Mattaponi Bluffs Nature Trail Guide

Welcome to Zoar State Forest Nature Trail System!

This guide will allow you to take a self-guided tour of the Mattaponi Bluffs Trail. Markers along the trail help you interpret what you see and gain a deeper appreciation of the special qualities this area offers. During your visit, be sure to use your sense senses - sight, sound, smell, and touch. They'll give you an opportunity to learn more about this forest.

Please follow the "Leave No Trace" ethic during your visit.

  • Leave only footprints, and take only photographs and memories with you
  • Take the litter you generate on your visit with you as you leave.

Enjoy your visit and come again soon, since each visit will offer a different sensory experience in this changing forest.

A guide is also available for the Herring Creek Trail.

Mattaponi Bluffs Nature Trail - (1 Mile)

Begin your hike in the upper parking lot.

Stop #1

You are now standing on an upland bluff. The vegetation is noticeably different from the plants and trees at lower elevations in front of you. While water is the major factor which determines this, sunlight and soil nutrients also play a part.

Stop #2

Fifty feet down the bluff lay the Mattaponi River floodplain. After long periods of heavy rain, much of the area is covered with water. The plants and animals that live there must be able to tolerate these periodic high water conditions.

Stop #3

Many of these bottomland trees have adapted to the fluctuating water table by developing wide spreading shallow root systems and buttressed tree trunks which help support the trees. Bottomland forests are forested wetlands that serve important functions as filters for rainwater runoff and help recharge shallow water aquifers.

Stop #4

On your right is a large beech tree. This tree has cavities in it. Look at the base on the back side. This is probably the result of the wet conditions which made this tree a host for a variety of insects and fungi. Trees with cavities provide needed nesting, foraging and winter cover for squirrels, raccoons, owls, wood ducks, woodpeckers and a variety of songbirds.

Stop #5

This seasonal freshwater pool is often called a vernal pool. Despite being dry at certains times of the year, when filled with water, it teems with life. The aquatic plants produce oxygen and slow flood waters. They trap sediment and remove nutrients and pollutants from the water. This is important habitat for a number of animals including frogs, toads and salamanders and many species of insect larvae mature here.

Stop #6

The Mattaponi River wanders from its headwaters in Spotsylvania County southeast to West Point where it meets the Pamunkey River to form the York River. Now principally used for recreation, the river remains a constant force in reshaping the landscape. Notice how soil cut from the outside of the river bend is redeposited further down river on the inner bend.

Stop #7

This stop features two large specimens of typical bottomland tree species. Behind you the green ash prefers direct sunlight and moist sites. It has a shallow root system and exhibits rapid growth. The swamp chestnut oak to your left also prefers these same growing conditions, but is a slower growing species.

Stop #8

When the ground is saturated with water and strong winds move along the river, some trees are not able to withstand these forces and break off or topple over. Others die of old age, disease, insect attacks or lightning strikes. When they die, insects and microorganisms begin the process of decomposition. This process breaks the tree into tiny pieces of organic matter. These nutrients are then used by other plants.

Stop #9

Two of the most dominant vines you will see in this area are poison ivy and greenbriar. Poison ivy is easily distinguishable by it clusters of three leaves and white berries when in season. Greenbriar is distinguished by green stems, heavy thorns, waxy leaves, and black colored berries. While both plants are a nuisance to us, whitetail deer make greenbriar a regular part of their diet, and songbirds feast on the berries of both plants in the fall and winter.

Stop #10

Notice the twin-trunked beech tree near the river. It had been gnawed extensively by beaver when it was younger causing the odd shaped trunk. These large wounds have since healed over. Beaver feed on the inner bark, leaves and twigs of more than forty woody plants. Active for about twelve hours each night, feeding and working on their dams, it is easy to see how the expression "busy as a beaver" originated.

Stop #11

You are now standing on an outer curve of the Mattaponi River. The water is undercutting this bank and the trees on it. Occasionally a tree ends up in the river. A certain amount of sediment and nutrient loading to the river and Chesapeake Bay is a natural phenomenon. However, excessive erosion and sedimentation caused by poor management of the land can have very detrimental effects on water quality in the Bay. This can adversely affect both fish and wildlife.

Stop #12

The bridge you just crossed was constructed by the Youth Conservation Corps. Local Boy Scouts, Americorp and other groups have also contributed to the development of Zoar State Forest. If you live nearby and would like to become a volunteer, please feel free to contact us at

Stop #13

You are standing over the old river channel of the Mattaponi River which contains a wide assortment of ferns and wetland plants. These plants are perennials, which mean they grow back from their roots each spring after dying back to the ground each winter. One of these plants is the arrowhead plant, which grows a single purple flower stalk in midsummer and has arrowhead-shaped leaves. Another is jewelweed which has tiny orange flowers. It was called this peculiar name by early settlers due to the ability of its juices to help prevent the spread of poison ivy!

Another interesting thing to see here is the “windthrow.” This is a term used to describe when trees are uprooted by high winds and thrown to the ground, often pulling up and displaying a large mass of roots in the process.

Stop #14

You have now returned to the top of the bluff. Here we see wild azalea, a small understory shrub. It has light green fuzzy leaves and small pink to white blossoms in late spring and early summer. Mountain laurel is also located here. It is a larger evergreen shrub with dark, shiny leaves. In the winter, this spot provides a good vista of the floodplain and river below you.

Stop #15

Notice that these trees are less hardy looking. This is due to the poorer soils present as well as past management practices. This area was selectively logged years ago. In the process, the larger dominant trees were removed, leaving smaller suppressed trees. Small openings were created in the canopy allowing just enough sunlight in to favor plants that grow well in shady conditions. One of these trees is the flowering dogwood, the state tree of Virginia.

NOTE: You may now descend the steps to the lower parking area. From there you can continue on to the Herring Creek Nature Trail or stop by the Herring Creek Canoe Access area. If you would prefer to stop your visit at this time, turn around and head back to the upper parking area.