Rapidan River Out-and-Back Hike
Many wildflowers bloom along Graves Mill Trail and Rapidan River Road. The hike back and forth totals 7 miles. You start from the Graves Mill parking lot, the same place you start when going to Bear Church Rock, but instead of turning up the hill, you just continue walking along the river. On this sunny warm day there were many people already in the area. The parking lot was full. Not only can you go hiking here, but it is a popular trail for horseback riding as well as fishing.
In early April the trees were still mostly bare, but the forest floor was starting to bloom, with whole areas carpeted in green plants. It was exciting to see the forest gradually coming back to life after lying dormant over the winter.
The trail itself is rather flat and easy. Our purpose on this day was to leisurely take pictures of the river and wildflowers.
Wildflowers Near the Parking Lot
Here are some of the little treasures we found near the parking lot. The sunny open forest and riverside conditions seem to be great for wildflowers.
Bloodroot, Red Indian Paint, Red Puccoon, or Sanguinaria canadensis, is a member of the Poppy Family (Papaveraceae) and blooms March to May in rich woodlands and along streams. A native wildflower, it grows throughout eastern and central North America. The flower opens in sunlight and closes at night. The name for this flower comes from the red sap of the underground stem that was used by Native Americans for dye and war paint.
Star Chickweed, or Stellaria pubera, is a member of the Carnation Family (Caryophyllaceae) and blooms March to May in rich woods and on rocky slopes. A native plant, it grows mostly in the eastern United States.
Cutleaf Toothwort, or Cardamine concatenata, is a member of the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae) and blooms March to May in waste places and along roadsides. A native plant, it grows throughout east and central North America. The little flower clusters can be white or pink.
Along the Trail
After taking quite some time snapping pictures of wildflowers in the parking lot and near the beginning of the trail, we started heading along the path through the forest. At the post half a mile in, we kept going along Graves Mill Trail.
Along the way, we saw some of these little yellow violets, although the purple ones were more common. There are actually 20 different species of violets that grow in Shenandoah National Park.
Downy Yellow Violet
Downy Yellow Violet, Hairy Yellow Forest Violet, or Viola pubescens, is a member of the Violet Family (Violaceae) and blooms March to May in the woods. A native plant, it grows throughout eastern and central North America. The plant is slightly hairy, hence the name.
Common Blue Violet
Common Blue Violet, or Viola sororia, is a member of the Violet Family (Violaceae) and blooms March to June in damp woods, moist meadows, in lawns, and along roadsides. Similar to its yellow cousin above, it is also a native plant that grows throughout eastern and central North America.
Researching violets, I found out that they are edible. Not only are Violet leaves are high in vitamins and can be eaten in salads or cooked, but the flowers themselves can be candied.
Ivy-Leaved Speedwell, Ivyleaf Speedwell, or Veronica hederaefolia, is a member of the Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae). It has been introduced to North America from Europe and grows in varied places in the east and west of the continent.
I was greatly impressed that my macro lens was able to pick up this tiny flower and all of its details. Having a tripod also helped the stability of the camera and assured that these minuscule details did not blur. Individual flowers typically measure 1/8 inch (or .32 centimeters) across.
Bluets, or Houstonia caerulea, are a member of the Madder Family (Rubiaceae) and bloom April to June. They grow in grassy fields and slopes as well as thickets.
We made slow progress along the trail, snapping pictures often. Thanks to our new tripod, he can take more stable long exposure photos of rivers and waterfalls. My husband took this picture of the river.
Rapidan River is a very popular location for fly fishing. We saw many people out and about fishing on this lovely spring day.
If you follow Graves Mill Trail to the end it connects with Rapidan Road, which leads all the way up to Camp Rapidan, the mountain retreat of President Herbert Hoover. It’s also possible to reach Camp Rapidan from Skyline Drive if you follow Mill Prong Trail. We did that loop trail before and it was a fun hike.
Small Periwinkle, Common Periwinkle, Dwarf Periwinkle, Lesser Periwinkle, Creeping Myrtle, or Vinca minor, is a member of the Dogbane Family (Apocynaceae) and blooms April to May in woodland borders, roadsides, and abandoned sites. It was introduced to North America and has now escaped cultivation. It grows throughout eastern and central North America, as well as several places out west.
Pennsylvania Bittercress, or Cardamine pensylvanica, is a member of the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae). It is a native wildflower that grows throughout North America.
Forsythia is a member of the Olive Family (Oleaceae) that blooms in early spring. Native to Europe and Asia, the shrub now grows along the east coast of North America and in scattered places in the west. Forsythia is used in traditional Chinese medicine to relieve colds, allergies, and bronchitis. Apparently the flowers are edible and can be made into tea and syrup!
Forsythia bushes are used in gardens for borders and hedges – my family used to have Forsythia growing around a tree in the front yard at our old house.
Bridal Wreath, Bridal Wreath Spirea, or Spiraea vanhouttei, is a member of the Rose Family (Rosaceae), and blooms in spring. It is actually an introduced cultivar – it was produced in cultivation through select breeding. It’s not a wildflower at all!
Probably because it is not a wildflower, I had trouble figuring out what it was. I looked in all the usual places – my books, USWildflowers.com, and VirginiaWildflowers.org. Thankfully, Capital Naturalist Facebook Group helped me find the answer.
Since both the Bridal Wreath and Forsythia are introduced plants, I wonder if someone planted them there by Rapidan River long ago.
The Return Journey
We went up all the way to the Shenandoah National Park boundary and then back to the parking lot. At the park boundary it switches to the Rapidan Wildlife Management Area, where hunting is allowed. We sat on some rocks next to the river and had our PB&J sandwiches.
The trip back was quick, as we had taken pictures of nearly everything we wanted to take pictures of already.
Recommended as an Easy Hike
The hike along Graves Mill Trail and Rapidan River is easy and pleasant, following a beautiful river. There is a variety of nature to enjoy along the way.