Bicycling Virginia’s New River Trail

Great rail trail for one or multi-day bike trips

We’re seeking more rail trails for bicycle trips as roads get busier and drivers more distracted. Recently we ventured to Virginia’s New River Trail, and it was love at first ride. An easy 1.5-hour drive up Interstate 77 from our North Carolina home, the New River Trail is a 57-mile state park following an old railroad line.

Mention the New River and most think of water adventure. Thousands enjoy the New River (ironically it is one of the world’s oldest rivers) each year by raft, tube, kayak, canoe and even paddle board. We didn’t associate the New River with biking previously, but we do now. The route follows the New River for approximately 40 miles of the 57-mile journey.

Galax, Virginia marks the southern end of the trail; the town of Pulaski is the northern terminus. The railroad bed’s gentle slope, crushed stone base and good maintenance make this popular for visitors of all ages. In addition to bicycles, the trail is open for hiking and horseback riding. We rode gravel bikes, enjoying the light suspension to absorb bumps, but we saw every type of bicycle successfully navigate the trail.

Much of our journey along the New River Trail was shady.
Much of our journey along the New River Trail was shady.
Historic Foster Falls train station was built in the 1800s.
Historic Foster Falls train station was built in the 1800s.

We rode on a hot July day, but the trail is mostly shaded so heat was not an issue. Some stretches are isolated, so take a tire repair kit (ours contains tire wrenches, inner tube, CO2 inflator and multi-tool). We did not navigate either of the New River Trail’s two tunnels (135 and 193 feet long) but have been advised to include a bike light or head lamp if our trip itinerary includes those.

Our bicycle adventure begins at Foster Falls, one of many official entrances to the trail ($7 fee per car). Just a few minutes off I-77, Foster Falls has clean restrooms, ample parking and a park store. This is a cool area of buildings dating to the late 1800s when Foster Falls was a thriving mining community. Camping is available here and several other locations along the trail. Boat, bicycle and horse rentals are available during the summer season, though these concessions were closed the day of our visit for COVID-19 safety concerns so check before you go.

Foster Falls sits near the trail midpoint, mile marker 24. We bicycled north toward Pulaski, hoping to reach the Hiwassee River Bridge 14 miles away for a 28-mile round trip. When road biking, we average 13-14 miles per hour. On the New River Trail that dropped to 10 miles per hour. This is a ride you don’t want to rush. There is too much to see and opportunity for photos as you marvel at the engineering required to build the railroad in the 1800s. For the most part our trail section was wooded with river views and an occasional road crossing. At mile marker 12 we entered the historic town of Allisonia, population 117. Its restored 1800’s train station can be rented for overnight stays. Our turnaround point, Hiwassee River Bridge, is a 90-year historic steel trestle bridge. The bridge was closed for repairs, so we hope to return soon and get photos of the New River and explore the bridge (it has since reopened).

Plan to take the New River Trail slow, soaking in the sights and allowing time for photos.
Plan to take the New River Trail slow, soaking in the sights and allowing time for photos.
Wish we knew the story on this house along the trail. We're told it was abandoned when the land was claimed to create New River Trail State Park.
Wish we knew the story on this house along the trail. We're told it was abandoned when the land was claimed to create New River Trail State Park.
Did you notice these two young vultures in the window of the house above? Look again.
Did you notice these two young vultures in the window of the house above? Look again.

We learned one key lesson from our inaugural New River Trail bike ride: allow lots of time to linger. We had to head back home at a set time for another commitment. As a result, our trip back from Hiwassee bridge to Foster Falls was more of a sprint than we would have liked. Next outing we will allow more than three hours, giving time to stop for lunch or ice cream (or both). We will sit on the riverbank and soak our tired feet as we marvel at the world’s second oldest river. And we’ll take more than one selfie!

 

New River Trail facts:

  • With head waters in the North Carolina mountains, the “New” is the only river in the United States to flow north as it winds through Virginia and West Virginia.
  • The New River is the second oldest in the world, behind the Nile River in Egypt.
  • The New River trail includes three major bridges: Hiwassee – 951 feet; Ivanhoe – 670 feet; and Fries Junction – 1,089 feet along with 30 smaller bridges and trestles.
  • A historic shot tower (mile marker 25) was used more than 200 years ago to make ammunition.
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