One of the most spectacular views of the Richmond skyline is best accessed by bicycle.
About 2 miles from Great Shiplock Park, a winding portion of the Virginia Capital Trail turns a bend. There, among a stretch of rolling hills, the cityscape suddenly appears in the distance. It's a scenic, poignant reminder that city and nature co-exist in synchronicity. And if you're wrapping up an hours-long bike ride, it's a welcome indication that you're almost home.
The Capital Trail marks its fourth birthday in October, when it officially opened to walkers, runners, cyclists, skaters and anyone else using nonmotorized transportation.
Athletes, families and tourists alike have flocked to the 52-mile, paved trail from the beginning, bringing to life a years-long vision of connecting Richmond and Williamsburg with a smooth-surface, paved pathway.
To make it happen, the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation collaborated with the Virginia Department of Transportation and the four jurisdictions along the route — Richmond and the counties of Henrico, Charles City and James City. Great Shiplock Park is home to the western terminus trailhead, with the eastern counterpart at the Jamestown Settlement.
- Scott Elmquist
- Cyclists ride bicycles with baskets rented from Upper Shirley Vineyards along a scenic stretch of the Virginia Capital Trail. The winery offers 14-mile bike excursions that include lunch and a wine tasting.
The trail is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On a recent Sunday, more than 2,000 people used it, according to a user-counting feature on the trail foundation's website.
We spend several sunny afternoons exploring different segments, posing questions to cyclists while they guzzle water at the end of lengthy workouts, chatting with business owners who call the trail a "godsend" and hanging out a car widow to snap the perfect shot of a breathtaking view.
Along the way we meet marathon runners and world-class cyclists, count dozens of bird species, watch racks of ribs be pulled from a smoker and eat what might be one of the best fried catfish sandwiches in the area.
The Capital Trail is one of Richmond's newest but already most-beloved gems. Here are a few of its stories.
- Scott Elmquist
- Longtime cyclists and retired couple Clark Walter and Connie Friend wrap up a 70-mile ride at Four Mile Creek Park.
Clark Walter and Connie Friend
For Clark Walter and Connie Friend, cycling isn't a hobby — it's a lifestyle. On Walter's birthday, which falls on a Saturday in May, the dedicated athletes celebrate by hopping on their bikes and riding the distance that matches his age: 70 miles.
This retired couple have been together 16 years, since meeting at, where else, an annual cycling event called Bike Florida. The weeklong festival involved pedaling more than 400 miles across the state. Six months later, Walter packed up and moved to Virginia to be with Friend.
Now residents of Charlottesville, they're empty nesters and part-time snowbirds who spend winters in Florida, plant enthusiasts and passionate long-distance athletes who run half-marathons and spend hours in their saddles.
"We're willing to bet that we're some of the oldest people out here," says Friend, 73, who rides with a toy alligator strapped to the top of her helmet. "It's kind of an escape from reality, and yet at the same time you see the reality of the world and its beauty."
They've traveled all over the globe on their bikes, and Friend fondly recalls cycling solo through Europe in her 20s and 30s. The Capital Trail is one of their favorite nearby destinations, they say, in equal parts because of its beauty and safety. They occasionally take to the country roads around Charlottesville, but not having to battle traffic and stay on constant alert for distracted drivers makes them more comfortable.
"We tend to ride faster than most, so you want a good road surface and something that's wide," Walter says. "And also there's a real high awareness level of other people on the trail."
Among the runners, skaters, cyclists and walkers, "there seems to be a culture of understanding," he says. "For the most part it's a safe, good trail to bike on."
But cycling had its dark side for Walter and Friend. In 2016, during the event where they met years prior, Walter approached a wooden bridge at 20 mph. His front tire lodged itself between two slats, sending him flying over his handlebars, and he doesn't recall the accident or the ensuing helicopter ride to the hospital. He suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him with temporary short-term memory loss, the inability to read a book and a profound fear of riding with other people or anywhere near traffic.
All three symptoms have subsided, and Friend pushed him to get back on his bike when he was still afraid.
"I made him go," she says, adding that they've always motivated each other. "We went out to the West Coast, and the whole time he's like, 'I can't do this.' And he could."
- Scott Elmquist
- Now that Raediance Ragland, front right, can ride a bike without training wheels, she and her family prepare for their first group outing on the Capital Trail.
The Ragland Family
Raediance Ragland has little interest in bike maintenance. She learned to ride a bike without training wheels only a few weeks ago.
The 7-year-old bounces up and down while her dad checks the tires, gears and brakes on her bike in the parking lot at Four Mile Creek Park. She tugs at the strap of her hot pink helmet and eyes the trailhead.
This is their first family bike trip, says her mother, Nicole Ragland. "So now that she's able to keep up, we're just trying to get out of the house and do family things, get out and enjoy Richmond."
Their son, Trevor Ragland II, cruises comfortably around the parking lot. The fourth-grader has been riding his bike for a couple of years, and much like the retired couple ending their day while his family begins theirs, he says he loves to "go really fast."
Betty Ann Swanson, the children's grandmother, parks herself in a camping chair near the trailhead and cracks open a can of coconut juice.
The Bermuda native will hold down the fort in the parking lot and greet the crew with a cooler full of drinks and snacks upon their return. They're not entirely sure how far they'll go, but they've chosen a good stretch of the trail for their first family ride — in both directions from the park, much of the trail is flat, shaded and set far from the road.
"We'll just go until our legs tell us to come back," says the kids' dad, Trevor Ragland, as he slings a Camelbak backpack over his shoulder, nodding toward the eastern trailhead.
- Scott Elmquist
- Kevin Melton, who’s been pedaling around the area for years, says the Capital Trail has been a game changer for the cycling community.
A typical weekday ride for Kevin Melton is somewhere around 25 miles, now that it's warm and the sunlight stretches later into the evening. A former triathlete who raced in half-Ironman competitions years ago, Melton recently returned to his bike to try to keep some of the ailments of aging at bay.
"I've lost about six pounds since I started a month ago, but I've got a lot of work to do," he says. "I can't fit back into my wetsuit yet, so that's a goal."
The lifelong Richmond resident has been involved with the local cycling community for years. He says the trail has been vital in the advancement and growth of the sport in Richmond.
"It took them a long time to complete it, and there were a lot of people who thought they weren't going to because they did have some obstacles along the way," he says of the trail. "But it has just made the cycling culture that much better than it would have otherwise been."
Melton lives near West Creek Parkway in Goochland County, where he'll occasionally ride, but says the increased traffic since the opening of breweries there has made him less comfortable on the road.
"I'm not a traffic cyclist. I don't ride in the city," he says, adding that there will always be drivers who "simply don't like cyclists." Sometimes he rides in the West End, which still requires vigilance. "Out here, my head's down most of the time," he says. "I'll look up every 100 feet or so as necessary and it's a lot easier riding that way."
The trail's popularity continues to grow, and on the stretches near parks and other stopping points, families with children often are out in droves. Riders must maintain single file when others are within 100 feet, according to posted rules, and stopping on the trail is prohibited. But not everyone follows the guidelines.
"A lot of people don't go to the website and read the trail guide," Melton says. "There's good and bad in all of it, but I'd rather see the people out here than not out here."
- Scott Elmquist
- Cul’s Courthouse Grille
When discussions began about the construction of a paved bike and pedestrian trail connecting Richmond and Williamsburg, some business owners along Route 5 were apprehensive. The trail cuts through small, quiet communities, some of which are considered averse to change.
How would an increase in traffic affect safety in the neighborhood? What kind of economic impact would an influx of athletes and tourists have? Would those using the trail pop into restaurants, scratch up the floors with their clip-in shoes and help themselves to water and restrooms without making a purchase?
There were some growing pains. But overall, restaurateurs along the trail have come to not only tolerate or appreciate the trail, but also capitalize on it.
Leslie Yates of Cul's Courthouse Grille, a charming mom and pop shop about 30 miles from Great Shiplock Park, says the little restaurant has seen a 300-percent increase in sales since the trail opened in 2015. The bar used to pour a small list of domestic draft beers, but the boost in the last few years has allowed the team to add eight taps with a rotating selection of local brews. The menu has stayed mostly the same, Yates says, but serves more hefty, hearty meals.
- Scott Elmquist
- The fried catfish sandwich is one of the most popular items on the menu at Cul’s Courthouse Grille, especially among hungry cyclists.
"Cyclists love craft beer," Yates says. "They don't want a salad and a Michelob Ultra, they want a peanut butter porter and a burger."
Yates, who's worked at Cul's for years, says she feels grateful to be part of something that's growing. Because of the restaurant's proximity to Yorktown, she notes, people either beginning or finishing up cross-country trips often make their way into Cul's.
The owners recently closed on the six-bedroom house next door, which functions as a bed and breakfast and is often full of tourists, including cyclists from all over the world.
"I see people with either the heaviest load in the world on their bike because it's their first day, or the 'Castaway' look with the beard at the end of their trip," she says. "Just to be a point on their trip, whether it's the beginning or the end, is really cool."
An open storage structure and old barn also are on the property, which Yates says eventually may be converted into a live music venue and a coffee and bike shop. Bicycles are available for rent, lined up side-by-side on the front porch, and renters are welcome to leave their cars in the gravel lot next to the restaurant.
- Scott Elmquist
- Employee and resident beer expert Leslie Yates says the increase in sales since the opening of the trail has allowed the owners to add eight taps of local brews to the bar.
Cul's opens at 11 a.m., but Yates says an employee will happily show up earlier to get customers set up with their wheels, and to refill the orange water cooler, which is available to trail users. Public restrooms are available across the street.
On any given weekend, if the weather's nice and the dining room is full, Yates says, about 70 percent of guests are sporting spandex and helmet hair. It's been a boon for the business as well as morale.
"Cyclers are so great because they have their serotonin flowing, they're all in good moods," she says. "It's just been really nice."
- Scott Elmquist
- The owners of Upper Shirley Vineyards encourage customers to park at the winery, hit the trail and then return to enjoy all the winery has to offer.
A few miles back toward Richmond, the team at Upper Shirley Vineyards also has figured out a symbiotic relationship with the trail. Tayloe Dameron, who owns the property with his wife, Suzy, and executive chef and partner, Carlisle Bannister, encourage cyclists to use Upper Shirley as the first and last stop of their day.
"We didn't know when we first opened exactly what that would look like, and how well our venue would work for people off the trail," Bannister says. "But if you start here, go ride, and then finish here, you're going to come back here and enjoy more food and wine because you don't have to get back on your bike."
The restaurant serves lunch and dinner both in the formal dining room and on the giant back porch. But what the Lycra-clad tend to go for are the picnic lunches on the lawn, where the view of the James River is framed by the pristine Presquile National Wildlife Refuge.
Available at the Babe, a camper parked on the lawn that serves as an outdoor bar on the weekends, picnic lunches feature such options as chicken salad, pimento cheese, fresh fruit and a baguette.
Another popular item is executive chef Carlisle Bannister's famous grilled cheese: homemade pimento cheese and Edwards Virginia Smokehouse ham on sourdough, with, Dameron jokes, "an entire stick of butter." Served alongside house-made San Marzano tomato soup, the sandwich is available year-round, with most of the menu rotating seasonally.
Dameron says he wasn't convinced that the trail would benefit his business in the beginning. "We don't sell Gatorade and Powerbars," he says, noting that athletes typically aren't looking for booze before a workout.
But now it's another story, he says: "A lot of people will find us on the trail and then come back at a later date and really enjoy the experience we're trying to give them."
Closer to the city, 6 miles from Great Shiplock Park, Ronnie's BBQ has become another trail staple. With a fresh coat of white exterior paint and a rebranded menu, the family-owned barbecue joint reopened in April after a yearlong hiatus.
It's not on the trail side of Route 5, but its proximity to the road makes it difficult to miss. And if Darrell Logan, son of owner Ronnie Logan, is out there working the smoker in the parking lot, the smell of ribs and whole chickens is a powerful lure.
- Scott Elmquist
- Darrell Logan, who calls the trail a “blessing” for his family’s restaurant, Ronnie’s BBQ, pulls a rack of ribs out of the smoker on a sunny afternoon.
"The bike trail has been a blessing," says Logan, who grew up in eastern Henrico County. "I didn't know what it was going to be, but I wanted my area to be a little bit more fun and have some things to do here."
The menu at Ronnie's is exactly what you want from a down-home, family-run barbecue joint: ribs, pulled pork, hand-breaded fried fish and such sides as mac and cheese, baked beans and potato salad. And if you need an hour or so to digest before hopping back on your bike, it's not hard to kill time. On weekends, one of the cousins sets up a tent next to the smoker and DJs, and lawn games soon will be available.
Inside, the kitchen is open to the tiny dining area — no accident, Logan says. He loves talking with customers, whether they're longtime regulars or first-time cyclists wrapping up a day on the trail.
"I see so many people here that I wouldn't have the chance to see anywhere else," Logan says. Sometimes the staff's constant engagement with guests "slows down productivity," he says, laughing, but it's worth it. "People like to support and be a part of something that's good."