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Editorial: A trail from Galax to Greenfield

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The Huckleberry Trail runs from Christiansburg to Blacksburg along the path of an old railroad line with one leg continuing on to the national forest. What would it take to connect all the major trail systems in this part of the state — the New River Valley Trail State Park, which runs from Galax to Pulaski, the Huckleberry Trail in the New River Valley, and the Roanoke Valley Greenways — into one single system that would stretch 100 miles or more from Galax to Greenfield in Botetourt County? Our editorial looks at the prospects.

Someday, many years from now, when you can ride a bike all the way from Galax to the Greenfield Center in Botetourt County, you may wonder how such a fantastical trail system came to be.

Here’s how it got started: One night in June 2018 the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors and Christiansburg Town Council had dinner.

The two governing bodies met June 18 at Great Road on Main to talk about what government prose would describe simply as “issues of mutual concern.” One thing they discussed that night: Who should pay for putting up signs to recognize Christiansburg High School’s 17 state wrestling championships.

And then there was this: Steve Fijalkowski, the supervisor who represents the Shawsville-Elliston area, brought up the idea of connecting the trail system in the New River Valley with the one in the Roanoke Valley. He’s a member of the Roanoke Valley Transportation Planning Organization board and the concept had come up there. If you want to peel back the onion on this idea, there are a lot of layers.

If you peel it back far enough, you wind up in 1966. That’s when J.C. Garrett of the horticulture department at Virginia Tech and others worked to turn part of an old railroad bed into a walking path that went from the Blacksburg library to Airport Road. That path was one mile long. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, the old Chinese proverb goes. In this case, a journey of more than 100 miles began with a single mile. That one.

That was the Huckleberry Trail and in 1989 Blacksburg officials, led by then-Mayor Roger Hedgepeth, started pushing for it to be expanded. Today the trail runs all the way from Christiansburg to Blacksburg and beyond, to the edge of the national forest, where it connects to the forest’s trail network. In all, about 14 miles.

While the Huckleberry Trail was growing, so were other trail systems.

In 1986, Norfolk Southern donated used right-of-way to the state. In 1987, the New River Valley Trail State Park opened. Today it runs 57.7 miles from Galax to Pulaski, mostly along the New River.

Then in 1993, people in the Roanoke Valley started talking about creating a network of trails that in time became the Roanoke Valley Greenway. Today the greenway stretches from Vinton to Green Hill Park west of Salem, with only a few minor interruptions. So far 34.9 miles have been built; another 9.5 miles have been funded but not yet constructed. In time, the greenway will stretch for 44.4 miles, and perhaps longer if some proposed sections get added.

All told, there are three pretty big trails already: The New River Valley Trail State Park from Galax to Pulaski, the Huckleberry Trail from Blacksburg to Christiansburg, and the Roanoke Valley Greenway from Green Hill Park to Vinton with various offshoots elsewhere in the Roanoke Valley.

The idea of connecting them all has come up before. In our archives, we found the first mention of that idea back in 2005, and there could well have been earlier mentions. However, that sort of grand connected trail system has always been presented as a futuristic concept along the lines of, say, going to Mars. That future may be closer than we think.

That June night in Christiansburg, Fijalkowski noted that fellow members of the Roanoke Valley Transportation Planning Organization board had been intrigued by the concept of a greenway to connect the Roanoke and New River valleys, and there might possibly be some funding available. The mood around the table that night was enthusiastic and the next day The Roanoke Times carried a story headlined: “Leaders talk regional trails connection.”

The next day, Chris Tuck, the chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors, got a text message from Naomi Huntington, a newly-elected member of Radford City Council. It basically said: “Don’t forget Radford.” That city has its own trail system. What would it take to connect Radford to the Huckleberry, and then onto the Roanoke Valley Greenways?

Then Pulaski County came up. The New River Valley Trail State Park already ends there. The county has other trails and is moving to add more. What would it take to fill in those gaps and create a trail system that ran all the way from Galax to the Huckleberry and then on to Roanoke?

Next thing you know, Tuck was sending out a letter to local governments from Grayson County to Roanoke to pitch the idea of a summit to talk about connecting the trails. He thought he was thinking big; he soon learned he wasn’t thinking big enough. Roanoke County officials urged him to invite Vinton and Botetourt County, because there are plans to extend the Roanoke River Greenways all the way out to the Greenfield Center. So now they’re part of the summit, too, which Tuck hopes will take place sometime in late August or early September.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and this trail network won’t be, either. Look how long it’s taken to build the Roanoke Valley Greenways — basically about two decades, and we’re still not done. The biggest gap in this “valley to valley” proposal is the section between Christiansburg and Green Hill Park — about 24 miles, or two-thirds the completed mileage of the current Roanoke Valley Greenways. From Radford to Christiansburg is another 10 miles or so. Then maybe 20 miles through Pulaski. This is no small undertaking. On the other hand, if you’re looking at the big picture — a 100-mile-plus trail from Galax to Greenfield — about half of it is already done. We just need to fill in the gaps and pound in the greenway equivalent of a golden spike.

“It could be 20 years before we see this realized, but if we don’t start working on it now, it will never happen,” said Montgomery County Supervisor April DeMotts. She and Fijalkowski will be heading things up. The project needs funding, planning, surveys, engineering, all that.

So why does this matter, other than the fact that it would be a fun thing to have? Tuck passes on something that Bill Ellenbogen, a Blacksburg businessman who heads Friends of the Huckleberry, told him. “A biking enthusiast will do 40-to-50 miles in a day. So picture this: Friday night, they come into town and stay in a hotel. Saturday they ride 50 miles, then stay overnight, then get up and ride, maybe stay in a hotel Sunday night and go back Monday. You’ve just created economic development.”

We already know our greenways are a big selling point, anyway. This would be an even bigger one.

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