Ahh… Spring is here! Time to get outside and get moving.
Not yet up for a full day of intense mountain climbing at Shenandoah National Park? Afraid of “over-committing” to a serious hike? Then look no further than downtown Charlottesville, Virginia (keyword “look”, because unless you are really searching for it, you would never know it existed)… home of one of the coolest urban trail networks, and arguably America’s Best-Disguised Hiking Trail … the Rivanna Trail!
The Rivanna Trail is a 20-mile rustic network of hiking trails built and maintained by volunteers that winds through and encircles the City of Charlottesville, Virginia. Built to the Appalachian Trail standards, the Rivanna Trail meanders along streams and rivers, through forested buffers, alongside several city neighborhoods, and ultimately connects six city parks. Composed primarily of rustic pedestrian paths, it provides a sense of “urban wilderness” in the midst of a bustling Charlottesville, Virginia (cars zooming by seldom realize that there is such an extensive trail network nearby, and hikers can easily forget that the isolated natural scenery they enjoy may be just yards behind a crowded shopping center)… thus our self-ascribed title of America’s Best-Disguised Hiking Trail.
Locating the trail(s) can be difficult without a map, as the Rivanna Trail circumnavigates Charlottesville nearly seamlessly (“America’s Best-Disguised Hiking Trail”). While there are numerous trail signs… you generally need to know what you’re looking for in order to find it. Trail maps are available at official visitor’s centers, local outdoors stores, and here.
Best Public Parking Areas
The best parking access for visitors of the Rivanna Trail is in:
- Riverview Park at the end of Jefferson Street;
- Azalea Park off Old Lynchburg Road;
- Jordan Park at the end of 6th Street;
- Quarry Park on Quarry Road.
- In addition, look for dark green “Rivanna Trail” signs at most road crossings.
The Rivanna Trail is a wilderness trail and isn’t inspected on a regular basis… please proceed at your own risk. Portions of the Rivanna Trail cross private property. Please respect those property rights by adhering to the following rules:
- Keep to the trail.
- Do not trespass on adjacent property.
- No motorized vehicles.
- Dogs must be leashed.
- Keep noise to a minimum.
- Please don’t litter.
- The trail is open from sunrise to sunset daily.
Guide to The Rivanna Trail
The information below describes the various sections (in counterclockwise order) of the Rivanna Trail that circumnavigates Charlottesville, Virginia. In parentheses are the segment length and description of the footing. Those segments of the trail marked with an asterisk (*) are especially well-suited for small children:
Woolen Mills to Riverview Park* (.41 miles, moderate)
Follow the sandy trail from Moore’s Creek to the old Woolen Mills dam; climb uphill to left. Turn right onto E. Market Street, right onto Riverside Ave., right into Riverview Park.
Riverview Park to Route 250 at Free Bridge* (1.48 miles, easy)
Follow hard-surfaced trail through the park’s fields and forests along the Rivanna River. A spur trail (.39 miles) makes possible a loop hike within the park.
Route 250 at Free Bridge to Holmes Avenue (1.64 miles, moderate)
Follow hard-surfaced trail to VFW fields. Just upriver, turn left, then right onto River Road, and right on Locust Avenue; at the end, turn left on Locust Lane, then right onto Megan Court. Follow sign into forest, cross creek to River North Trail.
Holmes Avenue to Park Street* (.59 miles, moderate)
Trail follows Meadow Creek. There are numerous spur trails behind Charlottesville High School, into McIntire Park and connecting to Meadowbrook Heights Road.
Park Street to the Norfolk-Southern RR underpass (1.12 miles, moderate)
After crossing under Park Street, detour along Melbourne to Warner Parkway Trail. Follow the paved path for 200 feet, then cut right to return to the rustic Trail. The trail crosses the creek on the Parkway Trail bridge, and then immediately turns left towards the culvert.
Norfolk-Southern RR underpass to Greenbrier/Brandywine Drives (.64 miles, easy)
To bypass, turn right onto Melbourne and walk past high school. Turn right on Kenwood, then the second left onto Lester Drive (which turns into Jamestown). Follow until Jamestown ends. Cross bridge, turn left to rejoin the trail. Crossing railroad tracks or through culvert is illegal.
Greenbrier/Brandywine Drives to Hydraulic Road (1.07 miles, moderate)
Follow the clearing and watch for the rock hop across Meadow Creek (use caution crossing the creek) on the left.
Hydraulic Road to Emmet Street (Rt. 29) (.62 miles, moderate)
Walk upstream beside Meadow Creek as it makes its way under two major roadways. Continue through forest near City Gardens. Turn right onto Morton Drive.
Emmet Street to Barracks Road (1.51 miles, easy)
Cross Emmet Street. Follow Earhart Street to a footbridge on the left. Remain on the trail when traversing the Federal Executive Institute property and stay off the ropes course equipment. Turn left onto Cedars Court after second footbridge. Cross Barracks Road to rejoin the rail.
Barracks Road to Old Ivy Road (1.74 miles, moderate)
Follow the headwaters of Meadow Creek, past the foundation of the 1806 Poor House, through a forest of mountain laurel and chestnut oaks, through two large fields, and past a small pond.
Ivy Road to Fontaine Avenue (1.88 miles, moderate)
Start near the fire station. Keep your eyes open for RTF blazes that mark the main path around Observatory Hill. There are numerous connecting trails throughout this area.
Fontaine Avenue to Stribling Avenue* (.59 miles, moderate)
Cross Fontaine. Walk under pines, follow road across bridge, turn left to Morey Creek. Cross the creek on stepping stones (use caution). The adjoining Department of Forestry nature trail spur (1 mile) contains several unique tree species, remnants of a 1930s tree nursery.
Stribling Avenue to Sunset Avenue (moderate)
Turn right on Stribling Avenue, then right again immediately after crossing under the railroad bridge. Pass through the field, cross the driveway, and then descend to the rock hop-across Moore’s Creek. Turn left at Sunset Avenue Extended, and then cross the pedestrian bridge.
Sunset Avenue to Azalea Park (closed)
Sunset Avenue Bridge to McElroy is currently closed to through travel (detour up the hill on sunset, follow to the trailhead in Azalea Park.
Azalea Park to 5th Street Extension (.87 miles, moderate)
Cross the creek on stepping stones (use caution), continue through forest and field.
5th Street Extended to Jordan Park (2.3 miles, moderate)
Turn left out of the culvert, and then right after crossing the footbridge. The trail crosses Bent Creek Road behind the Exxon, then turns left up the hillside towards Harris Street. Follow 5th Street, then turn right to return to forest trail along Rock and Moore’s Creeks.
Jordan Park to Quarry Park* (1.07 miles, moderate)
Stay to the right through Jordan Park, and follow the trail along the creek and under Avon Street. Cross road bridge, turn left onto trail near tall pines. Meander through a young forest, climb a gentle hill to high bluffs overlooking Moore’s Creek and on to Monticello Avenue (Route 20)
Quarry Park to the Woolen Mills (1.64 miles, difficult)
Continue under Monticello Avenue, along Moore’s Creek (towards Rivanna River). Be prepared to scramble over rocks (use caution) and trample through sand. Notice the old livestock market, and historic mill buildings. Crossing the railroad trestle is illegal.
Whew… that’s a lot of trails dispersed throughout Charlottesville. Now you understand why we call it America’s Best-Disguised Hiking Trail!
Great Hikes for Young Children
These sections of America’s Best-Disguised Hiking Trail are especially well-suited for small children and strollers:
- Woolen Mills (0.2 mile round trip) – Park at the end of East Market St. before the “no parking” signs. Walk past old brick mill houses to trailhead on the left (just before the entrance to Allied Storage). Make your way down a steep hillside toward the Woolen Mills dam (note the huge stones that were used to build the dam). Turn right, go under the railroad bridge, and down to the sandy beach… you are at the mouth of Moore’s Creek, where it empties into the Rivanna River. Above are the historic Woolen Mills buildings, built in the 1830s. From the most southern tip of the island you can see the elaborate brick smokestack of the old Rivanna River Power Plant.
- Riverview Park (4 miles out and back, 1 mile for shorter loop) – Park in Riverview Park (on Chesapeake Street). Start on the meadow path. In about half a mile you’ll reach a trail junction overlooking the Rivanna River (the trail to the right returns to the start, making a one-mile loop). Or stay along the river the whole distance for a 4-mile change of scenery.
- Holmes Avenue to Park Street (1 mile for out and back) – Park on Holmes Avenue near the Rivanna Trail sign. Start your hike to the west (to the left if your back is to city center). Cross a tiny stream, follow the trail through spicebush and thick grapevines. Turn around just before the Park Street bridge.
- Department of Forestry Nature Trail (1 mile loop) – Enter Fontaine Research Park from Fontaine Avenue, and turn right onto Ray C. Hunt Drive (which becomes Natural Resources Drive). Follow the road to the Department of Forestry, turn left, and follow the road around the headquarters building. Look for the Nature Trail welcome sign at far side of parking lot. This trail contains a wealth of huge pines and hardwood trees from when a Forestry tree nursery stood here.
- Jordan Park (1.5 miles out and back) – Enter Jordan Park at the end of 6th Street, and walk all the way across the park, keeping the creek on your left and the play equipment on your right. Cross the stream, climb a short hill, and turn left. The Rivanna Trail continues along Rock Creek through huge beech trees (the bark of beeches looks a little bit like elephant skin). The trail now follows an old sewer road. Turn around when you reach 5th Street.
Local Area Hiking Resources
Not only is the Charlottesville region home to the Rivanna Trail (“America’s Best-Disguised Hiking Trail”) and the Shenendoah National Forest, we are fortunate in this region to have many parks, natural areas, and trails that offer abundant opportunities for safe, healthy walking. Here are a few of our favorites in addition to the Rivanna Trail, selected because they offer beautiful scenery (and they’re free to visit). Please be alert for each trail’s particular guidelines.
- Ivy Creek Natural Area – located six miles north of Charlottesville, Virginia, this 215-acre preserve contains more than 7 miles of both rustic and handicapped trails, many overlooking Ivy Creek. More info here.
- The Ragged Mountain Natural Area – consists of 980 acres of forest and seven miles of challenging, rugged rustic trails encircling one of Chsrlottesville’s sources of drinking water. More info here.
- Pen Park – often referred to as the “gem” of the Charlottesville park system, this is the largest park in Charlottesville. In addition to sweeping vistas of mountains and open rolling land in all directions, the park has 8 tennis courts, a baseball field, volleyball court, 18-hole golf course, an outdoor physical fitness course, and a 1.5 mile long section of the Rivanna Trail. Read more about Pen Park here.
- Sugar Hollow Reservoir – the starting point for two challenging trails that follow the two forks of the Moormans River… and both with multiple stream crossings. Sugar Hollow is located at the end of Route 614 west of the town of Whitehall.
- Fluvanna Heritage Trail – near Palmyra, it contains 969 acres with more than 22 miles of trails… including an ADA-accessible trail leading down to the Rivanna River and a rustic trail extending several miles upriver. Read more at this link.
- The Saunders-Monticello Trail – a beautifully-designed 2 mile trail along the south side of the Thomas Jefferson Parkway (leading to the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center). Comprised of on-grade sections of packed stone and some raised boardwalks, the trail is open to pedestrians, cyclists, and wheelchairs (with a maximum grade of five percent, the trail is fully accessible as it climbs steadily to Monticello). Detailed info is right here.
Visit America’s Best-Disguised Hiking Trail
After your exhilarating day on America’s Best-Disguised Hiking Trail, head back to Prospect Hill Plantation Inn where you can relax and stretch your legs, take a walk through our own 1.5 mile nature trail, chat with our horses, alpacas, cats, and dogs, or catch a quick nap in your own historic cottage. Cap your evening with one of the finest meals in all of Virginia with Chef Elpidio and his fabulous team. Whatever brings you here, you’re sure to find the perfect way to unwind at our breathtaking property. See all our rooms and cottages right here.