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Liberty Mountain Trail System: A wilderness retreat on campus

Dr. Clark Zealand, an associate dean at Liberty, joins his wife, Andrea, and son, Coleman, on the Liberty Mountain Trail System on Thursday afternoon. (Photo by Kevin Manguiob)Saturday is National Trails Day, and Liberty University is welcoming area hikers, runners, and mountain bikers to visit one of the region’s best networks of trails, right on its sprawling campus.

Created in the late 1980s by Dr. David Horton — a pioneer of ultra-marathon running and an exercise science professor at Liberty — the 5,000-acre mountain property features multiple trailheads at both the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre and the Hydaway Outdoor Recreation Center. The trail system offers free rewards to its users: a pristine environment along its 50-plus miles of well-maintained single- and double-track trails and fire roads, fresh air and shade from its lush forest, and spectacular views — from 1,350-foot summits at both the LU Monogram and the Snowflex Centre — of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains that serve as a picture-perfect backdrop to Liberty’s campus directly below.

“That is one of the things that really makes our university pretty special, to have that much acreage that is enjoyable, recreational land, and being so close to the city of Lynchburg,” said Mike Ellsworth, director of Liberty’s Outdoor Recreation Department. “You can go for a 6-mile hike and feel like you’re out in the middle of the wilderness.”

The trails were expanded and improved in the past 10 years by staff from Liberty’s Auxiliary Services with technical expertise from Canada-based Whistler Trail Solutions. They are now maintained by the Outdoor Recreation Department, which also directs the annual six-race Liberty Mountain Trail Series.

“The trail running scene is really exploding right now,” Horton said. “When people come into town, they ask around and they find Liberty Mountain. It’s used by everyone, and we probably have more miles of trails here than anywhere else in Central Virginia.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind, it has been incredibly successful,” added Dr. Clark Zealand, associate dean for academics in the School of Education, whose area of research when he taught in the Department of Sport Management was in outdoor recreation management and trail maintenance. “It’s an incredible resource and an amazing sanctuary that Liberty not only offers its students, staff, and faculty, but also the community at large.”

 (Click to enlarge map)Trail visitors can print out a map of the trail system online. Maps are also available at the trailhead kiosks. There is also a safety system with specific location markers at trail intersections so visitors can be located quickly in the event of an emergency, with cell phone reception available on most of the mountain property.

Zealand notes that major improvements to the trail system have made it easily accessible for all ages.

“They’ve done all kinds of great additions to make it more inviting and more sustainable,” he said, including building bridges in places where it gets muddy and putting down rocks to solidify areas of the trail and guard against erosion. “Crews have come in and improved the trail alignment, taking into consideration the topography of the land, so you’re not going straight down a hill.”

The best way for a trail to be maintained is for it to get plenty of foot and tread traffic, Zealand said, which prevents it from becoming overgrown and keeps it packed down. With the trail system’s popularity, that hasn’t been a problem.

Mountain bikers approach Lake Trail on Thursday. (Photo by Kevin Manguiob)“Trails don’t stay in existence without usage,” Zealand said. “I’ve seen a wide array of students and more and more people out there — from just casual walkers and hikers to trail runners and mountain bikers.”

Zealand directs the BEAST Series, an annual series of six ultramarathons in the Lynchburg area. “People come from all over the area and across the country for our ultra- races, and it amazes them that the university manages that network of trails as large as (Liberty Mountain) right on campus,” he said. “They ask questions about it, and they come back to run on it.”

Zealand and his wife, Andrea, and 15-year-old-son, Coleman, take advantage of the easy access to the trail system whenever they can.

“Coleman is severely autistic, and it’s a great place for him to get out into nature, to take him out to the trail system,” Zealand said. “I love that there’s a nice variation of trails. Some are easier than others, some are more technical, rockier with more roots. Some are more novice and some more advanced.”

Jamie Swyers, Liberty’s director of Recreation Centers, frequently runs on the trails.

“As a runner and Liberty staff member, I enjoy the convenience of leaving the office and running on the vast array of trails available with my friends and colleagues,” she said. “The trails offer a unique getaway in our own backyard for both competitive and recreational runners, bikers, and hikers. It’s a fantastic opportunity to engage with the wider Lynchburg community and to share this health-promoting resource with our neighbors.”

Swyers believes the health benefits of using the trail system are immeasurable.

“The well-being of LU students, faculty, staff, and our larger community benefit from this resource in so many ways,” she said. “The physical benefits of exercise are amplified by participating outdoors, which offers a larger impact of stress reduction.”

Beginning to intermediate runners are invited to join the Blue Ridge Trail Runners on one of their “No Runner Left Behind” trail runs, starting at the Snowflex Centre at 5:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays throughout the summer. Others looking to explore it on their own can start at Snowflex and follow the double-track “Falwell Road” or single-track “Lake Trail” or “Trail Too Far” to the Hydaway Outdoor Recreation Center.

None are longer than the 3.5-mile “Idiot’s Run” that connects Hydaway Lake to the end of “Monogram Road,” though several form a 13.1-mile loop for the Deep Hollow Half Marathon, the first race of the Liberty Mountain Trail Series in October.

This spring, the Liberty Mountain Trail System was featured on a Virginia tourism travel blog about the best “Mountain Biking Trails Around the Commonwealth.”

Hydaway Outdoor Recreation Center has mountain bikes that students can rent for free, as well as ATVs that can be checked out for use on a quarter-mile loop track.

“The terrain is pretty difficult, so it attracts experienced mountain bikers,” Ellsworth said, noting they can put their technical expertise to the test in the “Playground” area, a trio of trails with unique features. He said there are plenty of wider trails for beginner mountain bikers.

For more on outdoor recreation opportunities provided at Liberty, read a story in the summer edition of the Liberty Journal.

Runners in the Valley View Major Mike Donahue Memorial 5-Miler, one of six races in the Liberty Mountain Trail Series, round Hydaway Lake. (Photo by Mitchell Bryant)