VMI Planners Focus on the Chessie

Continuing Institute Efforts Improve Visitor Experience

Since the VMI Foundation gifted the Chessie Nature Trail to the Institute in 2010, VMI has worked with the community to ensure the trail is maintained and enhanced as an outdoor resource for cadets and members of the community.

At the moment, the biggest challenge in that effort is the absence of the South River Bridge – a situation the Institute is working to remedy.

A map showing the current route of the Chessie Trail along with the proposed connections to Brushy Hills and the Blue Ridge Parkway
The map above shows the route of the Chessie Nature Trail, along with the proposed connections to Brushy Hills and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Click here to see a larger version.

VMI submitted a Federal Lands Access Program grant application earlier this year for $250,000 to design the bridge. Total cost of the construction of the bridge is still unknown, but it is estimated that it will cost a little over $1 million.

An official announcement will be made on the grant application by the summer of 2017.

To make the complete 7.2-mile journey from the Lexington end of the trail to the Buena Vista end, users must take a quarter-mile detour around the site of the old South River Bridge. Hurricane Isabel eliminated that bridge in 2003, and it was not replaced.

Once a new bridge is complete, planners envision the trail becoming a bigger draw for outdoor enthusiasts from across the region, especially as plans are in the works to link the Chessie with existing trail systems at the north and south ends of the trail.

“The trail is already a huge attraction for Rockbridge County,” said Col. Jay Williams ’83, post engineer.  Williams chairs the Chessie Trail Advisory Committee, which brings VMI together with the local group Friends of the Chessie Trail and adjacent property owners. 

The main objective of the advisory committee is maintaining and making improvements to the trail. With VMI and the community’s best interests in mind, the committee develops ideas and Williams integrates those ideas into VMI’s master plan.

“This re-establishment of the bridge will allow a complete connection between Lexington and Buena Vista, making it a safe trail for all people who are using it,” Williams said.

What was once the path for the Chesapeake and Ohio railway, the Chessie Trail is named for the company’s mascot, the Chessie Cat. The trail – which follows the course of the Maury River – is mostly flat and shaded with parts of it winding through private property and cow pastures. It is a perfect path for walking, running, cycling, and marching. 

“It’s kind of a destination,” said Capt. Aaron Groah, project manager. Groah is the Physical Plant’s lead engineer on the coordination effort between the Friends of the Chessie Trail and VMI.  

Last fall, when the Friends of the Chessie Nature Trail hosted the first of their biannual races, featuring half marathon and 5K distances, VMI’s Physical Plant crew reconditioned the trail in preparation for the event. Improvements included laying fresh gravel and building handrails on one of the bridges.  More than 300 racers showed up for the event, many of them from out of state, further strengthening the importance of maintaining the trail as an attraction to the community. 

More improvements are also on the way.  VMI received a $330,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation's Recreational Trails program in 2015. The grant was an 80/20 matching grant – meaning DCR provided 80 percent of the grant while VMI provided 20 percent.

It will fund improvements all along the trail, including a 26-space parking lot on the Lexington end of the trail – near the East Lexington Bridge – and better signs to lead visitors to the trailheads. 

On a larger scale, there is an effort led by the City of Lexington and the county's tourism office to connect the Chessie Nature Trail with other area trails. The hope is to attract visitors to the Rockbridge area by developing a greenway that connects Brushy Hill Preserve, located west of Lexington, with the mountains east of Buena Vista. Both the Woods Creek Trail and the Chessie Trail would play essential roles in that connection. 

More trail users bring more business to Lexington and Buena Vista, and VMI, a school that makes physical fitness a top priority, understands that the trail is not just about attracting outsiders. It is also about offering community residents the outdoor space for healthy physical activity. 

As Williams said, “The trail is a huge attraction… it’s recreation for folks with pets, serious runners, casual runners, cyclists, the works.”

For more information on the Chessie Nature Trail:

Chessie Trail Log

History of the Trail

Friends of the Chessie

Rails to Trails Conservancy