In praise of rail trails

Though it’s a joy to see spring busting out all over, I’m also looking forward to fall. That’s when my hip replacement is supposed to be healed and my wife Rachel and I can head south to ride our hybrid bikes on the Virginia Creeper Rail Trail, in the far west corner of Virginia close to Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky.

In the last few years, the growing movement to create the Adirondack Rail Trail from Lake Placid to Old Forge has piqued our curiosity about the success of other rail-to-trail conversions. We’ve had some wonderful rides on abandoned rail lines in Vermont, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and we look forward to the day when we can pedal one of the finest of all rail trails, right here in our own backyard.

We’ve found that riding these trails is one of the best ways of seeing different parts of our country – soaking up history and scenery at a leisurely pace that enables us to talk with people and listen to birds, all the while enjoying good exercise and breathing fresh country air. It’s also a good way to get a feel for the towns and villages along the way, where we cycling tourists will eat, shop and sometimes spend the night.

What’s most intriguing about the Virginia Creeper Trail are the similarities with what’s possible in the Adirondacks, especially the 34-mile rail corridor between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake. The Creeper Trail is exactly that length. The terrain is also quite similar. The Creeper Trail skirts the Blue Ridge Mountains for much of the ride; then it traverses a largely pastoral landscape. It follows a rushing stream most of the way.

The little town of Damascus (population 1,000) is about halfway between Abingdon at the west end and Whitetop at the east end.

“The Creeper Trail saved Damascus,” said Wayne Miller, president of the Virginia Creeper Trail Club. That was quite a claim, so I called Aaron Sizemore, the town manager of Damascus, for confirmation. “Yes,” said Aaron, “It did save Damascus.” He explained that early on, Damascus was a center for logging. Later the main business was textiles. When that industry died, so did Damascus.

“When I was a kid,” Aaron recalled, “the town would shut down at 5 p.m. There was one restaurant. No lodging places. No bike shops. No jobs. Then the abandoned railroad line was converted into a rail trail, and things began to change.” He estimates there are 200,000 visitors a year to the Creeper Trail, many of whom stop in Damascus. The town has more than a dozen B&Bs on its website, 14 restaurants and eight bike shops. “It’s made all the difference,” he said.

Now let’s substitute our proposed Adirondack Rail Trail for the Virginia Creeper Trail, and substitute Tupper Lake for Damascus. Both towns were once major centers for logging, and both experienced a severe economic slide. What Damascus has in the way of natural amenities – forested hillsides, the confluence of two rivers – Tupper Lake can more than match with the Raquette River and beautiful Big Tupper Lake. The community is also home to the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks (Wild Center), a budding observatory and a replicated train station that could be an appealing museum, commemorating Tupper’s logging and railroad past.

Could the Adirondack Rail Trail help to save Tupper Lake, as the Creeper Trail saved Damascus? You bet it could. Consider the hundreds of thousands of visitors, most of them on bicycles, arriving in town from May through October – cycling on the spur trail to the Wild Center, wandering around the village, renting a canoe or kayak, hiking a nearby mountain, maybe spending the night. Now imagine a large number of snowmobilers coming north from Old Forge once the obstructive tracks have been removed and the snowmobile season on the corridor has doubled from two to four months as a result.

Back to Damascus, which bills itself as “Trail Town USA.” The Creeper Trail isn’t the only trail through town. There’s also the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail that passes down the main street. “But the AT doesn’t have anything like the impact of the Creeper Trail,” the town manager explained. “Only one shop in town caters to hikers.” Everything else seems geared to the rail trail.

“That’s because the Creeper Trail is easy, beautiful and quiet,” he said. “It attracts all kinds of people. Anyone can enjoy it. Visitors will park in Damascus and be shuttled to Whitetop, then descend 1,500 feet on their bikes over the 18 miles back to Damascus.” If you want more exercise, he explained, you can park at Whitetop, breeze down to Damascus, then turn around and bike back to the starting point. Or you can pedal another 16 miles to Abingdon, a town of 8,000.

“What drives your economy?” I asked Jim Cowart, the economic development director for Abingdon.

“Two things,” he said. “The music theater” – where traditional Appalachian Mountain music is regularly performed – “and the Virginia Creeper Trail.”

He referred me to a survey of trail users. Most are bikers, but many local users listed walking as their favorite activity. As for personal benefits, trail users listed 1) health and fitness, 2) viewing nature, 3) place to take pets, 4) sense of community. The “most important features” for trail users are 1) outdoor attractions, 2) eating places, 3) historical attractions.

According to Kevin Costello, Abingdon’s tourist director, the trail has produced a new way of thinking: “People are embracing being able to ride a bike more often. The trail has inspired that kind of philosophy in town.”

It doesn’t really strain the imagination to see what’s possible here. Who can beat our Tri-Lakes area for fascinating history, for outdoor attractions and for viewing nature? All we need now is a safe, easy, scenic, traffic-free recreation trail connecting our communities.

To sign up as a rail-trail advocate and help make it happen, visit

Dick Beamish lives in Sarsnac Lake, is founder of the Adirondack Explorer magazine and is a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.