Distance: 3.2 miles (one-way, out and back); Difficulty: Easy to moderate (mostly flat grades along an old railbed; some slightly steeper grades along one or two sections); Other Considerations: No trailhead parking is available at Reedy Creek Road due to the trail being a work in progress, making this a mandatory out-and-back trip; users should be aware that the length and accessibility of the trail will change as development continues.
The Mendota Trail, a new and eventually 12-mile rail-trail from near downtown Bristol to Mendota, Virginia, isn’t located in the Cumberland Mountains. Instead, it’s well into Virginia’s Ridge and Valley region, located well south of the Cumberlands and outside of this site’s typical coverage area. However, we’ve decided to include the trail in one of our usual writeups due to the fact that, as a new trail, little detailed info can be found online. In addition, it’s a new offering that folks from the Cumberlands can and will enjoy.
Before we get to the details, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: this isn’t the Virginia Creeper Trail. Any rail-trail in the Tricities region of southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee will invariably attract comparisons to the region’s most famous multi-use trail, and users coming to the Mendota Trail expecting to find a Creeper Trail clone will be disappointed. However, such a comparison isn’t really fair. While the two have similar roots – the Mendota Trail, like the Creeper, follows the path of a former railroad – the former trail has a character all its own. The Mendota Trail, at least in its current state, has a more natural trail surface and is somewhat more “rugged” than the Virginia Creeper Trail…but that ultimately helps add more variety into the region’s rail-trail offerings. And, unlike some other recently-developed multi-use trails in southwest Virginia, it doesn’t resemble an unfinished construction site. Managers have clearly cared about laying this route out, and it shows in what they’ve developed on the ground.
The Mendota Trail’s southern terminus is located off of Island Road in Bristol, specifically in a gravel lot/field just up the hill and west of the spot where Island Road ducks under Interstate 81 just outside of downtown. The actual railbed comprising the trail begins directly under this bridge, but a lack of parking along the road means that users have to travel a tenth of a mile or two extra to find the signed parking lot. A narrow gravel path switchbacks down the hill from the back of this lot and quickly joins the Mendota Trail under the bridge. (Note that we’ll be using our own mileage calculations here instead of the mile markers on the trail itself due to factoring in the slight extra distance needed to get from the parking area to the actual trail.)
The trail’s character for the first mile or so becomes apparent immediately under the bridge, following a small creek upstream through neighorhoods just north of downtown Bristol. You’ll pass through a powerline clearing around 0.3 miles from the parking area and the cross over a refurbished trestle at 0.5 miles. A road crossing occurs about a tenth of a mile further. Be sure to watch out for vehicle traffic at this and other road crossings all along the route, which are all well-signed to alert trail users.
The trail then rounds the base of Big Ridge through the woods, crossing a culvert and Campground Road in quick succession at 1.1 miles. This crossing occurs at a spot where the original railbed that forms the foundation for the Mendota Trail appears to have been borrowed by Campground Road, thanks to both the former railroad and current roadbed borrowing a gap in Big Ridge created by the stream you’ve been following from the start. Trailbuilders have addressed this by creating a new, roadside trail separated from the asphalt by a fence here, which turns hard left just on the other side of Campground Road. From here, you’ll do some slightly steeper climbing on a crushed-gravel path to cross through the gap in the ridge, climbing alongside Cowan Drive and then crossing it at 1.4 miles.
From here, you’ll be back on the former railbed and paralleling Cowan Drive for much of the rest of the trail’s currently-open southern segment. This stretch is a mix of woods, fields, and neighborhoods that’s varied enough to keep the scenery from becoming stagnant. That theme ends at around 2.65 miles as you cross a private drive and pass through a series of open fields over the next third of a mile or so. If you’re using the trail in the growing season, take note that the trail switches to a grass base here and may become a bit thick if maintenance has not occurred recently. However, it’s still easily navigable.
On the other side of the fields, the trail re-enters the woods and continues generally tracking north, reaching its current terminus at Reedy Creek Road around 3.2 miles from the parking area. While the railbed clearly continues here, the trail is still under development. This means that the route will eventually continue well beyond this point and all the way to Mendota, where a one-mile segment of trail is currently open along the route’s northernmost end. For the moment, though, respect trail managers and nearby landowners and avoid continuing further past Reedy Creek Road. Instead, you can retrace your steps from here and return to the parking area off of Island Road.
Since the Mendota Trail is a work in progress, there a couple of key things to know before planning a visit. The first – and most important – is the information relayed in the preceding paragraph about trail access. Relationships with adjacent landowners are key for any trail but are especially important for a trail like this one, which often runs close to homes or even through or adjacent to residents’ yards. Help respect those landowners by keeping your dogs leashed as you pass, keeping yourself, pets, and children on the trail, and refraining from being too loud. In short, treat those landowners like you’d expect to be treated if a trail ran right by your backdoor.
Second, the Mendota Trail’s managers have chosen a more natural trailbed than the nearby Virginia Creeper Trail, which uses a smooth, crushed-gravel base. On the Mendota Trail, you’ll be experiencing a mixture of packed dirt and grass, with some gravel deposited in areas where the route has had to deviate slightly from the old railbed itself. In a couple of stretches, remnants of old wooden railroad ties were even still visible in the ground during our visit. While the trail is still easily traveled, this means that you shouldn’t expect a Creeper-style ride. Things may be a bit rougher, and this probably isn’t the place to bring your road bike, as is occasionally possible on the Creeper Trail. As is mentioned above, the Mendota Trail has its own unique character, so plan for that character when making your trip.
Along the entire first three miles out of Bristol, the Mendota Trail is all Great Valley, a province within Virginia and the broader Appalachian region that is home to the mountains’ agricultural and urban heart. While this was a frontier when the first European settlers came on the scene, it quickly became a transportation corridor as those settlers realized that the region – so named because it comprises a massive, low-elevation valley running almost continuously from Alabama to New York – provided for much easier movement than the more rugged terrain located to both the west and east.
Following that settlement, the Great Valley first became crisscrossed by trading routes just like it had been earlier by Native American travel routes and even wildlife migration corridors. Railroads like the one forming the foundation for the Mendota Trail came next, and today some of the East’s most famous interstates like I-81 and I-75 follow the same Great Valley. Here in Appalachia, the terrain dictates everything.
The natural landscape traversed by the Mendota Trail isn’t a wilderness, but that’s due to the area’s rich history of human influence. The fields the trail passes through harken back to this region’s agricultural heritage, including the growth of tobacco, which once was a major crop here. Many of the trail’s forests are actually second-growth (or even third- or fourth-growth) woodlands that have regenerated from past cleared areas, providing a great overview of the ever-shifting landscape created by forest succession. One thing you may notice as you travel the trail, in fact, is the growing influence of residential and commercial development on the landscape – the latest in the trail’s centuries-old history of human change as Bristol’s urban influence continues to expand outward.
Directions: From downtown Bristol, take Commonwealth Avenue north. Take a left and then an immediate right at the final traffic light before Commonwealth Avenue becomes I-381 (taking these turns will keep you on Commonwealth Avenue as it leaves the divided highway). Follow this road until it meets Island Road at a T-intersection and hang a right onto Island Road. The signed trailhead lot is up a hill on the left not far after this turn.
If traveling from Abingdon and points north on I-81, take Exit 5 off of I-81 (the exit for The Falls shopping center and Cabela’s) and turn right onto US-19. Almost immediately after this turn, make a left onto Island Road and follow it towards downtown Bristol. Shortly after Island Road passes under I-81, the entrance to the signed trailhead lot will be located on the right.