The primary reason most people hike is that they all share a love for the outdoors and enjoy the sights and treasures of nature. These same people, however, usually have a secondary reason that they hike and it’s this secondary reason that often determines their destination.
Secondary reasons vary greatly as do the choices we are blessed with when it comes to trail selections. Some folks hike for the exercise, others strictly for the scenery. Naturalists, photographers, athletes and families all enjoy the trails, but often for different reasons.
These reasons tend to change over time also. For many years I hiked primarily for the exercise and searched out challenging trails like the Priest Hike in Nelson County. The Priest boasts a 3,000-foot elevation gain over a 4-mile stretch; something I once considered unrelenting but exhilarating. Now, I just call it crazy, and you couldn’t drag me kicking and screaming up that trail no matter how stunning the view from the top is.
Today my primary reasons tend to be for photography and the sheer pleasure of nature. Although every once in a while the historian in me craves a trail that takes me on a journey into the past. Historic trails rarely physically challenge the hiker as they are generally easy to moderate, well-groomed paths that meander through a unique historic site.
Living in Virginia, we are blessed to have some of the finest historic trails in the country. Much of that is due to the large number of Civil War battlefield parks that often include some lengthy hiking trails, but we are not limited to just Civil War sites. In fact, there are a number of local trails that are not even registered as historic trails yet contain some interesting artifacts from the past.
One example would be the trails at Bottom Creek Gorge near Bent Mountain. While most folks go there to enjoy the cascades and waterfall, the trails also harbor remnants of a small village that flourished from the late 18th century until the mid-20th century. Rumor has it that Civil War deserters settled on this rocky secluded ridge. Finding historic sites like this on your hike are both surprising and rewarding.
Perhaps the most familiar historic site in Franklin County is the Booker T. Washington National Park and it too has its own hiking trails. I spent some time there this past week to investigate what the trails at Booker T. Washington have to offer and to whom they would be most attractive to.
The park actually has two trails, the Plantation Trail and the Jack-O-Lantern Branch Heritage Trail. The short Plantation Trail takes you through the historic sites, cabins, tobacco barns, gardens and the animal visitation shelters. The Heritage Trail extends from there and meanders through a mostly wooded plot of land skirting Gills Creek on its far end. If you combine the two trails you end up with a hike that adds up to a little more than 2 miles.
With a trail that short, you would assume that the exercise enthusiasts would have little interest, but that’s not the case. Sure you won’t find those crazy strenuous elevation gains like The Priest — the Heritage Trail only boasts a 200-foot gain — but the trail is smooth and wide the entire length of it, making it an ideal loop for an aerobic hike or jog in a pristine natural setting. I came across several folks using it for just that purpose during my visit.
The naturalists and photographers will thoroughly love this delightful hike. The forested trail boasts a variety of deciduous trees and an impressive number of wildflowers species. The Heritage Trail has a small creek that runs parallel to it emptying into Gills Creek delivering additional features to both the flora and fauna. On my brief visit I was able to capture a nice collection of birds, deer and snake photos and tons of wildflowers to boot.
By design, it will be families that are most attracted to this trail. Kids absolutely love the features of the Plantations Trail — investigating the historic structures of the farm and visiting the sheep, horses, chickens, pigs and ducks that breathe life into the hike. The longer Heritage Trail is an interactive trail, featuring a number of exhibit panels and tree signage that teach visitors about both the historic and natural characteristics of the plantation. Then of course there is the water. What kid doesn’t love investigating a creek cascading over rocks?
When a family decides to go out on a hike together, there are many trail options to choose from, and I have personally been on most all of them. If the trails at Booker T. Washington National Park do not end up on your short list of options, you will be making an unfortunate mistake. Treat your kids to a special and unforgettable afternoon of history and nature. I highly recommend it.
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