This past weekend I spent the day hiking and biking the High Bridge Trail State Park in and around Farmville. The weather was perfect and the trip wound up being a rewarding physical challenge.
The trail is a former rail bed and the surface is crushed and compacted limestone, suitable for whatever bike style you prefer. At 31 miles long, it’s primarily programmed for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding. It is approximately 10-12 feet wide (think double track) and there are no steep climbs or downhills – remember, trains once ran this hills and trains don’t like steep climbs and descents.
It is easy to know where you are at all times as the trail is well-marked, with distance markers every half mile. Most of the entire corridor is at least partially shaded and there are few road crossings due to the power that railroad companies have always had in limiting interruptions to safe passage for their trains.
The most significant feature of the park is the High Bridge itself. It is more than 2,400 feet long and 125 feet above the Appomattox River. It is the longest recreational bridge in Virginia and among the longest in the United States, according to the Virginia State Parks.
If you are hiking, most visitors park at the River Road trailhead and walk about a mile to the bridge. The view of the valley below and the Appomattox from the bridge is fantastic and certainly the highlight for most visitors.
In my handful of previous visits to High Bridge, I had only biked the trail. I usually park in Farmville and bike the 10-mile round-trip to the bridge and back. This trip, I had more time (and my family didn’t come with me), so I decided to hike 4.5 miles from Farmville, after leaving my bike at River Road for the return trip.
I was ambitious, hoping to bike the entire trail (62 miles, out and back) after hiking 8 miles. I fell short, calling it quits after biking 37 miles. It was a lot hotter than I expected and I ran out of water (dumb) and energy (I shouldn’t have skimped on lunch). I never made it east of the High Bridge, missing out on the towns of Rice, Moran and the east end of the trail, which is located just shy of Burkeville.
Because the trail is a former railway line, it is a better match for the speed of a cyclist or on horseback. Other than the bridge, there just isn’t as much to see for hikers and the distances are too great, but Virginia State Parks is working on that.
This summer, they opened a spur trail (not bikeable) on the south end of the bridge at Camp Paradise, an earthen fortification from the Civil War. The loop trail offers a chance to see the structure from underneath the bridge and to walk along the banks of the Appomattox.
Seeing the massive bridge from below was amazing. It was originally built in 1853 and has been through many upgrades and repairs and has obviously seen its share of history. The steel girders and ancient brick piers are so much more impressive up close from underneath.
From a cycling standpoint, one thing I’ll say about trying to bike the entire trail – it is mentally tougher to tame than I expected. I’ve biked that distance before, but not after first hiking 8 miles. That wasn’t it. Maybe it was the lack of cold water or hunger messing with me, but the trail west of Farmville has a monotonous sameness to it. And it seemed like it was uphill both ways.
Headed west from Farmville, as I rounded each bend, I continually expected some downhill. When I reached the end of the trail in Pamplin City, I figured I’d turn around and coast back into have a beer once I got back to Farmville. Didn’t happen. Even after looking at the topography after my ride, I’m still not convinced the trail isn’t uphill in each direction.
Enough about me. I witnessed lots of families out for perhaps their first distance bike ride. One such family said they made it about halfway from Farmville, decided it was too long and turned around. The mother promised they would be back, saying that they were working on improving their endurance.
If you go, Farmville is about 60 miles from Richmond. Expect a parking fee at the state park trailheads ($2 to $3 depending on the day of the week). Parking at the trailhead in Farmville was free.