It was the summer of 1979 when I first heard the term “urban greenbelt” and had my eyes opened to the concept of a continuous path that would literally loop around a city.
Cynthia and I were on a week-long college field trip (the trip where we actually met) for a Michigan State class and one of our stops was at the Twin Cities in Minnesota, where this unique new concept was already a reality and in place. Hennepin County, which was a step ahead of much of the country, had looped Minneapolis and St. Paul with a paved path that bordered miles of private property yet was open to the public throughout the year for everything from cross country skiing to walking.
I thought this was one of the coolest concepts: to be able to walk, run or bicycle in a serene rural setting right within the limits of an urban area. No long car trips, just right next door in your backyard. In other words, a wilderness experience right at your fingertips or, to put it more pointedly, your feet. Sort of like the Appalachian Trail meets Main Street. How neat is that?
Yet, when I first arrived in Charlottesville more than 40 years ago, no such path existed. At the time, back in the late 70’s, the closest we had to any kind of public footpath were the mountain trails above the dam at Sugar Hollow, which was a 30-minute drive out into the western part of Albemarle County.
But that would all change in 1992, when a group of community leaders, who were also avid hikers, decided to design a path that would circle Charlottesville and, in doing so, create a soft-surface loop to give walkers and runners a close-by rural experience within the shadows of an urban setting.
Community stewards such as Francis Fife, John Conover, Fran Lawrence, Bob Barbee, Diania Foster, Mike Van Yahres and Eben Smith were among those original trail blazers who started by designing the path, contacting property owners for permission and then rolling up their sleeves to get started.
And so the RTF (Rivanna Trails Foundation) was born.
Over the past 30 years, thanks to the ongoing efforts of folks such as Ned Michie, Michael Holroyd, Rip Verkerke and Jeff Wilbur, this magical trail has been meticulously maintained and expanded as it continues to provide countless families and folks of all ages with a stress-free on-foot experience.
Circling the city wasn’t the only original purpose of the path. The ultimate goal was to connect the route at as many points as possible to the mighty Rivanna River and its many offshoots. That’s exactly what the path does as it meanders alongside, over and across numerous streams, creeks, tributaries and even the iconic river itself.
There are numerous, in fact countless, ways to walk or run sections of the RTF, depending on how far you want to go and where you want to start. The terrain ranges from pancake flat to billy goat hilly, with surfaces varying from uneven rocks to smooth packed dirt and pavement.
Many of my friends and athletes have conquered the entire 20.5-mile circuit, either running or walking, in one fell swoop, which impresses the heck out of me.
Even more impressive to this 65-year-old are those who have set speed and distance records over the loop. City residents Neal Gorman (two hours and nine minutes) and Ali Kelley (two hours and 51 minutes) are the fastest male and female to cover the loop and, not to be outdone, Earlysville ultra-marathoner Rick Kwiatkowski has the record for five consecutive loops, having run 102.5 miles in less than 24 hours. Wow!
My wife Cynthia, our daughter Audrey and I, along with several of our friends, who joined us for different portions along the way, decided to take a much more conservative approach to this iconic loop by walking it in five connecting sections over five separate Sunday mornings. We had such a wonderful time and encountered so many interesting features along the way, that I wanted to share the walk with those of you who haven’t yet discovered this community jewel.
So, for the next several Sundays, I’ll give you a step-by-step tour of this beautiful gem of a walk around the city in hopes that you too will want to explore this hidden backyard treasure.
I know it’s not as grand sounding as Cynthia and I’s 200-mile walk across England, which I wrote about in The Daily Progress last fall, but in many ways it’s just as exciting because walking and exploring any new and beautiful place is always a spiritually and physically satisfying adventure.
The beauty, the serenity, the history, the wildlife and the mystery of what lies around each bend is just as thrilling here, in good ol’ Charlottesville, as it was when we traversed the magnificent Lake District and Yorkshire Dales in northern England.
According to the RTF, which has a wonderful and informative website and an interactive map app that includes a detailed description of the recommended route, if you want to do the loop in its entirety, you should start your 20-plus mile journey at Riverview Park and head counterclockwise. This popular city park is nestled at the base of the historic Woolen Mills neighborhood at the east end of Chesapeake and Market and features a large parking area and porta-john for your convenience.
Because we walked the path in sections, we always parked one car where we planned to end and then drove the other to our starting point. This back-and-forth shuttle game sounded like it was going to be a bit of hassle but ended up working seamlessly each week.
We started our RTF journey with two of our dearest friends, Athena Gould (Executive Director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters) and Cartie Lominack (Executive Director of the Shelter for Help in Emergency), who we had not been able to visit with in-person since before the pandemic started, so I thought what better way to catch up than a walk on the RTF.
I have had the honor of serving on the boards of both of these wonderful not-for-profit agencies and I count these two amazing women as community gems, because they have both worked tirelessly to help so many of our neighbors in need.
The path at Riverview Park meanders northeast for two miles along the embankment of the Rivanna River on a paved ribbon of smooth macadam. Beautifully maintained by Chris Gensic and the Charlottesville Parks and Recreation department, including distinct posts every quarter mile, this section of the path just might be one of the single flattest two-mile portions of paved real estate in Central Virginia.
This is a wonderful way to start the walk, because it’s not only easy terrain but the smooth path also provides stress-free footing. Because of this, it’s also one of our most popular community parks, which means it can be quite busy at peak times of the day, including the late afternoon and early evening. But, due to our early Sunday morning starting time, we didn’t see a single person the entire way.
There are sections of this winding path, especially within the first mile, that bring you so close to the river that you feel like you’re hanging on the edge of the embankment. And, because we walked this first section of the path in the late winter, when all of the trees were still bare, we had wonderful views of the fast-moving river, which, due to the heavy rains earlier that week, was actually white capped along the rapids at the three quarter mile mark.
At this point, if you look closely, one can see the Old Mills trail, Albemarle County’s sister path, mirrored on the other side of the river. This cinder and dirt path, which runs from Darden Towe Park south along the Rivanna for more than three miles, can be easily accessed by climbing up the steps at Free Bridge (1.5 miles along the path) and over to the other side.
At the end of the two-mile Riverview section, the paved path made a sharp left and took us up our steepest climb of the day as we climbed along the VFW ball field, which brought us up to River Road, where we took a right. We continued on this quiet road uphill to Locust Avenue, where we turned right again, passing several early 20th century homes along this quaint downtown neighborhood.
We then made a sharp left on Locust Lane and then a quick right onto Megan Court, where we jumped off the road and onto a narrow dirt path that disappeared into the woods. As a tip, whenever you come upon an intersection or a fork, look down at the pavement (if on the road) or on the trunk of a tree (if in the woods) for green RTF arrows to guide you in the correct direction.
This secret path off Megan Court narrowly threads its way between several homes within the shelter of a thick forest before popping out along Meadow Creek. I stood there stunned at the beautiful sight that lay before me. Here, tucked away from the nearby bustle of downtown was a hidden oasis of flowing water, traversed by a wooden footbridge and overhanging willows whose feathery tips swept across the surface of the creek. I would have never known this quiet slice of paradise existed if I hadn’t followed the path.
Within minutes, the narrow dirt path brought us up over the Meadow Creek onto Holmes Avenue, where we finished out the first leg of our RTF journey. I thoroughly enjoyed talking to Athena and Cartie along our three-mile walk, about all the many ways their beloved agencies had been able to still serve the community despite the challenges of the pandemic. And we all agreed that we couldn’t think of a more relaxed, peaceful and enjoyable way to catch up with one another, than with an early morning “country walk in the city”.
Now, onto the next section of this alluring path...
Mark Lorenzoni enjoys starting each day with a brisk walk or a very slow run. His family hosts a monthly community group walk on one of our area’s beautiful roads or paths, including sections of the RTF. Next group walk is Aug. 22. For more information sign up at RaggedWalks.org or call 434-293-3367. To join and donate to the RTF go to their website at rivannatrails.org.