My wide, Laurie, and I moved to the Richmond area more than five years ago primarily to be closer to her father, who will be 87 this year and lives near Kilmarnock. That means a large percentage of our weekends are spent on the Northern Neck, and one of our favorite places to take a walk is the Hickory Hollow Natural Area Preserve.
Hickory Hollow is 254 acres of woodlands and swamp near Kilmarnock. Credit: Leonard Adkins
With this being summer, and Richmondoutside.com featuring some road trips, now is the perfect time for you to consider taking the less-than-two-hour drive eastward to the preserve. It has a Tidewater landscape and plant life worth exploring, yet receives a only few visitors a day, so you may be the only one walking through the 254 acres.
The existence of a marked trail system in the Hickory Hollow area of Lancaster County is proof that the efforts of one person can enhance the lives of many. Although a number of state, civic, and environmental organizations contributed donations and volunteer efforts, county forester Henry Bashore is generally acknowledged as the person who made an idea into a reality. Not only did he help coordinate the groups’ efforts and persuade the county bureaucracy to open Hickory Hollow to the public, but he spent his own time and funds developing, building, and maintaining the trail system. This is surely a lesson to those of us who feel that one person alone cannot make a difference.
From 1780, the first year of recorded ownership, to 1877, the land changed hands several times and was used for a variety of purposes, notably for timber or farming. In 1877, Lancaster County purchased the property and maintained a farm on it until 1905. The process of reforestation has allowed the timber to be harvested numerous times, the last in 1962.
You’ll rarely encounter other hikers at Hickory Hollow Natural Area Preserve. Credit: Leonard Adkins
Most of the nearly six miles of trails is on old logging roads, making the walking moderately easy. The large holes in the ground next to the roads are known as borrow pits. Soil, rock, and clay were “borrowed” from these spots to aid in building a level roadbed. Flying squirrels begin their acrobatics in the early evening; ovenbirds, with their familiar “teacher, teacher, teacher” call, are more often heard than seen; and wildflowers are plentiful throughout. Among them are trout lily, crane-fly orchids, violets, pygmy pipe, and horsetail.
Pink lady’s slippers usually begin lining the roadsides sometime in April. Although their numbers may appear to be more than adequate here, this plant is becoming rarer every year in Virginia. Watch your step and, please, don’t dig one up to replant at home. Like other orchids, the lady’s slipper will grow only when certain fungi are present in soil around its roots. If soil and weather conditions aren’t conducive to the fungi, the lady’s slipper will not survive.
The Ann Messick Trail descends to Cabin Swamp, which is so intensely green and lush during the warm months that it may make other parts of the forest seem sparse and dull in comparison. Skunk cabbage, jack-in-the-pulpit, spring beauty, wild ginger, marsh marigold, and false hellebore grow among dozens of other wildflowers. Freshwater clams have been seen next to the pennywort in the small streams and the call of great horned owls often echoes through the woods.
The route along the western edge of the preserve is a narrow footpath, giving the area a more rustic feel as you walk through an open beech forest next to a creek, passing in and out of laurel tunnels. Heartleaf, running cedar, and partridgeberry make up the groundcover. The loblolly pines have dropped so many needles onto the understory that it looks to be festooned by thousands of thin brown icicles.
You should be aware that in the late 1990s, many residents of Lancaster County (rallied by local citizens Henry Bashore and Ann B. Messick) opposed county plans to develop an industrial park on Hickory Hollow lands. The residents’ nearly tireless efforts were fruitful. Grants and donations, including $150,000 from the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, were raised to purchase and protect the land. Hickory Hollow is now administered by the Northern Neck Audubon Society with assistance from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Program. If you enjoy your hike here, be sure to let county officials know that Hickory Hollow was one of the primary reasons you traveled to their county (and probably spent some money there, too).
Driving Directions: From Richmond, take US 360 east to Warsaw. There turn right and head south on VA 3. Just after you go through the town of Lancaster turn right onto VA 604. The preserve is on your left.