Photo: City of Charlottesville

The Adventurer’s Guide to Ragged Mountain Natural Area

Hike, boat, and fish at this spectacular mountain reserve.

If you need an outdoor fix near Charlottesville, Virginia, look no further than Ragged Mountain Natural Area. This 980-acre swathe of forest lies just 20 minutes west of downtown and offers a variety of adventures.  

Along with its extensive trail system, the park is famous for its views from 909-foot-tall Round Top Mountain. Beneath the peak, Ragged Mountain Reservoir is perfect for fishing and paddling. The reservoir’s shores teem with wildlife, making the natural area a haven for photographers and birders as well as hikers. Bonus: The city of Charlottesville recently acquired an additional ​​142 acres at the adjacent Heyward Community Forest where you can do even more exploring amid the hardwood forest and rolling hills. 

Whatever you’re looking for, the Ragged Mountain Natural Area offers a quiet escape amid some of Virginia’s most iconic scenery. Here are some of our favorite options. 

Hiking

Ragged Mountain offers a network of well-maintained trails to explore.  

Lake Front LoopFor a challenging but scenic hike, try the Lake Front Loop. This hike is just over 7 miles long and consists mostly of dirt paths that loop around the entirety of the 170-acre reservoir. It may be lakeside, but don’t underestimate this trail: It features a total gain of about 1,200 feet. To get there, park at the upper parking lot at the end of Reservoir Road. Hop on the trail in either direction to start the loop. 

Sculpture Hikes  

For a shorter hike, consider an out-and-back along sections of the Lake Front or Main Loop trails. The path is dotted with wooden sculptures that make great turnaround points. Try finding the Mountain Man statue a quarter mile north of the parking lot along the Lake Front/Main Loop Trail, or the Bear Statue about half a mile north from Mountain Man. 

Photo: City of Charlottesville

Birding

Ragged Mountain is an incredible place to see wildlife, especially the various species of birds that frequent the forest canopy and reservoir year-round. Here’s what to look for and when. 

Winter: In the colder months, you’re likely to see waterfowl in the reservoir including Canada geese, mallard, and ruddy duck. Keep your binocs on the trees for chances at glimpsing yellow-bellied sapsuckers and woodpeckers.

Spring: As the days lengthen, you’ll spot migrating songbirds passing through the natural area, including blue-winged warblers and Tennessee warblers.  

Summer: Vireos, flycatchers, and orioles can be spotted throughout the summer, as well as birds of prey like red-tailed hawks and bald eagles.  

Autumn: In fall, you’ll see other migrating birds like blackpoll warblers and bay-breasted warblers. You’re also likely to see other songbirds, including yellow-throated warblers, northern parula, field sparrows, yellow-breasted chat, and more. 

Where to Go  

Looking for solitude? Consider going out onto the Rocky Peninsula for quieter birding opportunities. Park at the upper parking lot and head south on the Lake Front/Main Loop Trail. After about 1.2 miles, turn right and head north on the Peninsula Trail. (Return the way you came to exit the park.)

Boating

While swimming in the reservoir is prohibited, non-motorized boats are welcome. The ban on motors makes the lake a calm, quiet, and peaceful place to paddle. There’s no boat launch, so smaller boats like kayaks and canoes are often easier to put in from shore. (For the best access, park in the upper parking lot and carry your boat to the water.) 

Note: When you enter and exit the water, make sure that you, your gear and equipment, and your boat are not stationed in front of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA) shed. It's important to leave a clear path between the shed and the water so that RWSA can quickly move between their facility and the water in case of emergencies. 

Fishing

The reservoir is great for everyone from first-time anglers to veterans comfortable with casting from a kayak seat. You’ll find both ​​largemouth bass and bluegill in this well-stocked reservoir. Cast near downed trees and submerged vegetation, which can provide shelter for fish and make for popular areas to get a nibble. Most anglers find more largemouth bass in the warmer months between March and August. You’ll have better success fishing for trout, however, come fall. 

For the best access, park in the upper parking lot and carry your boat to the water. Be sure to have a current Virginia fishing license. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.