The Rails to Trails project: The perfect gateway to spring

Whether at a leisurely pace enjoying the scenery or at the focused pace of a marathon runner in training, people find rails to trails ideal for all levels of physical activity. Photo: View across the Ivanhoe trestle L. King

WYTHE COUNTY, Va., April 5, 2012 — Like the first daffodils peeking through the soil, we emerge from winter seeking sunshine and renewal. Urban areas have huge expanses of manicured parks, but in Southwest Virginia our favorite park covers a tiny 1,337 acres, is 57 miles long but averages just 80 feet wide. The New River Trail State Park has the Rails to Trails project to thank for its unique size and shape.

A rails to trails path is the transformation of an abandoned railway easement into a multi-use path, typically for walking, cycling and sometimes horse riding. The characteristics of former tracks — flat, long, frequently running through historical areas — are appealing for various recreational development. Since the basic groundwork has long since been laid, these unique parks are among the most cost effective to open up as recreational areas for all to enjoy.

The benefits of converting a railbed to a recreational area are many. Since railbeds were originally laid to overcome formidable natural obstacles while still maintaining a gentle grade and path, the physical demands of navigating the trails are strictly up to the individual. Whether at a liesurely pace, enjoying the scenery, or at the focused pace of a marathon runner in training, people find rail to trails ideal for all levels of physical activity.

Ivanhoe access to the trail Photo: L. King

As transportation and supply of commodities evolved beyond the feasibility of using railroads, thousands of miles of railbeds were abandoned to nature. However, some far thinking individuals, as well as legislators, realized the potential of developing these abandoned railbeds as recreational areas and The Rails To Trails Conservancy was born. 

From its humble beginnings in 1986, The Rails To Trails Conservancy has grown from a few dedicated members to over 150,000 current members and from just 200 trails to currently over 1,600 covering 19,000 miles of converted railbeds. In addition,the Conservancy has identified another 9,000 miles for future consideration.

Here in southwest Virginia, we are blessed with one of the premier rails to trails parks. The New River Trail State Park has been designated an official National Recreation Trail by the U. S. Department of the Interior. It is also a state park. The park parallels 39 miles of the New River, which is one of the world’s oldest rivers, despite its name, and among a handful of rivers flowing north.

The beauty of this ancient river and the path it has carved is unparalled in beauty and granduer. The New River is truly an American treasure. Amongst the scenery on the trail are two tunnels measuring 135 feet and 193 feet long; three major bridges: Hiwasee - 951 feet; Ivanhoe - 670 feet; Fries Junction - 1,089 feet; and almost 30 smaller bridges and trestles, just to name a few. At nearby Foster Falls one can take a short detour from the trail to tour The Shot Tower Historic State Park.

New River from trestle bridge Photo L. King

Built by a local miner and businessman in 1807 to manufacture ammunition, The Shot Tower is one of only three of this design still existing in the United States, and may well be the only one of its particular design in the world. During the Civil War it was the chief domestic supplier of lead shot to the Confederacy.

Wildlife is abundant. From your garden variety groundhog and squirrels to deer and bobcats, if it is indigenous to this region you will at some point spot it on the New River Trail. Those familiar with the seasons on the trail also know the choice times and places to find wild berries and fallen nuts. At places the wild raspberries literally droop onto the trail, surprising and delighting those fortunate enough to pause and enjoy nature’s bounty at its wildest.

Over the years, the trail has gone from a little known local treasure to one of national recognition. So many accolades have been showered on this park and its adjacent features, that it is easy to see why it had over a million visitors in 2007 alone.

These numbers are increasing as the word gets out about all the park has to offer. Camping, fishing, canoeing, biking, and horseback riding are but a few of the ever-expanding activities available.

Chances are most people are within driving distance of a “Rails to Trails” experience. If you yearn for a true taste of Americana, take the time to explore this wonderful national treasure that literally slices through the heartland of the nation.

For a complete history of the rails to trails movement as well as information on creating, supporting, and locating trails go to

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Lisa King

I was born and educated in Southwest Virginia, traveled with my job all over America in my twenties and early thirties then came back to the mountains to raise my daughter.

I’ve been employed as everything from a quality control technician in industrial construction, to a mail processing plant manager, to postmaster of a small town. I’ve been to forty nine of the fifty states, as well as many other countries. Traveling will always be a passion I indulge, and something I’ll call upon often in my writing. 

I come from a long line of story tellers, and will shamelessly exploit a family tree resplendent with colorful and unique characters, both past and present.

In short my perspective will reflect the pride and familiarity I have of my Appalachian heritage. My stories will be a reflection of the values I believe we hold dearest here, all embellished with a healthy dose of Southern Appalachian flare.


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