New River Trail State Park: Galax to Draper

After biking all of the Hall of Fame trails, Joyce and I started researching other rails-to-trails that we could ride.  I noticed that the New River Trail State Park is frequently listed among the top ten trails in the country, even though it is NOT a Hall of Fame trail. Joyce and I decided that this 57-mile crushed limestone trail in southwest Virginia would be ideal to combine with a trip to the Virginia Creeper. After biking from Abingdon to Damascus on the Creeper, we drove a couple of hours northeast to Fries – the southern terminus of a spur trail from the New River Trail.

Ed Kayaking on New River

Ed Kayaking on New River

Before embarking on the trail, we decided to take a brief float on the New River :-). Although I brought my kayak from home, we needed to rent a kayak for Ed and a canoe for Joyce & Ron. Prior to our trip, we made advance reservations with New River Outfitters to shuttle us to the dam in Fries where we put in above a short section of shoals. I thoroughly enjoyed the relaxing paddle on the New River! Truthfully, you didn’t even need to paddle; you could just sit back and let the current carry you downstream (the New River flows from south to north). The calm river meanders through the valleys separating the adjoining Virginia hillside on its way north to West Virginia where its whitewater intensifies, making an extremely popular rafting destination. Truthfully, I prefer the gentle current, and I was disappointed when we approached our takeout point sooner than expected.

Picnic Area along River

Picnic Area along River

Following our refreshing float, Joyce and I decided to bike north from the New River Outfitters to the Fries Junction and back so that we would not have to bike this 6-mile portion of the trail the next morning. The evening air was cool, and we thoroughly enjoyed this short ride along the river. During our ride, we commented about the availability of trail amenities (restrooms, camping, and picnic tables) and the condition (hardpacked and debris free) of the trail. When we returned to our vehicles, we loaded the bikes and drove about 6 miles south to the New River Trail Cabins in Galax.

New River Cabin

New River Cabin

We unpacked, took quick showers, and drove to Creek Bottom Brewery in Galax for dinner. Our food was delicious, and Ed & Ron took advantage of the locally crafted beer. Returning to our creekside cabins, we adjusted our shuttle schedule for the next morning and got a good night’s sleep. I definitely recommend the New River Cabins; not only are they affordable and adjacent to the trail, they are also well maintained and equipped with everything you might want, including a refrigerator, microwave, TV, fireplace, Jacuzzi, and a porch overlooking the creek :-).

Galax Trailhead

Galax Trailhead

Waking to a beautiful summer morning, I could not resist jumping on my bike and pedaling across the bridge and down the creekside path leading to the trailhead. Returning to the cabin, I prepared my bike for the day (mounted my GPS & video camera, loaded and attached my panniers, and checked the air pressure in my tires). Anxious to get on the trail, Joyce and I left a few minutes after 8:30 AM. Our plan was to bike 26 miles north and meet Ed & Ron at Shot Tower (MM 25). In the meantime, Ed & Ron would drop off their bikes at Shot Tower, park the truck in Draper (MM 6), purchase sandwiches for lunch, and drive back to Shot Tower to meet Joyce and me about noon.

Waterfall along Trail

Waterfall along Trail

The first 12 miles of the trail paralleled Chestnut Creek. We had an unobstructed view of the water for most of the trail from Galax to the Fries Junction. With a birds-eye view of the tumbling shoals and small waterfalls, we pedaled north. Prior to the junction, we encountered a tunnel :-). Although the tunnel was not very long, its sharp curvature made it difficult to see the other end. Before entering, I dug out my headlamp, and Joyce followed my light and the illuminated reflectors lining the outer edges of the tunnel. Within a mile after the tunnel, we reached the iron trestle crossing the New River. On the other side of the bridge, we returned to Fries Junction – the spot where we turned around the previous evening.

Tunnel on Trail

Tunnel on Trail

Turning right to continue north along the New River, we pedaled toward Shot Tower. This portion of the trail was mostly tree canopied with frequent glimpses of the river. The trail crossed the river several times, and we took advantage of these opportunities to stretch our legs and take photos. We passed two dams and one short tunnel on the 16 mile stretch between Fries Junction and the Shot Tower. Although there were a few dirt roads leading to the river, this portion of the trail was extremely remote. Thankfully, there were nice restroom facilities about every 3-5 miles.

Shot Tower

Shot Tower

About 5 miles south of Shot Tower, we encountered a brief rain shower. After stopping and putting on our rain jackets, the rain slacked off leaving us steaming hot in our rain gear. Not trusting the gloomy skies, I decided to tie my jacket around my waist instead of packing it away in my panniers. After a few miles, the showers returned, and I was relieved to have quick access to my jacket. The rain was more a nuisance than anything; in fact, the drizzle cooled the air and transformed the surface of the trail from loose gravel to hard-packed dirt. Just as the intensity of the rain increased, we saw Ed standing ahead of us on the trail. We parked our bikes, and he led us up the stairs to the Shot Tower State Park where Ron waited in the car. They drove us a couple of miles east to Foster Falls where we ate a picnic lunch under a covered pavilion along the river.

Martha on Hiwassee River Bridge

Martha on Hiwassee River Bridge

After the rain subsided, we drove back to Shot Tower (site where lead shot was made for fire arms in the early 1800s) where Ron & Ed biked with us for the remaining 19 miles to Draper. This portion of the trail was higher above the river level than the southern section. Although the river was visible below, we were disappointed that it was not closer. Above Foster Falls, there were more homes along the water. We noticed numerous boat docks, particularly near the Hiwassee River Bridge. This bridge, marking the confluence of the Hiwassee River and the New River, was a highlight of our ride this afternoon.

Draper Mercantile

Draper Mercantile

The last four miles leading to Draper were somewhat uphill. When I spotted Ed’s truck parked at the Draper Mercantile, I was relieved! Since the store was closed, we decided to load the bikes in the truck and drive to Pulaski for ice cream :-). Although we skipped the last 4.2 miles from Draper to Dora Junction, we later found out that this section is not only the least scenic part of the trail but is also uphill – we made a good decision!

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New River Trail State Park – July 6, 2016

Bridge Crossing Creek @ New River Cabins

Bridge Crossing Creek @ New River Cabins

Wednesday morning was an 8:30 a.m. start. I’m sure Martha would have liked to begin earlier, as she is a much earlier riser, and I thought at first that I would be ready at 8:00 a.m., but finishing up breakfast of zucchini bread, banana, and orange juice on the cool porch cabin overlooking the creek and then getting my stuff on my bike took more time than I thought it would. But we did leave at 8:30. Martha had already ridden down to the beginning of the trail (about ½ mile) and back to meet me at the cabin, but she agreed to ride about 100 yards down so that I could be opposite our cabins and then turn around and start on our way. (I had pictured myself riding on the trail while eating breakfast and wanted to complete the reality of the situation by riding there.) Anyway, we said our goodbyes to Ron and Ed, who were going to handle the logistics of getting the car and the truck to their respective parking lots so that they could ride part way with us and then still have a car at the trail’s end. Ron was installing the bar ends that Tommy had given him for his birthday, so that he wouldn’t have to lean over quite so much to grasp the handle bars. (Which, by the way, worked just fine, and he looked a lot more comfortable as he rode in front of me on the trail.)

Bridge over New River

Bridge over New River

The first 12 miles was back to the junction where we had left the night before, following close to the creek all the way. The creek was actually as large as a river, and it was very scenic. That might have been my favorite part of the whole trail. And then just before the junction was a long trestle over the part of the river where the creek met the New River. That was great. And for my physical comfort, a clean toilet awaited me before we kept going along the New River. The weather was great—about 68 degrees—and shady under the canopy of trees, and right next to the water. During the next 14 miles along the New River, it was wider, of course, but not as many rocks to create any white water, and some of the time it was harder to see the water because of the trees and shrubs between us and the river. One really nice feature of this trail was the several picnic tables and even little parks situated alongside the trail. And it was well marked with these yellow posts/gates that helped us see where to go next at any intersections. The crushed gravel had quite a bit of packed dirt mixed into it, which made the ride fairly smooth. It was pretty scenery, and I think is near the top in my list of favorites. Our only problem was that the mist that started to surround us eventually turned to rain, and we had to stop to put on our rain jackets, which wasn’t all that bad actually, except when the rain stopped and the mist was thick and hot and we were in a sort of sweat bath with our rain jackets on. But it was all tolerable and not totally uncomfortable. About every hour I had to pee, but the trail was accommodating because about every hour we saw an outhouse. Not just an ordinary wooden outhouse, but a nice cement structure that even had hand sanitizer installed on the wall. Not a flush toilet but good enough to serve the purpose.

Foster Falls Trailhead

Foster Falls Trailhead

After 26 miles we saw Ed on the trail by the Shot Tower where he and Ron were waiting on us. I don’t think they had to wait too long—maybe 10 or 15 minutes. It was still raining a bit, so we decided to drive to Foster Falls and have our picnic rather than bike over there. That was good. It was a nice break, the area was pretty, and we found a little gazebo to eat under. Ron and Ed had picked up sandwiches at the Draper Mercantile before coming to meet up with us. So after lunch the rain had stopped and we headed back to Shot Tower (where in the early 1800’s they used to drop bits of lead down this 150 foot tower, where it formed into a ball and landed in a bucket of water as a round bullet for their shotguns.) We had to carry Ron’s and Ed’s bikes down the steep trail to the New River Trail, but we did it.

Ron & Ed on Trail

Ron & Ed on Trail

Then we started out on the next 20 miles. This section, according to bloggers, was the prettiest, and it was pretty as it paralleled the New River almost all the way, but the river was also sometimes camouflaged by trees. There were a few trestles, but not as many as we had on the first 26 miles and no tunnels (we had gone through two tunnels before we met up with the husbands). It was oftentimes shady, so that was nice, and fairly flat. In all, it was a good ride. The Hiawassee Bridge over the river was long and neat. Soon after that, though, we left the side of the river into the woods for about four miles, and the last two miles were noticeably more uphill than the rest had been. By the time we reached the Draper Mercantile, where Ron and Ed were stopping, Martha and I were ready to forego the last 4.2 miles and stop there also. It wasn’t supposed to be as scenic, the bugs were noticeable, it was hot, there was no river, and I guess my age was showing because I was getting tired after 46 miles. So we decided to just ride with Ed and Ron in the truck over to Pulaski where we cooled off in McDonalds with ice water and a fudge sundae. That was a good finish to a good ride.

We then all rode in the truck back to Shot Tower to pick up the Subaru and part paths. Ron and I drove back to the Brownie House and Martha and Ed went back to the New River Cabins in Galax.