A Cyclist Is Setting Off To Save Miles Of Loudoun County's Historic Gravel Roads The county is home to 250 miles of gravel roads, some dating back to the 1700s. As development threatens some of those roads, one cyclist says he'll ride them all in one sitting to raise awareness.
From NPR station

WAMU 88.5

A Cyclist Is Setting Off To Save Miles Of Loudoun County's Historic Gravel Roads

Western Loudoun's historic gravel road known as Millville Road outside of the Village of Bloomfield. The county has more than 250 miles of gravel roads. Courtesy of/Douglas Graham hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/Douglas Graham

As you head west out of Leesburg, Virginia, the roads have a tendency to disappear. It's not that they end; rather, the smooth tarmac many of us so closely associate with modernity disappears underfoot, leaving behind a roadbed of tightly packed gravel.

Some drive these roads and find the bumps and divots to be a nuisance. Kasey Clark, though, sees history — and an opportunity.

Starting before the sun rises on Oct. 31, Clark and his bicycle will set off on an ambitious quest — to ride the roughly 250 miles of gravel roads that crisscross the western portion of Loudoun County. Setting out from Middleburg, he'll make his way north towards the Potomac River, pedaling for upwards of 24 hours along narrow roads that meander through valleys and over hills, past farms and through small towns.

"They're some of the oldest unpaved roads in the country," he says.

And Clark, who moved to the area four years ago, wants to help keep them as they are. The 44-year-old farmer is raising awareness and money for America's Routes, a volunteer effort to preserve Loudoun County's unpaved roads — some of which could be at risk from the development (and pavement) sweeping westward through the fast-growing county on the outer edges of Washington's sprawl.

Article continues below

Preservationists worry that without more attention — and historic protection — the roads, and part of the history they represent, could eventually disappear.

"In the last few years, we've seen more of these historic roads paved over," says Danielle Nadler, a Leesburg-based writer and supporter of preserving the roads. "And when that happens, you're seeing cars go faster on paved roads. Suddenly, a tractor maybe doesn't take that road, or the sheep that were once moved on there aren't doing that anymore. It just really changes the whole pace of the county."

'Unchanged For 200 Years'

Preservationists say Loudoun County's gravel roads are the oldest in Virginia. Some routes date to the 1700s.

An 1854 map of Loudoun County. Courtesy of/Library of Congress hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/Library of Congress

"The original gravel roads are in most cases on the exact same trace that farmers used with driving livestock, that folks went out in carriages on, that brought troops around to the Civil War on both sides. So in most cases, these are the authentic road traces, unchanged for 200 years," says Jennifer Worcester Moore, 39, president of the Virginia Piedmont Heritage Area.

The roads — most of them only slightly wider than a modern car — carve across the county's western countryside, framed by stacked stone walls, steep embankments and "witness trees" — so called because they are thought to have been alive during critical moments in American history. Preservationists call the roads a "living museum."

And that was part of the appeal for Nadler, 37, who grew up in South Dakota but eventually moved to Leesburg with her husband. She now volunteers some of her time working with America's Routes, which was founded in 2018, to document the gravel roads and their history.

"When I moved out here, I realized that these roads aren't weren't just dug out five years ago to connect one cornfield to another," she says, comparing it to the flat gravel roads of her native state. "They are hundreds of years old and were created really as a system to connect the farms in this area."

Nadler says the history, look and feel of the gravel roads have also have a more modern appeal: they can serve as an additional draw for visitors coming to the area to visit pick-it-yourself farms, vineyards, inns, and historic towns.

"I think if it is a paved road with, you know, about yellow lines down the middle, it just doesn't quite have that same experience," she says.

Kori Lord, Emily Lord and Haley Oliver hack their horses down Old Waterford Road near Fieldstone Farm between Waterford and Leesburg. Courtesy of/Douglas Graham/WLP hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/Douglas Graham/WLP

Growth, Or Gravel?

Many debates over historic sites tend to pit preservation against progress, and the discussion around Loudoun County's gravel roads isn't much different. But the gap between what the county is and what it once was is only growing larger. Not only is Loudoun an emerging tech hub — an estimated 70% of the world internet traffic flows through its many data centers — but it is an area that is growing by leaps and bounds.

Located on the fringes of the suburban sprawl emanating outwards from Washington, D.C., Loudoun County's population almost doubled from 1990 to 2000, according to county data. It grew another 70% from 2000 to 2010. And, according to U.S. Census estimates, the number of residents has jumped another 32% since 2010 — ranking it among the country's 25 fastest-growing counties.

With the last phase of Metro's Silver Line expected to come into service next year, planners and elected officials have taken steps to manage the county's growth. Last year, officials rewrote the county's comprehensive development plan for the first time in two decades. The process included a slight expansion to what's known as the Transition Policy Area, a swath of land just west of Dulles Airport meant to serve as a buffer between the county's developing east side and the more rural west side, known as the Rural Policy Area, or RPA. (Maryland's Montgomery County has a similar set-aside in its agricultural reserve.)

Jordan Hicks take the Piedmont Fox Hounds for a walk after breakfast down Newlin Mill Road to a favorite swimming hole. Courtesy of/Douglas Graham/WLP hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/Douglas Graham/WLP

Still, even the county's comprehensive plan recognized the delicate balance between preservation and managing growth.

"The Rural North and Rural South are home to a centuries old farming community that shaped the physical landscape and the social and economic fabric of Loudoun," it reads. "However, over the past 30 years, as portions of the County and the region have become more urbanized, the RPA has faced increased challenges related to demographic changes, land use, economics, and transportation improvements, thus facilitating and enabling the conversion of land for rural residential subdivisions at an increasing rate as some residents seek an alternative to urban life."

And once those residential subdivisions move in, preservationists say it's only a matter of time before there are calls for gravel roads to be paved. That's already happened with Williams Gap Road outside of the Town of Round Hill, and Greggsville Road outside Philomont. In May, Preservation Virginia, a historic preservation group, added Loudoun County's gravel roads to its list of the commonwealth's "most endangered historic places."

But some residents and officials say the gravel roads pose practical challenges: they're narrow and tough on cars, and can be difficult to navigate for emergency vehicles. And these aren't new concerns. "I get a lot of complaints. It takes up a lot of time in my office," a member of the county's Board of Supervisors told The Washington Post in 2014.

Those types of complaints are only multiplying as more people move into Loudoun County, says Moore. "In many cases, if a subdivision is built along a dirt road, the novelty wears off and people start really lobbying to pave the roads."

Gordon Leigh finds himself somewhere in the middle. He's the general manager of the Goodstone Inn, a bucolic Middleburg getaway located on Foxcroft Road — right at the point where pavement gives way to gravel.

"Everybody is very much aware that what we're trying to do is maintain a look. As a business owner it's a double-edged sword because there's incredibly more maintenance involved in gravel roads," he says. And it's not just the shape of the roads, but also what they can do to cars. "We've got more and more folks that are wary of coming to us because we've got gravel roads."

Leigh says the compromise may be to leave the lower-traffic gravel roads alone, and consider paving some of the busier ones. The Virginia Department of Transportation, which is responsible for upkeep of many of Loudoun County's gravel roads, is trying to satisfy both sides in its own way: it has recently started testing a new type of gravel surface on two stretches of road that could require less upkeep. It did something similar in 2017 on a gravel road leading to a popular winery just outside Leesburg.

But Nadler says those efforts aren't taking away from what America's Routes is focused on: keeping as many of the gravel roads from being paved over altogether. And they scored something of a victory in June, when the Virginia Department of Historic Resources declared the roads are eligible for inclusion on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

Actually getting on those lists, though, will take additional historical research to prove they merit the inclusion. And that will be left to the group's preservationist, Jane Covington. That sort of research takes money, which America's Routes is trying to raise.

Pedaling Preservation

And that's where Kacey Clark is trying to help.

He's hoping his 250-mile ride — 286, if you include the paved roads he'll have to ride on — will attract some attention for the cause. He'll ride clear through the night, and he's already lined up friends to help encourage and feed him — "Maybe a warm slice of pizza, possibly a local beer," he says — along the punishing route, which includes 23,000 feet of climbing, more than the height of Denali in Alaska.

Kacey Clark, 44, helps run a farm for the Bainum Family Foundation that provides fruits and vegetable to food-insecure communities in Washington, D.C. Martin Austermuhle/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Martin Austermuhle/WAMU

Clark thinks the timing is perfect: not only is he trying to draw attention to the country's gravel roads, but he's also doing so during a pandemic that has prompted a surge in interest in cycling. And that interest is partly focused on gravel, a new segment of the cycling industry that has grown by leaps and bounds in the U.S. in recent years.

For Clark, the value of Loudoun County's gravel roads is that they're quiet and there's not much traffic, which makes them more approachable to regular cyclists who may shy away from riding alongside car traffic. And that they're historic, he says, makes them that much more special.

"If the nation was covered in gravel roads, then maybe they wouldn't be worth saving. But roads are getting wider and more extensive. And we don't have many, at least on the East Coast, many small country roads anymore," he says. "You'll see people herding sheep through the roads, hunt clubs moving through with their driving dogs. It's like a little microcosm of American history. It's pretty cool."

Questions or comments about the story?

WAMU 88.5 values your feedback.

From NPR station

WAMU 88.5