LEXINGTON — The Chessie Nature Trail is a hidden gem of a path connecting the towns of Lexington and Buena Vista. Pedestrians and bicyclists of all levels will enjoy this well-groomed trail; it is perfect for a family outing.
No matter the season, you will experience nature along the trail, as the name suggests. The spring wildflowers are particularly spectacular, but summer brings its own brand of blooms as well.
As noted, this 7.2-mile path stretches between Lexington and Buena Vista in Rockbridge County. The trail follows the Maury River that once connected those two towns by a ribbon of business and commerce. Now, the trail offers opportunity for a relaxing, outdoor experience.
The river system is the key to why the trail is there. The Maury flows eastward, swallowing up the South River on the way to Buena Vista, and then merges into the James River to roll all the way into Richmond. The Maury is the only river in Virginia that starts and ends in the same county — Rockbridge County. Once, long narrow bateaux boats took produce — iron, flour, wheat and whiskey — from Rockbridge to eastern markets. Eventually a canal connected the valley to Richmond, allowing for return traffic of material goods from Richmond and beyond.
One doesn’t have to know the history to enjoy the trail, but it helps. Although commerce and industry once dominated the river path, the dominant theme now is nature. One has to look hard to find traces from the past, although here and there are cement railroad markers or cut and dressed blocks of limestone that emerge from the vegetation. Just before the 2-mile mark is one of the biggest remnants of the canal system — the limestone blocks from a lock and a dam.
The trail started as a towpath for mules pulling canal boats a few years before the Civil War. After the war, it became a railroad bed. But what the river giveth, it also taketh away. The mountain rivers in this part of Virginia are highly susceptible to flooding. The great flood in November of 1877 ended the canal system. Hurricane Camille in August of 1969 swept away the railroad. Fast forward just a few years after Camille and the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council (RACC) formed as a nonprofit to provide stewardship of the area’s natural and cultural resources. One of RACC’s first projects was to acquire the deed to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad public right-of-way and establish a recreational trail. In 1978, RACC deeded the long, thin trail to the Virginia Military Institute Foundation.
Over time, the trail slowly developed as a running and walking trail becoming renowned for its incredible wildflower displays and interesting geologic story that could be read in the towering rock cliffs along both sides of the river. Others who visited the path were interested in the history — remnants of canal locks, dams and the railroad.
Until very recently, however, the one thing that did not happen on the trail, at least legally, was bicycling, although cyclists had sneaked on for many years. The problem for bikers was simple: the trail was public access through private property. Those using the trail encountered gate after gate as farmers sought to fence their cattle in or to keep people away from portions of their property. For walkers, it was easy enough to slip around a fence post or climb a gate, but cyclists soon wearied of lifting their bicyclists up and over gates.
For years the trail existed as a quiet diamond in the rough. RACC published a field guide and map to the trail that described the history, the archaeological sites, the geology, the flora and the fauna of the trail. The trail log at the back of the book takes the visitor step by step along the trail, pointing out what to expect on each section of the 7.2-mile path.
Since 2013, a transformation has been taking place. First, the ownership of the trail was transferred to VMI proper. Several meetings of area outdoor enthusiasts resulted in the formation of the friends group that works under the auspices of RACC and with the Chessie Nature Trail Advisory Committee (VMI and RACC).
That friends group, working with the long-standing trail groups and VMI, boasts of a legion of energized trail volunteers. Together they have taken the quality of the trail to a new level. No longer do bikers have to sneak on the trail. In fact, they are welcomed. The old clunky farm gates have been replaced by weighted swing gates that a bicyclist can open and close without dismounting and a walker can easily swing open and shut. An Eagle Scout project has created nice wooden mile markers every half mile and much of the trail surface was graveled. VMI upgraded and repaired the wooden bridges and added other trail improvements. Together, the Friends of the Chessie Trail and VMI have turned their diamond in the rough into a shining jewel.
There are four ways to access the trail. The most obvious is at the trailhead at Jordan’s Point Park. This park, operated by the city of Lexington, is accessed from U.S. Rt. 11 immediately to the right after crossing the Maury River Bridge. There are many advantages to starting here. There is plenty of parking and a nice park along a beautiful stretch of the river, picnic tables, restrooms, remains of an old wooden river bateaux), and the Miller’s House Museum that highlights the transportation history of this point along the river where roads, river and rail intersect.
There is one disadvantage: floods wiped out the pedestrian bridge that connected the trailhead and park to the rest of the trail. I would recommend visiting the park either before or after you enjoy the rest of the trail. To get to the trail proper, turn left on Old Buena Vista Road immediately before you cross the bridge over the Maury River. Visitors will see the trailhead behind the warehouses and businesses along the river. Drive a few hundred feet to the small parking area where you see other vehicles parking. At that point the trail is about at the half-mile point.
There is another informal parking point farther east on Old Buena Vista Road, turning onto Stuartsburg Pike just before the South River highway bridge. The final access point is in Buena Vista off Rt. 608 at the Robey Bridge. Park there and cycle west for several hundred yards to the eastern entrance to the trail.
Except for the very beginning of the trail that goes past warehouses and industrial buildings, a ride on the Chessie Trail is a real nature trek as one pedals east under a canopy of trees with the river to the right and path-hugging rock cliffs to the left. The wildflowers of spring draw visitors from all over as orange and yellow columbines, white Dutchman’s breeches, and drooping yellow bellworts hang from the craggy cliffs at eye level. On the forest floor, dappled sunlight highlights the numerous clumps of swaying bluebells. Summer of course brings a different array of flowers and the fall gives the feel of cycling through a golden tunnel.
The trail opens up around mile marker three as the cliffs to the left disappear, replaced by rolling pasture. Now the cliffs are on the right, across the river and push jaggedly into the blue sky on the far side of the sparkling water. Here the trees on either side of the path are widely spaced, allowing for plenty of sunlight to reach the ground and encourage lush green grass. There to enjoy the grass and rest under the shade of the trees are dozens of cows and their calves – a reminder that the Chessie Trail is a public right-of-way through private property. The bovines seem to have no problem sharing their space with odd creatures such as us and remain quietly at rest, chewing their cud. Here it is important to enjoy not only the beautiful view of the river and cliffs but to watch the path for the occasional fresh cow pie.
Just past the 4-mile point of the trail — where the South River flows into the Maury – is a short detour off the trail. Hurricane Isabel in 2003 washed out the trail bridge over the South River. For a few hundred yards, visitors must leave the trail and cross the South River on the highway bridge. Once the bridge has been crossed, it is three-tenths of a mile to Old Sheppard Road where you will go down a gravel road and reconnect with the trail that goes across a large field.
As you near Buena Vista, you will see the remains of two canal features, Ben Salem Lock and Zimmerman’s Lock. Geology lovers will also marvel at the ancient history told in the rock cliffs and cave openings. Soon you will reach the end of the trail at Buena Vista, named for the old ironworks that produced artillery that helped secure American victory at the Battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican War (1847). The name Lexington, by the way, was also born of war. The town, founded shortly after the American Revolution, was named for one of the towns where the first shots of Revolution were heard in the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
Once you get to the Buena Vista end, stop, take some pictures and retrace your path back to where you started.
Nancy Sorrells writes stories about sports and history, including an occasional column, for The News Virginian.