COVER SIDEBAR- Back way to Monticello: Timeless, beautiful, illegal

Back around the turn of the century, I decided to hike to Monticello with my then 10-year-old son. The challenge was to get there and back without retracing our steps.

We park in the empty lot of the gothic, non-denominational Woolen Mills Chapel. Consecrated in 1888 and located near the end of Market Street to provide religion for the mill workers, it continues to serve religious and community functions. The Virginia Historical marker lets us know that mills were operating on this site from 1795 to 1964.

"Although the Union Army burned the factory in 1865," reads the marker, the second-generation owner, Henry Clay Marchant "reopened it in 1867 as the Charlottesville Woolen Mills, which became Albemarle's largest industry."

 Nearby are three circa 1830 duplexes that are in the enviable position of backing up to the Rivanna River, among the few riverfront residences in the urban ring. Also nearby are the remains of an old sluiceway that carried water from the dam to the mill, the old fish ladder, and at the end of Market is the industrial compound of Allied Van Lines, which has– in one of the more bizarre local juxtapositions–- a parking lot built atop the stone and brick remains of one of the old mills.

We backtrack to Marchant Street, and walk up to where it crosses the CSX/Buckingham Branch railroad tracks, which we begin walking.

To our right is Pireus Row, a private road with small houses built to house mill workers. These cottages tend to be decorated eccentrically, and on the day of our visit, one had a live lawn ornament in the form of a goat tending the grass.

Pireus Row reportedly got its name during the early 1800s when Jefferson-era Charlottesville, fancying itself the "Athens of the South," named this batteau landing zone the Port of Pireus, in homage to the Grecian city of that name.

To our left lay a steep and overgrown drop, with the skeletal brick remains of the Woolen Mills power plant, punctuated by a tall brick chimney.

We continue along the track. Please note that hiking railroad tracks can be hazardous and illegal.

In front of us is a trestle, 400 feet long and rising nearly 75 feet above Moores Creek just before the confluence with the Rivanna River and just below the dam which was breached in 2007.

Ten years ago, the trestle was the only dry way to cross the river. With a sewage treatment that empties its effluent into Moores Creek less than one third of a mile away, the swimming option seems unsafe. 

Speaking of safety, I was just reassuring my son that the trains had already passed, when Amtrak's "Cardinal" roared past. Though the trestle has a creosote-beamed path, about three feet wide, aside the tracks, we contemplated the wisdom of crossing. (However, there seemed to be a lot of rotten places, providing ample views of the water–- and the potential for injuries–- below.)

As mentioned above, this is a dangerous and forbidden route; and it's also no longer necessary, as the Rivanna Trails Foundation now provides a way around it. Simply hike from Quarry Park to the Woolen Mills trail,

Once on the other side, we pass under the twin Interstate 64 bridges, past an old quarry, and follow an indistinct path toward the Rivanna. Several plastic hobo tents there do nothing for the ambience.

The path along the river is clearer, with a canopy of trees providing some shade, though we have to push past a lot of spider webs and poison ivy. It appears that enough fisherman come down here to keep the path viable. We are now skirting the base of Monticello Mountain.

In times of drought, the remains of an old crib dams are revealed. These were low water dams made of logs and rock, designed to increase the depth of the water on this side of the river.

On some closely adjacent steep cliffs, sharp eyes reveal several parallel half cylindrical grooves in the Catoctin Greenstone. These were hand drilled with iron rods and hammers– possibly by slaves– filled with black powder, and ignited, sheering away the rock face to create the path, which was built to tow batteaus upriver. 

This lonely, lovely overgrown path was once a lively crowded commercial concern, Jefferson's and Charlottesville's lifeline to Richmond. By 1811, navigation on the Rivanna had reached Charlottesville and even beyond, to Rio Mills, where the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir Dam now stands.

About a third of a mile from I-64, a small stream flows out of Monticello Mountain and then disappears into the earth, creating a swampy area difficult to cross cleanly. In the past, someone– rumored to be a Boy Scout–- created a low wooden structure to cross, but it was getting naturally reclaimed. Bring your Wellingtons. 

The path to Monticello is on the right about three fifths of a mile from I-64. At first it is not distinct, but soon it looks as though it gets some occasional traffic. It is not a difficult hike, but you do climb 576 feet up in roughly three fifths of a mile, through a mostly deciduous forest.

As we emerge from the woods at Monticello behind a greenhouse, we are spotted. A pickup truck with a Monticello logo approaches. I start rehearsing abject apologies, but we get a friendly wave and they were about their business. I guess it helps to pack a cute 10-year-old.

We came in behind the mansion. After some refreshments at the gift shop and a short tour of the gardens, we decide to head down. I noticed that you did not need tickets to board the buses going down, so we ride in air-conditioned comfort to Monticello's entrance parking lot.

There we are at the top of The Saunders-Monticello Trail that stretches 2.2 miles along the south side of the Route 53, the Thomas Jefferson Parkway.

Expertly engineered and ADA-compliant, it has no more than five percent grade and features wooden bridges crossing deep ravines as it drops 275 feet in elevation. Near the base of the trail we hike past the Thomas Jefferson Parkway Arboretum. Planted along side the trail are over 130 species of trees and shrubs, grown in distinct areas, or "rooms," according to aesthetic, environmental, or natural qualities.

Now we have to cross Route 20. Somehow crossing this busy road is more frightening than the train trestle. On the road up to Piedmont Virginia Community College we find a bus stop. In no time, a bus arrives. Here we had the only slip of the trip. Having never before ridden Charlottesville Transit Service, I didn't realize you had to have correct change. And I didn't. After a moments hesitation, the driver waves us onto the empty bus gratis.

We soon are back at our car on East Market Street. It is always hard to believe that Monticello Mountain is so close to the city, traffic, houses and industry– and our feet.

Fortunately, the statute of limitations has passed.


Wick Hunt is a retired Martha Jefferson Hospital emergency room doctor who penned the Hook's April 29th cover story about the Shad Planking.



I live in Woolen Mills, I should hike this one day, it does not look that bad at all. Except maybe for the train tracks.

Hike up the mountain to the house in the very early morning hours- birders paradise.

What bothers me most about recent changes at Monticello is the new bridge. What a monstrosity, and completely out of character with Jefferson's farm and the surrounding countryside.

This is not smart and, as the article states, illegal. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation is non-profit organization that operates to educate the community and it's students. They can continue to offer tours to those students at steeply discounted prices by charging the admittance fee to visitors. Your taking away from the those students when you enter the property from this route. Your trespassing and stealing when you attempt this. You can believe that now this has been published, the route will be closed and future "hikers" will be caught.

Jeff, that route has long been common knowledge and hikers have been getting caught and sometimes arrested while taking it for a long time now. As the article makes clear, it takes a bit of daring, determination, and energy to do, which means that most people are going to opt instead for a SUV ride to the parking lot and then a shuttle bus to the top. Nice diatribe about the poor students though.

I thought Monticello only charged for tours? Has that changed? Used to be you could park in the lot and walk the grounds without buying anything and you only needed to cough up some bucks if you wanted to go inside. And isn't it free for locals, or is that only when they bring one or more visitors?
Regardless, this is the route Jefferson used to take to come into town, and a shallow stretch of Moores Creek down by Woolen Mills used to called Secretary's Crossing, if I'm not mistaken. Don't know if that's because Jefferson was Secretary of State when it got its name or if it was named for all of his secretaries who would presumably cross at the same point?

Monticello charges admission to the grounds, not for tours. That's been true since, at least, the 1950s possibly much earlier. There may have been times where staff let you go up for free but it's not the policy. We have to maintain Jefferson's home and grounds so we don't think it's unfair to ask anyone enjoying them (tour or no tour) to contribute to that mission.

It is free for locals with a paying out of town guest. There is a discounted rate if you want to come without an out of town guest.

The ford is called Secrtary's Ford because it adjoined the land originally held by John Carter (d. 1742) (son of Robert "King" Carter) when he was Secretary of the Colony of Virginia. The ford had that name before TJ was born.

@Chesapeake Streeet: design for bridge based in part on Pont de Neuilly, which Jefferson admired, and uses local stone. He also envisioned a bridge over the Thoroughfare Gap so design based in part on a bridge he admired. And it's much safer for Rt. 53 traffic. Read more:

Please do not use this route. Every year people get killed walking on or near the railroad tracks. Also walking on railroad bridges is dangerous since there is often little room to the side of the tracks. Amtrak uses this route and can travel at speeds up to 79 mph. Can you run that fast? Last year in Virginia 14 people were hit by trains, seven of them died.
This is also Private Property and you are trespassing. Please visit for information.

Not only are the trains an issue, but the it's full of copperheads on that trail.

Just because Jefferson admired something doesn't mean he would put it at Monticello, Pont de Neuilly as inspiration for the bridge -someone with grandiose visions was let loose to design this and ruined the surrounding landscape-no views --oversized --Jefferson would have been appalled, as is everyone I know who sees it. Tear it down and build something appropriate in size and aesthetic to the location

It's nice to imagine a different world hidden beneath the world that we see every day. Thanks for the glimpse into our area history.

Just one more element of magic surrounding a place full of mystery and beauty. What a crime to close this path off to hikers, historians, birders, etc. From a saftey perspective, it appears the Rivanna Trail bypasses the RR tracks. Hard to think that a few locals going well out of their way to experience this route are going to bankrupt Monticello. They will spend more on water at the concession stand when they reach the top.

As a newcomer to this area I loved your article and felt I was hiking with you. Illegal or not, dangerous or not it's not something alot of people would take on anyway. Thank you for the experience through your words.

Where is this alternate path on the Rivana Trail? The website says "We hope to build a footcrossing of Moore’s Creek near the old Woolen Mills." There's no way to "simply hike" around it that I know of. Quarry Park to Woolen Mills takes you to the south bank. The trail description starts on the north bank. The creek and wetlands around it are a mess to cross.