If you are looking for a safe, long-distance trail to bike or run in Southside Virginia, give the Tobacco Heritage Trail a ride.
As a part of my work as a transportation planner with the Richmond Regional Transportation Planning Organization (part of the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission), I was given a chance to study and ride the Tobacco Heritage Trail, a rail-to-trail east of South Hill.
I rode the separated, multiuse trails that connect La Crosse, Brodnax and Lawrenceville in Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties. There are more than 17 miles of 10-foot paved and crushed stone double track trail along the Tobacco Heritage Trail, and the surface is smooth and well-maintained.
I was able to ride on a sunny but chilly weekday, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. Temperatures were in the mid-40s to mid-50s during my three hours on the trail. I saw a dozen walkers/runners (with dogs), a handful of riders, and four horseback riders (twice). It was understandable to not see many trail users, as it was during work hours (between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.) and a little chilly for some. I was alone for the section from Brodnax to about five miles west of Lawrenceville.
The trail is paved west of where the trail crosses under Route 58 in Brodnax the rest of the way to La Crosse, with most of the trail on a paved, multiuse path. Some of the trail is on-road, but it is on a low-traffic, neighborhood street that expanded once the railroad was removed.
East of Brodnax, the trail is crushed stone double track. There are at least six water crossings and the bridge spans are beautiful and well-maintained. The Meherrin River crossing is the longest and the bridge offers a nice view. Most of the trail corridor is covered in trees and shady, but there are occasional openings to see farmland and rural landscape.
The amenities along the trail are top notch. There are dozens of equestrian mounting blocks along the trail, especially east of Brodnax where the crushed stone trail is more appealing to horseback riders. The distance-markers are consistent for most of the trail (except near Lawrenceville) and the road crossings are few and well-marked with signage and even have railroad-themed crosswalks painted onto the roadways.There are many new compostable toilets about every five miles along the trail as well, with a couple of them placed at trailheads. On my visit, the informational kiosks were not full of information, but October is outside of the trail’s main visitation season. Though I’d prefer that the trailheads were easier to spot from the local roadways (especially Route 58), there was ample parking at several trailheads along the corridor.
I chose to ride a bike with wider tires than a racing bike, maybe an inch thick, to avoid punctures. I was told that riders of all types ride the trail. A mountain bike would not be needed but a hybrid might be the best choice. The main complaints have come from cyclists riding on thin racing bike tires that “sink” into the softer sand surface along more established sections of the trail. Also, there beware of horse droppings at times along the trail corridor.
Before you go, make note of the safety contact numbers to call along the route as there aren’t many signs to help guide trail users to local authorities.
As for maintenance, according to the trail’s website, “although it is owned by Roanoke River Rails-to-Trails, Inc., the Tobacco Heritage Trail is maintained and improved with volunteer contributions. The Tobacco Heritage Trail is what it is today because of people who contribute. Be one of those people; be a Friend of the Tobacco Heritage Trail.”
The Tobacco Heritage Trail is part of a planned 150-mile network of trails throughout southern Virginia. The majority of the trail corridor runs along the old Norfolk Southern rail system and continues on-road into and west of South Hill toward Clarksville and South Boston, with potential to connect to more trails in Danville and Martinsville.
NOTE: There is a section of the trail between Evans Creek Road Trailhead and the Meherrin River that is closed annually between Nov. 1 and Jan. 1 for deer hunting season. That property is privately owned.
ALSO: A word of caution in Lawrenceville. The town isn’t as consistent as the rest of the trail west in Brunswick County and on to La Crosse with their signage. The numbers on mile-markers did not match the trail west of town. Also, the trail feels like it is about to end (Brickyard Street) about a mile west of the actual end of the trail (South Street). I may have been spoiled by all the other well-promoted and branded crossings and trailheads west of Lawrenceville.
Many thanks to journalist and planner Phil Riggan for this great report about a major Virginia trail project that hasn’t been getting enough press.