Montpelier Hosts Big Woods Walk Through Old-Growth Forest

By JULIA TRAVERS   Oct. 10, 2017

On Sunday, Oct. 15, Montpelier invites you to explore an old-growth forest with Horticulturist Sandy Mudrinich. She will share unique insights gleaned from her decades of experience tending the natural areas around our fourth President’s home in Orange, Virginia. Guests who join the seasonal Big Woods Walk, a gentle, 1-mile loop through the 200-acre James Madison Landmark Forest, will learn about local ecology and Madison’s role as an early conservationist.

Montpelier’s Woods

“Big Woods Walk participants will get to see the upper canopy trees, [including] Black, White and Red Oaks, Chestnut, Hickories or Pignut, Tulip trees, White Ashes, middle and lower canopy trees [such as] Beeches, Ironwood, Redbuds, Dogwoods, Pawpaws, shrubs like Spicebush, and ground cover specimens,” Sandy says. She will be sure to point out “some specimens that are truly memorable” and will identify invasive plants as well. Forest trekkers are also encouraged to keep an eye out for local wildlife such as the Wood Thrush and Woodpecker and for holes in the massive trees, which the resident opossums, raccoons, squirrel and owls call home.


Montpelier Forest Canopy, photo by Julia Travers

Upon entering the wooded area behind the house, walkers are welcomed with educational signs. One explains that the remaining forest is similar to those Madison’s grandfather found in the 1720s. While much of the land was cleared for agriculture and many trees were felled to use in the construction of the estate, Madison did preserve some of the forest and grieved the loss of the woods, writing, “Of all the errors in our rural economy none is perhaps so much to be regretted, because none is so difficult to be repaired, as the injudicious and excessive destruction of timber.”

Sandy tells us Montpelier now includes forested land that’s been timbered as well as an old-growth forest “that has not seen any appreciable interference since the mid-1800s.” This is the James Madison Landmark Forest and it’s protected through an easement with The Nature Conservancy and designated as a National Natural Landmark by the Park Service. It’s also a dedicated forest within the Old-Growth Forest Networknonprofit working to create a network of accessible old-growth forests within each county in the U.S. where forest naturally grows. The network is comprised of forests that are accessible to the public and protected from commercial timbering.

“My favorite part of the Landmark Forest is the back half where the trail narrows and the sounds and activities of the rest of the property diminish,” says Sandy.

Meet Your Guide

Sandy has a B.S. in Horticulture from VA Tech and has worked at Montpelier since her 1985 internship. “I was here from the very beginning of development,” she explains; Montpelier was a private estate “until The National Trust for Historic Preservation came on board in November 1984.” She now handles the horticultural needs for the whole property, minus the formal garden. During her years on this unique location she has installed irrigation, cared for trees, learned “just how invasive non-natives can become,” catalogued the property’s plants, interpreted and reshaped historic landscapes, created flower beds, and amended depleted soils, among many other tasks.

Sandy maintains the half-acre Oriental Garden and shrub borders surrounding the Madison House front lawn as well. And, she undertakes forestry-oriented tasks while caring for “the approximately 8 miles of nature trails that cross through both the forested areas as well as the meadows and lawns on the property.” She’s now teaming up with groups like Arboristry, The Virginia Boxwood Company, and the Virginia Forestry and Wildlife Group to care for the specimen trees and boxwood shrubs, manage invasive plants and introduce wildflower meadows.


View from the edge of the forest, Montpelier, photo by Julia Travers

It’s hard to imagine a more committed and knowledgeable steward with whom to explore these woods or a more beautiful time of year in Virginia to visit them. The October Big Woods Walk leaves from the David M. Rubenstein Visitor Center at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5. Montpelier is at 11407 Constitution Highway and offers ample parking. Dogs on leashes are welcome.




Forest Signage, photo by Julia Travers


public image from Montpelier’s Facebook page,