The Cavalier Daily
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Over the river and through the woods

Driving down Route 29, the Blue Ridge Mountains seem to call out to Ashley Meeks every time she returns to Charlottesville.

"I want to get out there," she often says to herself.

Like many University students and area residents, the fourth-year College student is captivated by some of Albemarle County's most well-known landmarks. She got her start exploring the great outdoors by participating in activities with the University's Outing Club and Outdoor Recreation and has since branched off into hiking on her own with groups of friends.

"You always feel energized after a nice little hike," Meeks said. "There are a lot of good day hikes around here that go to interesting places."

As the responsibilities of fall settle on students, and summer days fade into memories with every trip back to the Bookstore, the only call of the wild you hear may seem to be the one coming from Rugby Road. Soon time spent in the great outdoors becomes an afternoon studying on the Lawn.

But with a multitude of parks, trails, reservoirs and lakes only short drives away from Grounds, autumn actually is the perfect time to experience all that nature in the Charlottesville area has to offer.

Probably best known in terms of the outdoors for its proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park, Charlottesville borders on both Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway. But each hiker has his or her own favorite spots.

After getting to know the area, Meeks found that Sugar Hollow at the end of Barracks Road is a great place to spend an afternoon, where a variety of trails lead along a creek bed through Shenandoah National Park to the Blue Hall swimming hole.

Meeks also recommends Beaver Creek, home to a lake she once fell into.

"There's always people kicking the soccer ball around, playing Frisbee or studying," Meeks said of Beaver Creek. The lake's surrounding green slopes make the park an ideal location for a picnic, and Meeks noted that people often stop at Bellair Market along the way to pick up a gourmet sandwich.

Although it poured rain two weeks ago on Meeks' first visit to one of the most popular local sites, Humpback Rock, University alumnus Bill Martin had a different experience there nearly two and half decades ago.

Before he graduated in 1976, Martin took a hike that would change his life. Setting out on a friendly hike at Humpback rock, the excursion eventually led to a marriage and two kids.

Although Martin, an avid hiker, can't guarantee Humpback Rock will work the same kind of magic for everyone who visits, he does highly recommend the site.

"It gives you a wonderful view of the Shenandoah Valley," Martin said. "It's a must-see for everybody."

The secret is already out. The near-vertical hike to Humpback Rock climbs almost a mile in the sky and draws plenty of outdoor gurus.

"It will be crowded in the fall, especially on weekends," he said.

For more challenging hiking, Martin recommends two additional trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

"You can hike to what's called Three Ridges," Martin said. From there, Priest Mountain creeps into view, which he said towers at over 4000 feet and could be considered the highest mountain in the area.

Adjacent to Priest Mountain, and about 18-20 miles south along the Blue Ridge Parkway, are the Crabtree Falls.

"They are the highest continuous falls east of the Mississippi," Martin said.

But if five cascades plummeting 2,100 feet aren't enough to entice a two-mile hike, the next-door town of Montebello serves up ice cream and cold drinks.

Sharing Martin's love for the outdoors is Outing Club co-president Daryl Weade, who grew up in the Shenandoh Valley. Although he got his first taste of the outdoors hunting with his father, he found there were other outdoor pursuits he enjoyed more.

"It's just amazing what's out there," he said. "We're lucky that we have such a well-developed city so close to an area like that."

In pursuit of his love, Weade estimates he has $600-$800 of his own money invested in outdoors equipment.

One of Weade's favorite places to visit is the two-year old Ragged Mountain Reservoir, only a six-minute drive from where he lives on Jefferson Park Avenue.

Ragged Mountain Reservoir is part of the 980-acre Ragged Mountain Natural Area (RMNA), which opened to the public in March, 1999.

Although dogs are not allowed at RMNA, many other area parks are pet friendly. University alumni and longtime Charlottesville residents John and Leslie Williams have discovered plenty of places to bring their yellow lab Champ.

Champ has the run of the rolling hills and access to the glassy water of Chris Greene Lake, located just off Route 29, near the airport. For Champ's human friends, the lake has a volleyball pit, barbecue grills and shelters with picnic tables.

A more versatile area, Mint Springs Valley Park has many of the same "amenities" as Chris Greene Lake. But this park, which is home to three lakes, also sits on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It has four trails that run both along the lake and up to the ridge line.

"It's a good dog park to meet people with nice dogs," Leslie said. "It's a nice local park to go to."

Her husband agreed.

"You could easily spend half a day hiking up here," John said.

But some of the park backs up to private hunting property and wearing bright orange during the hunting season is advisable, Leslie cautioned.

Eric Henkel, assistant director at Outdoor Recreation, which provides rentable outdoors equipment for University students, advises hikers to be careful not to get themselves into dangerous situations. Important information about the area will usually be posted at trail heads - warning of anything from occasional bear sightings on the Appalachian Trail to washed-out bridges along a path.

Henkel considers this area one of the two outdoor meccas on the East Coast, making his decision to accept a job here a "no-brainer."

Outdoor Recreation Director Mark Voorhees also hails the area's beauty.

"This is one of the nicest areas in the United States. That has a lot to do with the Blue Ridge Mountains," Voorhees said.

Living in an area laden with outdoor possibilities, deciding where to go can appear almost as daunting as the hike itself. Outdoor Recreation's resource library includes binders bulging with maps and descriptions of different trails, back issues of outdoor magazines, videos, guidebooks and handouts.

"I think it's a resource that a lot of people just aren't that attuned to," Voorhees said. "We tried to be sensitive to what people would most likely be doing."

And getting University students attuned to anything off-Grounds can be a challenge too. But Outing Club president Weade wants students to take that challenge.

"You're here at the University to get an education," Weade said. "Don't just get the one available in class"