Every year during that first warm weekend in springtime we make the drive up to Damascus, Virginia, to take part in what has become one of our favorite traditions. We finish our coffee before pulling in to the Blue Blaze Bike Rental, one of several bike shops that line the main street in town. While others might be enjoying those extra hours of sleep a Saturday morning usually brings, we’re rolling our bikes to the trailer and piling into a van with a dozen or more kindred souls. Whether our journey begins across the valley in Abingdon or in the cold mountain air that still lingers on White Top, a morning ride on the Virginia Creeper Trail is guaranteed to be enjoyed.
An early start is essential for those of us who prefer a little solitude with nature, as many a late straggler will learn. Afternoons can see the trail packed from one end to the other along its thirty-four mile length. In fact, most years see upwards of 250,000 visitors take on the trail, some on foot, others on horses, but the vast majority on two wheels. Whether travelers come for the beautiful farmland views or the thrilling high-speed course through Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, it’s no doubt that the trail has become a national destination. Not only has it officially been designated a National Recreation Trail but it also made the list on the Rail-to-Trails Conservancy’s 2018 Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.
The Virginia Creeper was one of our region’s first rail trails when construction began in 1977. Today it’s joined by an ever-growing network of pathways as communities realize what valuable assets such trails can be. Besides the health benefits outdoor activities provide such as physical exercise and stress reduction, rail trails in urban areas can serve as safe pedestrian routes that get people off busy roads. Many times they become vacation destinations and can completely revitalize an area’s economy. The Creeper is a great example of this. Despite meeting hot resistance from local landowners when first propositioned, the trail has become an economic powerhouse for the communities of Abingdon and Damascus. From the bike rental shops that line Laurel Avenue to the numerous bed-and-breakfasts, dozens of family-owned businesses thrive.
Rail trails are still a fairly modern development, especially in southern states. The Illinois Prairie Path led the way in 1963 thanks to a grassroots effort that reclaimed the recently abandoned Chicago, Aurora, & Elgin Railway. The first segments were opened in 1967 and today over sixty one miles of pathways connect Chicago with many of its western suburbs. Perhaps the true frontrunner of the modern rail-trail movement is Wisconsin’s Elroy-Sparta State Trail. This unique trail features three historic tunnels along its route and was created when the state purchased the land in 1965.
Despite the early popularity of these projects, nearly twenty years would go by before the idea really caught on. 1980 saw the passage of the Staggers Rail Act, legislation that eased regulations on railroad companies. This made it easier for them to abandon rail lines that were no longer in service, and abandon they did. In the decade that followed the acts’s passage, over 65,000 miles of railroads were deserted. That’s over 20% of the nation’s historic rail lines, which had reached a peak of 275,000 miles in the early 1900’s! Soon another measure known as the Railbanking Act was passed. This proposal would allow railroad companies to turn over the unused land to be converted into recreational parks.
This led to an explosion of trail construction that shows no signs of slowing down even today. According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, there are over 23,600 miles of rail-trails spread across every state. The vast majority can be found in the Great Lakes region that gave birth to the idea. Michigan reigns supreme with over 2,400 miles forming a web across the entire state. Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania can also boast upwards of 1,800 miles in their states. New York is looking to catch up with a new initiative that looks to add 350 miles by 2020. Even more ambitious is the Great American Rail Trail, a project that spans the width of the country and aims to create an unbroken pathway from Washington, D.C. all the way to Washington State.
Unfortunately, our region is severely lacking when it comes to rail-trail mileage. Virginia leads the way with 408 miles, while most southeastern states (Tennessee included) average around a hundred miles of open trails. In addition to the Creeper, favorites include the High Bridge Trail between Richmond and Lynchburg, the much closer New River Trail State Park, as well as South Carolina’s Swamp Rabbit Trail that runs through the foothills of the Blue Ridge.
Tennessee has seen promising growth in the last few years, one of the highlights being our own Tweetsie Trail right here in Tri-Cities. The Greenline Trail in Memphis connects city residents to a surprising amount of nature in the Home of the Blues. One of the biggest projects is the ongoing construction to complete the Mountain Goat Trail. Running from Cowan to the town of Palmer high atop the Cumberland Plateau, the original railroad earned its peculiar nickname thanks to the unusually steep grade as it climbed the escarpment. Eight miles have been completed so far near the towns of Monteagle and Tracy City. A recent acquisition by Grundy County has now secured the remaining land from CSX, and construction is expected to begin soon to complete the remainder of the 35 mile route. Supporters hope it will bring a huge burst of tourism to the area and spur the creation of even more routes.
We are hoping to explore more of these awesome destinations in future editions of The Loafer…so be sure to check back as it gets closer to spring! If you’re interested in learning more about the Rails-to-Trails movement, finding a trail to explore on your own, or becoming a rail trail champion to promote their expansion in Tennessee, be sure to visit www.railstotrails.org!