About this Itinerary
The Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail (DRHT) is a 16-mile, dirt surface, permit-only trail located near Fredericksburg. The trail is part of approximately 240 acres of unspoiled woods in the northern neck of Virginia and is home to a diversity of wildlife including fox, eagles, beaver, hawks, deer and many species of birds. Visitors will enjoy a remote and tranquil ride in a spectacular setting with few distractions and quite possibly no other trail users.
The DRHT follows the corridor of the former Dahlgren Branch rail line that connected the Dahlgren Naval Base with the existing Fredericksburg rail line at Cool Springs in Stafford. Acquired by the U.S. government in the early 1940s, the rail line was used to ship munitions and war materials to the navy base and was in operation until 1957. Later, CSX acquired the line but in 1993 it was put up for sale and purchased by two individuals with the intention of creating a rails-to-trails route. Unfortunately, local opposition has thus far prevented this from becoming a reality. Friends of the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail are actively working to gain the backing of local authorities to open the trail to the public, but, at present, everyone must have a permit to use the trail in any capacity. While this may seem a daunting task to go though for a simple bike ride, the permit form is very straightforward and holders have the distinct pleasure in knowing they will most likely have the trail entirely to themselves. For the cost of stamp, isn’t it worth it? Click here to download the permit application or to apply online.
The nearby town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, provides the perfect base to explore the DRHT and the surrounding area. Established in 1728, the city’s strategic location on the Rappahannock River made it an important port and led to great prosperity in Colonial times. During the Civil War, it was the site of what was at the time, the largest battle in America. The Battle of Fredericksburg took place within the town and resulted in over 12,000 Union and 4,000 Confederate casualties. Following the war, and the collapse of the plantation system, the city saw its economy decline, and the town never regained its prominence as an agricultural supplier. Manufacturing, which sprang up along the canal system, and the arrival of the railroad in 1872, transformed the economy until it was eventually able to see growth and reconstruction. Today, Fredericksburg is a step back in time with a historical downtown full of noteworthy buildings and numerous Civil War sites that makes this a must visit spot for any history buff.
While in Fredericksburg, stay at the historic Kenmore Inn located downtown close to shops, restaurants, and numerous sites of interest. The property was built in 1824 and features nine guest rooms each with their own bathroom. With its central location visitors don’t need to go far to take advantage of the historical sites or more modern amenities such as fine-dining restaurants, interesting shops and beautiful public spaces. Spend a day biking on the nearby DRHT and return to the inn for all of the comforts the property and the town affords.
After a hearty breakfast at the inn, and with your permit in hand, travel to the western end of the DRHT. Located about 14 miles from the inn, take VA-3W/Kings Highway to Route 605. Look for the trailhead on your right about a mile along on Route 605. The trail is not well marked; however, you will see a security gate. When the gate is closed there is space for several cars to park off the road, when it is open (weekends from 8 a.m. to dusk), there are an additional seven parking spots.
When you depart for the day, be sure to bring everything need you will need, as there will be no opportunity to pick up drinks or food while biking. Before leaving Fredericksburg, stop by Eileen’s Bakery for a gourmet sandwich and sweet treat to pack for lunch. Eileen’s offers a large selection of signature sandwiches including curry chicken salad, apple bacon and cheddar, and roast beef, or design your own using some of their fresh locally-sourced ingredients and homemade bread. Or stop en route at the Food Lion grocery store, which you will pass at 205 Kings Highway. Here you can find standard grocery store fare as well as prepared sandwiches, fresh fruit, snacks and cold drinks. In the same complex you will find a Dairy Queen, something to keep in mind for the return trip! Note that mountain bike rentals are not available in Fredericksburg or the surrounding area, so cyclists will need to bring their own.
As mentioned, while out on the trail you should not anticipate seeing a lot of other bikers or walkers. However, the volunteer organization Friends of the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail, does allow organized groups such as the Boy Scouts to use trail, as well as opening it up for organized running events. Before you plan your trip, be sure to check to see if any of these events are taking place during your stay.
The current DRHT is very much a work in progress, although it has been open since 2006 for private use. Opposition to the project from local landowners has delayed the opening of this as a public-access trail, but many bikers, walkers and runners, with the appropriate permit, have been able to enjoy it while volunteers work to change the trail’s status. In the meantime, work has gone in to improving the trail, adding parking and making the route generally more accessible. Be sure to follow all signage and under no circumstances park anywhere other than the designated spots.
The 16-mile trail travels the distance between routes 605 and 614 (Owens Road) in thick forest. There are a few road crossings, so be careful of passing cars who may not be accustomed to seeing a lot of bikes here. Surrounding sections of the trail are residential developments. Many of these neighbors are the vocal opponents of the trail, so please be respectful at all times so as not to hinder the effort to make public-access a reality.
The only other trailhead parking option is eight miles along the DRHT where the trail crosses Route 610. There is space for several cars to park along the road or on either side of the trail. If parking here, be sure to have your vehicle completely off the road and do not block or trespass on any private property. At other road crossings, parking is not available; please do not attempt to park anywhere other than the two designated trailheads.
While great effort is made to remove downed limbs and large rocks, this is entirely a volunteer effort. All bikers should be alert for obstacles. At this time, trail conditions along the DRHT are fairly good and with a mountain bike, however, the trail has not been completely leveled so riders should be alert for uneven sections, holes and roots. Riders have also reported large river stones on the trail, which a mountain bike can handle, but the trail is not suitable for a hybrid bicycle. The last four miles in particular (from Panorama Drive to just off of Route 614) may be a little rougher and bikers may find fallen trees, stumps and roots on the trail as well as rotten railroad ties that have not yet been removed. Throughout the route, be alert.
Enjoy a tranquil day on the DRHT and a quiet picnic lunch trailside before returning to the charming Kenmore Inn.
Today is yours for exploring Fredericksburg. Civil War buffs, or even those with only a perfunctory knowledge of events surrounding the war, will find no shortage of interesting sites in Fredericksburg. The city is considered to be ‘America’s battleground,’ as the Battle of Fredericksburg crossed all boundaries and resulted in a once prosperous town brought to the brink of ruin. Farms were destroyed, thousands of residents fled the area, countless people were wounded and a staggering number were killed during the battle. Visit the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields National Military Park to visit four major battlefields: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness and Spotsylvania. Start at the Fredericksburg Visitor Center for a short introductory film and see the various exhibits before setting out on a guided walking tour. From here, visit the other battlefields, each with informational exhibits and walking tours. Hours vary by season, so call in advance.
Tour several historical, noteworthy properties in town under the care of Washington Heritage Museums. See the Mary Washington House, the home purchased in 1772 by George Washington for his mother, Mary Ball Washington. Explore the gardens, visit the original kitchen, and learn about this remarkable woman, who was not only the mother to the first president of the United States, but remained a Loyalist sympathizer despite her son’s politics. Visit the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop, an 18th-century building that is now a museum of medicine and pharmacy. Learn about medicinal treatments such as leeches, lancets, snakeroot and crab claws that were used by the shop’s owner, Dr. Mercer. Also see the St. James’ House, built in 1768, this is one of the few 18th-century frame houses still standing in Fredericksburg; and visit the Rising Sun Tavern, which operated as a stopover for travelers to the city for over 35 years in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
For lunch, the city has a number of excellent options including The Kenmore Inn’s restaurant. This is a beautiful spot to relax and enjoy the peaceful and elegant surroundings, whether you chose to dine in the formal dining room overlooking the garden and patio, or the cozy Pub. The menu features American fare with French influences and changes seasonally to take advantage of ingredients at their peak.
Other options in Fredericksburg include Foode, whose chef partners with local farms to offer an ever-changing menu of in-season ingredients straight from their source. The food is classic but with an innovative spin that pares fresh vegetables with an array of proteins such as local chicken, fish and beef prepared in a simple but flavorful manner.
Take advantage of Fredericksburg’s beautiful riverfront and wile away time at Brock’s Riverside Grill. The outdoor patio has a stunning view of the Rappannhock River and the restaurant features such classics as steak, Ahi tuna, crab cakes and chicken picatta. Be sure to try the signature ‘Ho-Ho’ dessert, a delectable concoction of mascarpone and chocolate ganache served with vanilla ice cream. This restaurant is popular with locals and visitors alike as there is something on the menu to appeal to all tastes.
In the afternoon, you can visit interesting sites farther afield. In nearby Falmouth, visit Belmont, the 18th-century estate and studio of famed painter, Gari Melchers. Melchers was a very well known painter of his time and the leading American promoter of naturalism. Tour his home and studios, each a beautiful building, full of the rich and varied collections of antique furniture, carpets, china, pottery and paintings that Melchers and his wife amassed during their extensive travels. Wander the lush and exquisitely restored gardens and walk on nature trails which cover 28 acres along a ridge overlooking the falls of the Rappahannock River.
George Washington grew up in this area, and visitors can tour the grounds where his boyhood house stood at Ferry Farm. While the house no longer remains, see a number of colonial and civil war artifacts found on the property and watch archaeologists who are still actively working on the site. Tour the gardens and grounds (about 80 acres) on a self-guided tour and enjoy remarkable views of the Rappahannock River. Nearby Kenmore was the home of George Washington’s sister, Betty Washington Lewis. Take an interpreter lead tour of the house, which is currently undergoing extensive renovations, to see how a wealthy pre-Revolutionary family would have lived.