In Virginia, history is literally around every corner. The James River, which flows from the Chesapeake Bay to western Virginia, is the “road” along which Virginia’s history, and thereby America’s history, was founded. Beginning with Jamestown in 1607, this river and the land surrounding it has been the site of many significant historical events, including Native American villages, Colonial towns, and battles from 3 wars. A unique and socially-distanced way to view this historical area with your family is to bike or walk along the Virginia Capital Trail.
The Virginia Capital Trail is a 51.7-mile, multi-use trail that is protected from vehicles and takes you along the banks of the James River, past plantation houses and historical sites. The trail begins at Jamestown/Williamsburg and ends in Richmond, winding through several counties. It has restaurants, historical sites, and amenities along the way, including restrooms and picnic areas. Be sure to check out the interactive trail map to help you plan your trip. It is the perfect place to have a family-friendly and historical bike or walk with your family, especially during the cooler fall months.
Helpful hint: Before you begin your trip, be sure to download the Izi travel app, which has a GPS-enabled Virginia Capital Trail Official Historical Highway Markers Audio Tour. If open, this app will automatically read the historical markers that you pass on the Capital Trail, which is especially important if you are biking or driving along Route 5.
Mile Marker 0 – 7: Jamestown to Chickahominy River
Mile marker 0 of the trail is at the Jamestown Settlement museum, which is a must-see for all families. The parking area is large, and with the flat terrain, this is a great place to begin a bike tour with your kids.
Jamestown is the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America and is considered to be the place where America began. It served as the capital of what would become the state of Virginia from 1607-1699.
Heading out on the trail from Jamestown will take you past beautiful fields and near the historic town of Williamsburg, which was the capital of Virginia from 1699-1780. The trail does not take you close to Colonial Williamsburg so I recommend seeing that area at a different time.
One way to see Williamsburg and Yorktown via bicycle with older kids is to take the Colonial Parkway from Jamestown (be forewarned that the roadway is made of aggregate which can be uncomfortable on road bikes!).
The Capital Trail from mile marker 0 – 2 will take you by the historical marker about the Battle of Green Spring in the American Revolution that involved the Marquis de Lafayette and General Cornwallis. There are also several other historical markers of note (be sure to listen on your Izi app or take the time to read!).
After Jamestown, the trail will continue through a lovely, tree-lined path along Route 5. There is not much to see or do along this part of the trail, however it is a nice and relatively flat bike path (watch for a couple of hills!). There is a neat restaurant/ice cream store along this part of the trail as well, Spoke and Art Provisions. Restrooms are available here and at Jamestown Settlement.
Between mile markers 6 and 7, the trail crosses over the Chickahominy River utilizing a large bridge. While bicyclists are protected from traffic, I do not recommend taking young children over this bridge, which is at a significant elevation. Make your destination the Chickahominy Riverfront Park for some family fun (restrooms are available here)!
Itinerary suggestion: Park at Jamestown Settlement and bike on the Capital Trail from mile marker 0 – mile marker 2. Turn around and head back towards Jamestown Settlement. See the museum and eat lunch at its cafe and then continue biking onto Island Drive on Jamestown Island.
Mile Marker 7 – 20: Chickahominy River to Charles City Courthouse
This relatively flat path will take you through Charles City County to its courthouse, which is one of the oldest courthouses in the country. The trail is adjacent to Route 5 and passes through beautiful forests and fields.
Note that the courthouse has clean, indoor bathrooms available to all bicyclists.
The best known historical site to visit along this part of the trail is Sherwood Forest, home of President John Tyler and his second wife, Julia. The house is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic but I plan to review its grounds next week on The History Mom. Wandering its beautiful gardens would be a great way to break up a bike trip!
Another historical site near the trail is Fort Pocahontas, where a pivotal Civil War battle took place. While closed to the public except for guided group tours or during the yearly reenactment, you can see its historical marker along the trail.
Itinerary suggestion: Park at Charles City Courthouse (mile marker 20) and head east on the trail. Bike to Sherwood Forest (mile marker 16.5) and tour the grounds. Bike back to the courthouse to see its historical exhibits. Pack a picnic lunch or eat at Culs Courthouse Grill.
Mile Marker 20 – 30: Charles City Courthouse to Shirley Plantation
This is the heart of the Virginia Capital Trail and the part of the trail that I recommend most for families. There are a ton of things to see and do, and it happens to be relatively flat and kid-friendly!
One of the most scenic areas of the trail is just west of Charles City Courthouse between mile markers 20 – 26. This part of the trail will take your family through vast fields with endless rows of corn, tobacco, and soybeans. You will also go by one of our family’s favorite restaurants, Indian Fields Tavern (cyclist and child-friendly), and past the picturesque Westover Episcopal Church, built in 1730.
There are several historical sites to see along this part of the trail, including Historic Westover, Berkeley Plantation, and Shirley Plantation (built in 1618 and the most intact colonial estate in America). These sites include both home and grounds tours on various days so be sure to check what’s available during your visit. You might recognize some of the buildings from TV shows or movies, such as “Harriet” and AMC’s “Turn.”
A historical park along this part of the trail is Lawrence Lewis, Jr. Park. Located on the banks of the James River just south of Indian Fields Tavern, this was the site of Union General Grant’s crossing of the James River before the Battle of Petersburg. A historical marker about this event is located on the trail/Route 5. The park has a picnic area and a boardwalk with a Civil War Trails marker. The park also has restrooms available.
Itinerary suggestion: Park at Upper Shirley Vineyards (at Shirley Plantation – mile marker 30) and head east on the trail. Visit Berkeley Plantation and Historic Westover (mile marker 27) and then head back for a picnic lunch from Upper Shirley Vineyards. After lunch, tour Shirley Plantation.
Mile Marker 30 – 40: Shirley Plantation to Four Mile Creek Trailhead
This part of the trail is one of the most accessible, due to its great parking and facilities at Four Mile Creek Trailhead. If you’re coming from the City of Richmond and want the closest and easiest bike ride, this is where you should start. The trailhead site has historical markers, restrooms (port a potties), and a Dairy Queen across the street (indoor restrooms are available here).
Don’t miss the creative bicycle art installation at the entrance!
The trailhead is also the site of the Battle of New Market Heights in the Civil War where the USCT (U.S. Colored Troops) made a courageous attack against the entrenched Confederate forces. 14 of the 20 Medals of Honor given to black troops during the war were from this battle.
A significant historical site near the trail is the Malvern Hill Battlefield (mile marker 35.5), part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park. Note that the battlefield itself is 1.5 miles off of the trail, along a regular road without a protected bike lane. I don’t recommend taking this road with children. There are several historical markers about the battle along the trail/Route 5.
Note that this section of the trail includes some inclines so be sure to check the specific elevation of your route before you begin.
Itinerary suggestion: Park at the Four Mile Creek Trailhead. Head east on the trail, bringing a picnic lunch for Deep Bottom Park. Bike back and be sure to get Dairy Queen ice cream as a fun treat to end your trip!
Mile Marker 40 – 51.7: Four Mile Creek Trailhead to Richmond
This part of the trail is the steepest and hardest for young children. I recommend doing a short segment of this trail, avoiding the big elevation change between mile markers 49 – 50!
This part of the trail is also one of the busiest since it is closest to Richmond. On a nice day, it can be hard to get by all of the walkers, joggers, dog walkers, and bicyclists! Also note that there are many driveways and crossroads on this section of the trail so be sure to watch children closely.
Just south of this section of the trail is Fort Harrison, part of Richmond National Battlefield Park. One of the best historical parks to visit on a bike in Richmond, there are trails and tour roads that are safe for kids. There is also a great picnic area here.
As you get closer to Richmond, the trail becomes steeper and more challenging. Once in Richmond, however, there is a nice trail along the canal that takes you by several historical sites, including the Virginia Holocaust Museum and the Poe Museum. The trail ends near the massive Richmond flood walls and Riverfront Canal Walk.
To begin near this part of the trail, park at Great Shiplock Park.
Itinerary suggestion: Park at Dorey Park (great facilities here) and head west on the trail. Bike to our son’s favorite Richmond BBQ restaurant, The Original Ronnie’s BBQ, for amazing barbeque and hushpuppies. With older kids, bike down Varina Road to Fort Harrison and tour the Civil War battlefields and forts. Head back on trail to Dorey Park.
If planning your trip on the Virginia Capital Trail sounds exhausting or you are a bicycling novice (like me!), check out Basket and Bike. Owned by my friend, Anne, this company specializes in historical and educational tours of the Capital Trail. They provide the bikes, water, and historical facts while you just enjoy the scenery with your family. The signature ride includes a picnic at Upper Shirley Vineyards as well. For readers of The History Mom, Anne is offering a special discount – enter MOMS10 at checkout to save $10 off of your tour! Photos provided by Basket and Bike.
The Virginia Capital Trail is a great way to take in all of the history offered by the James River in a fun and family-friendly way. With so much to see and do, you could fill up several weekends, enjoying the natural beauty and historical adventuring that it provides! With fall weather just around the corner, the trail is the perfect, socially-distanced seasonal activity to do with your kids!
Special thanks to my husband for his expertise on bicycling tips and suggestions!
- Cost: Free
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time: most recommended segments are 4-5 hours
- Gift shop located online
- Transportation: The trail is for bicyclists and pedestrians only (horse riders also allowed). To follow most of its route via automobile, take Route 5.
- Dining options: Check the interactive trail map for restaurants near your route. My recommendations are listed above.
- Nearby hotels: Check the interactive trail map for hotel suggestions near your route. Also check out my Richmond and Williamsburg recommendations.
- Nearby attractions: Other than those listed above, check out my recommendations on my Richmond and Williamsburg pages.
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