Just over two years ago, I wrote a short piece about the High Bridge Trail State Park, located in Southside Virginia. At that time, the trail was only partially completed, and the High Bridge, the trail’s signature feature, was in its raw, railroad-relic state, full of exciting potential—like a Tom Sawyer caper waiting to happen. The High Bridge is now officially open! One can ride bikes or horses or hike all the way from Burkeville to Pamplin, 31 miles along the route of the former South Side Railroad. But the high point, pun intended, is the bridge—a super span reaching a height of 125 feet over the Appomattox River and its floodplain valley and stretching 2,422 feet. That’s almost half of a mile, and it was built in 1853. The earliest brick support piers, which held the original wooden span, still stand and are visible under the 1914 steel infrastructure. This amazing pre-Civil War engineering achievement was recognized at the time as one of the largest bridges in the world, and it provided the crucial nexus in joining the tobacco and college town of Farmville to the South Side (Petersburg-Lynchburg) Railroad. This line connected trains and cargo from the deepwater port at City Point, at the confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers near Petersburg, to the rich Appomattox Valley farmland.
It IS a spectacular span. Early one Saturday morning a couple of weeks back, my husband and I, plus our dog-on-leash, accessed the trail at Rice, 6.8 miles from the eastern terminus at Burkeville. The parking lot was full, but as we headed westward on our bikes, we passed only a handful of other riders and hikers and one dog escorted in a baby stroller. Beautiful day—overcast, perfect for riding. Blackberry blossoms in full flower, new sassafras sprouts lining the trail, smell of honeysuckle trumping all other woods and farm aromas. And then, there it was, both eyes seeing only the full frame of the illusion of linear perspective, as the almost half-mile stretch of blond-wood bridge rails merge to a vanishing point in the distance—long, narrow and high. Horse riders must dismount and walk across, while bikers can ride, but you simply can’t ride and gawk. You must stop—once, twice or three times—at the offset overlooks, sit on a bench, eat a sandwich and marvel at the vistas. Lean over the side and imagine the bridge builders scrambling to lay brick on top of the piers below. Picture the retreating Confederate Army at the April 6-7, 1865 Battle of High Bridge, trying to set fire to the bridge spans as they sought to literally burn the bridge of their major supply line. (Rescued by advancing Union forces, only four spans of the railroad bridge were damaged, with the wagon bridge, which lay underneath the rail track, spared.)
By the time we finished our lunch, the bridge was crowded with bikers as well as walkers, hiking the four and a half miles from Farmville or closer western access points. We listened to locals talk about climbing the bridge piers as kids, fishing down on the river. My only slight bellyaching wish was for a greater visual experience. When one crosses a bridge high above a river or steep gulch in a train, there is an unobstructed view of the ‘abyss,’ giving a gasping, excited, floating perspective. That same sensation of heavenly height is also rendered crossing the New River Gorge Bridge, as the metal bridge rails are open. In meeting the High Bridge Trail State Park’s stringent requirements of safe passage for all uses, however, the tall thick wooden rails covered with dark wire screening plus the wooden flooring structure are handsome on their own, but they do impact the unfettered vista. Trifling whining aside, this bridge offers magnificent views from the overlooks and 31 miles of fantastic crushed gravel trail.
Hooray for the State of Virginia, Virginia State Parks, the Friends of High Bridge Trail State Park and all others who made this possible. Grab your bike, some water and sunscreen and head to Southside Virginia. Six years in the making, the High Bridge Trail runs from Burkeville to Pamplin, through the town of Farmville—another perfect stop for lunch or longer—and takes in Southside’s beautiful farmland and historic houses.