Taking a ride on Virginia's rail-trails

November 7, 2015

Source: Bill Lohman | Richmond Times Dispatch

On an autumn Sunday afternoon, we unloaded our bicycles in Farmville and set off pedaling along a path of crushed stone that used to be a rail bed.

The trains quit running years ago and the tracks have been pulled up, leaving a perfect trail through the woods for cyclists, walkers, runners and horseback riders. However, one critical element of the old railroad route remains that is a huge payoff for those out for a ride, stroll or jog: High Bridge, a span of almost a half-mile high above the Appomattox River valley between Prince Edward and Cumberland counties.

High Bridge Trail State Park — a so-called linear park that extends for 31 miles between Burkeville and Pamplin with Farmville in the middle — has much to commend it, including its peaceful setting and generally flat terrain, but the bridge is its calling card. At 2,400 feet, it is the longest recreational bridge in Virginia, according to the state park system. It’s also a kick to ride or walk or whatever across such a structure and gain an unparalleled view of the countryside without worrying about needing to dodge a truck. Or a train.

The opening of the long-awaited Virginia Capital Trail — connecting Richmond, Jamestown and Williamsburg — has captured the attention of Richmond-area cyclists looking for an off-road riding experience. A subset of such public paths are rail-trails: unused railway corridors converted into multiuse trails. Virginia has a number of such trails, some long and seamless, others disjointed as they are pieced together in development. All offer users a different, often scenic view of an area, since railroads typically occupied picturesque real estate.

When the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy was established in 1986, there were 250 miles of rail-trails in the United States, mostly in rural areas and almost exclusively for recreation and conservation. Now, there are more than 22,000 miles of rail-trails, and increasingly those miles encompass not only rural routes but also suburban and urban ones, making them useful not only as a method of fitness but also as a means of basic transportation — of commuting to work, for example. Like the trains used to do.

The conservancy recently published a second edition of its “Rail-Trails Mid-Atlantic,” and Virginia is represented with coverage of 16 trails, plus the Mount Vernon Trail, an 18-mile paved trail between George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and Theodore Roosevelt Island in the Potomac River that is a wonderful trail but is not a converted rail bed.

I’m most familiar with some of the longest of the Virginia rail-trails: New River Trail State Park (57 miles — which even my then-6-year-old pedaled from end to end over the course of a few days) and the Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail (34 miles). My family has pedaled the Creeper Trail most every summer for more than a decade. The eastern half — from Whitetop Station to Damascus — is lovely and largely downhill through forests, past Christmas tree farms and along trout streams; we always enjoy stopping at the Creeper Trail Café in Taylors Valley for ice cream and maybe a plate of pinto beans and cornbread. Damascus is a good central point with bike rental shops, restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts. Damascus to Abingdon is slightly uphill but not overly strenuous.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to ride another of the longest rail-trails, the Washington & Old Dominion Regional Park, which is 45 miles of paved trail on a former rail bed through Northern Virginia.

Another potentially lengthy rail-trail is the Tobacco Heritage Trail, which encompasses 150 miles of abandoned railroad right of way through five counties in Southside Virginia. So far, an estimated 23 miles of off-road trail have been completed plus 29 miles of designated trail on existing roadways. Development has been slow because “typically we are dependent upon grant funding to purchase the (right of way) or easements and construct the trail, which is challenging,” said Robin M. Tuck, a regional planner for the Southside Planning District Commission. She said up to 13 miles could be added soon.

The Tobacco Heritage Trail is not among the rail-trails in the conservancy’s book, but it is included in another rail-trails book, “Virginia Rail Trails: Crossing the Commonwealth” by Joe Tennis. In fact, Tennis includes 45 Virginia rail-trails in his book, some (including tiny rail-trails in Ashland and Chester) that don’t even reach a mile in length.

Tennis, a longtime reporter for the Bristol Herald Courier, has written numerous articles about rail-trails in Southwest Virginia and how these abandoned rail routes have been transformed into “big business for tourism.”

“What happened in Southwest Virginia has inspired people all over the state,” Tennis wrote in an email. “The Virginia Creeper and the New River Trail were both born in the 1980s, and their popularity in the past few years is what got people moving on the trails at High Bridge and at the Tobacco Heritage Trail. They saw how Damascus was born again with the trail, and they have tried to capture a similar feel.”