For those of you not already on board, it’s time to embrace a phenomenon that’s spreading throughout Virginia and across the nation.
It’s called “rails to trails,” and it involves saving and repurposing some of the thousands of miles of abandoned railroad grades by turning them into hiking and biking trails.
Some of us are old enough to remember when railroads were much more prevalent than they are now, both for hauling cargo and transporting people.
And for those who’ve never ridden a train, there was a huge benefit that most of us today will never experience: Trains have run on thousands of miles of track through scenic landscapes that we’ll never see by just riding around in our cars.
Mountainous areas such as Southwest Virginia are a prime example of this, where railbeds were carved out of mountainsides in areas far removed from roads and highways.
Riding a rail route for the first time, one never knew for sure what stunning beauty might lie around the next bend.
These lines ran over countless rivers and streams, mostly on wooden trestles that were themselves works of art and fine examples of then-contemporary civil engineering. Some of the trestles were high enough to catch a rider’s breath when looking out over a deep mountain gorge from a coach window.
We’re fortunate to have many railroad historical groups across the nation dedicated to preserving some of these scenic rail routes for excursion trains. But there are still thousands of miles of abandoned railbeds that will never see another train.
That’s where the rails-to-trails concept kicks in. The reasoning is that if we can’t ride trains on these secluded lines through some of the most scenic places on the planet, we could at least preserve the railbeds — along with their bridges and historic trestles — for those of us who want to travel them under our own power.
We’re fortunate to have about 50 rails-to-trails projects open, underway or partially completed in our region and across the state, including the already quite popular 35-mile Virginia Creeper Trail from Abingdon to Mount Rogers and the 8-mile Salt Trail from Saltville to Glade Spring.
Our newest local stretch of railbed turned hiking-and-biking trail is part of the planned 12.5-mile Mendota Trail, which, when completed, would stretch from Bristol, Virginia to Mendota, all of it entirely within Washington County.
As reporter Joe Tennis has chronicled in the Washington County News, two sections of the trail are already open to hikers and bikers: a 1-mile section from Mendota toward Bristol, which opened in late 2017, and a 3.1-mile stretch at the other end, running from near the Interstate 81 underpass on Island Road in far north Bristol to Reedy Road. This section was opened to the public in August.
Mountain Heritage Inc., a nonprofit based in St. Paul, Virginia, is the owner and developer of the Mendota Trail and is still very much in need of donations to help bring this entire project to completion. (See mendotatrail.org.)
These rails-to-trails projects need and deserve our support. Here in Southwest Virginia, the ones already open to hikers and cyclists are contributing to our growing recreational and tourism industry, which is bringing people, jobs and money to our region.
Even those of us who aren’t into hiking or biking can enjoy parts of these trails and visit some of the historic places they are helping to highlight. Among those is The Store at Mendota, run by Katie Harris, who inherited it from her father. She reopened the store recently and hopes the business will benefit from the town’s newfound public interest resulting from the Mendota Trail.
Rallying behind efforts such as these new trails helps to preserve our heritage and build a brighter future for our children and grandchildren.