One thing is certain about the Virginia Capital Trail: It’s a tough ride for someone with Historical Marker Compulsive Disorder.
On a recent sunny weekday, I set out with three friends to ride the 52 miles from Jamestown to Richmond on bicycles. We hadn’t gone 100 yards before we stopped to cross a road. Lined up, daring us to go on uninformed, were seven historical markers.
Who knew that Polish craftsmen were recruited to the Jamestown colony in 1608 and made voting citizens in 1619?
As friends and family can attest, I have a serious case of HMCD. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned a car around to read a marker whose title beckoned. The Commonwealth of Virginia has put 44 historical markers along its new trail, and there are a handful of local ones thrown in for good measure. Reading them would be as easy as getting off a bike. It was going to be a long trip.
But historical markers were just the start of the problem. There are plantations, battlefields, buildings and monuments to stop at, too. (Not to mention many sights at either end of the trail.) You could spend a week getting from Virginia’s 400-year-old capital to its current one, and along the way learn a lot of the region’s — actually, the country’s — political, social, military and economic history.
Which is why it’s not a problem (except to the obsessive), but a great opportunity.
The Virginia Capital Trail’s dedication last October ended more than a decade of construction at a cost of at least $60 million. Like most trails, years of persuasion were required to get it built.
“People were so opposed to it,” said Beth Weisbrod, executive director of the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation, formed in 2004 to raise money to promote and maintain the trail. “So many thought it was the commonwealth putting out money that would only appeal to elite cyclists. But we see old and young, athletes and nonathletes, out there. People are beginning to see this is for everyone.”
The trail is on pace to log 550,000 visits (not unique users) in its first year. Most people come on bikes, but statistics from other trails, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, indicate that usage becomes both larger and more diverse over time.
We rode off-peak: a Monday and Tuesday in August, with temperatures in the 90s and a prediction of showers. (The trail’s busiest month so far was February). Two of us came from Annapolis and two from Salisbury, Md., meeting in the parking lot of visitor center at Jamestown Settlement, where we left our cars. We suited up in the bathroom, filled our water bottles and were on our bikes by 11:15 a.m.
For much of its length, the trail parallels Virginia Route 5, which Weisbrod said was “the first inland route of commerce in the nation.” It follows less closely the James River, whose fertile shores gave birth to America’s first great export — tobacco, grown and processed by enslaved Africans.
The trail is made of asphalt, its surface not yet heaved by roots except in a few older sections. There are nearly 30 wooden bridges wide enough to allow people to stop and spectate, as we did, watching a great blue heron fly over a duckweed-covered swamp.
The first half of the trail is flat, the only “hill” a bridge over the Chickahominy River just before it joins the James. For much of the way, the trail is bordered by deep woods, which provide a canopy. The designers strove to keep a barrier of vegetation between the trail and the road, and in places planted one. In this season, fields of head-high corn provided an added feeling of isolation and rusticity.
The trail passes close to several famous Tidewater plantations, including Shirley, settled in 1613, and Westover, whose owner, William Byrd II, kept a secret diary recounting the life and habits of a colonial grandee. The grounds and houses of some are open to the public. We were tempted to take a spin into Sherwood Forest Plantation, the former home of President John Tyler, but the prospect of lunch at mile 20 was a bigger draw, so we saved it for the return trip the next day.
The trail is surprisingly (and blessedly) lacking in commerce. About the only place to eat in the lower half is Cul’s Courthouse Grille, in a repurposed country store in the hamlet of Charles City. We racked our bikes and were just about to devour sandwiches, french fries and bread pudding at an outdoor table when we were driven inside by the third shower of the day.
Cullen Jenkins, 44, who has owned the place with his mother for seven years, waited on us and held forth, unsolicited, as if he had been sent from the Chamber of Commerce.
“We’re the shining example of what this trail has done for a small community,” he said. Their business has more than doubled, and they have hired six part-time workers since the trail was completed last year. The restaurant serves about 700 people per weekend, three-quarters of them bikers. “And bikers are nice people — it’s just God’s honest truth.”
Feeling well-loved as well as well-fed, we headed back out to tackle the remaining 32 miles to Richmond. The trail had a few climbs and dips, and a slight net gain in elevation, but no true hills.
There were, however, plenty of historical markers. We stopped — well, at least one of us — to supplement our newfound knowledge of Wowinchapuncke, the Paspahegh Indian chief, and William Berkeley, the creator of the bicameral legislature, with newer knowledge of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s crossing of the James (a 700-foot-long pontoon bridge was built in seven hours) and the Flood of 1771 (12 days of rain, 150 people dead).
We passed fields of soybeans, sorghum and potatoes. Black-eyed Susans and echinacea decorated the trailside; clethra scented the air. A grove of flowering crape myrtle between the trail and Route 5 softened the blow of entering the suburbs of Richmond.
In its final miles, the trail goes between two of the city’s more interesting rehab projects. On one side is Tobacco Row, where cigarette factories, tobacco warehouses and the Lucky Strike power plant have been turned into loft apartments and offices. On the other is the Low Line, a linear park under an elevated (and still used) railroad trestle. Like New York’s High Line, the Low Line features luxuriant plantings, including bright, floppy tobacco. Tobacco as an ornamental in Richmond: You’ve come a long way, baby!
We climbed a series of hills in rush hour — the hardest riding of the day by far — and got to our hotel, the Linden Row Inn, about 6:30 p.m. We were tired, sweaty and otherwise wet. My few pieces of spare clothing, stuffed in a 30-year-old pannier, were also pretty damp. A shower and an iron solved those problems.
The next morning, we left at 8 and set a faster pace. Our one digression was a stop at President Tyler’s plantation, where the past is much in evidence. Tyler fathered 15 children with two wives — the last one in 1860, when he was almost 70. Amazingly, one of his grandsons, who is 87 years old, owns the place and, until recently, lived there. Perhaps less amazingly, the brochure for the $10 self-guided tour of the grounds mentions nothing about slavery or slaves; Tyler owned about 70.
When we stopped again for lunch at the Courthouse Grille, we met a 22-year-old Californian, Jeremy Nolan, who was on his 72nd (and final) day of a bike ride across the United States. He had taken the 4,228-mile TransAmerica Trail route, which starts in Astoria, Ore., and ends in Yorktown, Va. — and now includes 35 miles of the Virginia Capital Trail. We invited him to our table, bought him lunch and peppered him with questions about a two-wheel outing none of us was likely to do. Longest day: 135 miles, in Wyoming. Hardest section: the Ozarks. Worst place for dogs: Missouri and Kentucky. Now that it’s complete, the trail will probably see hundreds of happy people who finish that ride each year.
Inexplicably, the trail is poorly marked in a couple of places. The most egregious is where it appears to terminate for Jamestown-to-Richmond riders at Kinvan Road in Henrico, 9.3 miles from Richmond. Straight ahead is a power line right of way. Don’t go there. Go left.
Overall, this bike path was just what we were looking for: long enough to be a challenge, short enough to do in a weekend. We were back in Jamestown and on the road by 3 p.m.
Oh, and about all those historical markers — the College of William & Mary’s drama department has just recorded the texts of them. Someday soon, there will be an app that, triggered by GPS on a smartphone, tells you what they say. You won’t even have to get off your bike.
Brown is a freelance science and travel writer who lives in Baltimore.
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The largely flat, multipurpose trail runs 52 miles between Virginia’s past and present capitals — Richmond and Jamestown. There are no paper maps at the trail heads, but a printable online map shows restrooms, stores and bike shops along the route.