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The Virginia Creeper Trail: An Assessment of User Demographics, Preferences, and Economics

Download the complete study (pdf 394 kb)
Also see studies of the Washington & Old Dominion and New River State Park trails

The Virginia Creeper Trail (VCT) is a 34-mile long rail trail with trailheads in Abingdon (elevation 2065) and Whitetop Station (elevation 3576), Virginia.

Prepared for the Virginia Department of Conservation (December 8, 2004)

Map of VirginiaSummary and Conclusions

The primary intent of this report has been to assess the economic impacts and economic benefits of recreation use on the Virginia Creeper Trail. Additional and related objectives included estimating annual trail visitation by various types of users, describing visitors and visitor behavior, and examining visitor attitudes and preferences associated with VCT use.

"The overwhelming majority of visitors listed health and the opportunity to view nature as their greatest personal benefits from trail use."

A stratified random sampling procedure was used to obtain counts of visits and to survey users about their behavior, attitudes, and preferences. On-site sampling took place from November 2002 through October 2003. Recreation visits to the VCT during that time were estimated to be 130,172 with a 95 percent confidence interval of 119,905 to 140,439. Locals accounted for about 61,503 visits (47%), while nonlocals accounted for 68,669 visits (53%). Seasonally, summer (April through October) accounts for more than 80 percent of total visits.

Allowing for overnight trips by nonlocals with multiple VCT visits per trip to the area yielded an estimate of 112,366 annual person-trips by locals and nonlocals. For nonlocals, the majority of these, 33,642, were primary purpose day use. Primary purpose overnight use accounted for 5,725 trips, while the two nonprimary purpose categories, nonprimary purpose overnight and nonprimary purpose day use accounted for 3,918 and 7,587 trips, respectively. The vast majority of visitors, 111,010 visits (85%) or 102,723 person-trips (91%), are day users.

An assessment of visitor demographics indicates that VCT users both local and nonlocal are white (99%), male (64%), and college educated (64%). The average adult user age is 47, and users over the age of 56 account for nearly 30 percent of trail use. Household income for VCT users averages more than $72,315 per year, with about 25 percent of users indicating they are retired.

Locals live an average of 8 miles from their chosen trailhead, which for 65 percent of locals is Abingdon. Locals visit the VCT on average about 11 times per month, with 55 percent taking fewer than 10 trips per month. Primary activities for this group include walking (52%), biking (26%), and jogging (13%). Average time spent on the trail is just over an hour and results in a distance covered of about 5 miles.

Nonlocals traveled an average of 260 miles and 4.6 hours to reach the VCT. Fifty percent of nonlocals came from less than 160 miles. Whitetop Station (45%) was the trailhead most commonly entered by this group followed by Abingdon (23%) and Damascus (17%).

Nonlocals averaged about 4.8 trips to the area per year, but 77 percent took fewer than 4 trips annually. The vast majority of nonlocals listed biking (75%) as their main activity, while 20 percent listed walking. Average time spent by this group on the trail was just under 3 hours with a reported distance covered of 17 miles.

The overwhelming majority of visitors listed health and the opportunity to view nature as their greatest personal benefits from VCT use. About half the users claimed to receive a high level of benefit from the trail contributing to their sense of community, while about 30 percent of users obtained a high level of benefit associated with being able to bring their pets to the trail.

Trail issues most important to users were scenery, safety, structures, and surfaces &endash; the "four S's." All of these issues were considered of high or medium importance to over 90 percent of VCT users. The highest ranking issues with respect to observed conditions by users were also the "four S's." This bodes well for management, suggesting that effort and outcomes devoted to trail management are in line with user preferences.

Area features complementary to the VCT experience were far less important to users than trail attributes. Among the most important area features were other outdoor attractions, eating places, historical attractions, and shuttle/bike rentals. Among the least important area features for VCT users were those related to camping. These results are not surprising given that 80-90 percent of the visits are for day use. In virtually all cases, the ranking for observed conditions of area features exceeded the importance ranking, with shuttle/bike rentals and outdoor attractions receiving the highest condition rankings. Again, this suggests that goods and services provision in the area is keeping pace with user preferences.

Among the management issues associated with the trail, there seems to be little ambiguity among VCT users about a couple of issues. First, users strongly oppose alternative forms of transportation such as golf carts, motor bikes, and especially ATV's. While about 30 percent of users support the use of electric golf carts for the physically disabled, gas powered forms of transportation, even for disabled users, got very little support. Second, fewer than 10 percent of users supported paving the VCT. Both cinder (79%) and crushed limestone (64%) were the surfaces most supported by users. Over 99 percent of users felt that it is important to maintain the VCT in a condition that will attract visitors to the region. To do so, most (89%) users felt local tax revenues should be used.

However, over half the users felt that volunteer groups should be the primary source of trail maintenance. Visitors were evenly split about imposing a use fee to help fund trail maintenance. VCT users, including locals and nonlocals, spent about $2.5 million over the sample period related to their recreation visits. Of this amount, nonlocal visitors spent about $1.2 million directly in the Washington and Grayson county economies. This nonlocal visitor spending in the area generated $1.6 million in economic impacts and supported close to 30 jobs.

Finally, although access to the VCT is "free," there is a substantial economic value that accrues to recreation visitors from access to the trail. Using conventional economic methods, it was determined that, on average, the net economic benefit to users of the VCT is between $23 and $38 per person per trip. These values can be aggregated across the estimated 100,870 primary purpose trips per year leading to an estimated range of between $2.3 million and $3.9 million in net economic benefits to VCT users.

Principal Investigators: J.M. Bowker, USDA Forest Service Southern Forest Research Station; John C. Bergstrom and Joshua K. Gill, University of Georgia, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics

Download the complete study (pdf 394 kb)

Also see studies of the Washington & Old Dominion and New River State Park trails

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