Lee’s Mill Trail (Lee’s Mill Historic Park, VA)


Lee’s Mill Trail, Lee’s Mill Historic Park, January 2017

– “Hiking the Civil War” Series –

The Battle of Lee’s Mill on April 5, 1862 was, by all accounts, a minor engagement in the Civil War: it produced only 10 Confederate and 12 Union casualties. In the narrative of Union Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, however, it was very consequential; a fierce Confederate resistance forced attacking Federal forces to retreat, a setback for the Yankees that persuaded McClellan to temporarily halt his advance up the Virginia Peninsula toward Richmond. It would be another month until his forces broke through Confederate Col. John Magruder’s Peninsula defenses.

Though Richard D. Lee’s grist mill is no more, the battle site is relatively well-preserved: a short loop trail circles extensive earthworks while a series of excellent waysides, courtesy of the Virginia Civil War Trails, provides a narrative explanation of the fighting. Situated in a suburban neighborhood in Newport News, Virginia, this brief hike offers an opportunity to get out and stretch your legs as part of a larger Peninsula Campaign tour.

Lee's Mill Trail hike information Newport News Civil War

Lee's Mill Trail map Newport News loop hike Civil War

Map of Lee’s Mill Trail, Lee’s Mill Historic Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the interactive map and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The trailhead is not far from the intersection of Interstate 64 and Virginia State Route 105 (exit 250) in Newport News. From busy Warwick Boulevard, turn onto Lee’s Mill Road, heading southwest into a residential neighborhood. Drive 1/10 mile and turn left on Rivers Ridge Circle, bearing around the curve for 2/10 mile until you spot a small parking area for Lee’s Mill Historic Park on the left. A Civil War Trails sign at the parking area gives an overview of the battle.


Trail start

From the parking area, bear left onto a wide, partly graveled track heading into the woods. Weaving amid oak, hickory, and beech trees, the trail crests a minor hill then descends gradually to a trail fork after 100 yards. Here a second sign tells the story of the construction of the Confederate earthworks at Lee’s Mill, which were influenced by French military engineer Marshal Sebastian le Prestre de Vauban.

Take a right, following the loop along a counter-clockwise route. (Note: The waysides are positioned chronologically in this direction.) The next sign reached details Col. John Magruder’s strategy for the Confederate defenses on the Peninsula: three lines of fortifications arrayed between Fort Monroe (occupied by the Union throughout the war) and Richmond, the Confederate capital. Behind a weak, initial line (spanning from Deep Creek to the Poquoson River), the second, Warwick-Yorktown Line, was the strongest. (Note: The third line consisted of a series of redoubts near Williamsburg, Virginia.) Positioned near the right flank of the second defensive line, the Confederate garrison at Lee’s Mill occupied a strategic location at a key crossing of the Warwick River. As of early April 1862, Brig. Gen. Lafayette McLaws commanded 1,800 Confederate troops at the heavily-fortified post.

Take a short detour at around the 150-yard mark, traversing a short boardwalk that ends in the heart of the earthworks. While the view south is obscured, this spot provides a good look at the ramparts surrounding the fort.


Confederate earthworks from the spur trail

Returning to the main trail, take a left and follow the winding path as it skirts a lengthy wooden fence. The next wayside tells the Union side of the story: the arrival in March 1862 of a massive Federal force, under McClellan’s command, which nonetheless took its time inching up the peninsula toward Richmond. On April 4, the Army of the Potomac marched up to Magruder’s first line in two columns, forcing the Confederates to retreat to the second line. The following day, Maj. Gen. Erasmus Keyes’ IV Corps approached the Warwick River at Lee’s Mill, where they were met with a barrage of artillery fire as well as a Confederate infantry counter-attack. Facing stiff resistance and difficult, swampy terrain, Keyes’ Corps was forced to pull back.


Warwick River and the swamp that slowedKeyes’ forces

Advancing down the trail, the swamp comes into view: a muddy bog clogged with tall grasses, fronted to the north by a steep woody slope, where the earthworks were positioned. It’s no wonder that Keyes declared after the battle, “No part of this line as discovered can be taken without an enormous waste of life.” That was enough to convince the ever-cautious Gen. McClellan—whom President Lincoln would later criticize as having “the slows”—to halt the Union advance, choosing instead to lay siege to nearby Yorktown to gradually wear down Magruder’s defenses. It would be another month until the Federals broke through the second line, a delay that would give the Confederates more time to prepare for the battles to come.

Now bearing northeast, the trail descends a lengthy boardwalk overlooking the Warwick River, then rounds another corner and heads up a minor ravine to complete the loop. Bear right and continue the final 100 yards back to the parking area. Accounting for stops to read each of the signs, I would recommend allotting 20-30 minutes for this short and pleasant walk.


David J. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (Simon & Schuster: 2001), pages 215-217.

Michael Weeks, Civil War Road Trip, Volume I (The Countryman Press: 2011), pages 133-134.

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Fort Monroe National Monument, VA


Fort Monroe National Monument, January 2017

– “Hiking the Civil War” Series –

Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton, Virginia boasts the largest stone fort ever built in the United States, and its storied history spans the colonial period to the Civil War to the World Wars to the present. Its location at Old Point Comfort—the southeast tip of the Virginia Peninsula and the gateway to the Chesapeake Bay—was no accident. After being pummeled by the British Navy during the War of 1812, President James Monroe called for the establishment of new coastal defenses in 1819 at strategic nodes along the Atlantic seaboard. (Note: This same effort led to the construction of Fort Sumter and Fort Pulaski, among others.) Built on the site of two previous forts dating to Captain John Smith’s expedition in the early 17th-century, Fort Monroe was completed in 1834.

While it never came under foreign assault, the US Army base would play a critical role in the Civil War. As Virginia seceded from the Union in May 1861, Federal forces reinforced Fort Monroe to ensure it kept a foothold on the Virginia Peninsula. It went on to serve as a key staging point for Union Gen. George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, a large-scale attempt to seize Richmond, the Confederate capital, in the spring of 1862. During the war, the base became known as “freedom’s fortress” because it offered a refuge for escaped slaves.

The garrison at Fort Monroe also supported Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s successful siege of Petersburg in 1864 and briefly hosted President Abraham Lincoln…who took it upon himself to “invade” the South during a reconnaissance mission in May 1862, becoming the only sitting president to set foot on enemy territory.

After the war, the fort was notable for briefly hosting an imprisoned Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. During the the 20th century, Fort Monroe hosted a prominent artillery school, and it served as an Army training center until it was decommissioned in 2011.

Today, visits to Fort Monroe should start and end at the Casemate Museum, which provides an excellent overview of the site’s history. Those looking for a walk can circle the ramparts, which offer views of the Chesapeake Bay and the impressive moat that surrounds the fort. Inside the fort’s walls, there are a number of buildings of interest, including future General Robert E. Lee’s quarters (he was a young engineer at Fort Monroe before the Civil War) and Quarters #1, where Lincoln stayed during his trip in May 1862.

Outside the fort, there is second park unit to the north, titled the “North Beach Area.” Here there is beach access, a picnic area, and a trio of concrete batteries constructed in the early 20th century: Battery DeRussy, Battery Church, and Battery Anderson-Ruggles. Between this and the fort, it’s easy to spend several hours at Fort Monroe (the 2 hours I spent there felt very rushed; I could have easily spent double that time).


Moat around Fort Monroe


Casemate in Fort Monroe


Outside the Casemate Museum


View of the Chesapeake Bay from the Flagstaff Bastion Overlook


Quarters #1


View of the Main Gate entrance from atop the fort


Beach at Fort Monroe


Battery Church

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Battle of Big Bethel marker (Hampton, VA)


Battle of Big Bethel marker, Hampton, Virginia, January 2017

– “Hiking the Civil War” Series –

Following the capture of Fort Sumter in April 1861, the Civil War’s first land battle took place on June 10, 1861 at Big Bethel on the Virginia Peninsula. Despite Virginia’s secession in May, crusty Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler retained a garrison at Fort Monroe at the tip of the peninsula and made an initial foray in June to seize greater control of the landmass. Catching wind of Confederate camps at Little and Big Bethel, Butler commanded Brig. Gen. Ebenezer Pierce to move 3,500 Union forces to disrupt them.

But savvy Confederate Col. John Magruder was ready, with 1,200 forces awaiting at Big Bethel. Assisted by an incident of Union friendly fire that gave away Federal positions, Magruder’s Southerners repelled the attack in a confusing and jumbled melee that eventually sent the overzealous Yankees fleeing in disarray. The Union forces suffered 76 casualties to the Confederacy’s 11.

Today, few reminders of the oft-forgotten battle remain. Just north of the Big Bethel Reservoir in Hampton, Virginia—just across the street from Bethel Manor Elementary School—lies a single monument, a tribute to the North Carolina Volunteers who repulsed the bungled Federal assault. Do not go out of your way to visit, unless you are local or don’t mind a minor detour as part of a tour tracing the far more consequential Peninsula Campaign of 1862.


Big Bethel,” CWSAC Battle Summaries, The American Battlefield Protection Program.

David J. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (Simon & Schuster: 2001), pages 75-76.

Susan Schulten, “Picturing Big Bethel,” New York Times, Disunion Series, 10 June 2011.


Monument to the Battle of Big Bethel, with the reservoir beyond

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Marine Corps War Memorial & Netherlands Carillon (George Washington Memorial Parkway, VA)


US Marine Corps War Memorial, George Washington Memorial Parkway, December 2016

The United States Marine Corps War Memorial, dedicated in 1954, recreates the iconic scene of a 1945 photograph of six U.S. Marines raising an American flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima. Today the beautiful memorial (also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial) sits just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, a short walk from Arlington National Cemetery.

Just south of the memorial lies the Netherlands Carillon, a symbol of Dutch-American unity following the liberation of the Netherlands from Nazi occupation during World War II. A gift of the Dutch people dedicated in 1960, the tower contains 50 bells, and the monument is fronted by two bronze lions, a tribute to Dutch servicemen. And of course, in springtime, the grounds are alive with thousands of Dutch tulips, maintained each year by the National Park Service.


Iwo Jima Memorial


Iwo Jima Memorial from afar


Netherlands Carillon

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Arlington House & Arlington National Cemetery, VA


Arlington House and Arlington National Cemetery, December 2016

– “Hiking the Civil War” Series –

Northern Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery occupies a prized piece of real estate, just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. At 624 acres, the sloping hillsides contain the graves of thousands of American military veterans, dating back to the Civil War, as well as a handful of notable civilians, including Presidents John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft.

Less well known is the story of the Arlington House, once the home to General Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most prominent military leader, and his wife Mary Custis, a relative of President George Washington. The Greek revival-style mansion was built around the same time as the establishment of Washington, DC as the nation’s capital, but—as Lee took up his command in the Confederate Army—was abandoned in the early days of the Civil War in 1861. Thereafter the mansion fell into the hands of the Federal Government and was restored, with help from the National Park Service, which took over jurisdiction of the house in 1933. Today it sits atop a beautiful knoll overlooking the cemetery, the Potomac River, and the National Mall.


Arlington National Cemetery during the annual “Wreaths across America” event


Tomb of Robert Todd Lincoln, eldest son of President Abraham Lincoln


JFK’s grave and eternal flame


Custis Walk leading up to the Arlington House


Tombstone of Pierre L’Enfant, architect of Washington, DC – overlooking the Potomac River and the city he designed


Arlington Cemetery, west of the Arlington House


President William Howard Taft’s gravesite


Women in Military Service for America Memorial – across Arlington Memorial Bridge from Washington, DC

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First Manassas Trail (Manassas National Battlefield Park, VA)


First Manassas Trail, Manassas National Battlefield Park, December 2016

– “Hiking the Civil War” Series –

On July 21, 1861, Union troops crossed northern Virginia’s Bull Run in pursuit of what was supposed to be the nascent Civil War’s first and only decisive battle. Spirits were high; Gen. Irvin McDowell, tasked by President Lincoln to oversee the offensive, led a hodgepodge of Northern volunteers, enlisted for 90 days, who expected to capture Manassas Junction—a key railroad link held by the Confederacy—by sundown. From there, it would be “on to Richmond,” the Confederate capital.

Of course, things did not go as planned for the inexperienced Federal troops. After initial success in the morning, Confederate resistance and a series of Union blunders in the afternoon sent the Union forces fleeing back to Washington, engulfing hundreds of curious onlookers in their hasty retreat. It was the Confederacy’s first major military victory, a testament to their staying power; it would take another four long years—and several changes of military leadership on both sides—before the war would end.

Today, one can retrace the events of the First Battle of Manassas (alternatively, the First Battle of Bull Run) at Manassas National Battlefield Park, preserved by the National Park Service since 1966. Starting and ending at the Visitor Center, the 5.4-mile First Manassas Trail offers the best self-guided tour of the battle, from the feint at Stone Bridge to the bloody combat at Matthews and Henry Hills. Mostly flat, the hike is relatively easy, although its length and plentiful waysides demand at least three hours of walking.


First Manassas Trail information hike

First Manassas Trail hike map

Map of First Manassas Trail, Manassas National Battlefield Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Manassas National Battlefield Park is conveniently situated just off Interstate 66, roughly 30 miles west of Washington, DC. There is no entrance fee, and Henry Hill Visitor Center serves as the locus point for free guided tours and information about the park. Head inside to grab a park map and trail guide, and check out the indoor exhibits, which cover both the First Battle (July 21, 1861) and the Second Battle of Manassas (August 28-30, 1862). Ranger-led talks on First Manassas are offered at 11am and 2pm daily and include a partial walk around Henry Hill, site of the largest engagements of the battle.

When you’re ready to hike, walk back out to the parking area and take a left, heading toward the northeast corner of the parking lot. Here you will find the hike’s start, marked by a wooden sign reading “First Manassas Trail.”


Start of the First Manassas Trail

Henry Hill to Warrenton Turnpike

From here the faint path heads out across the barren hillside toward a string of artillery pieces known as the Jackson line.

It was here, on the afternoon of the battle, that Gen. Thomas Jonathan Jackson would emerge as a popular champion of the Confederacy and earn his famed moniker. Even as the rest of the Confederate lay scattered in disarray following a morning defeat on Matthews Hill, Brig. Gen. Bernard Bee observed of the headstrong Virginian military instructor: “There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!” Thus the legend of “Stonewall” Jackson was born.

Jackson’s line—which included 2,600 men and more than a dozen artillery pieces—was well-positioned for the Union’s impending attack on Henry Hill. Situated on the reverse slope of the hill at the edge of the woods, it was all but invisible to advancing Federal troops.


Jackson’s artillery

It was not until after noon, however, that Jackson had arrived. Thus, as the First Manassas Trail bounds into a sea of trees to the east, hikers should mentally turn back the clock to the wee morning hours of July 21. At that point, the Confederates did not yet know the Union avenue of attack; in fact, commanding Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard expected that the Federals would engage the Confederate line several miles farther south and thus left only a single contingent—Col. Nathan G. Evans’ 7th Brigade—to defend the Army’s extreme left flank in this area. On the morning of the battle, the woods through which you are walking were quiet; they would see action only later in the day, when it became a principal thoroughfare for Confederate reinforcements.

After passing through an initial line of trees, the First Manassas Trail crosses another field and splits in two. Stay right on the main track. Here the trail shifts from gravel to dirt, and the path weaves eastward amid a mixed forest of holly, oaks, pines, and beech. At 6/10 mile, the route approaches a four-way junction; take a left, following the blue blazes and a sign pointing to “Stone Bridge 1.3 mi.”

Back on gravel again, the northbound track—an old road that predates the Civil War—is lined with pines and junipers. A yellow-blazed bridle path parallels the trail on the left. At 8/10 mile, the trail forks, with spurs heading west across open fields; stay straight on the wide track.


Northbound trail

One hundred yards farther, the path splits again. Although the old road continues straight, it leads to a nasty ford of Young’s Branch, a tributary of Bull Run. Fortunately, there’s no need to get your boots wet: head left at the fork, then take a quick right to a wooden footbridge. After crossing the bridge, the trail quickly meets up again with the main track.

For the next ¼ mile, the route heads north across an open plain. During the early morning of July 21, this path connected Confederate Gen. Bee and Col. Francis Bartow’s brigades, who had moved up from the south, with that of Col. Evans, positioned at Stone Bridge to the north. None of them, however, would stay put for long as the Federals approached.


Trail to Warrenton Turnpike

Passing two picnic tables on the right, stay straight at the next fork, then descend to cross Warrenton Turnpike (a.k.a. Lee Highway/Highway 29) at 1.25 miles. A key artery leading to and from Washington, DC, the turnpike effectively bifurcated the battlefield and proved a significant obstacle for Union troops. In the early afternoon of July 21, the Federals were twice repulsed during efforts to break through the Confederate line along the road; it was not until after 2pm that Gen. McDowell’s troops crossed the turnpike en masse to meet Gen. Jackson’s forces at Henry Hill.

Warrenton Turnpike to Stone Bridge

Now north of the turnpike, stay straight at the next junction, where a yellow-blazed bridle path heads west. From here the trail climbs a minor slope, flanked on one side by a thin line of trees, then arrives at the former site of the Van Pelt House at 1.4 miles. This was the home of Abraham Van Pelt, his wife Jemima, and his daughter Elizabeth—all staunch Unionists who nonetheless had to contend with thousands of Confederates, who occupied his 230-acre farm during the battle.


View from the Van Pelt House

Just around the corner from the Van Pelt sign, the trail forks again: stay right, heading southeast along a grassy ridge. (Note: Here the First Manassas Trail merges with the shorter Stone Bridge Loop Trail.) Here an interpretive sign marks the chronological starting point for the battle. Titled “Opening Shots,” it details the situation facing Col. Evans’ Confederate brigade in the early hours of July 21…

At around 3 am, members of the 4th South Carolina positioned near Stone Bridge—just east of here, where Warrenton Turnpike crosses Bull Run Creek—detected the sounds of soldiers approaching: Union Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler had directed two of his brigades to march to Stone Bridge to meet Evans’ forces. At around 6 am, Tyler’s troops fired the battle’s famed First Shot: his 30-pounder Parrott rifle let loose a projectile that, according to Union accounts, sailed over Evans’ line and crashed into the Van Pelt House. The battle was on.

While Evans sent troops to meet the advancing Union forces, he did not yet know that Tyler’s move was only a demonstration: a show of force intended to deceive or distract the enemy from a larger movement elsewhere. At about 7:30 am, however, a nearby signalman, Capt. E. Porter Alexander, unmasked the ruse: he spotted a much larger Union contingent—around 13,000 troops—crossing Bull Run two miles to the north at Sudley Ford. Alexander immediately relayed the message to Evans: “Look out for your left, you are turned.” Evans took the cue; he quickly withdrew 900 of his 1,100 men, sending them northward to meet the advancing Federals at Matthews Hill.


Boardwalk near Stone Bridge

Just beyond the “Opening Shots” sign, the trail rounds a corner and drops precipitously, losing around 60 feet in less than 75 yards. With Lee Highway visible on the right, the path levels out and crosses a marshy flat. At the end of a 350-yard boardwalk lies a reconstructed version of Stone Bridge, the key crossing on Warrenton Turnpike which, after Evans’ withdrawal, was held by only 200 men.


Stone Bridge

Stone Bridge to Matthews Hill

After exploring the bridge, head north along Bull Run’s western bank as the trail meanders through thick woods. The creek here is more than a dozen feet wide, which proved a formidable challenge for transporting Union artillery, limiting the number of suitable crossing points. Col. William T. Sherman (who would, of course, go on to become one of the Union’s most distinguished Generals) and his five regiments used one such point at Farm Ford, which, from Stone Bridge, is about a half-mile walk and follows a steep uphill climb. (Note: Stay right at the trail junction 4/10 mile from Stone Bridge.) Situated atop a high bluff, a wayside at the overlook tells the story of Sherman’s advance—well south of the Federals’ main crossing at Sudley Ford, a testament to the Ohioan’s fierce independence.


Bull Run from the Stone Bridge Loop Trail

From Farm Ford, the trail bears west, leaving the creek behind, and traces a small ravine laced with pine needles. At 2.6 miles, the trail emerges from the woods and back onto Van Pelt’s old farm. Take a right at the junction, hugging the tree line on the right.


First Manassas Trail toward Pittsylvania and Matthews Hill

Setting out westward across open fields, hikers here are following the road used by Col. Evans’ forces to move toward Matthews Hill, where they would meet the two Union divisions streaming down from Sudley Ford. At 3.0 miles, the trail crosses a gravel road and reenters the woods, where it will remain for the next mile.

The next attraction of note is Pittsylvania, site of another old house caught in the crossfire. At 3.2 miles, take a left on the small spur trail and note the interpretive sign on the right. Just beyond the sign lie the foundation stones of the Georgian-style home, the centerpiece of a 283-acre estate at the start of the war.

It must have been quite the sight on July 21 for the Carter family, who had owned the estate since 1765: in the morning, Col. Evans’ Confederate forces frantically passed the house as they raced to take up position at Matthews Hill. By afternoon, Pittsylvania was surrounded by Union forces under the command of Massachusetts Col. Erasmus Keyes. Still later, those same Union troops could be seen retreating in disarray across the Carter family’s land after defeat at Henry Hill.

Continue 100 yards farther to the terminus of the spur trail, which ends at the Carter Family Cemetery, where more than 70 members of the Carter family have been laid to rest.


Carter Family Cemetery

Backtracking to the main trail, take a left and continue for ½ mile as the dusty path snakes southwest to meet the next route junction. Stay right as the First Manassas route merges with the Matthews Hill Trail (though none of this is well-signed).

By mid-morning on the day of battle, this area was swarming with Union columns. The two divisions that had crossed at Sudley Ford—comprising 13,000 men—were led by Col. David Hunter and Col. Samuel Heintzelman, both of whom went on to become generals in their own right but at the time answered to Gen. McDowell.

McDowell’s planned movements had not gone as well as he had hoped. While Hunter and Heintzelman’s divisions had cleared Sudley Ford by midday, they were several hours behind schedule. The flanking maneuver was a solid strategy, but it relied heavily on speed, something at which the young and inexperienced troops did not excel. The delay allowed Evans’ troops to get in position, and the two sides collided at around 10 am.

Stay straight at the next junction at 4.0 miles, then emerge onto the open field at Matthews Hill. Head straight across the grassy knoll and make way for a line of five cannons facing southeast, as they were during the battle. Here the 2nd Rhode Island, answering to Brigade Commander Col. Ambrose Burnside, launched the initial Union charge against Evans’ line, positioned at Buck Hill (the smaller hill to the south, just past the cattle guard). For many of the green troops on either side, the fighting at Matthews Hill was their first taste of battle.


Matthews Hill, facing toward Buck Hill and Henry Hill to the south

Outgunned and outnumbered, Evans’ brigade was forced to retreat after 90 minutes, even as Gen. Bee and Col. Bartow sent reinforcements from Henry Hill to back them up. Forces from Hunter and Heintzelman’s divisions advanced down the slope, taking a new position at Buck Hill.

Matthews Hill to Henry Hill

Just after this success for Union troops, Gen. McDowell made a strategic error: he failed to seize the initiative, allowing Confederate forces to regroup and giving time for Gen. Beauregard to dispatch additional reinforcements, including Stonewall Jackson’s brigade, to the battlefield. Between 11:30 and 1:30, McDowell’s forces largely stayed put. The Federals arrayed themselves along Matthews Hill and Dogan Ridge to the west, awaiting orders from McDowell on how best to proceed.

Meanwhile, the Confederates were setting positions atop Henry Hill. Around midday, a retreating General Bee rode to Jackson and claimed, “General, they are driving us.” Jackson’s response would become famous: “Sir, we will give them the bayonet.”

At 1:30, McDowell finally made a move, sending two regiments under Col. Keyes to cross Warrenton Turnpike. But the advance was repelled by Col. Wade Hampton’s South Carolina Legion. At 2pm, McDowell tried again, calling for the movement of two artillery batteries—commanded by Capt. Charles Griffin and Capt. J.B. Ricketts—to Henry Hill: Napoleon-style, McDowell planned to move artillery to within close striking distance of the Confederates, then fire away. Streams of infantry support would follow—but, as Gen. McDowell would soon learn, they were still not enough to match the Confederate force that awaited.

Atop Matthews Hill, hikers have a good view of the landscape: Buck Hill to the south, then a dip leading down to Warrenton Turnpike and Young’s Branch (not visible); Henry Hill—topped by the Visitor Center—rises beyond. Gen. Barry’s artillery batteries eschewed this open space, instead descending Dogan Ridge to the west, then following Sudley Road to the right flank of Henry Hill.

Leaving Matthews Hill behind, walk past the cannons (toward Sudley Road), then bear left on a faded path that heads southeast through the first of several cattle guards. (Note: This follows the route of the 71st New York infantry after the morning battle at Matthews Hill.) Less than 50 yards past the fence, the trail meets a spur coming in from the left; bear straight, continuing to descend the hillside.

From here, the trail briefly levels, crossing Buck Hill, where McDowell’s troops moved some of their artillery around midday. At 4.4 miles, the trail cuts through a second cattle guard (where there is a wayside on the Battle at Matthews Hill), then crosses Buck Hill, where McDowell’s troops had moved some of their artillery by midday on July 21. At around 4.7 miles, the dusty path passes a wayside on the Second Battle of Manassas (the two battlefields converge here), then drops sharply toward the Stone House, which served as a field hospital during the battle.


Stone House

At the Stone House, bear right and head for the crossing of Warrenton Turnpike and Sudley Road (now a busy intersection). Traverse the Turnpike here and pick up the trail again as it traverses a bridge over Young’s Branch at 4.8 miles.

From here on, it is all uphill to the Visitor Center. The trail climbs to a ridgetop where a lone cedar tree shades a weathered wayside about Confederate Capt. John Imboden, who had positioned four cannons here on the morning of July 21. As Evans, Bee, and Bartow retreated from Matthews Hill, Imboden and his men were—for a brief moment, before the midday arrival of Confederate reinforcements—the only obstacle to a Federal attack on Henry Hill. After retreating up Henry Hill, Imboden’s artillerymen would be among the first to meet Capt. Griffin and Capt. Ricketts’ advancing batteries.


Imboden’s lookout toward the Stone House and Matthews Hill

The advancing Federals were also surprised by Confederate sharpshooters hiding in the Henry House, today around 175 yards up the trail from Imboden’s position. Returning fire, Ricketts’ battery opened up on the Henry House, producing the battle’s first and only civilian casualty: 85-year-old Judith Carter Henry, who refused to leave her home even as the fighting approached. (Note: Behind the house is a stone monument, built in 1865 to commemorate the fallen.)


Henry House

As Ricketts and Griffin rolled their pieces into position at the Henry House, the stage was set for a vigorous battle atop Henry Hill. Gen. Jackson’s line of 13 short-range cannons, just 350 yards away, is visible to the east. Throughout the afternoon, both sides lit up the other with heavy artillery fire. The tall grass to the west (to the hiker’s right) was occupied by the 11th New York and 1st Minnesota, providing infantry support for the gunners.

The turning point of the battle came shortly after 3pm, when the Confederates captured two of Griffin’s howitzers (today situated southeast of the Visitor Center). The Confederates had broken McDowell’s front, and they would do so several times more—capturing, then ceding, then recapturing Ricketts’ line. By now it was a numbers game: the Southerners sent waves of fresh reinforcements, while the Union forces were tired, overstretched, and scattered.

As evening approached, the Federals were spent, forced to retreat up Sudley Road back toward the ford, with others crossing Stone Bridge. What looked in the morning like an all-but-assured Union victory had turned by afternoon into a Confederate rout. The Southerners pursued the Yankees toward Washington before they too hit a wall of exhaustion. Gen. Beauregard, though victorious, would have to wait for another day to advance on the Union capital. With the first major battle in the books, both sides would settle in for a long war ahead.


Ricketts’ guns and Visitor Center

The final stretch of the hike crosses Henry Hill to the Visitor Center, with a line of cannons representing Ricketts’ positions on the right. The entire loop hike clocks in at around 5.4 miles, roughly a 3-4 hour journey.


Civil War Trust, “Bull Run,” http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/bullrun.html.

John J. Hennessy, The First Battle of Manassas, Revised Edition (Stackpole Books: 2015)

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Carter’s Pond Trail (Prince William Forest Park, VA)


Carter’s Pond Trail, Prince William Forest Park, December 2016

The 0.15-mile Carter’s Pond Trail is poorly advertised and excluded from the official park literature on hiking in Virginia’s Prince William Forest Park. Nonetheless, it does indeed exist, accessed by way of the park’s Scenic Drive. The easy and short path ends at a viewing platform overlooking the namesake pond.


The hike

From the park entrance, turn left at the first junction, then continue on Scenic Drive for 1.3 miles. Look for a sign marking Carter’s Pond, then pull off to the left into the small parking area. There are a couple of picnic tables here, and the pond is immediately visible ahead.

The trail begins at the south end of the parking area. The first 100 yards are wide, partly asphalted, and wheelchair-accessible. After taking the first right-hand turn, however, the route narrows and crosses a wooden bridge over a small stream that feeds Carter’s Pond.

Amid oaks, junipers, and new growth pines, the trail rounds another corner and bears north, ending at a small, shaded platform overlooking the calm and still pond. For those interested in fishing, the pond is open to catch and release only.

Return the way you came; allot about 10-15 minutes for the round-trip.


Carter’s Pond platform

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Muschette Trail Loop (Prince William Forest Park, VA)


Muschette Trail, Prince William Forest Park, December 2016

The Muschette Trail is one of a pair of very short loop hikes that take off from the Pine Grove Picnic Area in Virginia’s Prince William Forest Park (the other is the wheelchair-accessible Piedmont Forest Trail). There’s not much to it – except an opportunity to stretch your legs and explore the area’s piedmont forest. It’s also the park’s only true mountain bike trail (all others are paved or graveled roads).



Map of Muschette Trail loop, Prince William Forest Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Start the 0.4-mile loop hike at the northern end of Pine Grove Picnic Area, situated just west of the Visitor Center. Here a multi-acre clearing unfolds before you, rimmed with a variety of deciduous trees. Take a left at the sign reading “South Orenda Road Connector.”

Plunging into the woods, stay straight on the connector trail, which drops sharply to a wooden fence meant to slow bikers. Continue through the small fence clearing, then stay right at the junction. (Note: Heading left connects with the Piedmont Forest Trail and provides access to an elevated pavilion overlooking a brushy ravine.)


Connector trail to South Orenda Road

By now you are on the wide and graveled South Orenda Road, which bears north down a minor gully. Stay straight on the road for about 100 yards, then look for baby blue blazes on the right, marking the start of the Muschette Trail.

The Muschette Trail bobs and weaves in and out of minor depressions, gradually climbing around 50 feet in elevation over the course of 2/10 mile. At the hike’s ¼ mile mark, the north-bound trail rounds a corner and heads south, hugging a woody ridgeline. Before you know it, you’re back at the initial clearing; take a left and return to the picnic area.

Allot around 15-20 minutes for this short hike.


Muschette Trail

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Piedmont Forest Trail (Prince William Forest Park, VA)


Piedmont Forest Trail, Prince William Forest Park, December 2016

The Piedmont Forest Trail is the only wheelchair-accessible hike in Virginia’s Prince William Forest Park and, with its numerous curves, looks something like an amoeba or an octopus on maps. Situated steps from the Visitor Center and Pine Grove Picnic Area, it is an easy and convenient walk in the hardwood forest for which the trail is named. Trail waysides offer information on the forest’s three layers: canopy, understory, and forest floor.


The hike

The Piedmont Forest Trail is situated about halfway up the road leading to the Pine Grove Picnic Area, just west of the Visitor Center and across the street from the “comfort station” in the wooded picnic area. Look for a sign with a large photo of a monarch butterfly; this is the trailhead. (Note: There are a handful of parking spots at the trailhead.)


Piedmont Forest Trail start

The smooth trail, made of old tire material, begins by descending gently to the right, then left, and quickly splits in two. Head either way at the fork, though taking a right offers a slightly better option (steeper downhill, more gradual uphill). Walking in a counterclockwise direction, the trail crosses a small wooden bridge at 1/10 mile, then round a bend and head south, beginning a long boardwalk at 0.13 mile.


Boardwalk on Piedmont Forest Trail

At 2/10 mile, the trail descends a hairpin turn and reaches another boardwalk and spacious sitting area, which overlooks a brushy ravine. (Note: Off to the right is the unpaved South Orenda Road.)


Sitting area, Piedmont Forest Trail

From here, the trail climbs gradually as it parallels the streambed to the right then rounds a series of back-and-forth bends, eventually reaching the initial trail fork. Take a right and climb the remaining steps back to the trailhead and parking area.

Allot between 15-30 minutes for this quick and easy walk.

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Top 10 Hikes of 2016


Ouray Perimeter Trail, Uncompahgre National Forest, September 2016

Live and Let Hike hit its stride in 2016, nearly tripling the number of visitors and page views seen in 2015. I also passed a new milestone—my 200th blog post—and greatly expanded the geographic breadth and depth of hike descriptions, including posts from Colorado, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Washington, DC, and Quebec. Taking a break from the cool-headed and dispassionate tone of this blog, let me revel in this for a moment…this year has been pretty rad.

Having the benefits of greater traction on Google and other search engines, the top 5 most visited posts (excluding the home page) were all holdovers from past years: (1) Peekaboo and Spooky Gulch Loop (Grand Staircase-Escalante NM, UT); (2) Rock Circuit Trail (Middlesex Fells Reservation, MA); (3) Top 10 Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park’s “Backcountry”; (4) Ute Trail – Alpine Visitor Center to Milner Pass (Rocky Mountain NP, CO); and (5) Capitol Reef Hiking Guide.

Nevertheless, I crafted 69 new posts in 2016 and have added several hikes to my all-time favorites. Check out the list below for my (heavily subjective) “top ten” hikes that I completed this year, ranked in reverse order.


Northern Peaks Trail, Sugarloaf Mountain, November 2016

  1. Northern Peaks Trail & White Rocks (Sugarloaf Mountain, MD)

This moderately difficult hike wins this year’s honor for best mountain hike close to a major city. Just over an hour’s drive from downtown Baltimore or Washington, DC, Sugarloaf Mountain preserves the area’s best known example of a monadnock and includes a flurry of interlocking trails. The 5.5-mile Northern Peaks Trail crests three quartzite-topped summits and loops around to White Rocks, which offers fantastic views of Maryland’s Frederick Valley.

See my post on December 17, 2016 for a full trail description.


South Valley Trail, Prince William Forest Park, February 2016

  1. North Valley-South Valley Trail Loop (Prince William Forest Park, VA)

The lone hike on this list that does not include mountain views, the 8-mile North Valley-South Valley Trail Loop in Virginia’s Prince William Forest Park packs a punch with its majestic waterways, peaceful hillsides, and historical potpourri. A terrific place to take photos of rumbling cascades and short waterfalls, Prince William Forest Park is less than an hour’s drive from Washington, DC.

See my post on March 26, 2016 for a full trail description.


South Ridge Trail, Sky Meadows State Park, December 2016

  1. South Ridge-Ambassador Whitehouse Trail Loop (Sky Meadows State Park, VA)

Ascending the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this moderately strenuous, 4.8-mile hike in northern Virginia features rolling farmlands, thick woods, and an abundance of sun-soaked viewpoints. Sky Meadows State Park can also be relatively easily reached from Washington, DC, making it a popular alternative to Shenandoah National Park farther south.

See my post on December 27, 2016 for a full trail description.


Portland Trail, Uncompahgre National Forest, September 2016

  1. Portland Trail Loop (Uncompahgre National Forest, CO)

In general, hikes in the mid-Atlantic region are really no match for the mighty Rocky Mountains out West. Though far from southwest Colorado’s best, Ouray’s Portland Trail leads hikers up a gradually-sloping incline to views of an impressive, highly-sculpted rock face known as the “Amphitheater,” which—if viewed in the evening light—is illuminated in hues of white, yellow, and purple.

See my post on October 9, 2016 for a full trail description.


Sutton Mine Trail, Uncompahgre National Forest, September 2016

  1. Sutton Mine Trail (Uncompahgre National Forest, CO)

Just down the road from the Portland Trail, the strenuous Sutton Mine hike climbs a jarring 700 feet in its first half-mile. But hearty hikers are rewarded with magnificent views of Ouray, the Uncompahgre Gorge, Bear Creek Falls, and southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains as the path levels out for most of the remainder of the 4.4-mile out-and-back hike.

See my post on October 13, 2016 for a full trail description.


Weverton Cliffs, South Mountain State Park, August 2016

  1. Appalachian Trail to Weverton Cliffs (South Mountain State Park, MD)

Arguably the best overlook in the Harper’s Ferry area, Maryland’s Weverton Cliffs sits more than 500 feet above the Potomac River as it weaves through a beautiful mountain gap. It is reached by way of the famed Appalachian Trail and makes for a short but rewarding trip, less than a mile from the trailhead off Weverton Road.

See my post on September 10, 2016 for a full trail description.


Compton Peak, Shenandoah National Park, October 2016

  1. Appalachian Trail to Compton Peak (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

This short hike to the summit of Compton Peak offers panoramic views of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, but the real gem is a minor detour to a spectacular exemplar of columnar jointing, a geologist’s El Dorado. Here a huge chunk of fractured basalt has been flipped nearly upside down by weathering of the Blue Ridge Mountains, revealing a spectacular and photogenic array of hexagonal columns that is highly unusual to the area.

See my post on November 20, 2016 for a full trail description.


Buzzard Rock, George Washington National Forest, September 2016

  1. Buzzard Rock via Shawl Gap (George Washington National Forest, VA)

Far from the highest point on northern Virginia’s Massanutten Mountain, Buzzard Rock nonetheless is a superb destination for its sweeping views, stony jumbles, and razor-thin ridge of chalky sandstone. The strenuous 9-mile out-and-back from Elizabeth Furnace is a haul, making this no easy walk in the park.

See my post on October 8, 2016 for a full trail description.


Narrow Gauge Trail, Babcock State Park, May 2016


  1. Skyline Trail-Narrow Gauge Trail Loop (Babcock State Park, WV)

Straight from the annals of hiking obscura, this loop hike in West Virginia’s Babcock State Park is simply spectacular in the spring, when high water levels give rise to roaring rapids and ubiquitous waterfalls. The 7.8-mile circuit begins and ends at the Glade Creek Grist Mill, site of probably West Virginia’s most iconic photographs.

See my post on June 5, 2016 for a full trail description.


Ouray Perimeter Trail, Uncompahgre National Forest, September 2016

  1. Ouray Perimeter Trail (Uncompahgre National Forest, CO)

The big winner of 2016 is the Ouray Perimeter Trail in southwest Colorado, marked by its plentiful panoramas and diverse terrain. Circling the picturesque town of Ouray, this 4.2-mile hike traverses high ledges, crosses deep canyons, and passes waterfalls and rocky outcrops, all the while surrounded by colorful cliffs and the towering San Juan Mountains.

See my post on October 8, 2016 for a full trail description.

 Honorable Mention:

Posted in Babcock State Park, George Washington National Forest, Maryland, Moderate Hikes, Prince William Forest Park, Shenandoah National Park, Sky Meadows State Park, South Mountain State Park, Strenuous Hikes, Sugarloaf Mountain, Virginia, West Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments