Fort Lee,  Hikes

James River National Wildlife Refuge

For most military folks who have been stationed in Deutschland, nothing compares to Deutschland.  Heading out every weekend to hike another 1,000 year old castle ruin.  Heck, heading out after dinner to hike a neighborhood 1,000 caste ruin before the sun sets!  Ahh, to be back in my little village nestled below Kallmunz.

But we are here now in Fort Lee, Virginia.  

And I explained to the children, while we may not have thousands of years of history surrounding us, we do have unbelievable Civil War sites. 

As for the natural surroundings, the flatness of eastern Virginia is a little hard for this Vermonter.  I catch myself when I call for going on a hike–it’s not a hike when you meander through the woods at sea level–it’s a walk.  It can be a long walk but it will always be just a walk, not a hike. 

But walks are still beautiful, still free, and still outdoors.  So count me in!

The weather was by far the worst day we have had since permanently changing our station from Hohenfels, Deutschland to Fort Lee, Virginia with light rain and temperatures peaking in the 50s.  A glorious autumn day by Vermont standards, not so for the South.

Although I did not think of it at the time, this initiative to get up and get out with the girls on this day off from school (election day), is reminiscent of that castle hike we took on the day our home was enshrined in fog.  I said it then and I’ll say it now.  Having children is one of the best motivators.  I do not want my children viewing me and seeing a role model who eschews the outdoors.

Whether you are a hippy who wants to be one with nature, a country boy or girl who only wants to eat what they can catch or shoot, or just someone who likes getting outdoors, fresh air improves your mental and physical health.

Originally I thought of bringing the girls to Pocahontas State Park near Richmond but when the rain started to fall in earnest, I yearned for something closer to home in case our time outdoors turned miserable and the it became a ‘forced happy time’.

To find somewhere closer I turned to my trusty friend, G.M., otherwise known as Google Maps, and scoured the area around Fort Lee for the obligatory green patch that denotes parks and forests.  Spotting one 23 minutes from our home I told the girls to grab their rain jackets.

And like that, we were headed off to the James River Wildlife National Refuge (WNR).

Acadia, my 8 year old, has already done two cross country trips in the United States.  She did a 2,000 mile trek across northern Italy in our Toyota Sienna over two weeks.  She would do 24 roundtrip drives from Vermont to Charlottesville, Virginia over weekends while her mom was just entering the Army and we were temporarily separated from her.  

Acadia once said to me on on a ‘quick’ trip I took with the kids from Fort Lee, Virginia to Pinehurst, North Carolina to Atlanta, Georgia to the Smoky Mountains National Park to the Blue Ridge Parkway and then back home in less than a week, ‘only six hours driving today!  That’s nothing!’

On this day when she saw 23 minutes on the GPS, her excitement was even more so then that day when we ‘only’ had six hours to drive.

When closing in on parking for the James River WNR, you will see DEAD END signs.  They put them each time there is another fork in the road.  Not surprising as many United States Government controlled properties are accessed via one way in roads.  Soon we passed a sign welcoming visitors to the James River WNR and soon after that we came upon the designated parking for the nature trail.  From the GPS I could see that continuing down the DEAD END road would tie into a network of roads that lay close to the James River.

My curiosity leads me to seek the road less traveled so I continued on.  Would I find government owned land at the end of this road that would provide access to the James River?  Maybe crumbling foundations from the Civil War era or perhaps even older from the time of the first European settlers in the 1600s?

Turns out the road just leads to a number of houses that should consider themselves pretty lucky.  Not only are they along the James River at the end of a DEAD END but they have a national wildlife refuge as their neighbor.  Not seeing any public access we turned the car around and headed for the designated parking area.

Upon our noon arrival we were car number one.  Not sure if that is an indicator of the solitude you can expect here or if the ‘bad’ weather scared folks away.  In Vermont and Bayern you have no choice but to enjoy miserable weather days because it may be like that for two weeks.  In Virginia one can simply wait until tomorrow and the weather will be back to being beautiful.

The entrance to the trail is framed by a wide overhang with information boards below.  I’m not sure why they didn’t include the information boards about the bald eagles and indigenous people in this area as well rather than off to the side of the parking lot but it should be remedied.  This trail entrance is also nice if you have children.  You can release them from the vehicle and tell them to wait there while you pack your necessary supplies from your vehicle.  No need to worry about them playing in the parking lot during times when it’s busier.

As you start down the path you will notice the trail is framed with timber on either side with signs posted to remain on the trail.  One reason I enjoy National Forests is for the most part you are allowed to get off the beaten path and explore wherever you desire.  In this situation it is understandable as it is a wildlife refuge.  Wouldn’t be much of a refuge for wildlife if you had humans tramping all over their homes and food. 

In a few minutes you can start to see the waters of Powell’s Creek which you will then descend next to until you are at water level.  Although the refuge is named for the James River, the only trail in this protected area is actually along this creek that feeds the James River.

Along this descent we paused to examine and read about the ‘bee hotel’.  This federal property is clearly well-maintained with the signage in excellent condition.

From there it was on to the favorite part of the walk for Acadia, and Eva–the small boat launch.  At the end of a U shaped dock is a perforated dock piece with rollers that sits between the two arms of the U.  I’ve actually never seen this before but it would make getting in and out of the water in your kayak or canoe very easy.  The idea is that you place your small boat on this perforated dock piece which sits above the water in the back but slightly in the water in the front when even the smallest weight is placed upon it.  Once you are settled in your kayak for example, you simply push yourself slightly using the dock on either side and you will roll into the water.  

Now that is what the dock was designed for.

Why it was Eva and Acadia’s favorite part of the walk is because we played a game on this dock.  They would run across the perforated dock towards the lower part that was almost in the water.  When their weight was placed on this dock it would sink almost into the water.  However if I jumped down to this middle dock, my weight would cause the entire piece to sink even lower into the water.  If my daughters didn’t hop off in time, their feet would be submerged in water.  One of those games you don’t want to stop because your kids are having fun but what one of those games you want to stop because you don’t want to hear your child complain about wet cold feet for the next hour before you get back to the car.

After what was too long for me and not long enough for them, I pulled them off the dock and we continued on our way.  The trail crosses a narrow piece of land to what appears almost like an island.  Once across the strip of land signage indicates you can go either left or right on a loop trail.

Like the initial part of the trail, this section was framed with timber for much of it.  From the trail you are able to view the water nearby.  After a few minutes we came to what appeared to be a split in the trail though there was no signage.  We continued past this split and came to a dock which was the terminus of our trail.  We spent a few minutes enjoying the view and silence while swinging our legs on the dock.  As we did not invent a game to play for this dock, the girls interest in remaining at that dock was non-existent.

After getting on our way we came to that split in the trail again and decided to take the unknown path.  My hope was that it was the other portion of the loop trail and not a random trail everyone followed erroneously, thus creating a beaten path.  Those hopes were realized when I saw the nature path symbol nailed to a tree after a few minutes.  As an aside, these metal nature path symbols nailed to the tree were the nicest, newest, least dented ones I have ever seen.  I don’t really give much thought to these guide symbols but then I have never seen ones that looked like they were put up fifteen minutes before I passed them.

Within a few minutes we were back to where the loop trail started.  The girls ran ahead so they could play on their favorite dock for a few minutes and then caught up as I ascended the hill back to the car.  

Before disembarking the parking area we read additional information boards that were off to the the side. 

Among other things they discussed this wildlife refuge is the largest summer roosting area for juvenile bald eagles East of the Mississippi.  Excited to return next summer!

I had low expectations when we set out for a little outdoor time but was pleasantly surprised with what we found  My girls were running, playing, and laughing.  All while the light rain fell throughout our walk.  Granted the tree cover acted as a significant natural umbrella but still that’s a good sign–happy kids playing in cool rain.

The Basics:

Cost: No fees
Neither dogs nor bicycles allowed
Hours: Daylight (though I can’t confirm they actually lock the gate at night)
Total Walking Time:  56 minutes
Total Walking Distance: 1.76 miles
Total Incline: 83 Feet
Click here for parking

Quiet homebody.

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