Ephraim Seidman, a cyclist from Richmond, can be found on the Virginia Capital Trail several times a week. He’s not there just for fun and exercise. Seidman is one of more than 80 “trail ambassadors” coordinated by the Capital Trail Foundation.
The team of bicycle enthusiasts frequents the trail wearing bright orange vests, ready to answer questions, help cyclists with minor mechanical problems or report safety issues to the foundation.
Seidman is ready with tools for a quick fix or words of encouragement for those — on bicycle or foot — who aren’t sure how far it is to the next public bathroom.
“We can also offer points of interest to folks,” said Seidman, who often meets people heading out on the trail from Richmond’s Great Shiplock Park but aren’t sure what’s up ahead.
No matter where one enters the trail, there is plenty up ahead. Following what some historians call America’s “oldest road,” the trail drips with history.
The Capital Trail parallels most of Virginia Route 5, a two-lane scenic byway that traverses the Coastal Plain from Jamestown to Richmond. The trail is named for the first (Jamestown) and current (Richmond) capitals of Virginia. Though the Capital Trail does not extend to Williamsburg, it, too, was once a Virginia capital.
Native Americans used this route along the north side of the James River before English colonists arrived, and settlers continued to use it as an alternative to travel and transport on the river. In the decades after the 1607 settlement of Jamestown, this “Great Road to the West” became a path of colonial expansion connecting large tobacco — and then cotton — plantations along the river.
Eventually, railroads supplanted the river as the most economical means of transport. Today, the first mile from the Richmond trailhead follows an old rail line, which qualifies the trail as a “rail-to-trail” route. All 51.7 miles of the multi-use trail are asphalt, and 10–12 feet wide, with plenty of two-way room for cyclists, parents with strollers, in-line skaters and runners.
On a bright fall morning, I pedaled one section on an electric-assisted bike. I was nursing an injured knee that was probably not up to the day’s plan — about 14 miles east to Upper Shirley Plantation and back. Almost immediately, the mechanics of riding the bike took a backseat to the trail and scenery I was rolling through.
The trail is separated from the roadway by a healthy buffer of grass or trees its entire length, giving cyclists freedom from the vigilance required when sharing the road with cars and trucks. While commuters, trucks and tourists whizzed by on one side, I was free to gaze across acres of soybeans and corn passing by at a pedaling-assisted speed averaging 10–12 mph.
It’s this sense of safety — and the scenery — that has made the Capital Trail popular. Cat Anthony, executive director of the Capital Trail Foundation, said it appeals to everyone, from children just learning how to ride a bicycle to adults who are trying to log 100 miles or more in a day.
“This past year we had over 900,000 riders,” she said, “and that includes many who might be curious about riding on a bike trail, but may feel intimidated by the prospect.”
Along the trail there are at least 43 historic markers, with more in the making. And coasting to a stop on the trail is a whole lot easier than trying to read these signs from behind the wheel of a car moving 55 mph.
One Henrico County sign describes the 1799 “Pleasants vs. Pleasants” lawsuit that affirmed the manumission of more than 100 enslaved people once owned by the Quaker, John Pleasants. Many settled together to form the nearby Gravely Hill community.
Another sign tells of early settler John Rolfe, who cultivated tobacco from seeds bred in Varina, Spain, now the name of a nearby town. Rolfe’s crop gave the Virginia Company of London confidence in the “New World” venture and ultimately gave rise to a U.S. economy dependent on the slave trade.
I also passed a sign marking the nearby site of the Malvern Hill manor house, built in the 1600s and replete with historic happenings. The Marquis de Lafayette camped there in 1871, as did the Virginia militia during the War of 1812. It was also where Lee’s Confederate Army forced McClelland’s Union troops into retreat in 1862. It later became a federal headquarters.
Though the remains of the Malvern homestead are not open to the public, more than a dozen plantation homes located within a mile or two of the trail open their gates for house tours, strolling the grounds or overnight visitors.
It was a perfect fit for Cindy Westley of Afton, VA, who was looking for a ride she could do with her brother who was visiting from out of state. “I have a cousin in Williamsburg, and a brother who likes to cycle,” she said, so they spent two nights at the North Bend Plantation — one after the first day’s ride from Richmond, and a second night after returning from cycling on to Williamsburg.
Built in 1801 for Sarah Harrison, wife of the ninth president William Henry Harrison, the house — now a bed and breakfast — has been in the family ever since.
“It’s very possible to do the trail in sections like this,” said Westley, who didn’t have much long-distance cycling experience and was pleased to discover her ability to ride 30 miles a day on the mostly flat Capital Trail.
And the sense of history was a surprise. “I’ve lived in Virginia for 35 years, but I wasn’t really familiar with these James River plantations,” she said. They enjoyed the signage and could go online in the evening to learn more about their day’s ride through Virginia history.
The endpoints of the trail are of course notable attractions, too. The site of historic Jamestown, which the English established as the colony’s first seat of government in 1607, was planted in the middle of a landscape occupied by the Powhatan people and neighboring native communities. In 1699, the Virginia capital moved to Williamsburg.
For almost 100 years, factions of Virginians argued for a different seat of government. But it wasn’t until 1780 — when the colonists were in the middle of their revolutionary separation from England — that the capital was moved to Richmond, in part to be less vulnerable to British troops.
While the signs and attractions along the trail illuminate layers of Virginia history, the special black-and-white Route 76 sign at trail’s mile marker 36 highlights another more modern route, well-known to cyclists. Here, the Transatlantic Bike Route 76, created to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial, meets the Capital Trail.
Every year since the first “bike centennial” in 1976, thousands of riders depart from Astoria, OR, and ride more than 4,000 miles to finally arrive — weeks and sometimes even months later — at the Capital Trail heading toward their destination in Williamsburg.
Trail ambassador Seidman, who has ridden these last miles with some of these racers, said that by the time the riders reach the Capitol Trail, its safety and ease are a huge relief.
The trail’s proximity to the river in the Coastal Plain assures a relatively flat ride. There’s only a 160-foot elevation change over the 52 miles between Richmond and Jamestown, according to a handy tool on the foundation’s website that shows where the “major” hills are located.
But there are really only two: one at mile marker 48 a couple of miles south of Richmond and the other at mile marker 7 on the bridge that rises 52 feet over the Chickahominy River at its confluence with the James. Most cyclists stop here to catch their breath and take in a view of both rivers. It’s worth planning at least one trip that includes a climb to the top of this bridge.
For my e-bike experiment on the Capital Trail, I pedaled nonstop to the Upper Shirley Plantation and Vineyard, which was a mile and half off the trail itself, like many of the historic plantations and sites along the trail. The hard-packed sandy road led toward the James River between broad fields dotted white with the remnants of this year’s cotton crop. At Shirley, I stretched my legs above the river at the oldest working plantation in the country.
On the way back, I was grateful for the e-bike’s electric assist mode, yet watched the battery gauge with some nervousness on the last few miles. I rolled into the parking lot just as the battery went dead, handed over my rental bike, and grinned.
I’d spent four wonderful hours on “the Cap.” My knee was doing just fine. It had been a really fun way to be outside, rolling through Virginia history.