Vanderbilt Loop (Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site, NY)


Vanderbilt Loop, Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site, May 2018

Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site in Hyde Park, New York preserves the historic estate of Frederick Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the famous 19th century railroad tycoon. Reaping the success of his ancestors, Frederick owned considerable real estate across New York and New England and completed constructed of this mansion in Hyde Park in 1899. Now a monument to the extreme wealth and opulence of the Gilded Age, the site has been under the protection of the National Park Service since 1940.

The Vanderbilt Loop—part hiking trail, part roadside walk—offers the best option to explore the historic estate on foot. The loop traces part of the lengthy Hyde Park Trail, including a short spur to Bard Rock on the banks of the Hudson River, as well as sweeping views from along the Vanderbilt Park Road, some of the best in the area.

Vanderbilt Loop hike information

Vanderbilt Loop Bard Rock trail hike map

Map of Vanderbilt Loop, Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site, created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The 2.8-mile Vanderbilt Loop begins and ends at the main parking area at the park’s Visitor Center. After exploring the exhibits in the Visitor Center, bear south on the paved path as it heads toward the Vanderbilt Mansion. Designed by McKim, Mead & White—America’s most prestigious architecture firm at the time—the mansion was developed in the Beaux-Arts style and sits atop a grassy knoll overlooking the Hudson River. In its heyday, the Vanderbilt Mansion hosted lavish parties, mostly organized by Frederick’s socialite wife Louise. As the US entered the Great Depression, however, maintaining such an estate become much more difficult, and the mansion was sold shortly after Frederick’s death in 1938.


Heading toward Vanderbilt Mansion from the Visitor Center


Vanderbilt Mansion

From the south side of the mansion, follow an initially faint gravel path as it continues south, hugging the edge of the woods. This is the Hyde Park Trail. The gingko tree in the field to your left is thought to have been planted as early as 1799—long before Frederick Vanderbilt bought the estate in 1895—and is one of the oldest remaining in North America.


Hyde Park Trail past the Vanderbilt Mansion

At 3/10 mile, hikers will reach the Italian Gardens on the left, an elaborate plot of flowers, hedges, and man-made ponds. The terraced gardens are maintained today by local volunteers.


Italian Gardens

Beyond the gardens, follow the trail signs—marked by a blaze in the shape of a tulip leaf—as the route leaves the gravel path and plunges into the woods. Hikers quickly lose elevation as the path drops precipitously; at about the ½-mile mark, the trail disappears into Lower Gate House Way, a paved but lightly-trafficked road. On the opposite side, one can see the surprisingly powerful cascades of Crum Elbow Creek, which eventually flows into a still pond that is difficult to view.


Descent into the woods

Bear right on the road and follow it for roughly 1/10 mile as it approaches the southern reaches of the estate. Just before reaching a closed gate at the park boundary, bear right on a gravel road that cuts across a neatly-trimmed field and returns to the woods. The wide path follows a minor break in the hillside and wraps around to the north, paralleling the Hudson River and railroad on the left. A break in the metal fence on the left at around ¾ mile leads to a decent viewpoint of the train track and the river beyond.


Viewpoint of railroad track and Hudson River

As the trail continues north, occasional rock escarpments appear on the right, and a side road comes in from the right at 1.1 miles. Passing under towering maple and oak trees, this section is relatively flat and straightforward. A brief clearing at 1.2 miles offers a glimpse of the mansion up on the hill to the east before the trail returns to the forest. The path drops to a local low point at about 1.35 miles, roughly level with the railroad on the left, then gradually ascends again; pine trees are more frequently seen in this area.


Clearing with peek at the Vanderbilt Mansion from below

At 1.75 miles, the trail ends abruptly at the paved Bard Rock Road. Bear left for the short detour to Bard Rock, following the road as it crosses over the railroad tracks and ends at a parking area on the Hudson River.


Bard Rock and Hudson River

Here a small protrusion of black shale and sandstone, a rare exposure of bedrock dating to 450 million years ago, juts into the river. Bard Rock’s relatively smooth striations were formed by the passage of a glacier, which grinded down the stone surface during the last Ice Age. The rock extends both north and south from the parking area, with the most impressive striations situated on a small wooded peninsula to the northwest. To the south lies a set of riverside picnic tables that offer a fine spot to stop for lunch or a snack.


View north from Bard Rock

After visiting Bard Rock, return the way you came, heading back up the road and over the railroad tracks. Passing the trail junction on the right, continue straight on Bard Rock Road as it climbs gently to the east. A broad field of waving grass opens up to the right, one of the most charming parts of the estate. The views get better as an unmarked but well-trodden trail leaves the road on the right, climbing to a perch with a bench overlooking the hillside and Hudson River beyond.


View of the fields

After passing through a forest of thick pines, the trail ends again at another drive, this time the one-way Vanderbilt Park Road. Following the road southward, the vistas are even better—culminating with a marked viewpoint known as the “Millionaire’s View.” Across the lush Hudson River Valley lies Shaupeneak Ridge, with the distant Catskill Mountains on the horizon.


Excellent views of the Hudson River Valley

Continue to follow the road southward until you return to the Visitor Center and parking area. The entire Vanderbilt Loop, with the spur to Bard Rock, comes out to around 2.8 miles. Visitors to the area can also drive—or hike on the Hyde Park Trail—to the nearby Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site or Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site.

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Island in the Sky Trail (Babcock State Park, WV)


Island in the Sky Trail, Babcock State Park, May 2018

Dwarfed in size by nearby New River Gorge National River, Babcock State Park is often overlooked by visitors to southern West Virginia. Yet the park, most famous for its photogenic grist mill, offers several excellent hiking options. While the best lie elsewhere in the park, the short Island in the Sky Trail is easily accessible from the Park Office and Grist Mill and includes some scenic—yet partly obscured—vistas above the Glade Creek valley. The lower section of the trail follows the base of chiseled sandstone walls before climbing up a rocky crevasse to the rim of the “island,” where an overlook shelter awaits.

Island in the Sky Trail Babcock hike information

The hike

To reach the trail, park at the Park Office and walk across the bridge over Glade Creek to the Grist Mill. Directly across the road from the Grist Mill, away from the creek, you will spot a small sign for the Island in the Sky Trail.


Start of the Island in the Sky Trail

Set off up this initially steep footpath, which ascends the western slopes of the valley, putting Glade Creek out of view. The partly asphalted trail eventually gives way to dirt, weaving through a dense thicket of rhododendrons after around 150 yards. A 15-foot cliff emerges on the left, and the path hugs the base of the terraced rock face as it continues northeast.


Island in the Sky Trail at the base of the cliffs

After briefly veering away, the trail rejoins the cliffside about 250 yards into the hike and then descends to clear a minor ravine. In spring and summer, hikers will get a sense of being immersed in a sort of jungle, with the sounds of rushing water in the distance and dense, lush thicket crowding the base of the cliffs. Above the ubiquitous rhododendrons, however, the tall trees are a combination of oaks and maples, a reminder that you remain in the Appalachians, not the Amazon or Congo rainforest.

Gradually veering toward the northwest, the trail rounds the tip of the rock “island” at around 2/10 mile. Now heading south, the trail switchbacks up a slope to the base of the terraced sandstone, where a set of wooden stairs provides upward passage. Beyond the staircase, the trail enters a dark and dank crevice, where a small, three-pronged ladder provides the only route up through a hole in the rock. Once out of the notch and back in daylight, you are officially atop the Island in the Sky.


Dark passage to the top of the Island in the Sky

Take an immediate left (heading straight dead-ends at a dark drop into the crevasse), then continue to a trail fork at about the ¼-mile mark. Bear left and follow a short and level path to the gazebo, which offers obscured views of the Glade Creek valley below.


Gazebo overlook at Island in the Sky

There are better vistas if you leave the gazebo and follow the southern rim, where a couple of social trails lead to the edge of the cliffs. Across the valley, the slopes look much like here—a sea of trees that conceal a line of sandstone cliffs. It’s also fun to look straight down, giving you a bird’s eye view of the trail below the rim over which you passed minutes prior.


View from Island in the Sky

From the gazebo, retrace your steps back to the trail fork, and this time continue straight as the path widens and remains level. At about 4/10 mile, the path emerges suddenly from the woods and onto the paved Park Forest Road 801. This is the end of the trail. Continue left down the road to return to the Grist Mill and Park Office.

Allot 30-45 minutes for this short but moderately strenuous hike.

Extra Credit

Take a walk around nearby Boley Lake or complete the excellent Skyline Trail – Narrow Gauge Trail loop, arguably the best circuit in Babcock State Park.


Spectacular Grist Mill and waterfall view

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Butcher Branch Falls (New River Gorge National River, WV)


Butcher Branch Falls, New River Gorge National River, May 2018

Southern West Virginia’s New River Gorge National River includes dozens of waterfalls, some easier to reach than others. Among the relatively simple is Butcher Branch Falls, which, despite being less than a half-mile from the Kaymoor Top Trailhead, is rarely crowded. The moderately difficult hike drops 150 feet from the western rim of New River Gorge to the base of the falls, also known in some guidebooks as the Upper Falls of Butcher Branch.

Butcher Branch Falls hike information

Butcher Branch Falls trail map

Map of Butcher Branch Trail, New River Gorge National River; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The 0.9-mile out-and-back hike begins at the Kaymoor Top Trailhead, a 3-mile drive east of Fayetteville, West Virginia in the northern section of New River Gorge National River. From Route 16 heading south from Fayetteville, take a left on Gatewood Road, then another left at Kaymoor Road, following the signs for Kaymoor Top. Follow the drive to its end, passing the start for the nearby Craig Branch Trail and Kaymoor Miners Trail. From the parking area, two separate paths—the Fayetteville Trail and the Butcher Branch Trail—bear off into the woods. Bear right on the Butcher Branch Trail, the quickest way to the falls.


Kaymoor Top Trailhead

Leaving the parking lot behind, the Butcher Branch Trail begins a gradual downhill, then flattens out as it approaches the rim of New River Gorge. Here the terrain drops around 1,000 feet to the canyon floor—although views are limited by a tangle of thick rhododendrons that hug the rim. At around 300 yards, the trail crosses a muddy puddle and man-made pipe, then the trail briefly climbs uphill. A small depression of the left often holds standing water and extensive undergrowth.


Rhododendrons line the Butcher Branch Trail

At 3/10 mile, the Butcher Branch Trail rounds a sharp, right-hand bend and begins a steady descent. One can hear the tumbling waters as hikers enter the Butcher Branch drainage, a sign that the falls are drawing nearer. After a hard left-hand switchback, the trail forks at about the 1/3-mile mark. Leave the main trail behind, staying right on a spur marked “Climbing Access.”


Sheer wall along the spur trail

The spur trail immediately descends a steep set of switchbacks and then hugs the base of a blocky wall of sandstone as it approaches Butcher Branch. It is a short walk from here to the creek. Where the path crosses Butcher Branch, stop and look up to the left: here is Butcher Branch Falls, a multi-tiered tumble surrounded by dense vegetation. One can reach the base of the falls with some minor scrambling, but be careful traversing the wet and slippery rocks and log jams.


Up-close view of Butcher Branch Falls

The spur trail continues westward across Butcher Branch but ends shortly thereafter at the base of a popular climbing area. Return the way you came, walking back uphill to the trailhead. Allot 45 minutes-1 hour for this moderate, out-and-back hike.


Butcher Branch Falls

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Fayette Station Road (New River Gorge National River, WV)


Wolf Creek Falls, New River Gorge National River, May 2018

Before the New River Gorge Bridge—the longest arch bridge in the western hemisphere—was constructed in 1977, travelers across New River Gorge in southern West Virginia were forced to descend and ascend more than 800 feet in elevation on the slow and winding Fayette Station Road. The road also serviced a pair of small mining towns, which sprang up during the area’s mining boom in the late 19th century. Today, the mines are shuttered and the vast majority of traffic traverses the 3,000-foot long New River Gorge Bridge, but the Fayette Station Road remains a scenic drive under the protection of New River Gorge National River. The scenic byway crosses under the massive span and crosses New River at the comparatively tiny Fayette Station Bridge. On the west side of the canyon, the drive crosses several beautiful waterfalls, just hidden from view but quickly accessible from the road. These include Wolf Creek Falls and Marr Branch Falls. Set aside at least 1-2 hours to complete this one-way scenic drive, which begins near the Canyon Rim Visitor Center and ends west of the river in Fayetteville, West Virginia.


Passing under New River Gorge Bridge on Fayette Station Road


Fayette Station Bridge


Fayette Station Bridge on the New River


New River Gorge Bridge from the bottom of the canyon


Wolf Creek Falls


Wolf Creek Falls


Small falls along Marr Branch


Marr Branch Falls


Hiking back up from Marr Branch Falls

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Whiteoak Canyon – Cedar Run Trail Loop (Shenandoah National Park, VA)


Cedar Run Falls, Shenandoah National Park, April 2018

The nearly 8-mile trail up Whiteoak Canyon and down Cedar Run is easily one of the most scintillating loop hikes in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park and features a string of excellent waterfalls that is perhaps unparalleled in the state. Except for a dull connector trail between the two watersheds, the hike in Shenandoah’s Central District packs a nearly endless flow of beautiful scenery: what Whiteoak Canyon offers in awe-inspiring waterfalls, Cedar Run matches with serenity and majestic cascades. Hikers pay for the scenery, however, with a gain of around 2,200 feet in elevation, making this strenuous hike an all-day journey for many visitors. Jaw-dropping natural beauty also attracts the masses, so get an early start to avoid some of the crowds.

Whiteoak Canyon Cedar Run Trail Loop hike information

Whiteoak Canyon Cedar Run Trail loop map

Map of Whiteoak Canyon Trail & Cedar Run Trail Loop, Shenandoah National Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

While possible to begin the circuit at Hawksbill Gap Trailhead on Skyline Drive, most visitors to the Whiteoak Canyon area start at the Whiteoak Boundary Parking, tucked in shady Berry Hollow east of the park boundary. The nearest town is Syria, a modest village with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west and a short distance down Virginia Route 670 from the north-south Highway 231. (Note: Follow the signs to Whiteoak Canyon. The full drive is paved up to the trailhead. The popular Old Rag hike begins a mile further up Weakley Hollow Road to the north.)

The trail begins at the end of the lower parking area; here there is a small ranger station where you should pay the Shenandoah entrance fee (or show your National Park Pass). The trail map at the start recommends two shorter versions of the hike that exclude the Cedar Run section; the following description, however, covers the entire loop, rated “very strenuous” by the National Park Service.

Whiteoak Canyon (2.6 miles)

Begin by following the wide, well-trodden path as it bears northwest toward the park boundary. After 250 feet, the trail crosses a steel bridge over Cedar Run and enters Shenandoah National Park; within a couple minutes, the trail splits, marking the official start of the loop. Take the right fork, following the Whiteoak Canyon Trail toward the area’s tallest waterfalls. Traverse a small stream at 2/10 mile, then continue across another steel footbridge over the Robinson River, the waterway responsible for carving Whiteoak Canyon. Once across to the right bank, the trail bends northward and begins an initial climb, the first of many on this strenuous trek.


Following the Robinson River in Lower Whiteoak Canyon

At 4/10 mile, the trail briefly levels off and then drops back down to stream level. The creek here is already lovely, with the water tumbling gently as it descends the mountainside. At 7/10 mile, the trail forks again, as the Whiteoak-Cedar Run Link Trail bears off to the left across the stream. Stay right on the Whiteoak Canyon Trail, which soon enters a switchback. At around 9/10 mile, hikers will approach a confusing junction in which blue blazes appear to indicate that the trail is heading right uphill. Instead, the real path drops down to the left, clearing a ravine.


The cascades grow larger as you ascend Whiteoak Canyon

The cascades grow bigger as hikers enter the second mile, and an 8-10 foot waterfall on the left at 1.25 miles offers a prelude of what is to come. As the roar of tumbling water grows louder, hikers get their first glimpse of the first falls at about 1.3 miles after clearing a small tributary. The trail leads to the base of the 60-foot waterfall, which splits in two as it plunges into a small pool. Being the easiest to reach, this waterfall is often the most crowded.


Approaching the first falls, a.k.a. Lower Whiteoak Falls


First falls in Whiteoak Canyon

The crowds thin out, however, as the trail begins an arduous, switch-backing climb up to the right. High above a tributary to the east, hikers can spot glimpses of another falls along that stream, impressive in its own right. At around 1.6 miles, hikers will have a view of the second and third falls—each between 40-50 feet in height—down in the valley below, but at a good distance and partly obscured by trees. (Note: It is possible to access these waterfalls, but it requires backtracking to the top of falls #1 and following the creek upstream.) Just beyond, now well above the main creek, a clearing offers an unobstructed view down-canyon to the south.


View from the clearing above Lower Whiteoak Falls

The trail continues to climb as it approaches the fourth falls in Whiteoak Canyon; this one drops 35 feet but is hard to view except from the top of the falls, a short distance off-trail to the left at around 1.9 miles.


35-foot waterfall in Whiteoak Canyon


Multi-tiered cascades in Whiteoak Canyon

Beyond, the path skirts around a set of tiered cascades and then switchbacks up the hillside to the fifth falls at 2.1 miles. This waterfall drops over a 62-foot cliff, crashing to a small pool and spraying approaching hikers with mist.


Fifth falls, a.k.a. Middle Whiteoak Falls


Fifth Whiteoak Canyon Falls


Edging away from the falls, the Whiteoak Canyon Trail ascends another set of switchbacks and skirts the base of a high, thick wall. At around 2.4 miles, part of the trail is surprisingly paved with stone, the result of earlier handiwork that was apparently abandoned for the rest of the route.


Skirting a high wall

At 2.4 miles, hikers will reach a trail marker—but this is not a junction; stay right as the trail continues, climbing up a neatly arranged stone staircase to the clear a bluff. Atop the hill awaits a view of the sixth and final waterfall in Whiteoak Canyon: at 86 feet, the sixth falls, or Upper Whiteoak Falls, is the tallest waterfall encountered on the hike and the second-highest in Shenandoah.


Sixth falls, a.k.a. Upper Whiteoak Falls

Following the foray to the viewpoint, the trail bears east, then north, and leads to a junction at 2.6 miles with the Skyland-Big Meadows Horse Trail. Stay left. Then, as you approach the creek—well above Upper Whiteoak Falls—bear left, leaving the Whiteoak Canyon Trail. Rock-hop across the stream and stay left on the wide two-track Whiteoak Canyon Fire Road. (Note: If the water levels are too high, cross the creek at the footbridge, visible a few dozen yards upstream.)


Crossing Robinson River to reach the Whiteoak Canyon Fire Road

Whiteoak Canyon to Cedar Run (1.6 miles)

The Whiteoak Canyon Fire Road is a relatively dull and uneventful connector between Whiteoak Canyon and Cedar Run. The road gradually climbs amid oaks, chestnuts, and maples, occasionally offering obscured views of Old Rag through the trees on the left. At 3.7 miles, the road rounds a sharp left-hand bend and ascends to a point within striking distance of Skyline Drive. Just before meeting Skyline Drive, take a left on a yellow-blazed single-track at 4.2 miles—this is a section of the Skyland-Big Meadows Horse Trail.


Whiteoak Canyon Fire Road

For the next 6/10 mile, hikers will bear west toward the Hawksbill Gap Trailhead, with Hawksbill (4,049’)—the highest peak in Shenandoah—visible ahead. Remaining within earshot of Skyline Drive to the right, the path makes minor dips and climbs but stays mostly level before approaching the trailhead at 4.8 miles. Instead of going right to the parking area, hang a hard left at the junction. This is the start of the Cedar Run Trail.

Cedar Run (3.0 miles)

While the waterfalls of Whiteoak Canyon are grand and showy, Cedar Run’s smaller cascades, nestled in a narrow ravine, feel more subtle and intimate. As the Cedar Run Trail begins to descend, the walls of the canyon become more defined, and the first trace of water is spotted around 5.2 miles. What begins as a trickle quickly turns to rushing cascades. A small, 12-foot falls precedes an intriguing section where the trail hugs the base of a high wall on the left.


Small falls along Cedar Run


Descending Cedar Run drainage

The creek is shock full of rocks, fallen trees, and other obstacles, creating a mosaic of cascades that split and converge dozens of times. At the 6-mile mark, a small tributary enters from the west. Cross the creek at 6.2 miles, then climb a short uphill section, hugging the side of the broadening valley. At 6.3 miles, the trail drops sharply and emerges suddenly at the base of a 40-foot natural water slide, a popular destination on a hot summer day.


Natural water slide

Far more striking, however, is the scene that awaits a few dozen yards later: Cedar Run Falls. Here the stream squeezes through a narrow sliver then drops 34 feet into a small box canyon, forming a beautiful and photogenic spectacle. It is worth stopping for a break here to admire the natural beauty.


Cedar Run Falls


Cedar Run Falls


Leaving the falls behind, the trail rises above a small gorge and begins to distance itself from the stream. At a point where the valley opens up significantly, another falls plunges over a cliff—but this one is difficult to see through the trees. A second such falls—shorter but beautifully split in two by a jagged boulder—comes into view minutes later.


Hidden falls


Winding trail descending along Cedar Run

After spending much of this stretch well above the creek, the trail descends to stream level at 7.1 miles and crosses Cedar Run for the penultimate time. Partly hidden between two boulders, a final 12-foot waterfall guards the mouth of the canyon. The terrain beyond is significantly flatter as you approach the original trailhead.


Final falls in Cedar Run drainage

Stay right at the fork at 7.25 miles, where the Cedar Run Trail intersects with the Whiteoak-Cedar Run Link Trail. Aside from a huge chunk of stone visible across the stream at 7.5 miles, the rest of the hike is relatively uneventful. At 7.7 miles, the Cedar Run Trail merges with the Whiteoak Canyon Trail at the original junction, and bearing right takes one across the first bridge and back to the ranger station and parking area.

Hikers should allot at least 5-6 hours for this 7.8-mile circuit due to both its difficulty and the natural allure of the various waterfalls. Weary legs are a worthy price to pay for this outstanding hike, clearly one of the best in northern Virginia and the Washington, DC area.

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Duncan Knob and Stricker Knob Loop (George Washington National Forest, VA)


Duncan Knob, George Washington National Forest, April 2018

This excellent hike combines two of the finest summits in northern Virginia in a strenuous circuit with considerable elevation gain and loss. The trek up Duncan and Strickler Knobs is not for the casual hiker; it involves significant climbs and drops, including a borderline Class II/III rock scramble to the summit of Duncan and a seemingly endless detour to the top of Strickler. Visitors, however, are rewarded with world-class views of the Massanutten Mountain area, Shenandoah Valley, and the surrounding mountain ranges of northern Virginia. Plan to spend most of the day hiking this loop and enjoying the vistas.

Duncan Knob Stricker Knob Trail hike information

Duncan Knob Strickler Knob trail map

Map of Duncan Knob-Strickler Knob Loop, George Washington National Forest; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

There are multiple points of approach to reach Duncan and Strickler Knobs in the heart of the Massanutten Range. This description assumes a start and end at Gap Creek Trailhead, situated roughly 2.5 miles southwest down the unpaved Crisman Hollow Road from its intersection the paved Camp Roosevelt Road. (Note: This is roughly a 2 to 2.5-hour drive from Washington, DC and 2.5 to 3 hours from Richmond, VA.) There is a small parking area on the south side of the road; blue blazes direct hikers to walk down a short side track with some additional parking.

Gap Creek Trailhead to Duncan Knob (1.75 mi.)

After 100 yards, the track reaches a small campsite, and the Gap Creek Trail bears off to the left, dropping into the woods and crossing a bridge over Passage Creek, which carved the valley in which you now stand. This is the last bit of solace before a relentless uphill that will last more than 1 ½ miles.

The ascent begins with a gradual incline, making gentle curves and bends up the slopes of Catback Mountain. Initially rocky, the trail smooths out as it climbs a series of switchbacks. At ¾ mile, the path rounds a left-hand bend with some obscured views of Crisman Hollow and an unnamed knob to the southwest. From here the trail ascends a gently rolling ridgeline and then gradually bends right again, leading to a welcome flat section at around 1.1 miles. By now you have covered roughly 650 feet in elevation gain.


Climbing the Gap Creek Trail

Hikers will reach the first trail junction at 1.2 miles, where the yellow-blazed Scothorn Gap Trail comes in from the right. Stay left on the blue-blazed Gap Creek Trail, which immediately resumes its ascent again, hugging the lower slopes of Duncan Knob. At 1.5 miles, the trail crests the ridge at Peach Orchard Gap, situated at roughly 2,500 feet (850 feet above the trailhead).

Here the path splits. To visit Duncan Knob first, bear left on the white-blazed spur. From here it is a short but steep ¼ mile to the summit; this section covers includes around 300 feet in elevation gain. At first the ascent is gradual, passing a nice campsite on the right. At about 1.65, however, the woods suddenly give away to a rocky jumble and massive sandstone talus slope. The summit is now visible atop a jagged rock wall.


Approaching Duncan Knob

There are several possible approaches from here to the summit, but the easiest and most used route is to follow the rock cairns on the left flank of the knob. The climb is not technical but requires some careful footing. (Note: Durable shoes are highly recommended because very few of the rocks are flat and easy to grip.)


View west to Kerns Mountain and Short Mountain


View south from near the summit of Duncan Knob

As you climb, fantastic views open up in several directions. To the west, Crisman Hollow is flanked by lengthy Kerns Mountain (2,569’), with Short Mountain (2,600’) and the Shenandoah Valley beyond. Curving east as you approach the top, the primary viewpoint atop Duncan Knob (2,803’) offers an obstructed view south: Massanutten Mountain, Middle Mountain, and Waterfall Mountain converge at a series of peaks, most of which are unnamed. (Note: The far western tip of this cluster includes Strickler Knob (2,780’), the second primary destination of this hike.) On the horizon is Big Mountain (2,962’), which is topped by a radio tower.


View from the summit at Duncan Knob


Unobstructed view south toward Strickler Knob

In the valley to the east, one can spot the snaking Shenandoah River, with the towering heights of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park beyond, while Great North Mountain is visible to the west. Duncan Knob offers simply one of the best vistas in the area, dwarfed perhaps only by Strickler Knob, your next destination that will be reached in the coming hours…


East to the Shenandoah River

Duncan Knob to Strickler Knob (4.0 mi.)

Many hikers turn around here and return to the trailhead, making for a nice 3.5-mile half-day hike. Curious hikers with additional energy, however, can continue onward to Strickler Knob, completing a nearly 10-mile stem-and-loop that will take most of a day. To pursue this route, retrace your steps down Duncan Knob and back to Peach Orchard Gap. This time bear left on the blue-blazed Gap Creek Trail as it descends the eastern slopes of Catback Mountain in the shadow of Duncan Knob. Very quickly, hikers will shed much of the elevation they had gained earlier, dropping about 600 feet into Duncan Hollow, a relatively wide and woody valley.

The descent ends at a trail junction at about 2.75 miles, where the Gap Creek Trail intersects with the lengthy Massanutten Mountain Trail, a 71-mile loop that traverses much of the Massanutten Range. With the sounds of the main Duncan Hollow stream ahead, bear right on the Massanutten Mountain Trail as it begins a long and slow ascent to Strickler Knob.

Keeping its distance from the creek, the orange-blazed path bears southwest in and out of occasional patches of mountain laurel, flattening out a bit at around 3.2 miles before resuming a steady climb. Much of the tree growth in this area is relatively new, and one can spot patches of old growth that were lost to a relatively recent forest fire. As a result, much of this climb is in nearly full sun, making for a tough slog on a hot day.

At around 4.5 miles, the trail ascends a set of switchbacks, surrounded by increasingly rocky terrain. Upon cresting the ridge of Middle Mountain at 4.9 miles, look for a trail marked with pink blazes that bears off to the left. This is the start of a ¾-mile spur to Strickler Knob, which is unmaintained and overgrown but marked and relatively easily to follow.


Rock shelf along the spur trail to Strickler Knob

The spur involves little elevation gain or loss but a whole lot of rocky traverses as the trail follows a sandstone ridgeline out to the knob. The winding path passes a series of false summits and rock outcrops, finally reaching the first views at about 5.5 miles. Here a rock outcrop overlooks a tree-lined valley, with neatly parallel Waterfall Mountain beyond. The mountains of West Virginia dot the horizon to the west, while Big Mountain dominates the landscape to the south.


View southwest to Waterfall Mountain (right) and Big Mountain (left, in distance)

This lovely view is only a preview of what’s to come, however, and the trail continues across the ridgeline to the east-facing side at about 5.6 miles. Here a fine campsite, complete with a fire pit, overlooks the Shenandoah Valley, with the Shenandoah River neatly framed by the gap in the trees. This is another outstanding vista, but it’s again only a small flavor of the finale.


View of Shenandoah Valley from the campsite

Past the campsite, the pink blazes lead up and over a 4- to 5-foot climb that requires the use of hand holds to surmount. The final stretch involves traversing a rocky passage between two high stacks of blocky sandstone; at last, the lengthy spur ends at the final overlook, a stunning panoramic view of the Shenandoah Valley and Massanutten Range. The knob was named for Abraham Strickler, an 18th-century pioneer who established a settlement in the area in around 1730.


View south from Strickler Knob


Rock outcrops at Strickler Knob

Backtrack a few steps and scramble to the top of the sandstone outcrops for the best vantage point. In addition to the views over Big Run to Waterfall Mountain to the west, the break in the mountains to the southwest at New Market Gap gives way to an obstructed view of Big Mountain, marking the continuation of the Massanutten Range. Highway 340 stretches down the Shenandoah Valley to the south, while the Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah remain in view to the east. It’s hard to find a finer view on Massanutten Mountain, and Strickler Knob probably belongs in a discussion of the best vistas in the state of Virginia.


One of Virginia’s most scintillating vistas


View north up Shenandoah Valley

Strickler Knob to Gap Creek Trailhead (4.1 mi.)

It’s hard to say goodbye to the excellent views at Strickler Knob, but when you’re ready, return the way you came on the pink-blazed spur, arriving back at the main, orange-blazed Massanutten Mountain Trail at 6.4 miles. Bear left, following as the trail gradually descends the slopes of Middle Mountain, en route to Scothorn Gap.

Hikers—now probably weary and ready to return home—will arrive at a four-way junction at about the 7-mile mark. Take a right, leaving the Massanutten Mountain Trail in favor of the Scothorn Gap Trail, which proceeds to pass through its namesake gully. The path stays to the right of a minor stream that appears beyond the gap and drops gently as it heads northeast to reconnect with the original Gap Creek Trail.

Bear left at the fork at 8.6 miles, returning to familiar territory for the final 1.2-mile descent to the Gap Creek Trailhead. Bending and weaving down the slopes of Catback Mountain, hikers will return to the parking area, completing nearly 10 miles of ups-and-downs—with visits to two of the best lookouts in northern Virginia.

Allot most of the day for this hike, and pack plenty of water to prepare for the strenuous climbs and arduous rocky traverses.

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Peninsula Campaign Driving Tour – Part 2


Malvern Hill Battlefield, Richmond National Battlefield Park, March 2018

– Civil War Series –

The 1862 Peninsula Campaign, intended by the Union to put a decisive end to the Civil War by capturing the Confederate capital of Richmond, began with a slow start. Gen. George McClellan, despite setting out in March 1862 with the largest army the continent had ever seen, inched up the Virginia Peninsula from Hampton at what seemed like a snail’s pace. The Army of the Potomac stalled at several points, facing a determined but greatly outmanned Confederate Army, and only reached the doorstep of Richmond by mid-May 1862, two months into the campaign.

After turning back a Union naval assault at Drewry’s Bluff, Confederate forces under the command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston lost their commander to injury in the Battle of Seven Pines in late May. The leadership vacuum gave rise to Gen. Robert E. Lee, who would go on to launch an aggressive campaign against the Federal forces in late June. Known as the “Seven Days’ Battles,” the series of Confederate attacks and Union counter-attacks would result in McClellan’s capitulation and cement Lee’s position as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia until the end of the war in 1865.

Part 1 of this two-part Peninsula Campaign Driving Tour covered the long and cautious march of McClellan’s forces up the Virginia Peninsula to Richmond. (Note: The accompanying post can be found here.) The below driving tour picks up where Part 1 left off and includes several stops in the city of Richmond, as well as trips to the key battlefields of the Seven Days—Oak Grove, Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines’ Mill, Savage’s Station, White Oak Swamp, Glendale, and Malvern Hill. There is enough to see and do in Part 2 to last two full days (including museums and several hiking trails), in addition to two extra half-day options: Harrison’s Landing (the site of McClellan’s post-campaign camp) and Stuart’s Ride (the route of J.E.B. Stuart’s famous cavalry ride around the Union Army in June 1862).

Note: The below driving tour roughly follows the itineraries laid out by Virginia Civil War Trails and Michael Weeks’ Civil War Road Trip: Volume I (2011). In this age of GPS, I have included addresses for each site (rough approximations—for example, the nearest house) in lieu of specific directions.


Stop 1: Tredegar Iron Works/Richmond National Battlefield Park Visitor Center (470 Tredegar St., Richmond, VA)

Your driving tour begins in Richmond, Virginia, a stone’s throw from the James River, at the Richmond National Battlefield Park Visitor Center at Tredegar Iron Works. Tredegar was the epicenter of iron manufacturing for the South during the war, and its centrality to the war effort played a key role in the decision to make Richmond the Confederate capital. In addition to exploring the remains of the iron works, start your journey at the Visitor Center, with offers information on Civil War sites in the area as well as several exhibits on the 1862 Peninsula Campaign and 1864 Overland Campaign. Next to the Visitor Center is the American Civil War Center, which is privately operated and costs $12 to enter. This museum provides an introduction to the Civil War, with an emphasis on the diversity of viewpoints on the causes and conduct of the war.

Note: Allot 2-3 hours to explore the site, including the exhibits at the Visitor Center and American Civil War Center.


Tredegar Iron Works, Richmond, Virginia


Stop 2: Museum and White House of the Confederacy (1201 E. Clay St., Richmond, VA)

Surrounded today by the massive VCU hospital complex, the White House of the Confederacy—home to Jefferson Davis during the war—remains intact and open to the public for daily tours ($18 for the tour and accompanying museum). It was from here that Davis directed the war effort. Next door lies the multi-story Museum of the Confederacy, which has exhibits on the Southern Army, home front, and the infamous Confederate flag. Besides the over-the-top Confederate memorabilia in the gift shop, the museum is largely respectful and is as relatively unbiased as it can be for a museum dedicated to the Confederacy. It also boasts an impressive collection, including the very uniforms, weapons, and personal effects used by the likes of Stonewall Jackson, Joseph E. Johnston, Robert E. Lee, and J.E.B. Stuart during the war.

Note: Allot 2-3 hours for the tour of the house and the museum. Plan to park in the VCU Medical Center parking garage down 12th St. Grab a late lunch in Richmond on the way out.


White House of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia

Stop 3: Chimborazo Medical Museum (3215 E. Broad St., Richmond, VA)

The Seven Days’ Battles produced scores of casualties for both sides, and a significant number of the sick and wounded Confederate soldiers ended up here, at the site of the former Chimborazo Hospital, one of the largest and most efficient wartime hospitals in the South. Though no original buildings remain, one can imagine thousands of patients spread out across the grassy knoll of Chimborazo Hill, largely in the care of a couple dozen surgeons. In the 1870s, Chimborazo Hill was refashioned as a city park, which still today offers excellent views overlooking the James River. There are several crisscrossing paths on the site, and the small Chimborazo Medical Museum offers a glimpse of what life was like at the hospital during the war.

Note: Allot 45 minutes-1 hour to tour the museum and walk the grounds.


View of Richmond from Chimborazo Hill

Stop 4: Drewry’s Bluff (8041 Fort Darling Rd., Richmond, VA)

After spending much of the day in Richmond, travelers on the driving tour should leave the city by mid-afternoon to view the first battleground of the day. Drewry’s Bluff, situated along the James River a 20-minute drive south of Richmond, was the site of a Confederate defensive bastion throughout much of the war. On May 15, 1862, the Southern defenders atop the bluff turned back a Federal naval advance on the James River with a hail of artillery fire, badly damaging the lead ship USS Galena and thwarting McClellan’s plans to lay siege to Richmond by water. The earthworks at Drewry’s Bluff are accessible by way of a roughly 1-mile stem-and-loop trail that tells the story of the defenses and provides commanding views of the James River.

Note: Allot around 45 minutes-1 hour to walk the Drewry’s Bluff Trail. See my post on April 16, 2018 for a full trail description.


View of the James River from Drewry’s Bluff

Stop 5: Seven Pines – McClellan’s First Line (31 E. Williamsburg Rd., Sandston, VA)

No longer able to wield naval power in his advance on Richmond, McClellan instead arrayed his land forces east of Richmond, straddling the banks of the Chickahominy River, a swampy tributary of the James. With the winding Chickahominy forcing McClellan to bifurcate his army, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston sensed an opportunity in late May to deal a blow to the Union forces. On May 31, Johnston’s Confederates attacked the two isolated Federal corps positioned south of the river at Seven Pines, although confused orders and horrendous weather put the offensive several hours behind schedule. At around 1 pm, Confederate troops under the command of Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill launched an assault on McClellan’s first defensive line, manned by Union Brig. Gen. Silas Casey’s 2nd Division, along Williamsburg Road, a route that remains today.[i] The Battle of Seven Pines was born.

The drive from Drewry’s Bluff to the Seven Pines battlefield is around 20 minutes and enters the suburban town of Sandston, VA. Despite being one of the pivotal battles of the campaign, Seven Pines is probably one of the most poorly-preserved Civil War battlegrounds in the country. Virtually the entire field of battle has been overtaken by development. Yet there are a handful of tributes that remain, including the first of several Seven Pines sites on the tour: situated in front of a day care facility in Sandston, a tall white sign marks the (inaccurate) location of McClellan’s first defensive line, which was quickly overrun. (Note: Following Drewry’s Bluff, the next significant engagement chronologically was the Battle of Hanover Court House on May 27, but due its distance away from the other sites, this battlefield is instead included below in the “extra credit” section as part of the Stuart’s Ride tour.)

Note: Allot five minutes to visit the sign. Park in the lot across the street at the Sandstone Laundromat.


Marker for McClellan’s first defensive line during the Battle of Seven Pines, Sandston, Virginia

Stop 6: Seven Pines – McClellan’s Second Line (23 E. Williamsburg Rd., Sandston, VA)

The actual location of McClellan’s first defensive line laid slightly further east, up Williamsburg Road. The spot is marked today by a Civil War Trails sign in the parking area of the Sandston Public Library. It was here that Gen. Casey was forced to abandon his earthworks, facing what he called “the most terrible fire of musketry…that I have ever witnessed.” From here the Union forces would fall back to the second defensive line, with Brig. Gen. Samuel Heintzelmann’s Third Corps moving in to reinforce the beleaguered Union Fourth Corps.[ii]

Note: Allot five minutes for this site, situated just two blocks east of Stop 5. Park in the Sandstone Public Library parking lot.


Civil War Trails marker at Sandstone Public Library

Stop 7: Seven Pines National Cemetery (400 E. Williamsburg Rd., Sandston, VA)

About ½ mile down Williamsburg Road, the attacking Confederates clashed with elements of Heintzelmann’s Third Corps and Brig. Gen. Erasmus Keyes’ Fourth Corps at McClellan’s second defensive line. As Johnston’s forces abandoned a frontal assault in favor of flanking movements, the Federal forces fell back, forming a defensive position at the intersection of Williamsburg Road and Nine Mile Road.

Today this spot is occupied by the Seven Pines National Cemetery, built in 1866 to hold the graves of Union soldiers killed in the Battle of Seven Pines and later engagements. Although more than 1,300 Union soldiers are interred here, only 150 are identified, with the rest of the identities unknown. It is possible to walk around the cemetery, although entering can be a tight squeeze for cars. Amid the gravestones are a flagpole and an artillery monument.

Note: Allot 10-15 minutes to explore the 2-acre cemetery.


Seven Pines National Cemetery

Stop 8: Fair Oaks (1838 E. Nine Mile Rd., Highland Springs, VA)

Even as darkness put an end to the day’s battle, the evening of May 31 brought one of the most consequential events of the war: it was near here, at Fair Oaks Station, that Johnston, overall commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, was severely wounded in the fighting. The Confederates would resume battle briefly the next day under the command of Confederate Maj. Gen. G.W. Smith, but the post fell soon after to Robert E. Lee, a former army engineer, a change that would give the Confederacy its military hero.

The Battle of Seven Pines effectively ended on June 1 in a draw, with both sides claiming victory. The final Seven Pines site is marked by two white signs, situated at the former site of Fair Oaks Station. This area saw heavy fighting on both days of the battle and, later in June, witnessed the passage of a Confederate locomotive mounted with a siege gun—the first piece of railroad artillery used in warfare.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site. Park in one of the parking lots across Nine Mile Road from the markers.


Markers at Fair Oaks

Stop 9: Oak Grove (5337-5301 Airport Dr., Richmond, VA)

As you approach Stop 9, the story fast forwards by 3 ½ weeks to June 25. During this respite period between battles, both sides regrouped and established new entrenchments in anticipation of future engagements. McClellan, per usual, was slow to follow through on his vows to President Lincoln that he would seize Richmond, privately accusing the president of withholding the necessary reinforcements from other Union forces further north to support his siege effort. Meanwhile, Lee was busy planning an aggressive defense of Richmond by way of counter-attack: after receiving vital intelligence on McClellan’s positions from J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry, Lee planned to attack Union Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps north of the Chickahominy River on June 26. Before he could do so, however, McClellan’s forces broke from their idle position and launched an assault on June 25 against a portion of Lee’s Army south of the Chickahominy at Oak Grove. Darkness again ended the battle, with the Union forces gaining around 600 yards in exchange for hundreds of casualties.

Like Seven Pines, the Battle of Oak Grove has been nearly entirely lost to development, with most of the battlefield now covered by Richmond International Airport. Partly hidden in the trees, visitors can spot a single Confederate earthwork and an artillery piece when driving north on Airport Drive. It is extremely difficult to reach, however, because parking is not permitted along the shoulder of the road.

Note: Allot a few minutes to drive by the Oak Grove earthwork. This marks the end of the first day of the tour.


Stop 10: Chickahominy Bluffs (2302 Springdale Rd., Richmond, VA)

Despite the surprise offensive by McClellan’s forces at Oak Grove, Lee went forward with his plan to attack the Federal forces north of the Chickahominy on June 26. He aimed to send three separate columns—including Stonewall Jackson’s forces, fresh off a victorious campaign in the Shenandoah Valley—to converge on Union Gen. Porter’s Fifth Corps. The plan was relatively simple but risky: in massing most of Lee’s forces north of the river, he left his southern flank vulnerable to attack. McClellan, being McClellan, however, played along, remaining idle as the Confederates prepared for attack.

It was from here, at Chickahominy Bluffs, that Lee and Jefferson Davis oversaw the movement of Confederate forces across the Chickahominy to battle. While today trees obstruct the view, several earthworks remain—the bluffs formed a portion of the external defenses around Richmond, which wrapped in a half-circle around the city. The entrenchments were reinforced after the 1862 campaign, and gunners at this position would see brief action during Union Gen. Philip Sheridan’s raid on Richmond in May 1864.

Note: Allot 5-10 minutes for this site.


Chickahominy Bluffs, Richmond National Battlefield Park

Stop 11: Beaver Dam Creek (7423 Cold Harbor Rd., Mechanicsville, VA)

Lee’s Army encountered its first Federal resistance at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek on the afternoon of June 26. With elements of Porter’s Fifth Corps arrayed along the swampy barrier of Beaver Dam Creek, the Federals repulsed several Confederate brigades under the command of Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill. Although a tactical defeat for the Confederates, the engagement was a strategic victory, as it persuaded McClellan to withdraw his forces east and south to the James River. Unlike Seven Pines, this area is partly protected by the National Park Service; a lovely footbridge offers passage over Beaver Dam Creek, and a short, 2/10-mile out-and-back hike follows the historic Cold Harbor Road, ending at the former site of Ellerson’s Mill, which stood during the battle.

Note: Allot 15-20 minutes to explore this site. See my post on April 22, 2018 for a full description of the Beaver Dam Creek Trail.


Beaver Dam Creek Battlefield, Richmond National Battlefield Park

Stop 12: Cold Harbor Battlefield Visitor Center (5515 Anderson Wright Dr., Mechanicsville, VA)

A 10-minute drive from Beaver Dam Creek, Richmond National Battlefield Park’s Cold Harbor Battlefield Visitor Center offers an overview of the Seven Days’ Battles, as well as the 1864 Overland Campaign, which occurred in the same general area east of Richmond. The visitor center also offers information on ranger-led tours at Gaines’ Mill, your next destination…

Note: Allot 15-20 minutes to explore the exhibits and bookstore at the small visitor center.


Cold Harbor Battlefield Visitor Center, Richmond National Battlefield Park

Stop 13: Gaines’ Mill (6283 Watt House Rd., Mechanicsville Rd., VA)

With McClellan’s Army in retreat, the pursuit was on for the advancing Confederates. One day after Beaver Dam Creek, Lee won a decisive but costly victory on June 27 in the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. Here Lee sent the bulk of his forces against Gen. Porter’s Fifth Corps again near Cold Harbor. Although eventually succeeding in dislodging Porter’s troops, the Union’s strong position along the banks of Boatswain’s Creek produced scores of Confederate casualties, making the battle the Civil War’s second-bloodiest engagement to that point (behind only the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862).

The Gaines’ Mill Battlefield is protected as part of Richmond National Battlefield Park, just a mile southwest of the Cold Harbor Battlefield Visitor Center. An excellent 1-mile loop hike provides a tour of the grounds, now mostly covered in dense woods. Spur trails offer access to a monument for fallen soldiers, as well as an overlook of the area where Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s division delivered the decisive blow that won the day for the Confederacy.

Note: Allot 1 ½-2 hours to explore this site and walk the loop trail. See my post on May 17, 2018 for a full description of the Gaines’ Mill Trail.


Gaines’ Mill Trail, Richmond National Battlefield Park

Stop 14: Grapevine Bridge (1352-1424 Hanover Rd., Sandston, VA)

McClellan, being a U.S. Army engineer himself, put the Army of the Potomac’s engineering corps to work in May and June constructing a multitude of bridges over the Chickahominy River. One such project was the so-called Grapevine Bridge, which would prove useful on several occasions: it was used first by Brig. Gen. John Sedgwick’s forces to reinforce the Union position at Fair Oaks on May 31, then the bridge served as an avenue of retreat for Porter’s Fifth Corps following the Battle of Gaines’ Mill on June 27. Two days later, after the bridge was destroyed by the fleeing Federals, the crossing was rebuilt by Stonewall Jackson’s division as it pursued McClellan’s Army.

Today, Virginia Route 156, a.k.a. Cold Harbor Road, traverses the Chickahominy at roughly the spot of the old Grapevine Bridge. A large parking area just south of the crossing offers serves as the start of a short trail to the river banks. (Note: This is also an entry point for the Chickahominy Water Trail.) There is also a pair of markers on the opposite side of the parking area that offer a short description of the strategic importance of Grapevine Bridge.

Note: Allot 10-15 minutes for this site.


Markers at Grapevine Bridge

Stop 15: Garnett’s and Golding’s Farms (1501-1599 Old Hanover Rd., Sandston, VA)

The same day as the bloody battle at Gaines’ Mill, McClellan’s forces were under attack by a much smaller force led by Brig. Gen. Robert Toombs’ Georgian brigade at Garnett’s Farm. The strike was quickly repulsed, however, by Winfield Scott Hancock’s brigade as evening fell on the battlefield, and the Confederates suffered 271 casualties.[iii] The attack fueled McClellan’s (incorrect) perception, however, that he was being attacked by “greatly superior numbers” on both sides of the Chickahominy. Toombs engaged the Union forces the next day (June 28) at nearby Golding’s Farm but again was repulsed.

Garnett’s and Golding’s Farm have also been lost to development, and little trace of the battle remains, aside from a roadside historical marker at the corner of Route 156 and Hanover Road. The actual battle took place a good deal northwest of this sign; visitors can trace some of this terrain by driving along North Washington Street in Sandston, which traverses a quiet subdivision.

Note: Allot 5-10 minutes for the site. By now it should be around midday. Stop for lunch in the Sandston area, or bring a picnic to the Chickahominy.


Marker for the Battle of Golding’s Farm, Sandston, Virginia

Stop 16: Trent House (1312-1200 Grapevine Rd., Sandston, VA)

Heading back toward Grapevine Road, hang a right on Old Hanover Road, then follow Grapevine Road south, roughly following the retreat route of McClellan’s forces as they made their way to the James. On your right you will encounter a Civil War Trails sign on the Trent House, which served as McClellan’s field headquarters from June 12-June 28, 1862. McClellan monitored developments at Gaines’ Mill and Garnett’s Farm from here on June 27; that night, the timid general told his commanders around a campfire that his offensive to capture Richmond had failed and announced his intention—already set in motion after Beaver Dam Creek—to complete a withdrawal to the James, where his forces would enjoy the protection of Union gunboats. After the meeting, McClellan sent a telegram to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, reprimanding him for not sending reinforcements: “I have lost this battle because my force was too small…If I save this Army now I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or any other persons in Washington – you have done your best to sacrifice this Army.”[iv]

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site. The Trent House is now a private residence but is visible from the road.


Trent House

Stop 17: Savage’s Station (2700 Meadow Rd., Sandston, VA)

After abandoning the Trent House, McClellan established a new temporary headquarters at Savage’s Station, located around a mile to the southeast. Here the Army of the Potomac set up a field hospital for the thousands of wounded soldiers, who received care on June 28, the sole day of the Seven Days without a significant battle. McClellan picked up camp and began moving farther southward the next morning, but his rear guard was caught in another fighting retreat as they met Confederate Maj. Gen. John Magruder’s division in the Battle of Savage’s Station. The fighting produced more than 400 Confederate and 900 Union casualties before darkness put an end to the indecisive battle. However, the Confederates overran the field hospital at Savage’s Station, taking most of the 2,500 wounded Federal soldiers present as prisoners of war.

There are several roadside signs and a Civil War Trails wayside dedicated to the Battle of Savage’s Station at a pull-off near the junction of Grapevine Road and Meadow Road. Most of the fighting occurred in the fields to the south, with much of the battleground now covered by the highway interchange of I-295 and I-64.

Note: Allot 10 minutes for this site.


Battle of Savage’s Station marker

Stop 18: White Oak Swamp (7167-7041 VA-156, Sandston, VA)

As McClellan’s forces journeyed southward, Lee engineered plans to send his entire army to crush the Federal force as it passed through Glendale, an important crossroads on the route to the James. The attack called for a pincer movement on June 30 that involved three columns—led by Stonewall Jackson, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger, and Longstreet—converging on McClellan’s Army. Little went as planned, however, beginning with Jackson’s forces at nearby White Oak Swamp, a boggy stream northeast of the crossroads. Here they met the forces of Union Brig. Gen. William Franklin, who engaged the Confederates in an intense artillery duel that blunted Jackson’s advance, preventing his forces from joining the Battle of Glendale.

There a couple of historical markers, including a Civil War Trails wayside, at the point where Route 156 crosses White Oak Swamp. While most of the area is privately owned, one can peek over the bridge to see the swampy terrain that helped halt the Confederate advance; on the south side, you can see the high ground where Franklin’s artillery were placed during the engagement.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site.


Battle of White Oak Swamp marker

Stop 19: Glendale Crossroads (6170-6100 VA-156, Henrico, VA)

Stop at the intersection of Charles City, Darbytown, and Willis Church Roads to visit the first of three driving tour sites for the Battle of Glendale. There are historical markers on both sides of the crossroads. This intersection was the prize for the advancing Confederates, as seizing it would effectively split the Union force in two. However, on the morning of June 30, the Federal rear guard had arrayed itself in a wide arc around the crossroads.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site.


Markers at Glendale Crossroads

Stop 20: Confederate Advance (5580 Longbridge Rd., Henrico, VA)

With both Jackson’s and Huger’s waylaid by Union obstructions, the Battle of Glendale (a.k.a. Frayser’s Farm) commenced behind schedule on June 30 with only Longstreet’s and Hill’s divisions advancing from the west. After initial success in piercing the Union line, the Confederate column was halted by Union counterattacks led by Brig. Gens. Joseph Hooker and Phillip Kearny. The Union success gave the Federals enough time to complete the movement of all its troops south to Malvern Hill, site of the final battle of the Seven Days’ on July 1.

Driving west on Darbytown Road from the Glendale crossroads, bear left on Carters Mill Road and then left again on Longbridge Road. Heading northeast on this quiet, forested drive, you are following the path taken by part of Longstreet’s division as it belatedly commenced the battle around 5pm on June 30. Some of the heaviest fighting occurred along this road, where Gen. Kearny moved in to reinforce Brig. Gen. George McCall’s division as it faced defeat by superior Confederate numbers. The Union line held, and the Confederates were disappointed again, missing perhaps its best opportunity during the war to destroy the Union Army.

There is a stone marker situated at the only left-hand bend heading northeast on Longbridge Road, and a gated road leads east into the woods to a hidden Civil War Trails sign. However, there is no parking allowed along the road, so the best most visitors can hope for is a drive-by.

Note: Allot 10 minutes for this loop drive.


Marker on Longbridge Road along the route of Longstreet’s advance to Glendale

Stop 21: Glendale National Cemetery (8301 Willis Church Rd., Henrico, VA)

Heading back to the crossroads, bear right on Willis Church Road, following the path of the Federal retreat toward Malvern Hill. About ¾ mile down the road, you will find the Glendale National Cemetery on the left. Like Seven Pines Cemetery, only a small fraction of the Union soldiers buried here in 1866 have been identified; the rest are of a nameless group of fighters who perished at the Battle of Glendale and, later, the Battle of Malvern Hill. The 2-acre site includes a flagstaff, a handful of plaques and monuments, and a main building that serves as a seasonal visitor center for Richmond National Battlefield Park.

Note: Allot 15-20 minutes to explore this site.


Glendale National Cemetery, Richmond National Battlefield Park

Stop 22: The Parsonage (8945-8955 Willis Church Rd., Henrico, VA)

The final two destinations cover the Battle of Malvern Hill, the last of the Seven Days’ Battles and the Union’s only clear victory of the campaign, which ensured safe passage for the Federal Army south to the James River. Malvern Hill is one of the country’s best preserved Civil War battlefields, a mix of sunny fields and thick woods crisscrossed by a set of hiking trails. The remains of the Parsonage—once a house but now just a set of brick chimneys—served as the staging point for Confederate forces in their last bid to destroy McClellan’s Army before it reached the safety of its gunboats on the James. Looking out across the fields to the east, the subtle rise of the terrain gave the Union a significant defensive advantage, which proved decisive in turning back the South’s frontal assault. The Parsonage is also the best starting point for a 2-3 mile loop hike that offers the best way to tour the battlefield.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site, or—if you complete the hike—1.5-2.5 hours. The hike will also take you past the final destination, the Union line on Malvern Hill. See my post on June 3, 2018 for a full trail description.


The Parsonage, Richmond National Battlefield Park

Stop 23: Malvern Hill (Henrico, VA)

From the Parsonage, continue south across the heart of the Malvern Hill Battlefield, turning right at the NPS sign near the white West House. Here lies a line of Union guns, in the same position where they were placed during the Battle of Malvern Hill. Visitors can survey the area where the Confederates threw thousands of infantrymen at the Union line, to no avail. For the second time in two days, McClellan’s forces on July 1 were able to stave off defeat. By the next day, the Federals reached the James River, and McClellan established his new headquarters at Harrison’s Landing. While McClellan entertained resuming the battle, President Lincoln in August ordered the Army of the Potomac to return to Washington, just in time to meet a new Confederate campaign engineered by a newly confident Robert E. Lee.

Note: Allot 15-20 minutes for this site. This marks the end of the 2-day driving tour. If you have a third day, however, consider the following “extra credit” options, including a half-day driving tour tracing the path of J.E.B. Stuart’s famous cavalry ride around McClellan in June 1862 and/or a visit to Harrison’s Landing along the James River, where McClellan set up his new base following the failed Peninsula Campaign.


Malvern Hill Battlefield, Richmond National Battlefield Park


Stop 24: Dabbs House (3812 Nine Mile Rd., Henrico, VA)

As Lee planned his offensive in early June 1862, he needed reconnaissance and intelligence gathering on his enemy. To do this, he entrusted James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart, a 29-year-old Virginian who led Lee’s cavalry brigade and would go on to be one of the Confederacy’s most famous and celebrated commanders. On June 10, Lee directed Stuart in a meeting at Lee’s headquarters at the Dabbs House, east of Richmond, to scout the area northeast of Richmond to ensure that Stonewall Jackson’s troops, fresh off a campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, would have a clear path to join the offensive north of the Chickahominy. The Stuart, ever-confident and ambitious, advocated going a step further: why not do a complete circuit around McClellan’s army, returning to Richmond from the south? While Lee’s response is unknown, it is clear he did not prohibit Stuart’s idea. And thus Stuart’s famous “Ride Around McClellan,” a vital reconnaissance mission during the brief respite from battle in mid-June, was born.[v]

The half-day driving tour tracing the path of Stuart’s Ride begins at the Dabbs House, Lee’s field headquarters for most of June. The historic home now houses a museum and the Henrico County Tourist Information Center; guided tours are offered Wednesday-Sunday from 9am-5pm.

Note: Allot 5 minutes to read the historical markers and waysides in front of the Dabbs House and up to 1 ½ hours if touring the house and museum.


Dabbs House


Stop 25: Confederate earthworks (5890 Brook Rd., Richmond, VA)

At 5 am on June 12, Stuart and 1,200 of his cavalrymen took off from camps north of Richmond, passing through the Confederate earthworks here, part of the exterior defenses guarding the Confederate capital. These fortifications, constructed with slave labor, would come under attack three times between 1863 and 1864. Despite being surrounded by commercial development, the earthworks are remarkably well-preserved.

Note: Allot 10 minutes for this site.


Confederate earthworks, Richmond, Virginia

Stop 26: Hanover Tavern (13181 Hanover Courthouse Rd., Hanover, VA)

From Richmond, Stuart’s cavalry rode north around Ashland and east to Hanover Court House, itself the site of a minor battle two weeks prior. On May 27, 1862, Union Gen. Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps, tasked by McClellan with clearing out a suspected Confederate contingent in the area, drove away a Southern force with superior numbers, enough for McClellan to claim a great victory for the Federals. While the battle took place south of the modern-day town of Hanover, there is a Civil War Trails marker in the parking lot of the Hanover Tavern that describes both the battle and Stuart’s arrival on June 12.

Hanover Tavern, which now boasts a ritzy restaurant and theatre, was briefly the home of famed Virginian Patrick Henry of “give me liberty or give me death” lore; in 1760, Henry opened his first law office here, helping to launch his career as an eventual politician, orator, and delegate to the Continental Congress in 1774-75. There are a handful of exhibits in the tavern, and guided tours are offered at 2pm on Wednesday-Friday.

Note: Allot 5 minutes to read the Civil War Trails sign or spend 1-2 hours touring the historic tavern.


Hanover Tavern in Hanover Court House, Virginia

Stop 27: Old Church (3263 Old Church Rd., Mechanicsville, VA)

Bearing southeast from Hanover Court House, Stuart’s men encountered several Yankee pickets on June 13 and pursued the 5th U.S. Calvary to its base at Old Church, a small community northeast of Richmond. The outnumbered Federals stood little chance, and their camp was set ablaze by the 1st Virginia Calvary, led by Col. Fitzhugh Lee. A Civil War Trails sign, situated in the parking area for Immanuel Episcopal Church, tells the story of the engagement. The first church here was constructed in 1684, but the present building—remodeled in the Gothic Revival Style—dates to after the war in 1881.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site.


Immanuel Episcopal Church in Old Church, Virginia

Stop 28: Tunstall’s Station (11040 Tunstall Station Rd., Quinton, VA)

After the engagement at Old Church, Stuart had covered enough ground to satisfy Lee’s original task: to scope out the Union Army to clear a path for Jackson to arrive from the northwest. Determined to complete the circuit around McClellan’s Army, however, Stuart pushed onward, continuing southeast. He and his men arrived at Tunstall’s Station, situated along the Richmond and York River Railroad, in the late afternoon on June 13. Quickly seizing the station from Federal guards, Stuart’s men opened fire on a passing train that was carrying 200-300 Union soldiers. The locomotive passed safely, arriving at the Federal supply base at nearby White House Landing—itself a tempting target for Stuart, though he followed his better judgment in avoiding a potential fight against a well-defended target.[vi]

Tunstall’s Station—later turned into a general store—now sits at the end of a dead-end road alongside the old railroad. The building that remains is run-down, poorly-preserved, and littered with modern yard junk. There is a Civil War Trails sign at the site, however, that gets travelers up to speed on the progress of Stuart’s Ride.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site.


Tunstall’s Station

Stop 29: Baltimore Store (8400 Old Church Rd., New Kent, VA)

As dusk approached, Stuart’s cavalry strolled through Talleysville, Virginia and raided the ample stocks of the Baltimore Store, manned by a Union sutler. Helping themselves to food and bottles of champagne, Stuart’s men enjoyed a few hours of rest before picking up again at midnight on June 14. Union cavalry, led by Stuart’s father-in-law General Philip St. George Cooke, pursued the Confederate riders, but remained several miles to the north. Baltimore Store was situated near the modern-day property of New Kent Winery, which today hosts a Civil War Trails sign in its parking lot.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site—or more if you are visiting the winery.


Near the site of Baltimore Store, in the parking lot of New Kent Winery

Stop 30: Bethany Church (8101 Adkins Rd., Charles City, VA)

In the morning, Stuart’s cavalry encountered its greatest obstacle of the ride: a high and fast-flowing Chickahominy, which waylaid the riders for several hours as they built a bridge over the river. By 1 pm on June 14, all of Stuart’s men had successfully crossed, just as a Yankee scouting party had caught up to them, lobbing a few volleys at Stuart’s rear guard.[vii] After the crossing, Stuart’s cavalry was largely free from harm, welcomed by friendly company in several towns between the Chickahominy and the James. In the late afternoon, Stuart passed this spot at Bethany Church, a few hours before he left his men and rode back to Richmond to report back to Lee.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site. There is a small Civil War Trails sign in front of the modest, white Bethany Presbyterian Church along Adkins Road.


Bethany Church in Charles City, Virginia

Stop 31: Rowland’s (4800 John Tyler Memorial Highway, Charles City, VA)

After multiple nights with little sleep, Stuart stopped for a strong cup of coffee at Richard S. Rowland’s house in Charles City, Virginia. Eager to report to Lee about the successful mission, Stuart and his small escort party rode through the night to reach Richmond on the morning of June 15. Rowland’s old house—now a quaint bed and breakfast—is within striking distance of the James River and the final stop on the Stuart’s Ride tour. A small Civil War Trails sign wraps up the story of one of the war’s most famous reconnaissance missions.

Note: Allot 5 minutes for this site. The Rowland’s marker is a short drive from Berkeley Plantation, the start of the second “Extra Credit” driving tour.


Rowland’s old house in Charles City, Virginia


Stop 32: Berkeley Plantation (12602 Harrison Landing Rd., Charles City, VA)

There are only two destinations on this second, “extra credit” driving tour. It is possible to spend a half-day, however, exploring the two sites and relaxing along the banks of the James River. The first stop is Berkeley Plantation, the birthplace of President William Henry Harrison and ancestral home of President Benjamin Harrison but also a prominent feature of the Peninsula Campaign: the anticlimactic end of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign.

Abandoning Malvern Hill shortly after winning the final battle of the Seven Days on July 1, McClellan’s Army of the Potomac settled here, at Harrison’s Landing on the banks of the James, where the Northern soldiers were protected by Union gunboats. This was officially the culmination of McClellan’s “change of base”—but for all intents and purposes, it was the final resting place after a failed offensive, a campaign that lasted more than three months and cost more than 25,000 Federal casualties (including those wounded or captured).

The Union camp spanned more than four miles, including Berkeley Plantation here and Westover Plantation to the east. The Berkeley grounds are open daily from 9:30am to 4:30pm; adult admission of $12 includes the museum, film, and guided tour of the main residence. While much of the history here focuses on the Harrisons and the colonial period, there are a handful of Civil War relics, including a cannonball that remains wedged into one the outbuildings. This was lodged by J.E.B. Stuart’s men (who else?) as they conducted a brief reconnaissance mission on July 3, 1862. Lincoln himself arrived here on July 8 to consult McClellan—a month later, Lincoln recalled the Army of the Potomac back to Washington.[viii] McClellan’s vague notions of another offensive on Richmond never came to fruition, and Lee—despite his personal frustrations for failing to destroy the Union Army—became known throughout the Confederacy as the hero who saved Richmond.

Note: Allot 1 1/2-2 hours tour the house, museum, and grounds.


Berkeley Plantation

Stop 33: Westover Plantation (7000 Westover Rd., Charles City, VA)

A short drive from Berkeley, Westover Plantation is the second and final stop of the tour. This 18th century estate today boasts impressive gardens and a fine view of the James River, a nice place to stop for a picnic. Admission is $5 for adults. The plantation marked the far eastern stretches of McClellan’s camp at Harrison’s Landing.

Note: Allot 30 minutes-1 hour to tour the grounds. From Westover, it is a 45-minute drive back to Richmond, an hour drive to Newport News, or a 2 ½ hour journey to Washington, DC.


James River from Westover Plantation

[i] Michael Weeks, The Civil War Road Trip Volume I: A Guide to Northern Virginia, Maryland & Pennsylvania 1861-1863 (Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press, 2011), 154.

[ii] Weeks, Civil War Road Trip Volume I, 155-56.

[iii] Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992), 247.

[iv] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 251.

[v] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 167-68.

[vi] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 172.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Weeks, Civil War Road Trip Volume I, 186-87.

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Malvern Hill Trail (Richmond National Battlefield Park, VA)


Malvern Hill Trail, Richmond National Battlefield Park, March 2018

– Civil War Series –

Malvern Hill is one of the country’s best-preserved Civil War battlefields and marked the culmination of the Seven Days’ Battles, a series of engagements outside Richmond, Virginia in June-July 1862 that ended Union Gen. George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, in the midst of a retreat to the James River, nonetheless won an undisputed victory at Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862, fending off an ill-fated attack by Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces.

The terrain today at Malvern Hill is a mix of sunny fields and dense woods. The roughly 2-mile Malvern Hill Trail (a.k.a. White Trail) forms a circuit around the battlefield, while a 1.5-mile add-on loop—the Carter’s Farm Trail (a.k.a. Blue Trail)—explores the forested area that served as the Confederate staging area for the battle. The trail is maintained as part of Richmond National Battlefield Park.

Malvern Hill Trail hike information


Map of Malvern Hill Trail

The hike

Hikers can access the main loop at two different points along Willis Church Road, or Virginia Route 156. The first and most common is the Malvern Hill parking area, marked by a line of Union cannons to the west of Willis Church Road, about two miles south of Glendale National Cemetery and about a 25-30 minute drive from downtown Richmond. The second option, however—beginning up the road 4/10 mile at the Parsonage parking area—is preferable, as it allows hikers to follow the battle roughly chronologically in a counter-clockwise direction.

The small, graveled parking area at the Parsonage has only enough space for around five cars, but it is considerably less crowded than the main trailhead 4/10 mile to the south. The parking lot is situated across the street from the ruins of the Willis Creek Parsonage, a house that was a key landmark during the battle. Looking south, one can survey the modest slope of Malvern Hill, with the West House in the distance.

The Battle of Malvern Hill came amid the backdrop of Union retreat. After a long and cautious advance up the Virginia Peninsula beginning in March 1862, Gen. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac finally approached the doorstep of Richmond by May…and then, after a set of counterattacks by Gen. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, promptly called off the attack. Even after a Federal victory at Beaver Dam Creek on June 26, the ever-timid McClellan ordered a “change of base”—effectively a capitulation—moving his entire force south to the banks of the James River. Lee’s Army struck the retreating Federals several times—at Gaines’ Mill (June 27), Garnett’s and Golding’s Farms (June 28), Savage’s Station (June 29), White Oak Swamp (June 30), and Glendale (June 30)—before attempting a final blow on July 1 at Malvern Hill.

Only a few miles from the James, Federal forces at Malvern Hill enjoyed a significant advantage in their final battle of the campaign. The slight incline of the grassy hill, though minor, offered excellent fields of fire for Union artillery. Nonetheless, it was from here—at the Parsonage—that Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill’s division decided to go forward with charging the hill, despite the shower of shells and shot from the Federal batteries.

Heading counterclockwise around the loop, hikers will follow the path of the ill-fated Confederate charge. Begin by crossing the street and passing through a break in the fence, leading to the Parsonage ruins. (Note: All that remains of the Willis Creek Parsonage is a pair of chimneys.) It was here that Hill—under Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s command—set up his headquarters for the battle.


Ruins of the Parsonage

The trail stays well left of the Parsonage, briefly fading as it crosses a grassy patch. It is easy to pick up again, however, as the trail drops into the woods, descending a steady slope and crossing a bridge over a minor stream. From here the path climbs gently and bears west.

At 2/10 mile, the trail splits. Here you face a choice: stay left on the main track, or tack on 1.2 miles to your hike by continuing right on the Carter’s Farm Trail (or Blue Trail), which explores the woods to the north that served as the staging point for D.H. Hill’s forces. (Note: This description follows the main trail to the left, but I have included a brief description of the Carter’s Farm hike below under “Extra credit.”)

Staying on the main track, hikers will make good time across a steady flat, surrounded by tall oaks, poplars, and beech trees, as well as a shrub-sized holly. At about 1/3 mile, two depressions on the right mark the site of former graves of Confederate soldiers slain in the battle. Most fallen soldiers were disinterred after the war and reburied at nearby Glendale National Cemetery; these shallow graves, however, represent the hasty construction that was required to bury the dead on a transient and shifting battlefield.

After a short uphill, the woods abruptly end as the trail crosses Carter’s Mill Road, a now-paved track that traces the route of a former road present during the battle. Traverse the road and continue onto land once owned by Dr. Carter (first name unknown) during the war. These crop fields would serve as the primary funnel for the Confederate forces who staged their attack on Union positions in the late afternoon of July 1, 1862.

Just ahead, at the ½ mile mark, hikers will encounter three Civil War-era cannons, marking the spot where Gen. Lee made his first moves of the battle. The Confederate plan called for rolling out dozens of cannons—here and at nearby Poindexter Farm—to try to neutralize the superior Union artillery on Malvern Hill, paving the way for an infantry assault. While the cannons were in place by 1pm, they were outnumbered more than two-to-one by Union artillery, and their fire was largely ineffective in softening the Union defenses.[1]


Confederate artillery position

Confederate plans for the battle—an opening artillery barrage followed by an orderly infantry frontal charge—quickly disintegrated. Ambiguous instructions from Gen. Lee led the Confederate infantry to attack prematurely: at around 3 pm, Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead’s brigade advanced into a small ravine, baited by Union skirmishers; Maj. Gen. John Magruder, believing that Armistead’s movement signaled the start of the infantry attack, led 5,000 men in a charge against the Union line. D.H. Hill’s division followed, sending five brigades forward, even as Gen. Lee was considering calling off the entire attack.[2]

Looking south across Carter’s Farm, one can spot the West House and the site of the Union cannons on the horizon. Armistead’s brigade would have emerged out of the woods behind you, followed by Magruder’s forces. Here, at the cannons, the trail splits—the Carter’s Farm (Blue) Trail comes in from the right, while the main trail cuts left, following the path of the Confederate assault across the fields to the south.


Heading south toward the West House and Union positions

After around 1/3 mile in the exposed sun, the trail reaches the edge of the woods. Though not easily visible from this vantage point, this forest covers a steep drop-off in the terrain, a geographic barrier that forced the Confederates to stay left, conducting a frontal attack on Malvern Hill amid a barrage of artillery fire. Stacks of recently harvested wheat provided some cover; however, the advance halted at a point marked by a wayside at roughly 0.9 miles. (Note: It was here that Private Edwin F. Jemison, a 17-year old Georgian soldier, was killed; a photograph of young Jemison in uniform, taken before the battle, would go on to be one of the most iconic photos of the war.) By now the line of destructive Union cannons is in full view.


View of the West House and cannons from the trail

As the trail approaches the Union position, the path splits. Head right to hike a short 0.4-mile out-and-back spur, which leads to an obscured viewpoint of Malvern Cliffs. After skirting the property of privately-owned Crew House, the trail drops back into the woods and crosses a grassy patch to one of the Richmond area’s 61 “Freeman Markers,” a set of stone tablets that tells the story of the Civil War in the area (with a noticeable pro-South bias). Beyond, the trail dips left and narrows, ending at the edge of a steep slope with a wooden bench and wayside sign.


Malvern Cliffs

Now covered in woods, the area around Malvern Cliffs comprised largely treeless terrain at the time of the battle, and the sharp ridges and ravines proved difficult for the attacking Confederates to handle. Here forces under the direction of Gen. Magruder were repelled by the Yankees stationed at and around the Crew House, effectively putting an end to the ill-fated Confederate assault.

From the end of the spur, return the way you came, arriving back at the main trail at about 1.4 miles. From here, head straight, hugging the side of the road as it approaches the main parking area for Malvern Hill Battlefield. (Note: This is the alternative starting point for the loop hike.) Here a covered shelter offers a view north across the battlefield, where six Northern cannons are pointed at the Confederate artillery position encountered earlier at the ½ mile mark. (Note: You can also spot the chimneys of the Parsonage in the distance to the northeast.) During the battle, this battery unleashed more than 1,300 rounds of shell and canister, stopping the Southern charge in its tracks.


Malvern Hill Battlefield from the Union line


Federal cannons

Continuing east from the Malvern Hill parking area, the trail reaches an intersection near the West House. Bear north at Willis Church Road, paralleling the street on the left for less than 1/10 mile. Use the crosswalk to get to the other side of the road, then follow the eastward path through the fields to another set of artillery.


Union artillery east of the road

This section of the battlefield saw slightly less action but was also the site of a Confederate push by D.H. Hill’s forces. Facing weaker fields of fire than the forces to the west, Union soldiers east of the road were forced to deploy infantry ahead of the cannons, but the Federals once again enjoyed superior position and turned back the charge.


Trail returning to the Parsonage

At 1.75 miles, the trail abruptly turns left and hugs the edge of the woods. Aiming for the Parsonage, the path continues north for ¼ mile before leaving the forest behind and cutting across open fields back to the Parsonage parking area. Brig. Gen. Darius Couch’s three brigades took on the brunt of the fighting in this area, holding off the Southern attackers until darkness fell on Malvern Hill, ending the day’s fighting. In the end, the Confederates never breached the Union defenses, providing the Federals a rare victory in an otherwise disappointing campaign in which McClellan failed to seize Richmond.

The entire circuit, including the 4/10-mile detour to Malvern Cliffs, covers roughly 2.1 miles, or about 1-1.5 hours of mild hiking. In an area where many battlefield sites have been lost to development, Malvern Hill stands out for its near-complete preservation, an excellent capstone to a multi-day driving tour of the Peninsula Campaign.

Extra Credit: Carter’s Farm Trail

As mentioned earlier, the blue-blazed Carter’s Farm Trail offers an extended option that adds 1.2 miles to the loop hike; it was just constructed in 2015. The extension begins at a right turn about 2/10 mile down the Malvern Hill (White) Trail from the Parsonage. Spending most of the time in the woods, the Carter’s Farm Trail goes behind the Confederate lines, crisscrossing the area where D.H. Hill positioned his division as he awaited orders to advance. (Note: Along the way, eight marked posts correspond with descriptions on the “Malvern Hill Trail System” brochure, found here.)

The Carter’s Farm Trail offers a more natural experience than the Malvern Hill Trail, remaining within earshot of the flowing stream of Western Run through much of the first mile. Around 2/10 mile past the start, the trail crosses a tributary of the main creek, followed by a sharp climb to an obscured view of Western Run.


Viewpoint of Western Run on the Carter’s Farm Trail

One of the most interesting stories of the battle comes at post #3, which explains how Gen. Hill and fellow Confederate Brig. Gen. Robert Toombs nearly fought each other in a duel after Hill and Toombs accused one another of poor performance during the failed attack. The defeated Confederates fled back through this area as twilight approached on the night of July 1, with confusion ensuing. After hikers cut through swampy terrain (where the blue-blazed trail is somewhat hard to follow), they will approach an escape route used by the Confederates at 6/10 mile: the remnants of an old dam, which Brig. Gen. Jubal Early’s brigade used to transport horses across Western Run.


Western Run

Beyond this point, the trail cuts left, leaving the stream valley behind and climbing to cross Carter’s Mill Road at 0.9 miles. Follow the road south for ¼ mile, keeping the corn fields—formerly belonging to Dr. Carter—on your right. Just before the road reenters the woods, the blue-blazed path cuts right, and then bears south through a pine forest. This was the last solace of cover for attacking Confederates before they were exposed to intense Union artillery fire.


Out of the woods and onto the battlefield

Hikers reach this breakthrough point at around 1.3 miles, crossing the sun-soaked field to the Confederate cannon position, where the Carter’s Farm Trail merges with the white-blazed Malvern Hill route. From here, continue right on the main loop, or bear left to head back to the Parsonage parking area. The Carter’s Farm Trail is roughly 1.5 miles long and adds about 1.2 mile to a loop hike around the battlefield; allot around 2-2.5 hours for the entire loop if you opt to include the Carter’s Farm extension.

[1] Michael Weeks, The Civil War Road Trip Volume I: A Guide to Northern Virginia, Maryland & Pennsylvania 1861-1863 (Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press), 183.

[2] Weeks, The Civil War Road Trip Volume I, 184-85.

Posted in Civil War, Easy Hikes, Richmond National Battlefield Park, Uncategorized, Virginia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Gaines’ Mill Trail (Richmond National Battlefield Park, VA)


Gaines’ Mill Trail, Richmond National Battlefield Park, March 2018

– Civil War Series –

Following General Robert E. Lee’s defeat the day prior at Beaver Dam Creek, the Confederate Army won a decisive but costly victory on June 27, 1862 in the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. Attempting to catch the Federal Army as it was retreating south to the James River, Lee sent the brunt of his force against Union General John Fitz Porter’s 5th Corps at a point outside Cold Harbor, Virginia. Although eventually succeeding in dislodging Porter’s troops, the Union’s strong position along the banks of Boatswain’s Creek produced scores of Confederate casualties, making the battle the Civil War’s second-bloodiest engagement to that point (behind only the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862). The battle was the third of the Seven Days’ Battles, which resulted in Lee’s successful defense of Richmond from General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.

A section of the battlefield today is protected as part of Richmond National Battlefield Park, situated in the Cold Harbor area northeast of Virginia’s capital city. An excellent 1-mile loop hike provides a tour of the grounds, now mostly covered in dense woods. Spur trails offer access to a monument for fallen soldiers, as well as an overlook of the area where Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s division delivered the decisive blow that won the day for the Confederacy.

Gaines Mill Trail hike information Richmond Battlefield

The hike

The Gaines’ Mill Trail is located a short drive southwest of the Cold Harbor Visitor Center in Richmond National Battlefield Park. Follow Watt House Road south as it crosses wood-laced Boatswain’s Creek and then climbs up Turkey Hill to an open field where the road ends. Next to the parking area and trailhead is the Watt House, once the centerpiece of a small plantation and a makeshift field hospital during the battle.


Watt House

It was here at Turkey Hill that Porter positioned his forces to protect against a potential attack on the rear of McClellan’s army. In the early morning hours of June 27, McClellan decided to begin withdrawing the entire Army of the Potomac southward to the James River. To his commanders, this was billed as a “change of base”—but in reality, this was simply cover for what amounted to a retreat. According to historian Stephen Sears, McClellan decided that day that he was “quitting his grand campaign, surrendering the initiative, and giving up all hope of laying siege of Richmond from the line of the Chickahominy.”[1]


Near the parking area

As day broke on June 27, however, Porter believed that his orders were to hold off a Confederate assault at any cost. Retreating east a few miles from Beaver Dam Creek, Porter’s 5th Corps set up a strong defensive position along Boatswain’s Creek. At the Watt House, Capt. William Weeden set up two guns aimed northwest across the woody ravine. (Note: This position is marked by two cannons today, within sight of the parking area.)


Trail map

From the parking area, a dirt trail heads downhill off to the right, while a gravel road continues west across the grassy pasture. Bear right on the trail, beginning a counterclockwise loop around the Gaines’ Mill Trail (or Gaines’ Mill Breakthrough Trail, as it is officially called). The path makes haste for the edge of the woods, where an interpretive sign offers an overview of the battle. Beyond, the trail drops into the woody ravine, snaking down the north-facing slope at the heart of the action during the battle.

After a second sign, hikers will get their first views of Boatswain’s Creek, the boggy obstacle that separated the Union and Confederate forces for much of the day. At about 2/10 mile, the path flattens out and approaches the edge of the stream.


Following a minor skirmish at around noon, major fighting did not occur until around 2:30 pm, when Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg’s Confederate brigade attacked Union forces at a point roughly ½ mile east of your present location. Despite assaults all along the Federal line, Confederates largely failed to gain a foothold across the creek until very late in the day—when at last, at around 7pm, when Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood’s brigade pierced the Union defenses. (Note: Like at Beaver Dam Creek the day prior, famed General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was late to the fight at Gaines’ Mill.)


Boatswain’s Creek, where John Bell Hood’s brigade pierced the Union line

After following the gentle stream for around 150 yards, the Gaines’ Mill Trail reaches the decisive point where Hood’s brigade charged across Boatswain’s Creek. With the sun setting on the battlefield, Lee reportedly asked Hood: “This must be done. Can you break the line?” Hood’s response: “I will try.”[2] Try he did, eventually succeeding where dozens of other units had failed during the day.

From here the path leaves the creek and winds left up through a minor gap in the wooded hills. At about 0.3 miles, stay right at the trail fork. (Note: Heading left offers a shortcut back to the trailhead and passes a marker dedicated to Hood’s breakthrough in the Federal line.) The narrowing trail beyond ascends a minor slope amid a sea of beech trees.

At 0.35 miles, a spur trail to the right offers a short detour for curious hikers. After crossing Boatswain’s Creek, the path climbs sharply uphill—effectively going behind the Confederate lines—and ends at a grassy patch with a granite monument to Hood’s “Texas Brigade.”


Texas Monument at Gaines’ Mill

Beyond lies the gravel Watt House Road; while private property lies to the right, continue left to enter the vast, largely tree-less tract of land that was acquired and transferred to the National Park Service in 2014. The tract has no official trails, but it is possible to follow a faded gravel road across the fields, which were effectively a staging area for Confederate forces during the latter hours of the battle.


New tract at Gaines’ Mill

Returning back to the main trail, bear right as the path enters an area flooded by Longstreet’s division around dusk on June 27, 1862. While Hood’s brigade (part of Brig. Gen. W. H. C. Whiting) first breached the Union lines, it was Longstreet’s division—which trudged through thick swamp from the west—that delivered the final blow to Porter’s forces, forcing a Federal retreat.


Gaines’ Mill Trail

At 0.75 miles, the trail approaches a monument dedicated to Brig. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox’s Alabama Brigade, which led Longstreet’s charge and seized this hill—but at great cost: Wilcox’s four regiments lost nearly a third of all their men in the battle.


Wilcox monument

From the Wilcox monument, the Gaines’ Mill Trail bears southeast, leaving views of the creek behind and heading back toward the trailhead. At about 0.9 miles, the path abruptly reemerges from the woods, returning to the open fields of Turkey Hill. The hike is not over, however: at the next fork, bear right and follow the grassy path—between two sets of snake rail fence—to the Battlefield Overlook.


Gaines’ Mill Trail spur to the Battlefield Overlook

The overlook is somewhat underwhelming, with scattered foliage partly obscuring views across the fields to the west. (Note: The extreme right of Longstreet’s division barreled up this hillside during the evening assault.) There is an interesting panel, however, on the use of survey balloons during the battle, the only time during the Civil War that the two sides used aerial reconnaissance at the same time.


Battlefield Overlook

Heading back east on the trail, follow the grassy tread back toward the Watt House, staying straight at both trail forks. At the second junction, two artillery pieces mark the location of two guns operated by Union Capt. Stephen H. Weed’s artillery batteries during the battle.

Weed’s men would be forced to abandon the artillery as they—and the rest of Porter’s forces—retreated during the evening of June 27. Even in defeat, however, Porter’s 5th Corps achieved its purpose: covering the retreat of the Union Army as it moved south toward the James River. The Battle of Gaines’ Mill was celebrated as a Confederate victory in the South, but it came at a steep price of around 9,000 men killed and wounded.

The trail ends shortly after merging with a gravel road that cuts across Turkey Hill. The loop clocks in at about 1.3 miles (including the two spurs), roughly a 1-1 ½ hour hike across one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battlefields.


[1] Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992), 211.

[2] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 240.

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Beaver Dam Creek Trail (Richmond National Battlefield Park, VA)


Beaver Dam Creek Trail, Richmond National Battlefield Park, March 2018

– Civil War Series –

The Battle of Beaver Dam Creek—also known as the Battle of Mechanicsville or Ellerson’s Mill—is widely remembered today for being General Robert E. Lee’s debut as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. With the Union Army on the doorstep of Richmond in June 1862, Lee embarked on a series of offensive maneuvers to fend off the numerically superior Federal forces. The first of these attacks, at Beaver Dam Creek, was a tactical defeat for the Southerners but a strategic victory; the engagement on June 26, 1862 was enough to persuade Union General George McClellan to withdraw his forces to the east, taking up a new position near Cold Harbor. The battle was second in a series of bloody engagements known as the Seven Days’ Battles and an important point in McClellan’s broader Peninsula Campaign (March-July 1862).

The battlefield today has been mostly overtaken by modern development. There is a narrow sliver, however, that is protected as part of Richmond National Battlefield Park: it is a boggy lowland surrounded by dense woods, appearing much like it did during the battle. Here visitors can walk a 2/10-mile out-and-back trail that crosses Beaver Dam Creek at a spot that saw intense action during the battle.

Beaver Dam Creek Trail hike information Richmond National Battlefield Park

The hike

Driving on Cold Harbor Road in Mechanicsville, Virginia, turn onto the signed road that heads south for 2/10 mile to the Beaver Dam Creek Battlefield parking area. The parking lot lies just to the east of Beaver Dam Creek, today a calm but swampy waterway flowing north to south into the Chickahominy River.

As soon as the Federals took this position in June 1862, the Confederates knew their assault would be challenging. One Southern military engineer would later remark that “the enemy took the beautiful Beaver Dam position for his own right.”[1] Moreover, the attack was a risky endeavor: massing the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia north of the Chickahominy River,  Lee risked leaving Richmond exposed to attack by Union forces south of the river.

Nonetheless, Lee intended to move forward with the attack on the Federal right on the morning of June 26. The plan called for sending three Confederate divisions—those of D.H. Hill, A.P. Hill, and James Longstreet—east across the Chickahominy to meet the Federals, followed quickly by the approach of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s men from the north. The success of the assault would depend on the timely arrival of Jackson’s men, who were fresh off a lengthy campaign in the Shenandoah Valley.

Belying his reputation as an invincible commander, however, Jackson was delayed by lethargy, indecision, and poor navigation. It was not until late in the day on the 26th that his forces arrived at their necessary position on the Union right; they would effectively miss the battle entirely.

Meanwhile, impatiently awaiting the start of battle, Confederate division commander A.P. Hill ordered his forces to cross the Chickahominy at around 3 pm, without the go-ahead from Lee. Thus Hill’s division kicked off the day’s battle before the Confederates were ready and met resistance north of the river from Union General John Fitz Porter’s 5th Corps.[2] Yankee pickets fell back to their strong defensive position behind Beaver Dam Creek, and Porter’s corps prepared to confront the approaching Confederates.

As Hill’s division ran into intense artillery fire, Lee decided that he “was obliged to do something” now that the battle was underway.[3] He ordered the three Confederate divisions to press ahead with a frontal attack, spreading out across the small town of Mechanicsville. At least four brigades ran right up against Union positions along the creek, failing to puncture the Federal line.

One such position was here, at the former site of Ellerson’s Mill, now within the boundary of Richmond National Battlefield Park. Facing the creek, A.P. Hill’s fourth brigade, commanded by Dorsey Pender, streamed down the hillside behind you, running straight into the fire of Truman Seymour’s third brigade of Pennsylvania reserves.[4] Pender’s brigade suffered heavy casualties, as did the Confederate forces of Roswell Ripley that followed them.


Beaver Dam Creek Trailhead

Much of the Confederate losses stemmed from the strength of the Union forces amid the eastern bluffs overlooking the boggy floodplain surrounding Beaver Dam Creek. Visitors can view the difficulty of the terrain from the parking area: a muddy stream followed to the east by tall grasses and thick brush.

From the parking area, the trail begins by crossing a quaint footbridge, where you can straddle the front lines of the battle. The bridge replaces an old crossing that was destroyed by Union forces ahead of the engagement.


View of the battle grounds from the bridge (Union positions were on the right; Confederates on the left)

Beyond the bridge, follow the wide, partly-graveled path as it follows the remnants of the Old Cold Harbor Road to the old site of Ellerson’s Mill. Although the millhouse is long gone, one can still see the old millrace as it runs through the woods. The trail ends abruptly thereafter, connecting with a paved drive that enters a residential neighborhood.


Historic Old Harbor Road

The battle came to end on the evening of June 26 as darkness fell over Mechanicsville. Lee’s Army was firmly repulsed, owing in large part of Jackson’s tardiness, and the Union suffered less than a quarter of the casualties of the attacking Confederates.[5] However, even as Lee’s debut resulted in failure, he succeeded in persuading McClellan to pull back Porter’s 5th Corps to a defensive position three miles to the east at Boatswain’s Swamp. Here a bigger and deadlier battle would occur the next day.

Return the way you came, completing the 2/10-mile hike, a short and easy jaunt that should take no more than 15-20 minutes.

[1] Edward Porter Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, ed. Gary Gallagher (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 77.

[2] Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992), 200-201.

[3] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 203.

[4] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 206-207.

[5] Michael Weeks, Civil War Road Trip Volume I: A Guide to Northern Virginia, Maryland & Pennsylvania 1861-1863 (Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press, 2011), 162-163.

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