In late fall, ash, oak and beech trees burn brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where the Blue Ridge Mountains meet the Allegheny range. Interstate 81 cuts a gray asphalt ribbon southwest through this blaze of color.
On a chilly Friday night in late October, my girlfriend and I leave the interstate to check in at the Llewellyn Lodge bed and breakfast in Lexington, a small city in Shenandoah’s Rockbridge County that’s known for its Civil War history (both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are buried here) and its two colleges, Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and Washington and Lee University.
Around the breakfast table the next morning, recent grads and parents, in town for Washington and Lee’s alumni weekend, trade tips on faculty, fellowships and facilities. The pleasant innkeeper, John Roberts, offers that he was born up the road in Stonewall Jackson’s home, when the building still served as the city’s main hospital.
My girlfriend remarks that Roberts sounds like a late-night DJ, speaking in a soft voice but one that doesn’t hide his passion for Lexington, fishing local streams for rainbow trout and enjoying the Chessie Nature Trail. “On Sundays, you’re not supposed to walk the trail, but I’ve never heard of anyone being written up over it,” he says with a wink.
We don’t plan to wait until Sunday, though. Right after breakfast, we set off for the Chessie. It’s a quiet Saturday morning in Lexington, with an autumn frost on the grass. Just northeast of town we easily find the Chessie trailhead at VMI Island. (You can also start at the other end in the nearby town of Buena Vista.)
A trail information sheet says the Chessie is owned and maintained by VMI. The school acquired the corridor from The Nature Conservancy in 1979, after it was abandoned by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway following Hurricane Camille.
Once part of the Richmond and Alleghany Railroad—and before that a canal towpath—the rail-trail is well maintained by the military school and well used by it as well, as evidenced by the packs of cadets frequently found running on it.
At the start of the trail, stone abutments fan out across the Maury River. They are remnants of a covered bridge that was wiped out by the 1969 hurricane. After admiring them from the overlook, we realize we are, in fact, on an island: With the bridge gone, the trailhead is really just a park. We cross the U.S. 11 concrete bridge to the north side of the river to begin our walk in earnest.
For just over seven miles, the trail hugs the Maury as it flows eastward, streaming under bridges, beside old warehouses and past pastures and homes and what’s left of the canal system. Wooden benches along the way offer places to stop and rest and enjoy the peace. We perch on rocks by the river and eat locally grown Honey Crisp apples that we’d stowed in our backpacks. Our view takes in Reid’s Lock and Dam, where evergreens grow out of the lock’s old stone walls.
As we move on, we often have the trail to ourselves. Occasionally we encounter walkers and runners of every age, all of them friendly. We greet a father and daughter walking their dog, an elderly couple looking for birds, a young couple taking photos of the radiant leaves.
“That’ll be 10 cents,” more than one passerby laughs, as I take their photos.
We come upon a group of cheerful volunteers searching out and bagging invasive plants. The unofficial spokeswoman, Lisa Tracy, works for the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council and says her group is trying to raise money to place signposts at the trailhead to prevent people like us from getting confused.
Technically, biking is allowed on the Chessie Trail, but you wouldn’t know from the signs and information guides. At any rate, the gravel and dirt path is too rough for road bikes and the gradient too flat to interest many mountain bikers. As the cool shadows grow, I think more than once about coming back in the dead of winter to cross-country ski.
After starting our walk at 9 a.m. and moving at a pretty leisurely pace, with plenty of stops along the way, we arrive at the cliffs beyond the I-81 bridge around noon before turning back. At 7.2 miles one way, the Chessie’s a bit much to take on if you’re just out for a stroll, and we want to get back to Lexington well before the restaurants begin closing their lunch shifts at 2:30 p.m. We pick up the pace, still stopping now and then to admire the colors and savor the silence.
A college friend who grew up in Lexington had recommended Bistro on Main, so that’s where we head. It’s a quiet place where you can get a taco salad or lump crab cake sandwich for around $10 each. We try a Blue Lab wheat beer (the brewery is located just up the street), which my girlfriend says is like a homemade Blue Moon.
After our late lunch, we walk across the street to Lexington Coffee Roasters, a specialty coffee shop where Brendan Hagerty offers tasting flights each Saturday.
Later, we could have headed over to Hull’s Drive-in, a few miles up Lee Highway, for a movie before crashing at Llewellyn Lodge for another night. To round out the weekend, on Sunday we could have headed west to walk a section of the 14-mile Jackson River Scenic Trail in Covington, Va., or gone east to the nearly seven-mile Virginia Blue Ridge Railway Trail in Piney River, each about an hour’s drive from Lexington.
Locals had also recommended visiting Natural Bridge, Va., where a river has cut a 20-story-high arch through solid limestone. And then there’s Goshen Pass, Virginia’s oldest natural preserve, a gorge that provides spectacular views of the Maury River and some of the best kayaking in the state, and is only about 15 miles upstream from the Chessie trailhead.
But all of that will have to wait. There are Halloween costumes to don and parties to attend and friends to see. The sun, never strong, is inching its way toward the mountains, and we have to settle for color-gazing along I-81 as we drive home to Washington, D.C.
Both Lexington and Buena Vista are just off I-81. It’s a beautiful drive by itself, but if you want something even more scenic, pop onto State Route 11, North Lee Highway.
What to See:
Lexington, located in the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia, is known for its views, its universities and its history. So after you’ve worn out your legs on the Chessie Nature Trail and toured the campuses of Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute, stop by Stonewall Jackson’s house to see where the famous Confederate general lived, and then take a stroll through his resting place, Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery. If you time your visit right, you might also catch a Civil War battle re-enactment (there’s special fervor as we near the end of the 150th anniversary of various war milestones).
About a half-hour’s drive north from the Chessie, you can check out Goshen Pass, a gorge overlooking the Maury River that offers scenic views and great kayaking. There’s also Natural Bridge about 20 minutes down Interstate 81.
Where to Stay:
You’ll find plenty of nice bed and breakfasts and hotels in and around Lexington. The B&Bs will run you a bit more money—between $100 and $200 a night—but are nice if you want a home-cooked meal and some local color. A B&B at Llewellyn Lodge is one option; host John Roberts also offers fly-fishing tours out of there. A cheaper place that’s closer to the Chessie trailhead is the Frog Hollow Bed and Breakfast. But be sure to book well in advance, as these fill up, especially during peak fall foliage.
Where to Eat:
Together, Lexington and Buena Vista offer a range of dining options to meet various appetites and budgets. Bistro on Main has a nice menu with local beers on tap and $10 sandwiches. The Southern Inn is a little pricier—but a good place to grab some regional specialties like fried chicken, calf liver and rainbow trout. For pizza, try Salerno Family Restaurant.
Don’t forget the two local breweries, Blue Lab and Devils Backbone. Blue Lab is actually downtown, so it’s a nice option after lunch and is open from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. If you don’t mind the drive, Devils Backbone, just north of town on North Lee Highway, makes great beer, too.
For more on all things Lexington and Buena Vista, visit lexingtonvirginia.com or call the Lexington & Rockbridge Area Tourism office at 877.453.9822. For more on the Chessie Nature Trail itself, visit Traillink.com or VMI’s website.