Hidden History - Historic Footsteps

Virginia Capital Trail lets hikers and bikers blaze a path through the past

By Ben Swenson

Just as numerous as all the historically notable places in Hampton Roads are an equal amount of opportunities to get and stay fit.

An added bonus of our region is that so many of these resources are one and the same—you can paddle the historic waters of the Elizabeth River, for instance, or hike among Civil War earthworks at Newport News Park. Now a relatively new path, originating in the Peninsula’s Historic Triangle, lets you trace the footsteps of Virginia’s earliest inhabitants in the modern comfort of your sneakers.

The Virginia Capital Trail opened in 2006 in the expectant days leading up to Jamestown’s 400th anniversary. Since then, the nonprofit foundation responsible for building the trail has managed its construction in phases. A few lengthy sections have been completed and are open to the public—a seven-mile stretch from Jamestown through James City County and a seven and-a-half in neighboring Charles City County. There’s a half mile complete in Richmond, too, along that city’s historic riverfront. When it’s completed in 2014, the 54-mile trail will link Virginia’s first and current capital cities, Jamestown and Richmond.

I chose to pedal my inaugural journey on the Virginia Capital Trail one recent balmy autumn afternoon, although quite a few folks were taking advantage of the nice weather to walk or run. The trail is plenty wide for a bicycle, a few in fact, giving other trailblazers ample room to pass me, which happened a lot, as I was also towing a 3-year-old in a bike trailer. That I was one of probably about a dozen-or-so other family guys I met that day put me at ease somewhat, as I realized that I wasn’t the only one who had to stop every few hundred yards so the youngster could drink water from the sports bottle (because, after all, riding in a trailer is hard work).

My first impression of the trail is that it excelled in ease and accessibility. Whatever your preferred mode of travel on the paved trail, it’s smooth sailing; long straight stretches abound and hills are few and far between. There’s no motor vehicle traffic allowed, so the only time you’ll have to take care for cars is when you cross the roads that occasionally intersect the trail, but in my experience, the few motorists I came across were happy to yield the right of way to hikers and bikers.

Magnificent scenery borders the trail from the outset. Not far out of Jamestown Settlement, where we began our trip, I pedaled past a couple working farms, summoning the warm nostalgia that historic landscapes often evoke. The trail snakes into a forest that must have been familiar ground for Powhatan Indians and a formidable challenge for English colonists. Leaving woods and wetlands behind, the trail emerges at historic Rt. 5, a lightly-traveled road it parallels for much of the rest of its course. The stretch in James City County ends at the Chickahominy River, and high atop the bridge traversing this tributary of the James, trekkers are treated to a breathtaking view of one of the region’s most underappreciated waterways.

An attribute of the Virginia Capital Trail is that you can drink in as much or as little history as you please. The phase of the trail that’s been completed in Charles City County is quite historic in its own right, happening by the exquisitely preserved James River Plantations, where all the fortunes and follies of Virginia’s agricultural economy shaped a nation. Stop for a tour if you choose, press on if watching the landscape roll by is your preferred method of appreciating the region where you live.

In James City County, you could start or end the day at Jamestown Settlement or take side trips on a number of county maintained trails that branch off from the Virginia Capital Trail, allowing you to explore even more of the historic countryside if you’re so inclined.

There’s really no excuse not to give it a shot. You can rent bikes at Chickahominy Riverfront Park if your wheels are on the fritz or nonexistent. Although we’re in the dead of winter now, there’s bound to be a freak balmy day soon and besides, spring is just around the corner. The fact is, exercising among our region’s rich historic resources is good for your body and good for your soul. And if it’s not on the Virginia Capital Trail, there are other places in Hampton Roads where health and history intersect, giving you world class opportunities to enjoy vitality and culture together.

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