Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Riverside Park (Blog Hike #332)

Trail: Alpine Trail
Hike Location: Riverside Park
Geographic Location: north side of Lynchburg, VA (37.43760, -79.16259)
Length: 1.3 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: November 2010
Overview: A short but dramatic sidehill hike along bluffs overlooking the James River.

Directions to the trailhead: Riverside Park is located at 2270 Rivermont Avenue about 3 miles north of downtown Lynchburg.  If you are coming from downtown, turn right to enter the park.  Drive through the iron gate and follow the main park road past the tennis courts and playground to the large blacktop parking lot at its end.  Park in the large parking lot near a wooden post that says “Alpine Trail” with an arrow and the universal hiker symbol.

The hike: Most hikes at municipal and urban parks are characterized by short, crowded, highly developed trails, non-descript surroundings, and high levels of modern intrusions.  As such, most small urban parks fall nowhere near the top of destination lists for most hikers.  So why do hikers like me choose to visit these parks at all?  We visit them because once in awhile we find a tiny but wonderful hidden gem of a hike.
            Such is the case with Riverside Park, located less than 3 miles north of downtown Lynchburg.  The park was built in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s using the resources of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  The park’s main attraction was and still is the stone James River overlook, which was built in 1931 using stones quarried locally.  This and other sites that tell the tale of Lynchburg’s recreational history will be seen on this hike.
Since the park consists of only 47 acres, you might not expect much of a hiking experience, but you will not soon forget a walk along the Alpine Trail.  For one, built as one of the park’s original facilities, the Alpine Trail is the oldest hiking trail in Lynchburg.  Also, as its name suggests the trail traces the top of sheer cliffs overlooking the James River.  For the best river views, hike the trail in the leafless months.  Due to the cliffs, the trail should be avoided during times of ice and snow; at all other times it provides a truly memorable clifftop walk.
Trailhead: Alpine Trail
            To reach the trailhead, follow the arrow on the wooden post beside the parking lot and begin walking along the gravel/blacktop road.  You soon reach a large sign with a park map that says “Alpine Trail.”  This sign marks the trailhead, and two trails depart beyond the sign.  The trail going left is the main Alpine Trail, while the trail going right is the short Alpine loop.  Since the main trail does not form a loop, I suggest hiking the short loop now and hiking the main Alpine Trail when you return to this sign.
Taking the trail to the right, the trail descends somewhat and, after only 100 feet, arrives at the split which forms the loop.  The climbing will be easier if you hike the loop clockwise by taking the trail to the left and using the one on the right as your return route.  The trail descends very steeply at first, but soon the grade moderates as it curves right to enter a small ravine.  The original Alpine Trail went all of the way to the river and provided visitors access to YMCA Island in the middle of the James.  In its current configuration, this is as close to the river as you will get on this trail.
The trail curves right and begins a longer gradual climb up the hillside.  When I hiked this trail in mid-November, the peak fall foliage had just past, and only some bright yellow maple trees still held their leaves.  The recent leaf fall meant that the trail was covered with leaves, so I had to watch my step on the steeper areas.
Hiking the Alpine loop
            At 0.4 miles, you close the Alpine loop and hike the short distance back to the trailhead.  Angle right to remain on the east side of the paved road.  Before you begin the main Alpine Trail, which heads downhill to the right, stop to investigate the overlook that made this park famous.  Unfortunately, this overlook has seen its better days.  The stones and mortar look weathered, and ivy grows over part of the wall.  When you hike the trail under the overlook, you will see that the south stone wall is being held up by wooden beams.  The trees between the overlook and the river even block most of your view.  The overlook is a nice piece of history, but today there are far better viewpoints to be had elsewhere along the Alpine Trail.
View from overlook
The main trail passes under the overlook to head northbound.  The stones under foot here are flagstone pavers left over from the paving of Lynchburg’s streets in the 1920’s.  The pavers add another dimension of history to this hike, but they can be slippery when wet or leaf-covered.
For the next 0.5 miles the trail cuts into the hillside with the developed area of the park out of sight up the hill to your left and the James River some 100 feet below you to your right.  Vertical cliffs lie between you and the river, so make sure you don’t fall off the trail to the right.  Fortunately, there is only one spot that is a little bit challenging: a large step up onto a rock with only a tree to hold onto.  Even better, volunteers from the Lynchburg fire department have constructed wooden fences to protect hikers from some of the sheer drop-offs.
Clinging to the edge on the Alpine Trail
As you approach the northernmost point on the trail, the Norfolk Southern railroad bridge over the James River gets closer, and the rocks close in on the trail.  After passing a bench that gives a nice view of the river and stooping under a rock overhang, the trail climbs a set of stone steps to arrive at an intersection with the paved but gated road, which heads left back to the main trailhead.  A wooden post with the words “Alpine Trail” in blue letters marks this intersection.  You could turn left and head down the paved trail to return to the trailhead, but the Alpine Trail continues straight and heads back into the woods.
With the river at your back, this hike now turns into a more typical woodland hike.  The railroad track that crossed the river now lies to your right.  1 mile into the hike, you pass the Fink Truss bridge exhibit, a concrete, wood, and steel bridge relocated to this site.  Past the bridge, the trail continues another 0.2 uneventful miles to come out into the open parkland at the restored locomotive exhibit.
Swimming pool remains
To get back to your car, walk in front of the locomotive (this is one of the few times it is safe to walk in front of a train) and turn right on the paved, gated park road.  The odd-looking area to your right is more history: the concrete walls are from the city’s first public swimming pool, and the stone building is the original changing rooms/restrooms.  Follow the paved road past the stone building and gazebo, then cut through the grass uphill to your left to return to the main parking lot and complete the hike.

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