The city’s newest wilderness: Right outside town, community forest will offer a wild escape

The new Heyward Community Forest, near Ragged Mountain, is full of beautiful spots to explore. Photo: Steven Barling The new Heyward Community Forest, near Ragged Mountain, is full of beautiful spots to explore. Photo: Steven Barling

Just a quick drive from the most urban sections of Charlottesville is a unique wild environment—acres of boulder forests, sunny woodlands where blueberries grow, and a creek with architectural ruins along its banks. It’s all part of a 144-acre property called the Heyward Community Forest, snugged against the Ragged Mountain Reservoir. The city acquired the land last November, and once trails are completed, it will offer a set of new adventures to local hikers.

“It feels like Shenandoah National Park out there, but you don’t have to drive 20 miles to get to it,” says Chris Gensic, the city’s parks and trails planner. He first became aware that the property was for sale about five years ago when he spotted a real estate sign while helping to rebuild Ragged Mountain trails after the expansion of the reservoir. “We thought it would be nice,” he remembers, “if that could be purchased as an adjacent property to Ragged Mountain”—already a favorite outdoor escape for city dwellers.

Along with the Piedmont Environmental Council, Gensic approached the landowner, a member of the Heyward family, the clan that had already donated the nearby Foxhaven Farm property to UVA. Through a community forest grant from the USDA, written by Gensic, the city secured about $600,000—roughly half the appraised value of the property—and the owner agreed to donate the rest of the value. 

“Chris is a bulldog,” says Devin Floyd, of the Center for Urban Habitats, which completed a natural resource inventory on the property in February. “He’ll have a vision and just keep going until he figures out how to do it.” In this case, the Heyward Community Forest became part of a sweeping swath of public land straddling I-64 and anchored by the reservoir—a place for solitary hikers and birders, naturalists, state ecologists, and schoolkids alike.

“There’s a big educational component to this,” says Gensic. Eventually he’d like to see a pavilion on the property for school groups to use, but the more immediate goal is to create trails. CUH’s survey work found a number of special features on the property that the trail design will showcase and protect.

Floyd emphasizes that the Ragged Mountains are a special environment—a higher-altitude terrain, rising from surrounding plains, where the underlying geology makes for strong biodiversity. At the Heyward property, his team cataloged plant and animal species, mapping the different habitat types that form a patchwork over the property. The CUH report declares this forest “uncommonly rich and varied.” Asked what’s notable about it, Floyd first mentions an unusually large collection of rock outcrops north of Reservoir Road.

“We find patches of that,” he says, “but we don’t find 20 acres of that. The ground cover is dominated by outcrops that are dome-shaped and flat. It’s just the most extraordinary forest.” 

Associated with these rocky places are occasional old-growth trees—not especially huge ones, stunted by the shallow soil, but up to 300 years old, spared by the loggers of previous generations precisely because they were small and gnarled.

The property also includes small stretches of grassland, which Floyd points out were once a lot more widespread in Virginia than most people realize, and what he calls a “rip-roaring stream” that he hopes will be closely approached by the new trails. “This stream reaches a steep gradient on the east side of the property, so there’s falls and slides and a geologic element that really fills the air with sound and smells and everything associated with a mountain stream,” he says. 

Along the creek is evidence of human activity from the past—remnants of drylaid stone buildings. “What we’ve come to understand is the families that lived in the Ragged Mountains had very little access to resources and they made do with what they had on their land,” Floyd says. “That produced an architectural signature that is unique in this area, possibly unique to the Raggeds.”

Finally, there’s a combination of habitat types the CUH identified as unusual enough to merit protection as a preserve within the community forest. One is an environment known as a Piedmont mafic barren, which features exposed bedrock on which native prickly pear cactus grows alongside lichens, mosses, and stunted trees. The CUH report stresses the rarity of this habitat—with less than 20 sizable, healthy examples known worldwide—and calls this habitat type “the crown jewel of ecosystems in our region.” 

These barrens are found next to xeric woodlands, also locally rare, with widely-spaced trees over shrubs like huckleberry and blueberry. Trails will skirt around these remarkable habitats, offering visual access from a spur trail while protecting the preserve from the impacts of human traffic. 

Floyd and Gensic are both excited about the potential for this property to host environmental education, given its easy accessibility from UVA and every primary and secondary school in town. “It’s pretty special because of its proximity to the urban core,” says Floyd. “It’s a resource for the citizens of Charlottesville to come and reboot, and there’s a lot to learn in the Ragged Mountains. Every time we look, we see something new.”

 

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