Southwest Virginia already has myriad trails used for recreational cycling, walking, running and other outdoor activities, but the Mendota Trail might be a gem in and of itself.

The rails-to-trails project was built on the bed of an old railroad line that connected Bristol, Virginia, to the rural community of Mendota in Washington County. The physical distance is only about 12 miles, but one end of the trail is an entire world away from the other.

THE TRAILHEAD

The city of Bristol purchased the old railroad property in 2016 and it was deeded to Mountain Heritage, LLC, which is a nonprofit group with a history of successful rails-to-trails projects.

In 2020, the deed was transferred to the Mendota Trail Conservancy.

The Bristol trailhead is located off of Island Road at the I-81 underpass just before Exit 3. The trail runs north toward the community of Benhams, which is about six miles away.

GENTLE GRADE

The trail is a slight uphill grade in the beginning, but levels out quite considerably and is a great destination for a secluded morning run, walk or bike ride. The surface is more natural instead of all of the crushed gravel like the Virginia Creeper Trail in Abingdon, Virginia, or the Tweetsie Trail in Johnson City.

The first mile of the trail opened in 2017 on the Mendota end and in the following year, the first 3.1 miles opened on the Bristol end.

The Mendota end is still mostly under construction, but progress from the Bristol end is coming along quite well.

OPENING NEW SECTIONS

Along the original corridor, there were 19 trestles, and the project has ambitions to retire all of them. Trestle No. 3 — a 40-foot-high, 193-foot-long bridge across Abrams Creek — was unveiled to the public Nov. 13 in addition to another 2.2 miles going into Benhams.

The trail is now 5.2 miles in length from the Bristol trailhead to the end that is currently open to the public.

When the project is complete, the trail will span 12.5 miles from Bristol to Mendota and will provide another tool for local recreational use. The trail will take you from the outskirts of a small city to a beautiful community nestled along the banks of the North Fork of the Holston River. And you won’t even have to leave Washington County.

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