So the question is, where was I experiencing all of this one afternoon last week?
Was I on Brown’s Island walking along the James? No.
Was I on the Virginia Capital Trail between the Floodwall and Great Shiplock Park, mixing in the hum of cars along Dock Street into the soundtrack? No.
Was I rounding the corner to go up the hill to the Nature Center at Maymont Park? No.
I was in Colonial Heights.
What? A paved outdoor trail through the woods in the land of the cucumber tree? Yes. It’s really there, and I was stunned one day driving across the I-95 bridge over the Appomattox River and saw the ribbon of asphalt coming through the woods. So I went exploring — several times. There was the paved path, but there was also more. It has scenic overlooks. It has boat landings for kayaks, canoes and larger craft. Walking, running, hiking, cycling, kayaking, yoga, stand-up paddle boarding — if it’s part of Riverrock, the Sports Backer’s annual party on the James, it can now be done on the Appomattox too. Except maybe you’d replace the mountain biking with fishing.
Appropriately, it’s called the Colonial Heights Appomattox River Trail System (CHARTS), though it is also commonly referred to as the Appomattox River Greenway. And it’s probably one of the best things to ever happen to Colonial Heights.
I know because I grew up in Colonial Heights. And perhaps it was my own short attention span as a teenager, but back in the late 1980s it seemed the only sidewalks in town were the ones connecting the high school to what was then known as the vocational center. But then came my college days at JMU and a longish stint out West, with time spent in Colorado and Washington State. Those are places that know how to put together some bike paths.
And to say the least, CHARTS is not without its quirks. One part of the trail gives you a view of the Petersburg wastewater treatment plant, while another section parallels a junk yard. But it’s not my intention to belittle what Colonial Heights has here. The sleepy little suburb of Fort Lee is surrounded on three sides by classic, lazy, southeast flatwater. Most of it is in the form of the Appomattox River, which hangs a left around the southeast corner of town and then meets up with Swift Creek, which forms much of the northern border. Put this all together and you have an outdoor paradise — one that CHARTS is starting to open up to people.
The trail is being built in phases. The first phase opened in 2009 and included improvements throughout Roslyn Landing Park and a short section of trail west out of the park. A small pavilion was added in 2012 to memorialize one of the trails pioneers, Harry B. Hargis, Jr., who passed away that year. The second phase pushes westward to the I-95 bridge over the Appomattox, and the third phase, which opened over the summer, extends the trail to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Bridge. The fourth and final phase, when finished, will connect the trail to Appamatuck Park west of the Boulevard on Archer Avenue, and will include many park upgrades, as well.
Once the trail is fully connected to the King Bridge, it will also link up nicely to the Lower Appomattox River Trail which runs along the south bank of the river through Dinwiddie and Petersburg. Planners have also gone so far as to include an old railroad right-of-way, with a spur trail that leads to where the railroad used to cross the river, complete with signage to help people understand the way the railroad affected the course of the Civil War in the region. As of last week, that spur wasn’t yet finished, but work is clearly progressing.
The trail is certainly a welcome addition to the outdoor recreation scene in central Virginia. It has been quickly adopted by runners and walkers in the area, and no doubt, cyclists will follow once the proper connections at Appamatuck Park are complete.
To find out more, visit www.colonialheightstrails.org