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Guest post: Virginia’s Creeper Trail offers an inspiring model for the Salmonberry

The Whitetip Station along the Creeper Trail.
(Photos by Tom Howe)

This guest post is by Tom Howe, the man behind the Puddlecycle ride series. His last post was about biking to the solar eclipse.

“If you had told me at that time that those tracks would one day be a bike path with 250,000 riders annually, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

The Salmonberry Trail is a project that will make use of a derelict rail line from the current end of the Banks-Vernonia Trail all the way to the Oregon coast. The trail has been in the planning stages for a long time, but if Virginia’s experience with the state’s 34-mile Creeper Trail is any indication, Oregon would do well to complete the Salmonberry sooner rather than later.

Back in the 1980s, the Virginia Creeper was itself an abandoned rail line that the US Forest Service decided to make into a recreation trail. Given the very rural nature of the area, this idea was met with some skepticism, but the trail has become wildly successful beyond anyone’s expectations. The trail holds special significance to me, as I once lived in Abingdon just a few blocks from the abandoned rail line. As neighborhood kids, we’d go over to the tracks and walk over the high trestles as a foolish/daring/scary thing to do. The only thing I ever saw on the tracks was a Drasine – a motorized vehicle about the size of an automobile.

If you had told me at that time that those tracks would one day be a bike path with 250,000 riders annually, I wouldn’t have believed it. That figure is over 25 times the combined populations of the two towns along the trail – Abingdon and Damascus. Trail-related tourism is estimated at $25 million per year, and each overnight visitor spends about $700 in the area.

Green Cove station.

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Businesses have flourished along the trail.

The Creeper Trail has transformed the economy of Damascus. Back in the day, my mother liked to drive over there to visit “The Damascus Junkman” – an antique and local curiosity shop. My memory of the main drag through Damascus is that it consisted of this antique shop, a convenience store, and a gas station. Today the town has a variety of restaurants and lodging options, and incredibly, seven bike shops all within a few blocks of each other.

So how do all these bike shops stay in business? Well, it’s not via sales, but through bike rentals and bike shuttle service. Part of the attraction of the Creeper Trial is that for 18 miles it gradually descends from 3,600 feet at Whitetop Station to about 2,000 feet in Damascus. This makes for a relaxed ride going in the downhill direction, so many visitors opt to have a Damascus bike shop drive them to the top in a passenger van with a large bike trailer in tow. Whitetop Station is named for the adjacent Whitetop Mountain, which at 5,520 feet is the second highest peak in Virginia. The remaining 16 miles of the trail from Damascus to Abingdon is fairly flat with some minor ups and downs.

The trail has mix of surfaces, primarily hard-packed gravel.

Another thing to note about the Creeper Trail is that it is entirely gravel except for the wooden decks of the 47 trestles along the route. This gravel is a finely-ground type called Compact Aggregate that is easy to ride on, even with narrow tires. The fact that the trail is unpaved seems to have done nothing to quell enthusiasm, and it might have even increased its popularity, as tourists riding the trail feel it is more akin to mountain biking. This type of surface is one of the possible choices for the Salmonberry and deserves serious consideration with its ease of maintenance compared to asphalt.

So could the Salmonberry become as popular as the Creeper Trail with the more challenging terrain of the Oregon Coast range? I believe it could, given the increasing popularity of e-bikes, if a means is developed to rent e-bikes along the Salmonberry just like regular mountain bikes have been rented in Damascus, Virginia for the past 30 years. Once the trail is built there will undoubtedly be additional opportunities for tourism in the Oregon towns the trail will pass through like Buxton, Timber, Batterson, Mohler, and Wheeler. There was nothing along the Virginia Creeper when it was an abandoned rail line, but today the old train stations have been converted to businesses, and enterprising landowners adjacent to the trail have opened up additional shops.

I know the Salmonberry is a challenging project and there are already a lot of great people working hard to make it a reality. Hopefully this peek at the Creeper Trail offers some inspiration.

Browse all our Salmonberry Trail stories here.

— Tom Howe

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