Reprinted from Richmond Times-Dispatch while I was outdoor writer
Ragged Mountain Natural Area
By Lee Graves
Any other place, and the muffled drone of interstate traffic would smother the stillness like a cloud of gnats.
Any other place, and the distant pounding of construction work would wear at you like a dull headache.
But here peace lies deep over the hills and lake. The noise of the world is over there somewhere, a soft counterpoint to the birds and frogs and occasional splash of a bluegill or bass snacking at the water’s surface.
Ragged Mountain Natural Area is somewhat of a paradox – 980 acres nestled like a big pillow on Charlottesville’s shoulder, minutes away from the heart of Mr. Jefferson’s university. But it’s a long way from being a household name.
Ragged Mountain? The young man in The Albemarle Angler, a fishing supply shop in the Barracks Road Shopping Center, frowned and shook his head. Not familiar with it.
Then there’s this entry on a birding Web site: “I was in Charlottesville today and by pure accident found Ragged Mountain Natural Area.”
I stumbled across it as well, on one of my runs while I worked in Charlottesville. The parking lot emerged suddenly near the end of a road that snaked through woods southwest of the city. Several signs pointed to Camp Holiday Trails; none to Ragged Mountain.
There I discovered, and since have come to love, a place that somehow is both rugged and fragile.
The trails bristle with rocks and are steep in places. “Only those in good physical condition should attempt to hike them,” advises a sign in the parking lot.
Painted blue dots on trees and occasional wooden signs mark the main path as well as side trips – the quarter-mile spur to the Round Top Mountain overlook, the half-mile Peninsula Loop Trail that winds along a point between two coves in Ragged Mountain Reservoir. A springtime visitor will find the pinks and reds of early azalea and fire pink along the way.
“It is a beautiful area up there,” said Pat Plocek, manager of the Parks and Grounds Division of Charlottesville. The city helps maintain the area along with the Ivy Creek Foundation and Albemarle County.
Plocek assured me the area is not a total secret.
“It’s not used tremendously, but it is used. The fishermen know about it. The hikers know about it,” he said.
Fishing and hiking are about the only activities allowed. No hunting, no camping, no dogs, no horses, no motorized vehicles, no jogging, no swimming.
Even to fish you have to pack in your pole, gear and, if you like, a boat. People can leave boats and canoes if they show city officials their state registration, but the city assumes no responsibility, Plocek stressed.
Most anglers fish the 53-acre Lower Lake, which is separated from the 16-acre Upper Lake by a land bridge that once served as a dam. Largemouth bass, crappie and some catfish are the main attractions, Plocek said.
Birders also find a rich diversity. The area is on the Thomas Jefferson Loop of the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail, a program of many partners administered by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Depending on the season, you can find ruddy ducks, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, red-headed woodpeckers, northern flickers and Tennessee, cerulean and prothonotary warblers.
If you’re really lucky – or unlucky, as the case may be – you might spot a bobcat or black bear. They spice up the abundant mix of deer, turkey, raccoon, otter and beaver.
“It’s pretty much a wilderness area back there,” Plocek said.
That suits Meg Ruane, who lives in Charlottesville. She rolled her eyes at the rattle of construction work in the distance during a hike last Sunday. “It’s usually really quiet, a beautiful place to walk around and get outside of the city.”
The peaceful, easy feeling doesn’t come by accident, Plocek said.
“That’s what we’re trying to save in there. We try to keep it as natural as possible.”