You can escape your frenetic everyday world with a short trip to the sublime hills of Orange County, Va., where you’ll find great outdoor adventures and the home and estate of the third U.S. president, James Madison. Explore mature forests on horseback, hike historic trails, kayak past Civil War crossings, and explore historic sites and wineries.
I visited Orange just after Presidents Day when master naturalist and chief guide Laura Maddox led our hike through the old growth forest at Montpelier. This is the estate where the “Father of the Constitution” lived with his wife, Dolley, who helped carve out the place for first ladies in America.
Legacy trees more than 200 years old, including cypress and Cedar of Lebanon, remain on the lawn. The Marquis de Lafayette gave Madison three Cedar of Lebanon seedlings after the American Revolution, and a biblical-looking one stands near the brick mansion.
Maddox explained that the term “old-growth forest” means trees in the forest have reached maturity. There were many mature red oaks, white ashes, and tulip trees to admire along a 3.5-mile, slightly hilly trail.
She also shared the scent of a spice bush, and said the Montpelier Forest offers the best example of a tulip tree/spice bush community in the Eastern Piedmont of North America.
The legendary pawpaw tree, which survived the Ice Age, grows here, too. It’s the only plant the zebra swallowtail butterfly eats, so six months a year you’re sure to see these spectacular flying beauties.
From Montpelier, it’s possible to connect to another trail that leads to the Market at Grelen, with its popular restaurant and fresh food purveyor.
If you haven’t taken the house tour of Montpelier, it’s a must. Guides offer terrific insight into the years James and Dolley Madison lived here. In June, Montpelier will open reconstructed slave quarters after years of archaeological research and input from descendants.
See the visitor center exhibit before heading out, and pick up a copy of the book written by President Madison’s personal servant, Paul Jennings, who lived in the White House.
Ride through history
Near Montpelier is Oakland Heights Farm. An oversized horseshoe marks its entrance. Fifty horses graze on the hillside here, and owner David Lamb leads trail rides and runs a regular rodeo with his son.
The tack room is filled with Western and English saddles of all sizes and displays Monacan Indian artifacts found on this land — the same land and forest where best friends James Madison and Thomas Jefferson frequently rode between Orange and Charlottesville. Ride with Lamb and you’ll also see traces of the Civil War battles fought in Orange County.
Lamb has provided horses for presidential parades for years and you’ll know why when you mount one of his gentle equines.
In the nearby town of Orange, there are many spots for wining and dining. Both town and county offer sought-after lodging choices with well-informed hosts at bed-and-breakfast and country inn establishments.
Outside town, Rapidan River Kayak runs year-round excursions on the Rapidan River. Accredited by the American Canoe Association, owner Beth Seale loves to help guests spot the eagles nest along her paddling route. She said she’s often watched eagles from fewer than 75 feet away.
Seale points out abundant wildlife in the clear waters just below a millhouse and dam where she puts in the boats. Like the zebra butterflies, she has an affinity for the pawpaw, which grows fragrantly on her land.
For more information:
Orange Co. Tourism: visitorangevirginia.com