Albemarle upgrades county trails and recreation space

Albemarle County’s Outdoor Recreation Supervisor and Virginia native Dan Mahon oversaw construction of the new bridge in the Woolen Mills area of the Rivanna Greenway, and is working tirelessly to build and preserve the county’s trail system.  Photo by John Robinson.

Dan Mahon has one of the coolest jobs in Virginia. While other Albemarle County staff are stuck behind desks, this ponytailed child at heart spends most of his days running around Albemarle’s parks and trails, which serve as both his office and his backyard. As Albemarle’s Outdoor Recreation Supervisor, Mahon’s duty is to develop and maintain the county’s elaborate trail system and do everything he can to meet the needs of anyone who wants to take a hike, hang a hammock, or launch a canoe. With eight years in the position, a lifetime of outdoor exploration, and a Master’s degree in landscape architecture under his belt, Mahon has a vision for the county trails, and is making that vision come to life, slowly but surely.Mahon grew up on Grandview Island in Hampton, Virginia, where he developed his affinity for Virginia’s outdoors and natural history. Despite years of traveling the country, he found himself constantly drawn back to the Commonwealth, and eventually settled in Crozet with his wife.

Mahon never questioned the importance of outdoor recreation, but after the county conducted a needs assessment in 2004, staff members were surprised to learn that residents wanted more trail access rather than more gyms and other indoor recreational space. Despite the overwhelming support for parks and trails, the county slashed the Parks & Recreation budget years ago, eliminating funds for the greenway, and Mahon was forced to get creative, utilizing proffer money, grants, and donations to close the gap.

So with the community’s blessing and very limited funding, Mahon took it upon himself to transfer the county’s acres of parkland into accessible outdoor recreation space and began mapping, clearing, and rebuilding trails along the Rivanna River.

The county’s Rivanna Greenway currently runs along the river from Pantops, across the Free Bridge, and through Darden Towe Park. A limited number of county staff and a revolving door of volunteers maintain the unpaved trail, which Mahon said is “a nice alternative to the city’s trails.” Mahon hopes to see it snake through Shadwell, connect to Fluvanna’s Heritage Trail, and ultimately join the James River Heritage Trail, which runs from Lynchburg to Richmond. Unlike the city trail system that loops around Charlottesville, this portion of Albemarle’s trails will be a more linear, straight shot along the water, and will take wanderers on a “narrative trip down the river.”

“There’s so much history along here. Before the railroads and the roads, this was it,” Mahon said, gesturing to the woods and waterway behind him. Revolutionary War troops used the water as a primary transportation route, and Lewis and Clark’s expedition was conceived by Albemarle’s own Thomas Jefferson. The Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center, which currently serves about 5,000 visitors per year, is in the process of being refurbished, and Mahon hopes it will serve as the anchor of the historic trail, as “the spirit of journeying on the water ties in with a river trail system.”

But creating a historical trail system of this scale is not as simple as consulting a manual, and Mahon has had to essentially make it up as he goes along, with input from the community.

“Every governmental organization and cultural area is unique and distinct,” he said. “So how you put it together is very different. It’s hard to just go by the book.”
While the big picture never leaves the back of his mind, Mahon’s recent focus has been on developing the trails one section at a time.

He said the primary effort has been to open up the trail around Darden Towe Park as quickly as possible. The trail is currently open to the public, but when Mahon and his team finish leveling paths, building benches, and posting signs, the county’s Parks & Recreation Department will hold an official grand opening ceremony in the fall.

Because the department is understaffed, Mahon said volunteer involvement is crucial for the survival and success of the trails. Boy Scouts, college service organizations, local trail groups, and even convicts from the city and county jail have joined him in the woods, sometimes up to their ankles in mud in the freezing rain, to make the trails usable. Mahon said he has been blown away by the transformation he sees in volunteers.

“There’s a therapeutic value in being outside and working hard,” he said. And while the groups assist him with physical labor, Mahon gives back by sharing his sense of cultural awareness and natural history.

“I grew up in a place that I was really grounded in, knowing a lot of history and stories, and I really have a keen understanding of its value for your personal identity,” he said.