How time flies doesn’t it? It seems like we were just excited about the cooler temperatures and chance to get outdoors to enjoy autumn, and here it is already the second week of November! Already stores have ripped down the Halloween décor and placed Christmas trees on every corner. While some of our readers might actually enjoy the cold that settles in throughout December, others of us are not so thrilled with the prospect of bundling up to go outside and enjoy the outdoors. November is our last chance to enjoy “normal” temperatures until spring rolls around again.
Sometimes, however, it’s hard for us to the time in our busy schedules to escape the city and venture into the wilds of the mountains. The distance we must drive to find recreation areas can vary, and we are blessed here in the Tri-Cities to have the Cherokee National Forest and other parks right at our doorstep. It is always a great idea to expand the parks and recreation areas in our urban areas, because unless you live in a major metropolis, they are usually few and far between.
One organization, the Rails to Trails Conservancy, has set out to do just that by an ingenious means: recycling abandoned railroad lines by developing them into walking and biking trails. We already covered one of the best examples of this development in one of our first articles when we biked the Virginia Creeper Trail. Since it was first established in 1986, the conservancy has worked tirelessly year after year to secure new land for further expansion. The idea was hardly new at the time; railroads were first converted into walking trails back in the mid 60’s, according to the foundation’s website. It wasn’t until the conservancy first came together, however, that it really picked up traction, and the first 250 miles of trails quickly expanded to the over 25,000 miles they include today.
As mentioned before, the Virginia Creeper Trail is often presented as the prime example of the benefits that these conversion projects can have, not only on us as individuals, but also on the surrounding land, communities, and economy. Stretching over 30 miles from White Top to Abingdon, Virginia, the route passes through some of the most beautiful portions of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and adjacent farmlands across the Tennessee Valley. Not only does it promote exercise, but it also serves to inspire locals and visitors alike to see the importance of conserving our wilderness areas. The economy also benefits as thousands of visitors come through each month to experience the trail for themselves. If you still have not had a chance to check it out, now would be a perfect time before winter hits.
Of course, not all such trails are wilderness excursions that require a day to complete. Many of you are no doubt familiar with our own Tweetsie Trail. Just recently having opened in 2014, the trail connects Johnson City to the nearby town of Elizabethton, covering almost 10 miles. Passing through residential communities and past rural landscapes, the trail has multiple places to jump on or off the trail. It also provides a connection with the Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, giving residents a new way to access the park. There is talk of extending it further all the way to Roan Mountain, providing even more opportunities for locals and visitors. Whether you have time for a short morning run or half a day to bike the entire length, this local gem is not to be missed!
Just a short drive north across the state line lies the Salt Trail, a gravel path that connects the towns of Saltville and Glade Springs. While it doesn’t see the same number of visitors as the trails discussed thus far, it still provides plenty of opportunities to enjoy the rural countryside that makes southwest Virginia so appealing. This is also one of the few such trails that allows equestrians access as well, so if you have a horse, saddle up! Just a word of caution; the trail is still a work in progress, so there are a few sections that are not completed thus far. It is not hard to see the correct route, just be sure to watch your footing.
These three are just a few examples of the rails to trails conversions which have been completed in our area. There are many more we haven’t discussed, however, such as Railroad Grade Road Trail across the mountain in Boone, N.C. Future trails are in the works, such as several nearby in Knoxville, and the aforementioned extension to the Tweetsie Trail here in our own backyard. Remember, this is an ongoing process, and the conservancy is open to volunteers who wish to do their part and help with the construction of new trails. Donations are also welcomed, as access points and other lands are sometimes necessary to purchase as part of the construction process. A great resource to visit is the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s official website, at www.traillink.com, as it has maps and a search engine to help you find trails located across the region and anywhere else you might find yourself during your travels.