A unique course in Virginia’s Natural Bridge State Park is focused on forest succession and sustainability.
Standing in the Tamarack visitor’s center in late 2018, flipping through a West Virginia travel guide, Jim Jones had an idea. The park manager of Natural Bridge State Park in Virginia landed on an article about disc golf courses. Reading about the breadth of options in his neighboring state, his mind turned.
“I thought, ‘That’d be interesting,’” he remembers. “An adventure sport like that sort of fits with our mission and why not be able to get people outdoors and on a trail and enjoy not just the trail, but a game of disc golf?”
Back in 2016, a piece of land in Rockbridge County that is now part of the state park was slated to become an 18-hole traditional golf course. The venture never materialized, but signs of the intended development are still present. There are visible scars from the land razing, dormant sprinkler heads remain embedded in the ground, and a few retired control boxes for the irrigation system still dot the periphery. Once the area became part of the state park, Jones and his team changed course, first adopting it as an educational tool, managing it as a pollinator field and utilizing it as an example of an early succession habitat. As the disc golf idea took hold and Jones pinpointed the recovering area as its location, he maintained his commitment to keeping the area’s regenerative initiatives in motion, fusing the two projects together.
“There’s early succession that’s there, it’s kind of the beginnings of a forest,” says Jones of the area. “What we are trying to do is keep a portion of that in that early succession, and in doing that we end up creating a habitat for wildflowers and the thistle was one of the prolific wildflowers in the area, so that’s how it ended up getting its name, Thistle Ridge.”
Jones himself does not play disc golf. To make what’s now open as the Thistle Ridge Disc Golf Trail, he outsourced the technical elements of the project to those who do. In 2019, while serving as the chair of Rockbridge Outdoors—a local group of more than 40 organizations and businesses with a shared commitment to outdoor recreation and stewardship—Jones connected with James Dick, the director of outdoor education at nearby Washington and Lee University, who was recruited to assist with the trail design while also serving as a conduit between the park and the local disc golf community.
“He was kind of the bridge between the park’s mission and what a disc golf player would want,” Jones says.
Dick introduced Jones to Brian Hamelman, a founding member of the local Rockbridge Disc Golf Club. It was Hamelman who brought the eye of an experienced player to the project.
“Brian actually brought the expertise and being able to lay out a unique, creative, and interesting disc golf course that we are hoping a lot of people are going to really enjoy,” says Jones. “He was basically our golf pro, the one who laid out and designed the course.”
For nearly a year leading up to the course’s opening, Hamelman and a group of Rockbridge Disc Golf Club members showed up at the course on the third Saturday of every month to cut trails, install baskets, and build tee pads. Hamelman became particulalry excited by the area’s features. The topography, the sweeping views, the open, tree-lined fairways. It would be the perfect complement to the existing local course on the Washington and Lee campus, which has shorter holes and is very technical and wooded.
“The land itself was really, really beautiful,” says Hamelman of Thistle Ridge. “As we started working on this project, I think a lot of lightbulbs went off in Jim’s head about making it as green as possible and connecting it to nature.”
The back of a Thistle Ridge scorecard displays different types of trees seen on the course, from American Persimmons to Virginia Pines. And a welcome sign affirms the park’s commitment to managing the course’s fields specifically for pollinator habitat. Other sustainability features include the tee pads. Stepping up to each hole, guests will notice a soft, powdery material underfoot, a byproduct of roughly 1,800,000 recycled glass bottles that were ground up and packed, roughly 100,000 pounds apiece, into each tee box. The signs next to the tee boxes, displaying the length, map, and par of each hole, were created by Hamelman.
Beyond the work of Hamelman and Dick on the micro aspects of development, Jones was also blown away by the macro (read: monetary) support his idea received from the local community. The Rockbridge Community Health Foundation contributed $25,000. Washington and Lee University contributed $4,500, which was then matched by disc golf company Innova through the Matching Baskets Program, giving Thistle Ridge its 18 new baskets. Those three, Jones says, along with the Friends of Natural Bridge State Park, were instrumental in funding the project, turning Jones’ West Virginia daydream into a Virginia reality.
Thistle Ridge, which officially opened last June, comes at a perfect time for a local disc golf community that has flourished since the onset of the pandemic. Hamelman says that, while Rockbridge County still has smaller numbers than the clubs in Bedford, Richmond, and Charlottesville, it’s an ardent, close-knit, and, as of late, expanding group.
“Disc golf is definitely growing in this area,” he says. “In this community it means companionship, sportsmanship, friendship. It’s a really fun area to get together with the same group of people week to week and challenge each other and grow as players.”
Disc Golf World Championships Coming to Virginia
The 2024 PDGA Professional Disc Golf World Championships will be held in Virginia, marking the first time the high-profile event will take place in the Commonwealth. The sport’s top players will compete on two courses in and around Lynchburg, Va., with the event running from August 21-25. The Pro Worlds will feature a newly built course with mostly open terrain at the Ivy Hill Disc Golf Club, and action will also take place on a more wooded course at the New London Tech Disc Golf Club in Bedford County. More details will be released soon at pdga.com.
Thistle Ridge Disc Golf Trail Hole 5. All photos courtesy of Virginia department of conservation and recreation.