Virginia's Hidden Parks/ The Appomattox River Trail.
"...a fascinating mixture of different terrains, diverse wildlife, and an interesting history all tucked along the lower Appomattox river."
After prompting from a few friends I finally took the short drive down to Petersburg to explore a rarely mentioned park. What I found was a fascinating mixture of different terrains, diverse wildlife, and an interesting history all tucked along the lower Appomattox river. Over the course of three trips, I hiked several miles of the lower trail and then rode both main sections of the trail on my bike.
Day one I brought my 4.5-year-old and parked at Appomattox Riverside Park just over the bridge from Matoca. From the parking lot, we walked down the hill crossing over a section of the old canal to the lower trail that follows along the riverbank and began to head east. Here the trail is sandy at times but mostly packed dirt that makes for a fairly non-strenuous walk. As the trail moves along I was given great views of the river as it winds its way towards Petersburg.
Up the hill, the old canal ran for a while and the porous nature of the earth it is built on creates many small streams and vernal pools that create a lush environment packed with biodiversity. The streams all eventually cross the path as they empty into the river creating either small crossings to safely jump across or larger ones that have bridges built over them. There are many places where you can climb onto the rocky bank of the river and in some places scramble out a way over huge stones. There is even a “secret” island you can get to if you want to enjoy some additional seclusion.
We continued on this path for about 2 miles before reaching a fork in the trail. From what I could tell at the time our best choice to keep the hike under 5 miles was to take the trail to the right and climb up the hill. At the top, we came out of the woods onto a gravel road by a Dominion Power substation. Looking at the satellite map, it appeared that the access road would follow the powerlines a good portion of the way back to our starting point. The gravel road gave way to packed double track that appeared to be used by the power company as well as local ATV owners. This section stretches for about one mile before arriving on the end of the canal itself. Here the old canal that starts much further upstream had collapsed creating the largest of the streams we had previously crossed. The slow erosion of the hillside creates a really cool looking bit of terrain.
Here you have to climb down a somewhat steep grade, cross the bridge on the lower trail then immediately climb back up if you want to walk along the old canal. We did and were rewarded for it. The canal towpath is still there and well maintained. The canal itself is still steadily flowing with water diverted into it several miles upstream. It was about one more mile of walking back to the parking lot we started at.
Elsa and I returned three days later to further explore. Again we left our car at the Appomattox Riverside Park and walked down the hill. This time we headed upstream. The trail here is very similar to what we were on earlier in the week. A winding path, the river on the right, small streams and marshy pools to our left, birds calling from every direction. After less than a mile this part of the trail becomes more and more narrow until essentially ending. Where it terminates is not far below the canal towpath but the woods there are very marshy. We were able to climb up to the canal but in retrospect, this portion of the trail is best treated as out and back.
Once we had climbed back up the hill the canal towpath continued upstream. At this point, the towpath is still much higher than the river below and in many parts, you are given great views of the rocky river below. It’s very clear why all the effort was made at the time to construct this canal. The river here is clearly impassible by all but the smallest watercraft.
After a little less than two miles of hiking, we reached the dam that feeds the canal. The trek was well worth it. You can climb up stairs onto the old water abutment system and get a great view of the old dam that stretches most of the way across the river. We took advantage of the sunny day and view to pause for a snack before turning back.
On the return trip to the car, we took the towpath the whole way and enjoyed the smooth surface and great weather.
"Now that I had a pretty good handle on how the trail system was laid out on the end near the park I was excited to come back with my bike and ride the entirety of the trail from the Colonial Heights side."
The following Thursday I did just that. I packed up my bike and drove down. The best place to park is at the Appomattox River Trail Roslyn Landing Access lot. This is right behind the Colonial Heights animal shelter. It is a public boat landing and is where the most eastern section of the trail begins. Heading from the parking lot west the trail is a fully paved multi-use path that runs about 1.5 miles from the trailhead to Rt 301. From here you can ride the wide sidewalk over the bridge on 301 and into downtown Petersburg. From here you can pick up the trail off of Pike St and ride along the train tracks before crossing them at Squaw Ave into Patton Park. At the western end of the park you cross Fleet St and the Appomattox trail starts again officially.
This section is another 1.5 miles long and alternates between somewhat maintained access road, to double track and mostly non-technical single track. At this point, I reached the same point downhill from the Dominion substation that I had turned back at the previous week. Since I was riding out and back I decided to stay on the low path along the river. This is mostly non-technical but bumpy single track. I was pushing close to the limit of what my light touring bike was able to handle but never past it. Along the way, there are several small creek crossings. Some with bridges some that were rideable or walkable. I meandered along the trail and contemplated coming back when I had more time to walk out to some of the rocks and dip my feet in the river.
After about 2 miles I was now past the Matoca bridge. I walked my bike up the hill to Appomattox Riverside Park and hopped onto the canal towpath. From here it’s smooth sailing on a flat crushed gravel path for the next 1.5 files to the end of the path at the abutment dam. As I had learned when hiking here previously, the trail eventually becomes impassable.
As I mentioned earlier, the terminus of the trail is a great place to pause and enjoy the view. If you feel up to it you can actually walk out on the old dam to get an even better look at the river. A nearby bench proved perfect to sit a moment and enjoy the surroundings and a snack before heading back.
I turned around and retraced my steps along the towpath to the parking lot at Appomattox Riverside Park. This time I rode the towpath straight to Pickett Avenue, crossed the road, and continued on the path itself. This section of the canal towpath takes you all the way to where the old canal abruptly ends.
Originally the canal continued east from here all the way to Petersburg but after years of disuse parts eventually began to fail. Other parts were demolished when the railway came through. Here the towpath completely ends. However, there is a bumpy doubletrack path you can ride or walk down to the lower trail. I crossed back over one of the bridges and then immediately turned right and hiked my bike up a somewhat steep bit of single track. Once back up near the train tracks, I was able to ride again on what is no longer towpath, but rather a powerline cut that appears to be maintained by Dominion. It mildly rolls up and down a bit along the train tracks until it arrives at the Dominion substation.
Once I reached the substation I had to head back down to the lower trail and follow the same route back to downtown Petersburg that I took to this point on my way out. I later learned that on the other side of the tunnel under the rail bed remains more of the old canal and even some ruins of one of the lock systems. From what I could tell at the time there no easy way to ride back there but next time I go I plan on doing a bit of hike-a-bike to check it out.
I eventually made my way back to the parking lot east of downtown where I started. When it was all said and done my whole trip had been about 17 miles. It was absolutely worth the trip down from Richmond to check it out. Next time I’ll make more time and head over to the nearby Petersburg National Battlefield Park, where there is plenty of pavement and light off-road trail to enjoy as well. If I take my time and hit most of the trail there I would be able to add another dozen or so miles and get in a ride loaded with varying terrain, great views, and loads of history.
I would encourage just about anyone comfortable riding off road to head down and check this out on a nice day. There are plenty of small details I have left out of this on purpose. Grab your bike (or hiking shoes) and your friends/family and go see for yourself.