, too: Spanish moss festoons branches of the oaks and pines as if you’re in South Carolina’s Low Country. These woods smell of the pines, not at all like balsam, more like tar, which adds to the primordial feeling of this place.
At trail’s end, about six miles southeast, we emerged from the forest into a residential development on 64th Street in Virginia Beach. We rode due south along a paved bike trail and later an access road, both of which run parallel to Atlantic Avenue.
At 40th Street we linked up with the paved bike trail that runs parallel to the boardwalk, then cut over at 5th Street to South Beach Trail, crossed Rudee Inlet, and rode into Croatan Beach. On our way back to First Landing, we ate a very late lunch at Waterman’s at 5th and Atlantic—a massive platter of Old Bay-seasoned steamed shrimp, a bowl of hush puppies, all washed down with their signature Orange Crush. It had been a long day. We covered twenty-eight miles, and almost as soon as we started the trip back to Richmond, Charles turned the passenger seat into a recliner and slept until we pulled up in front of the house on Greycourt.
On a Saturday in early July, Charles and I took to the North Bank Trail along the James River right here in Richmond. Early that morning, we pulled into the parking lot on Pump Road, just below the Boulevard Bridge, and began our ride west along the Kanawha Canal, which we would follow, more or less, for the next four and a half miles. This part of the trail, which skirts the Japanese Gardens at Maymont, is flat and paved with finely crushed gravel of some kind, but on the other side of Texas Beach it becomes fairly challenging, and there were points, particularly in the shadow of the three cemeteries, when we dismounted and walked our bikes.
Where the trail ends at Oregon Hill, we cut over to the trail that leads through Tredegar, crossed the bridge to Brown’s Island, and worked our way over to the Canal Walk, crossed under the I-95 bridge, then over to Dock Street, where we rode under the elevated rail until we got to the Great Ship Locks.
And as we stood on the main gate of the locks, facing the south-flowing James, we could see in one glance the entire history of transportation in Richmond; from the river itself that tall ships ploughed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the canal that penetrated ever inland, to the rails in the sky that displaced the canal; from the footpaths first trod by Native American Indians, to the cobblestones laid for horse and wagon, to the asphalt that covered those roads to make way for the automobile, to this trail which was built just for bikes.
The following morning, we parked near Tredegar and rode over to Brown’s Island and then along the Manchester Floodwall Walk, under 14th Street, and then further south till we hit the Richmond Slave Trailhead. The Floodwall Walk gives you a unique back end view of the city, beyond the gentrification of Manchester. There are still pockets of decayed industry from a bygone era—silos made of cement, decaying bridge columns of concrete, a mothball fleet of graffiti-scarred boxcars.
Instead of taking the trail down to the notorious Manchester Docks, we rode along Brander. Not one car passed us going in, or coming out. On the waterfront it was somber and we were the only people there. Here is one of the darkest stains on Richmond. For thirty years, up until the outbreak of the Civil War, Richmond exported more enslaved Africans than any other city on the East Coast. As Charles and I stood on the banks of the river there was the shrill of cicadas all around, sometimes coming from inside our own skulls. No movement of air, the smell of alga, a merciless sun overhead. From this point of land, that juts out into the James, thousands of families were torn apart, children from parents, husbands from wives, and sold downriver to the highest bidder. Despite the heat, I shivered, and looking upstream, and across the river, my son and I could see the Great Ship Locks where our ride had ended yesterday.
A week later we were in downtown Farmville where a seminal battle occurred in 1951 when African-American students at Moton High School staged a strike, giving birth to the student protests of the Civil Rights Movement, and laying the groundwork for one of the cases that would lead to Brown v. Board of Education and end segregated schools.
The High Bridge Trail cuts straight through Farmville, and we picked it up near the old train depot and began pedaling east. This trail, which follows an old rail-line that ran from Pamplin to Burkeville, is one of Virginia’s newest state parks. The entire trail, made of finely crushed limestone, is thirty-one miles long, with very slight grades.
Just five miles outside of Farmville, we hit the centerpiece of the trail, a half-mile long bridge that crosses the Appomattox River. Halfway across the bridge we were suddenly above the tree tops, and looking to the west we could see hills giving way to mountains. It is the longest recreational bridge in Virginia, and one the longest in the country.
Half a mile east of the bridge there are earthen fortifications built by Confederates to protect the South Side Railroad, incorporated in the 1850s, from Union attacks. One of the last battles of the Civil War occurred here, and the last Union general to fall in that conflict died here. Two days after that battle near High Bridge, Lee surrendered to Grant at McLean House in nearby Appomattox Courthouse. We ride into Burkeville, then head back for a round-trip of about thirty miles, then eat a packed lunch and drink a lot of water in the shade of the Farmville Farmers’ Market pavilion.
The following week we bike the Virginia Capital Trail, but that’s another story for another time.