James Madison’s Landmark Forest

Mansion & Grounds

200-Year-Old Old Growth Forest

Montpelier is home to the 200-acre James Madison Landmark Forest and to some of the best free hikes in the Virginia Piedmont close to Charlottesville, Virginia. Our hiking trail network is set in one of the premier areas in the Piedmont representing a relatively undisturbed old-growth deciduous forest. formed since the late 18th century. It is the "best example of a mature forest dominated primarily by lirodendron tulipifera and lindera benzoin in the Piedmont of eastern North America," according to Dr. Albert E. Radford, professor at the University of North Carolina, who was helpful in seeking the designation of National Natural Landmark by the Department of the Interior. The forest also has been protected with an easement through the Natural Conservancy.

The Landmark Forest has a long history of human use--which is detailed in a recent study by Tom Dierauf, click here and for the soil report by W. Cullen Sherwood, click here.

The 200 acres of trees found in the James Madison Landmark Forest have been virtually undisturbed by man since the 1790s. Trees include oaks (Red, Scarlet, Chestnut, Black, White), Tulip trees, and Hickories (Mockernut, Pignut). Understory plants include Dogwood, Redbud, Spicebush, Virginia Creeper, Honeysuckle, and grapevines. A few of the oaks, poplars, and hickories are between 200-300 years old. The diameters at breast high (d.b.h.) are 36"-48" although some measure 5 feet in diameter.

The soil is Davidson, which is deep, well-drained loam originating from greenstone. It is among the best hardwood forest soils in Virginia. The band of soil (approximately 15 miles wide) extends from Charlottesville to Culpeper. Due to the rich soil, Tulip Trees at 50 years can reach a height of 100-120 feet, and Red Oaks, 80-95 feet. In a moderate site, Tulip trees usually reach a height of 80 feet and Red Oaks 55 feet at age 50. 

The James Madison Trails

We have over 6 miles of nature trails that detail the forest history at Montpelier. Parking for all trail heads is available at Montpelier's David M. Rubenstein Visitor Center. Trail access is free and open to the public during regular business hours. Dogs on leashes are welcome. 

  1. The Landmark Forest trail--this set of interpretive trails wind through the old-growth National Landmark Forest at Montpelier. This section of woods is under easement with the nature conservancy and signs detail the history of these woods from the Madison era to today.
  2. The Demonstration Forest trail--an interpretive trail with signage discussing modern forestry management. The Ballyshannon Fund assisted us with the creation of this trail that details sustainable forestry and its benefits for recreation and wildlife. The Demonstration Forest trail is linked with the Landmark Forest trail and is one mile in length.
  3. The Civil War trail--a trail accessed from Route 20 near the train station and details the history of the property since the Civil War.
  4. Montpelier-Grelen Connector--the trailhead of this three-mile trail is marked by a kiosk below the David M. Rubenstein Visitor Center. The trail crosses over Chicken Mountain to connect with The Market at Grelen, which offers lunch, shopping, and pick-your-own. 

This forest area is free and open to the public during regular visitor hours, with nearly two miles of self-guided trails through the forest.  Guided tours of the Landmark Forest are offered April-October.


Trail Map of Montpelier--trails on the southern part of the map are part of the Landmark Forest.  Click on trails to view description.  View montpelier-paths in a larger map

Want to learn more?

In 2010, retired Chief of Research for the Virginia Department of Forestry, Tom Dierauf, and a group of volunteers conducted a study of the Landmark Forest.  What the team found is that the historical use of the land occupied by Montpelier’s Landmark Forest was comparable to that of other Virginia Piedmont properties. It was cleared, cultivated, pastured, and used for wood products into the early 20th century. Today, it differs from other Virginia Piedmont forests in having trees of extraordinary size and age growing on especially productive soils . Most present day canopy trees apparently originated between the time of James Madison’s death and the Marion duPont years, which would make them between about 80 and 170 years old. Ordinarily, on extremely productive soils like these, trees rarely live 80 years before they are harvested. The complete protection provided by Marion duPont, between 1930 and the creation of the Montpelier Foundation, can largely be credited for the existence of this beautiful forest. Some of its very large oaks and yellow poplars will continue to live for many years, and grow even larger. However, as they gradually die, species composition is destined to shift away from oaks and yellow poplars to more shade tolerant species.
Soil studies were conducted by Prof. W. Cullen Sherwood from James Madison University to examine the effects of soil erosion in the forest. The soil cores found evidence for extensive loss of topsoil during the 18th century and the formation of massive erosional gullies at this time.
To read the full forest report by Tom Dierauf, click here and for the soil report by W. Cullen Sherwood, click here.

What is an old-growth forest?

An old-growth forest:

Consists largely of native plant species
Has grown without significant human intervention
Contains tree species that have reached their maximum lifespan