If 57 miles of smooth, hard-pack trail along a beautiful river valley are your thing, then grab your bike or hiking shoes and head for southwest Virginia. The New River State Park, which snakes from Fries to Pulaski with a side trail to Galax, is built on a railroad line that once served a thriving iron ore industry. There are campgrounds and bathrooms for bikers or backpackers and numerous entry points with parking. We walked a section and bicycled another; then I finally connected the river to the nation’s newest national park, West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park, which we visited last spring. Sue and I were impressed with the condition of the trail and its amenities. Finally, there was something missing: hills. And hillsides of rhododendrons still had not blossomed even though April was nearing its end.
National parks and monuments are not to be missed and some are backpackers’ dream destinations, so we veered north from Nashville to explore Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park. What did we find? Enough to fill three days. The ranger-led Gothic Tour took us below to walk two miles of the 365 miles of cave, more than twice as long as any cave in the USA. If you time it right, you might be offered a rare boat tour on an underground river. A free ferry took us across the Green River after a roadway sign warned us that the road ”ends in water.” The road across the river leads to a web of wilderness trails for backpackers; permits for overnight trips are available in the visitor’s center. We walked several trails, including the Big Hollow Loop.
We pulled our hybrid bikes out of our trailer to try another park feature: the Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail, a packed-gravel path that includes many short (some steep) climbs. We rode to two of the 77 cemeteries in the area, reminders of times more than a century earlier when the narrow-gauge railroad transported people and supplies to communities built around the growing popularity of the cave network. Another great national park, but without the crowds that frequent some.