It’s sometime in the early 20th century, and a Norfolk & Western locomotive is chugging along the “Cripple Creek Extension” through southwest Virginia carrying iron ore to a main line water stop called Martin’s Station (now Pulaski). The view out the window is of the rippling northbound New River, a scene the passengers on trains that traveled the same corridor no doubt relished.
Today, the view is graciously the same, but onlookers are now coasting on bikes, riding horses or even hiking on foot along Virginia’s longest linear state park.
When higher quality ore started coming out of the Midwest, rail traffic along the extension gradually slowed to a final halt in October of 1985. Norfolk Southern donated the rail bed to the Commonwealth and one of the earliest “rails-to-trails” efforts was underway. In May of 1987, New River Trail State Park opened with four completed miles. Now 57 miles in total, the park stretches from Pulaski to two terminus branches in Galax and Fries and traverses four counties, Carroll, Grayson, Pulaski and Wythe. There are non-flush toilets about every 10 miles, and it’s wheelchair accessible.
Park Manager Sam Sweeney chuckles, “It is actually uphill both ways.” And looking at a topography map of the park, it’s clear. Heading south, after the trail crosses over Interstate 81, it descends to the river’s edge and follows a relatively flat grade until a gentle climb starts around Shot Tower Historical State Park – significant, of course, for dropping molten lead bullets 150-feet down into a kettle of water to form perfectly cylindrical ammunition in the early 19th century.
Bumping along the crushed stone path keeps you pleasantly connected to the natural surroundings, as if submersion in the scenery of mountaintops, tree canopies and river-carved cliff walls wasn’t enough. Reminiscent of its railway origins, there are restored bucolic rail depots, two tunnels and at least 30 bridges and train trestles along the way. There are 17 entry points and four primitive campgrounds (with no vehicular access) for those that want to try their tolerance for bike packing.
The park sits 3rd in number of visitors and consistently generates over $1 million in revenue each year. The New River Trail is longer than the popular Creeper Trail near Damascus, so the experience is more peaceful and secluded given that visitors are more dispersed along the route.
On the river itself, there are sights like Byllesby & Buck Dams for picturesque spillways or the naturally occurring Chestnut Creek Falls north of Galax. “One of the most interesting places on the river is Double Shoals near Fries Junction,“ Sweeney adds. Double Shoals, a legendary mile-long rock garden, is a fluvial playground for kayakers.
There are also numerous historical relics. Just south of Allisonia sits a low stone wall that is the remains of an ore washer, a contraption to separate the metal for smelting from the ore. The commanding Cliffside Mansion in Cliffview, just before the Galax terminus, was once the home of Thomas L. Felts of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. The agency played a major hand in the internationally-headlined Hillsville Courthouse Massacre of 1912 (worth a Google search).
A Virginia Tech environmental interpretation class helps write the interpretive signs along the trail, and future signs are in development. The depot at Foster Falls, which serves as the park’s headquarters, will soon house a museum showcasing local community, railroad and environmental histories. And renovations are underway to turn the old 1880s Foster Falls Hotel, which in later years served as a girl’s industrial school and orphanage, into a bed and breakfast.
Sweeney, a Virginia Tech graduate who majored in history, is extremely passionate about finding ways to conserve the history along the trail and give visitors easy access to the many stories the land could tell. “We have such a unique opportunity to showcase history. We want to tell the tale of what we’re all about, not just for out-of-towners, but for locals also.”
One of the newest developments is Hoover Mountain Biking Park, a long anticipated extension of the trail in Hiwassee. A unique homage to local history, the park sits on a closed iron oxide pigment mine with striking yellow, orange and brown earthen walls. Hoover Color Corporation partnered with Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to prepare the company’s 250-acre site for an environmentally sustainable transformation to recreational space.
“I travel to Utah and Colorado to hike and bike the canyons there,” CEO Chuck Hoover adds. “This feels the same, it just happens to be a manmade canyon. But the natural landscape is pretty spectacular.”
The beauty of the new mountain biking park echoes the sentiment of New River Trail State Park. When faced with a dormant piece of property, a closed mine or an out-of-business rail line, turn it over for the greater good. Work tirelessly and passionately to create something for the community to learn from and enjoy. Thankfully folks with such a pay-it-forward vision exist all around us. It provides recreational access to the past and a unique opportunity to prepare it all for the future. Generations to come may one day read about today’s efforts on a carefully crafted sign.
Text by Nancy S. Moseley
Nancy S. Moseley is a freelance writer from Blacksburg who prefers to explore trails via mountain bike. In 2014, she biked the 100-mile Mountains of Misery. She will never do that again.