Twenty years after it was created, the Rivanna Trail comes to a crossroads

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Tom Connaughton (far right), an ESOL teacher at Greenbrier Elementary, leads his students on weekly runs over a section of the Rivanna Trail near the intersection of 29N and the Route 250 Bypass. (Photo by Nick Strocchia)

In Charlottesville, we have an approximately 20-mile urban trail system that forms an almost contiguous loop around the city—with lots of offshoots or “spurs.” Pioneered in the 1990s by a volunteer organization called the Rivanna Trail Foundation (RTF), which still maintains it today, the Rivanna Trail is a mostly single track dirt path that hugs the river in some places, traverses city parks and UVA land in others, all the while moving between picturesque, Tarzanish, and brownfield landscapes.

The trail—which is mostly a network of loosely negotiated easements over private land—faces numerous challenges from development, resistant landowners, the railroad, and an overall neglect from area residents. In response, the city is proactively securing easements and permanent permissions from landowners, proffers from developers, and even buying lots wherever possible to create linear park spaces connected by a trail system with legal status. To address the questions of underuse, the city is also trying to lure pedestrians by creating multi-use portions that operate parallel to the dirt paths, like the new asphalt bike trail that runs beside the recently opened John Warner Parkway.

As a result, the quirky Rivanna Trail (RT) stands at a kind of nexus. Should it be dirt or asphalt surface? Private or publicly owned? Used by dogs and strollers or bikes and runners? Run by the RTF or the city? What about all of the above?

Nearly everyone agrees that the trail is an underused resource, an outdoor recreation gold nugget lying in a muddy streambed. But not everyone agrees what should be done about it, including the list of 20 or so property owners who haven’t yet offered permanent access to the parts of the trail that run across their land. The city has 30 easements in hand, and it’s purchased another 12 properties along the route, but to complete the circle it will have to contend with the railroad and a small handful of owners who have said they won’t grant access to their land.

I first started using the Rivanna Trail in the mid-2000s when I bought a mountain bike and needed somewhere to ride it. Somehow I stumbled onto these dirt paths that wind in and around the city and was captivated by them. They were largely wooded, and even though often next to a road system, I could get lost in the unfounded notion that I was deep in the forest—with only the small diamond-shaped green and brown RTF signs to guide me—partly because I could go long distances without running into a single other user. I might come across another bike tread in a muddy portion, maybe a random runner, but sometimes I’d see no one for miles until I spit back out onto a street to head home.

I felt like I had my own personal trail system, and as much as I liked that aspect of the experience, it also baffled me. Why wasn’t anyone out there with me? As it turns out, other people were. I just wasn’t seeing them. The trails are a second home to a diverse core of people who in some cases use a small section of it and in others move across large swathes. They are old and young. Birders and marathoners. Bikers and hikers. Well-off and homeless. The trail does not discriminate.

CLICK HERE TO SEE A LARGER VERSION OF THIS MAP

Virtually there: The Richmond-based team at terrain360.com is taking mapping to another level with its real view route maps of local recreation areas. They’ve started with two segments of the Rivanna Trail and intend to include the Monticello Heritage trails; Darden Towe, Pen, and McIntire park trails; and 11 trails in the Ivy Creek Natural Area. 

Runner’s world
“Runners make up 60 to 70 percent of the daily use during the week,” RTF board member and trail maintenance supervisor Jeff Wilbur told me as he walked his dog along part of the trail by the community gardens, behind the English Inn and Bodos on 29N. A strand of thorns hung across the path over a messy mud puddle. UVA’s cross country team regularly runs the RT, as do teams from area high schools. Wilbur himself started using the trail 15 years ago when he was looking for a place to train as an ultra-runner, a special breed that routinely competes in races of no less than 30 miles, and regularly attacks distances of 50 and even 100 miles.

Wilbur runs the entire RT loop every few months and this past winter took another ultra-runner named Neal Gorman around the trail to show him its “ins and outs.” A recent émigré to Charlottesville, Gorman said that the area trails—including the RT—are the “primary reason” he moved here from Washington, D.C. “I like my trails hilly and the roads flat.” The insurance broker is also a champion ultra-runner (he has won two of Virginia’s three 100 mile races and came in second at the other) and decided that he would run the trail as fast as he could. So after scouting it out with Wilbur and two other runners one Saturday, and then on his own the next day, Gorman ran the entire thing in an incredibly swift two hours, nine minutes, and 47 seconds the next weekend.

Gorman then made a donation to the RTF in the amount of $209.47 and posted his time on his website, challenging anyone else to best him. If they do, he promised to make another financial donation of $209.47 to the RTF in the victor’s name, as well as buy him beer and a pizza. In the process, he has become an unofficial ambassador for the trail.

“By running a fast time and bragging about it I can help make everyone better runners and draw awareness to the trail,” he told me over coffee one morning. “If someone then goes out and lays down a faster time and then tells their friends, they’ll take up the challenge and it will help promote the trail.”

“This is a running town,” Gorman said, and he is an extreme example of a larger group of local citizens who regularly run the RT. Some are organized under the rubric of the Charlottesville Area Trail Runners, and one of their members is Nick Hamblet, a computer programmer, who recently joined the RTF’s board. “I figured I’d try to help,” he said.

One recent afternoon, I met him in the parking lot of Quarry Park where he stood next to his car with a pair of hedge trimmers. He handed me a set and we trudged up the hill behind the park and onto a section of the trail that goes east under Route 20 toward Woolen Mills. For the next hour-and-a-half we cut back the dense foliage that encroaches on the trail this time of year—branches, the invasive bittersweet vine, thorny wild rose, and worst of all, poison ivy (I’ve got the red bumps all over my right arm as I write this).

This section of the trail is among the least travelled stretches—partly because of a rocky portion that is a little difficult to negotiate and possibly because it runs past a Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority treatment plant that produces a distinct odor after heavy rains. It also hugs I-64, which generates considerable traffic noise, and when it gets to Woolen Mills there is no bridge across the river. As a result, if you want to keep walking, you have to wade through water or walk a particularly frightening railroad trestle.

Despite all this, it also has some beautiful sections, particularly where it runs along Moore’s Creek. At one point we emerged from a thicket onto a small rise overlooking a shallow section of the river, lacing its way through a flora garden. As Hamblet bent over to cut back some more poison ivy, a blue heron swooped over my head before landing in the water some 20 feet further. “Did you see that?” I asked. He hadn’t, but he did notice the yellow boogie board stuck on the side of the creek bed below us, one of many reminders that we were in a wild refuge that doubles as an urban drainage system.

If the Moore’s Creek section of the Rivanna Trail is the road less traveled, its counterpoint can be found north of town, where I joined Hamblet and another runner, Tom Connaughton, at Greenbrier Elementary one afternoon as school let out. Connaughton, or “Mr. C” as he’s called by his students, is the school’s English as a Second Language teacher, and since the fall of 2010 has led a group of his kids for a run two days a week (Hamblet volunteers as a monitor). The route begins at the back of the school and meets up with the trail and winds away from the Greenbrier neighborhood in a westerly direction before opening up onto Hydraulic Road, near a development behind Whole Foods where most of the students live (and also receive tutoring).

That Monday afternoon, Mr. C was leading 19 kids from kindergarten through second grade on the run. He was in front with the faster runners while Hamblet hung back with the others. In the rear was a little girl wearing white flats. “I don’t think I can take this,” she said as we neared a rock crossing that traversed Meadow Creek. She proceeded to slip and dip her foot in the water. The city has plans to put a rock bridge there, but nothing’s been negotiated with the landowner yet. A few hundred feet ahead on the path, Connaughton stood with the faster movers and clapped his hands twice to get their attention.

“Have fun and be safe,” he told them. “It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you go.”
With that, they set off again, hauling ass along the winding dirt path. This part of the RT is among the most used by pedestrians and as the students made their way, they came across an elderly man hiking, a young girl jogging, and a middle aged couple walking their dogs. Everyone stopped to smile at the children whizzing by.

As I slowed to walk, I was joined by one of the students, a little boy in too short jeans and a blue Super Mario Bros. T-shirt who was obviously having a great time, hopping over exposed tree roots and dodging the muddy spots on the well-worn path. When he heard the slower group catching up to us, he hollered “step on the gas,” and sped away.

A half hour later, Connaughton left his students with their tutors and we ran back toward Greenbrier Elementary where he would eventually grab his bicycle and ride home. As we neared the corner of Brandywine and Greenbrier drives, we had to hold on to a wire to walk the same rock hop where the little girl had slipped earlier. It’s a slightly perilous but fun crossing that is also an original, the first ever constructed by the RTF back in the early 1990s.

John Conover, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, was a founding member of the Rivanna Trail Foundation and one of the people who worked to cobble together a patchwork of right-of-way agreements that created the Rivanna Trail. (Photo by Nick Strocchia)

Trailblazers
“Other than the wire, our only supplies were a bag of apples and a bottle of whiskey,” said John Conover, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center and a co-founder of the RTF, as he sat in his small office.

Twenty years ago, he and a group of local luminaries—among them former mayors Francis Fife and Mitchell Van Yahres and attorney Fran Lawrence—began meeting for lunch to talk about creating a trail that would encircle the city by following area waterways.

“Charlottesville is defined by water,” Conover said. Moore’s Creek and Meadow Creek frame it on the south and north and they both feed into the Rivanna, which makes up Charlottesville’s east side.

So the initial RTF board members decided to make a trail and according to Conover, some of their motivation was nothing more than the simple desire to get their hands dirty.

“We wanted to get out in the woods and build trails,” he said. “Was this little boys playing? Yes.” Even so, it was hard work. They literally had to cut a path through the thick vegetation that grows around the woody waterbeds of Virginia. “As time went on we got smarter,” Conover said. For instance, they figured out that it would be much easier to plan trail paths in the winter when the vegetation was sparse. They also started to accumulate tools and bought a shed near Charlottesville High School to store them. “That made it seem official,” he said.

Then one of the men came up with an ingenious idea to hold a work party the second Saturday of every month, rain or shine, and invite anyone and everyone. “That really brought us a lot of volunteer labor,” he said. “After that, things just kind of fell in line.”
The makeup of the RTF board has changed since then (Conover departed in 2005), as has the location of the shed, but the workday tradition has remained. On the second Saturday of May, a dozen volunteers gathered at the trailhead where the new shed sits to clear vegetation off the path as it goes toward and under 250 and Hydraulic Road.

One of the volunteers was Diana Foster, who discovered the trail in the late ’90s while training for long-distance runs and began volunteering with the RTF soon thereafter. She eventually made her way onto the board, serving as president from 2002 to 2004. As such, she was the first woman to infiltrate the group of all white men. “I’ve often broken into good old boys clubs,” she said.

One of her primary goals as president was to complete the RT segments on the south side of Charlottesville. “I would put on full rain gear and just plow through the woods,” she said. As she talked, Foster supervised a high school student digging a posthole for an RTF sign near the trail’s entrance off of 250. She is still an active member of the RTF and is currently working on improving the signage on the trail so that beginning hikers in particular don’t get lost.

A decade ago, though, she would take flagging tape with her and tie it on branches so everyone would know where to clear. “All day, we might make only 20 yards of progress,” she said. “We just pressed on.”

“We didn’t hew it all out of wilderness,” Conover said, offering a little perspective. “Indians obviously walked along the river. Jefferson probably did, too.” As a result, the RTF would at times just link to an already existing trail. The freewheeling spirit that imbued the founders of the RT also led them to take a laidback approach at times when it came to getting rights to some of the land they were crossing. (Although they did have the foresight to approach UVA and then-COO Leonard Sandridge and get access to areas like Observatory Hill—a favorite spot of bikers—and the land where a delightful figure eight loop passes behind the Darden Business and UVA Law schools).

“We were laggard in getting permissions,” Conover admitted. For instance, a 100-year-old fisherman’s trail on the east side of the trail, just across from Darden Towe Park, ran through the edge of private property, and three of those landowners objected to the trail being listed as part of the RT in 1998. One of them erected razor wire and even sued the city and the RTF in 2005. Now all trail planners can do is wait for ownership to change, or dream of the day when a planned bridge from Pen Park to Darden Towe is erected (construction is at best five years away) and helps bypass this section.

Another decades-old path on the south followed Moore’s Creek, near where Foster was trampling through jungle. Revocable permissions were originally obtained from the landowners, but a newcomer recently withdrew that permission and put up a fence, in effect ruining a whole stretch of the trail (from Sunset Avenue Extended to McElroy Drive), at least for the time being.

“The owner is trying to get a development approved and is holding the trail permission as a card in that process,” Chris Gensic, the city’s park and trail planner, explained in an e-mail. “I am hopeful we will eventually get the trail open, but respect his right to try to develop and will have to wait for that process to work out.”

The connector
Gensic was hired in 2006 and one of his tasks has been to tighten up the right-of-way work the RTF started by acquiring secured access to the parcels of land the trail crosses. (“I love the RTF’s pirate attitude,” said Dan Mahon, Gensic’s county counterpart. “But Chris and I have to go behind them and clean up.”) Armed with a trail development budget and a land acquisition budget (both of which the city funds to the tune of about $100,000 a year), as well as $1 million in grants over the past five years for land, trails and bike/pedestrian work, Gensic has been able to pay for easements (landowners typically receive between $500 and $1,000 for a one-time payment) as well as purchase select available lots. For instance, Gensic has targeted the contested path on the south side by buying one parcel at the end of the McElroy cul-de-sac and has acquired permanent permissions for five of the eight parcels the trail crosses.

It’s all part of a concerted effort by the city to create a vast network of trails that will run in and around the city and connect neighborhoods and parks and areas like the Downtown Mall. It by no means includes only the RT but very much takes into account the pioneering work of the RTF. A prime example is the new paved section that runs parallel to the recently opened John Warner Parkway. Surprisingly forested and quiet considering its proximity to the connector road, it’s the city’s vision for the future—a multi-use portion where moms can break out their strollers or even a Segway could travel. Next to it, and out of view for the most part, is an old-school RTF dirt path. The trails coexist happily, offering two different flavors of outdoor experience. I recently took in this section on foot with Ned Michie, an attorney and the city’s school board chair, as well as a board member of the RTF for the last eight years. As much as this section is an ideal, it also illustrates some of the challenges facing the RTF and the city. For instance, the paved and dirt portions converge at a large rusted iron and wood footbridge near its north end. Right past that, a gravel path turns left and then dead ends at a culvert that passes underneath the railroad tracks and allows Meadow Creek to continue to flow eastward.

Until the recent sewer work that denuded a wide swath of land along Meadow Creek, there was a big black pipe that ran under the culvert and served as a default crossing from the Greenbrier section of the RTF. Because of the sewer work, the pipe was removed and now pedestrians are faced with two choices: either wade through a hundred feet of inches-deep water or scale an extremely steep, barely visible path and illegally cross the railroad tracks as Michie and I did. “This is obviously no place for strollers and bikes,” Michie said, as we stood near the tracks and stared down the long, hardly navigable drop to the other side. Hundreds of feet below us, two runners approached a small wooden bridge near the culvert, stopped, and then headed back from wherever they came.

For now, this connection of the RT loop is defunct while Gensic and the RTF are currently negotiating access with the railroad (with plans ultimately to build an elevated footbridge that would run through the culvert). The trail has always come up against the railroad at a few spots—there’s another particularly disruptive railroad block where the Observatory Hill section comes out on Ivy—but the sewer project—only undertaken in the last few years—has caused much more damage, closing down chunks, including a section of the trail on the south end of town—from Jordan Park to Fifth Street —as well as another stretch heading east from the Warner Parkway. Yet, the work will also yield potentially positive results.
“The sewer is a pretty big scar but weeds always grow back,” Conover pointed out. Not only will those portions of the RT be eventually reopened, but clearing all that land has created ideal spots for the kind of multi-use paths the city and the broader population crave, like the paved portion at Riverview Park or a section that is underway off 250 that starts at McIntire Park and will end somewhere near Hydraulic Road.

The sewer is hardly the only intrusion on the trail. For years now, development has encroached, but like the sewer it has the same surprising kind of plus/minus effect. Users of the RT would prefer to see no infringement on the trail, but when a development like Brookwood opened near the southern part the builders provided a trail easement—permanent permission—behind it to the city as a proffer.

Brookwood also advertises “easy access” to the RT. It’s something more and more developers are doing as they realize that walking trails are an enticement, not only to their townhomes or houses, but to the city itself. One morning around 10, I turned off Rio Road and into another new development called Belvedere. I drove past finished homes and sidewalk signs that boasted of five miles of trails and on to a gravel road where construction is still ongoing.

Waiting for me were Jim and Leigh Surdukowski, two recent retirees who “adopted” a few mile loop a year-and-a-half ago that runs right behind the development (not technically part of the circle, it is considered part of the River North Trails—an offshoot of the RT but nevertheless still under its umbrella). From the gravel road, we turned right into the opening of the trail. The Surdukowskis carried a scythe and a pair of hedge shears and for the next two hours they would stop and snip a branch, whack some weeds, or point out to each other places they would need to come back and address more thoroughly.

“We’re prejudiced but we think this is the best part of the trail,” Leigh said, and I couldn’t put up much of an argument. In addition to having varying terrains—there’s the usual dense vegetation but also a section of hardwood forest—it’s also one of the few sections where there is absolutely no car noise. Instead, all I could hear were birds chirping and the sound of the nearby river. At one point, we emerged onto a rocky beach where

the Rivanna lazily flowed. Camouflaged frogs hopped around snubbed out campfires.I’ve no idea whose they were, but it made me think of the homeless encampments that exist right off the RT, lower down on the Rivanna near Free Bridge or at Moore’s Creek on the south side. Unlike those sections, this was my first time on this stretch of the RT, but like most of my jaunts there was no one else to be seen. Admittedly it was a weekday morning on an isolated patch but still I wondered out loud, as I had taken to doing on my walks, where everyone was.

Although they are longtime users, the Surdukowski’s had no real answer. “We need more people to hike,” said Jim, smiling. “So we don’t have to mow it and clean it up so much.”
The RT is an inspired, mysterious, and whimsical dirt path that cuts through thick forest. I think more residents should use it, and they likely will as the city continues to put its imprimatur on it, but in its current incarnation it’s not necessarily for everyone. This time of year, it is overgrown in some sections, while others have been closed. The trail could also be safer at street crossings, and because of some poorly marked areas there have been times when I could no longer tell whether I was even on it anymore. But it’s poised to undergo a transformation as it is incorporated into a greater city/county scheme of multi-use pedestrian paths that one day may stretch from Monticello all the way west to Afton, and from Shadwell to far north of the city. Right here in town, a “full wrap-around paved trail may be completed by around 2020,” Gensic said.

Gensic’s plans reflect a new attitude about outdoor recreation on the part of city planners. Mainly that people will pay for something they love, and they’ll love it if they can use it. There’s a balance between development and nature that has to be maintained. Only some of the existing RTF trails will be subjected to asphalt, preserving much of its rustic, ramshackle feel, but the sense of mystery it offers now may not last.

“We strive to keep the trails open for all users and are working on plans to expand and improve the system so it can be enjoyed more frequently by more people,” Charlottesville’s trail brochure advertises. Tune that to the Rivanna Trail’s original vision, a spirit best explained by co-founder John Conover. “You don’t want people to get lost,” he told me. “But you want people to have the feeling that they might get lost.”

 

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