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How recent graduates connected with nature through hiking

Two Class of 2024 alumni encourage younger students to explore the natural world off-Grounds

<p>Van Heyningen has embraced elements of nature during day-long hikes and from more than 2,000 feet in elevation.</p>

Van Heyningen has embraced elements of nature during day-long hikes and from more than 2,000 feet in elevation.

After the festivities of Final Exercises, Class of 2024 alumni Abby Dyer and Rohan van Heyningen are already anticipating new adventures on their next hiking trails. The two alumni frequented Shenandoah National Park's trails as University students, and as they prepare for postgraduate hiking adventures, they reflect on how trekking up mountains bonded them with peers and nature during college.

Both students took to the trails at a young age. Van Heyningen began hiking at around eight years old. He said when he found himself surrounded by flora at the University, a growing interest in nature took hold of him and inspired him to go hiking once or twice a week during his time in college.

“I just enjoy nature as opposed to manmade things. I'm not much of a city person,” van Heyningen said. “I enjoy wildlife a lot. It's just cool to look at the intricacies of nature and the kind of stuff mother nature comes up with.”

Nestled in the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Charlottesville offers numerous trails within an hour's drive from Grounds. Van Heyningen said Cedar Run Trail, an eight-mile circuit connected to White Oak Canyon, has become one of his favorite trails due to its various water activities, such as stream crossings and cascades.

From admiring the waterfalls of White Oak Canyon to going rock scrambling at the top of Old Rag Mountain, van Heyningen has embraced elements of nature during day-long hikes and from more than 2,000 feet in elevation. He said the Shenandoah trails, each with their own defining characteristics, have given him a unique experience every time he goes hiking.

“The Canyon is great for all the water features — there's a natural waterslide that you can go down, and there are a couple of water holes that you can jump into from little rock cliffs,” van Heyningen said. “Then Old Rag is great for the looks and the scenery.”  

Dyer similarly found a keen interest in nature through hiking. While she has been hiking since elementary school, when she arrived at the University during the pandemic, she said spending time outdoors became a refuge away from online classes.

“Definitely after [COVID-19], I wanted to get outside a lot more,” Dyer said. “It [became] a really nice break from being inside in classes staring at a computer screen all day.”

Like van Heyningen, Dyer felt that hiking offered a novel experience with each trail. She said she found hikes such as Sugar Hollow, a trail that leads from a reservoir to a swimming hole known as Blue Hole, to be more exciting than indoor workouts.

“I get a little bored doing cardio in the gym because it's the same thing over and over again, whereas hiking is super variable,” Dyer said. “You have different length trails and different elevations. Mentally, I think it's more stimulating, and there's a lot more to see.”

Dyer’s hobby stuck largely because it became a social outlet, too. She said hitting the trails with her friends has made up some of her most treasured memories in non-school settings. She said Ragged Mountain Reservoir, now one of her favorite hikes, makes the perfect group adventure precisely because it has both a variety of trails and a small beach where hikers can rest.

“It’s a hidden gem that a lot of people don't know about,” Dyer said. “They have a bunch of hiking trails, but you could also just go sit down, put a blanket out by the water and put your hammock up.” 

As a relatively experienced hiker, Dyer offered tips for anyone interested in getting started on the trails. She recommended new hikers venture with friends during their first hikes, even friends at a higher skill level who are willing to slow down their pace. She also said new hikers should pack more supplies than one might think are needed — including water, food, bug spray, pepper spray, sunscreen and a medicine kit — and navigate trails using apps such as AllTrails. 

Although it is not the easiest, Dyer said that Humpback Rocks is a hike that University students and community members should definitely try. She said the steep, one-mile climb of 800 feet rewards hikers with a breathtaking view of Shenandoah Valley and leaves many feeling excited to try surrounding trails.

“Humpback is definitely a really good hike that I think everyone at U.Va. should do at least once, with bonus points if they go at sunrise or sunset,” Dyer said. 

While they came to Grounds as experienced hikers, Dyer and van Heyningen further developed their love for nature during their time at the University and plan to continue hiking after graduation. In particular, van Heyningen plans to complete a three-and-a-half-month hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. According to van Heyningen, this scenic path spans approximately 2,000 miles and will take him through California, Oregon and Washington.

Van Heyningen encouraged students returning to Grounds this fall to take advantage of all the hikes Charlottesville and its surrounding areas have to offer. He encouraged any student to explore nature, connect with fellow hikers and simply have fun on the trails.

“Just know that Charlottesville is a great area to go hiking. We have a lot of nice outdoor [trails] that students can use,” van Heyningen said. “Enjoy the fact that we're near the mountains and have these hiking opportunities.”


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