It always seems like there aren’t enough places where you can enjoy a long, scenic bicycle ride far removed from cars and trucks. Many routes in our region parallel popular roadways. Fortunately, High Bridge Trail State Park in central Virginia offers a great opportunity for a stress-free ride away from traffic.
The 31-mile trail is closed to motor vehicles, so you can pedal away the miles without breathing exhaust fumes. While the main attraction is a striking bridge spanning nearly a half mile over the Appomattox River, the rest of the route through rolling countryside is well worth a visit.
The wide, flat path also makes for an ideal spot to cycle with children. So on a calm, November day I headed out with my wife and our toddler son for our first ride together on the High Bridge Trail. Out of the trail’s multiple access points, we decided to start in the tiny town of Rice. From there, the High Bridge is just an easy 3.5 miles away.
After parking and unloading, my wife and I strapped on our helmets and secured our son in his child bicycle trailer. Soon we were rolling along on a path of finely-crushed, white limestone, so tightly packed it felt nearly as smooth as blacktop. We followed the trail through young hardwood forest and old farmland. Deep ravines appeared on either side with small streams flowing through the woods.
It was the point in the year when fall begins to wind down towards winter, and life was preparing for the colder months ahead. Trees were shedding their leaves. Squirrels gathered acorns. A big blue jay squawked at us from overhanging branches. We all took in the autumn – crunchy leaves under bicycle tires and the occasional tree still glowing reddish-gold in the November sun.
After less than 20 minutes we rolled up to the bridge. And while I had seen photos, they just don’t capture how impressive it is. A sturdy wooden span propped up on a steel structure, it stretches long and straight across the wide, forested valley. This historic railroad bridge dates back to the 1850s, and in its day it was considered an unrivaled feat of engineering.
As we crossed 125 feet above the valley, we felt completely safe thanks to tall railings on both sides reinforced by wire fencing. Along the bridge, two shaded lookout spots with benches offered us a great spot to take in the view.
From there, we gazed straight down at the Appomattox – at this point a small winding river with banks swollen by recent rains. The tree canopy stretched out below. Leaves rustled on the oaks and river birch. Sunlight glinted off a small stream where it joined the main stem of the river.
Rangers had set up outdoor stations on either side of the bridge to offer information and assistance. Though I had been focused on the scenery, after chatting with a ranger I learned how the bridge played a key role in Civil War history.
The final days of the War played out in this region, and controlling High Bridge has been called the South’s “Last Great Hope.” During a crucial battle there, the Confederate Army attempted to burn the bridge to cut off the pursuit of Union soldiers. The fact that the Union ultimately put out the fire and crossed the bridge may have ended the war sooner.
Leaving the ghosts of history on the bridge, we rode on and stopped a mile further up the trail where it hits River Road. There we had lunch at picnic table in the shade of green pines. As the afternoon warmed, families and college students from nearby Longwood University passed by as they walked towards the bridge.
While we had hoped to explore and refuel in Farmville a few more miles up the trail, recent storms had washed out the path ahead. Rangers told us they expect it to be fully reopened in early 2019. We headed back across the bridge and returned to our car in Rice, having covered just about 10 miles round trip.
Though we only experienced a small slice of the trail, the silver lining to our roadblock is that we’ll be able to look forward to something new the next time we ride the trail. Cycling the whole route in a day is a decent and doable trip, but for those who prefer a slower pace there are plenty of options for section rides. With our young son in tow, we’re hoping to take in the entire trail over the course of several visits now that High Bridge Trail is on our go-to list for a family ride.