Best in Dirt: Charlottesville, VA
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Susan Donnelly race in the notoriously rocky Massanutten Trail 100-Mile Run. Photo by Aaron Schwartzbard.
Go if You crave the endless blue-green mountains of the Appalachian Range and trails that wind up and down steep gullies, through wild blueberry bushes, mountain laurel and red oaks. Charlottesville, a hip college town of just over 40,000, is a two-hour drive southwest of Washington, DC. The views overlooking the Shenandoah Valley from nearby Skyline Drive, on the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, will get you psyched for any run, and if not, some animal sightings will surely get your adrenaline pumping. “Even though it’s fairly inhabited, you do see a lot of wildlife like bear and bobcats,” says Francesca Conte, ultrarunner and co-owner of the Charlottesville Running Company.
Race … The Bel Monte Endurance 50-mile, 50K and 25K is held in George Washington National Forest every year during the comfortable temperatures of March, with a singletrack and jeep-road course that takes you along exposed ridgelines and jumping across creeks. Held in September, the Great Eastern Endurance Run, part of the Trail Runner Trophy Series, has 100K, 50K and half-marathon options. The 100K features over 15,000 feet of elevation change, passing through a rainbow of fall foliage and past cascading waterfalls, glassy lakes and lush green fields. For something shorter, drag your dog (or be dragged) at one of the many dog-friendly 5K, 5-mile and 10K races offered by the Charlottesville Running Company.
Best Trails … The Rivanna Trail, named after the river that skirts Charlottesville, is a mostly flat 20-mile singletrack loop. “It may be in the middle of town, but you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere,” says Conte. Otter, fox and eagle sightings along the Rivanna are regular occurrences.
“The Rivanna is always cool and shady, even during sweltering summer temperatures,” adds local ultrarunner Jeff Wilbur. To make a rockier, hillier loop, hop off the Rivanna Trail onto the eight-mile trail system at Observatory Hill on the west side of Charlottesville.
Take a 15-mile drive to Sugar Hollow, at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where you can access Shenandoah National Park’s mountain singletrack and the Appalachian Trail. Follow the ridgeline on the AT to its terminal trailheads in Georgia or Maine, or simply go for a morning run through the green hardwood forests. If you’re looking for company, head out on local trails with the Charlottesville Trail Running Club (charlottesvilletrailrunningclub.com) Tuesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Go when … Avoid the scorching summer temperatures that soar into the 90s, and wait until the fall to visit, when University of Virginia students get back into the swing of school, and in October and November temperatures cool into the 60s. Depending on when you visit, expect everything from snow to heat waves.
Best eats … Design your own pizza at Vita Nova Pizza and Pasta Bar (vitanovapizzapasta.com), with toppings ranging from crab meat to Thai chicken to caramelized garlic, located in the downtown mall, a pedestrian-only block in the heart of historic Charlottesville.
Pitstop … The Charlottesville Running Company (charlottesvillerunningcompany.com) has everything you need for a great day out on the trails. Store owners Gill and Francesca Conte are the heartbeat of the Charlottesville running scene, owning Bad to the Bone Endurance Sports and directing eight races a year.
Sleep … For direct Shenandoah park access, camp out at Loft Mountain or Big Meadows campgrounds, or, for a classic country getaway, stay nearby at the Inn at Sugar Hollow Farm (sugarhollow.com), with rooms starting at $140. Or sleep in the oldest house in downtown Charlottesville, at the Inn at Court Square (innatcourtsquare.com), built in 1785. Each room is decorated to feature a famous Virginian such as Stonewall Jackson. Rates start at $99.
Resources … Day and Overnight Hikes in Shenandoah National Park, by John Molloy, offers maps and detailed trail descriptions. The Charlottesville Visitors’ Bureau (pursuecharlottesville.com) can help guide your trip planning.