With the long days of summer upon us, it’s time to make a foray outside of the Richmond city limits. But the place I’m suggesting is only 30 miles to the east. It’s a wonderful spot that most motorists traveling the four-lane highway go speeding by, unaware of the marvels they would experience if they would become pedestrians for just a short while.
The Wahrani Nature Trail winds through a forest of a few hundred acres crowded with a grand variety of trees, plants, and flowers. Rarely is there the chance to see so many kinds of ferns, so bring along an identification guide. I’ve been able to pick out Christmas, broad beech, New York, netted chain, lady, ebony spleenwort, sensitive, walking, and cinnamon ferns, and there are still more that I’ve yet to identify.
The trail also has more than its fair share of wildflowers, so don’t forget to bring along a guide for them, too. Even before much of the natural world has awakened from its winter slumber, the procession of colors begins in March (and sometimes as early as late February) with Virginia bluebell, spring beauty, round-lobed hepatica, and trailing arbutus making appearances despite the cool temperatures. The rains of April bring showy orchidbb s, wild geranium, golden ragwort, jack-in-the-pulpit, and a member of the daffodil family—the atamasco lily. Joining the floral procession in May are Indian cucumber root, pink lady’s slippers, puttyroot, large twayblade, and wild iris—which resembles, in many ways, the cultivated garden iris. By the time the hot days of June, July, and August arrive, some of these flowers will have disappeared; yet growing next to their developing fruits and blooming into September are large-flowered leafcup, downy foxglove, cardinal flower, great lobelia, pipsissewa, and butterfly weed.
At any time of year, be on the lookout for wild turkeys, deer, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, skunks, and snakes. The nonpoisonous hognose, whose defense mechanisms can almost be comical at times, is among the snakes you are most likely to see. When first threatened, the hognose may shake its tail in the leaves, mimicking the sound of a rattlesnake. Upon further provocation, it will puff up (its other common name is puff adder), hiss, and flatten its neck like a cobra. If all else fails, the snake will simply roll over and play dead. However, it will give this charade away because if turned onto its stomach it promptly flips over on its back again.
History is also a part of this hike, which makes use of centuries-old roadbeds and passes by gravestones at the site of an early 1700s church. In the early part of the twentieth century, farmers dug up the land—look for pits and holes in the hillsides—to mine deposits of marl. Rich in carbonates of calcium and magnesium, and containing bits of seashells, the marl was spread on fields as a substitute fertilizer for lime.
There are (basically) four interconnecting loops that enable you to make the hike about as long or as short as you want, with the total distance being close to five miles if you were to walk every inch of trail—which you may end up doing as many of the intersections are confusingly marked and you may have to do some backtracking. Just chalk it up to the opportunity to explore a little more of the area than you had intended. If you stay to the right at all of the intersections—except one, which will be obvious—you will walk the outer loop of about 4 miles.
Part of the outer loop follows a road constructed years before the War for Independence. For decades, it, in conjunction with a ferry that operated on the York River, expedited the busy flow of travelers and supplies between Williamsburg and West Point. As a result of such heavy horse, foot, and carriage use, the roadbed has deeply eroded, yet growing on its high embankments are spring beauty, pennywort, and at least three different ferns—Christmas, netted chain, and sensitive.
In a forest of loblolly pines, the outer loop enters a small stream valley where the flowers become even more abundant. Bluets, violets, wintergreen, and pussytoes spread across the moist forest floor, while Indian pipe grows up from the roots of the trees.
Mayapple, partridgeberry, and false Solomon’s seal appear as you come onto drier ground and rise to the site of Warreneye Church, built in 1703. Only two headstones, with quite entertaining inscriptions, remain nearby to mark where the chapel stood. Local lore says that George Washington attended the church sometime in 1768, while visiting his sister-in-law at Basset Mansion (situated on the bank of the Pamunkey River to the northeast).
The only long-ranging view of the hike overlooks the Chesapeake Company’s loblolly-pine seed orchard, and its forest lands in New Kent, King and Queen, and King William counties. The steam plumes you see are from the St. Laurent Corporation’s pulp-and-paper mill located in West Point between the Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers, which meet just south of town to form the York River.
I like to time my outings so that they come to an end just as darkness is starting to fall, as I’m almost always rewarded with the emotive “Who drinks my tea!” cry of a barred owl echoing in the forest as I return to my car.
Take I-64 Exit 220 (about 30 miles east of Richmond) and travel close to 4 miles on VA 33 to the signed trailhead on the right.