Estimating the Economic Value and Impacts of Recreational Trails: A Case Study of the Virginia Creeper Rail Trail

Uses studied: ,
Place: Abingdon, Whitetop Station


This study on the Virginia Creeper Rail Trail in Virginia is unique in that it estimates both economic impacts, measured as local spending by tourists, and economic benefits, measured as value to individual users. This paints a more complete picture of the total value of a trail than considering only one of these economic measures, an approach that may be particularly helpful when prioritizing the use of government funds.


By using a scientific sampling plan and well-accepted statistical methods to estimate the results, this study generated reliable estimates of trail use, expenditures, and user attitudes that can be applied to other rail-trails. The approach of considering two types of economic value in parallel would be valuable to other trails benefits studies.


The trail runs between Abingdon and Damascus, Virginia, within Grayson and Washington counties, in the southwestern part of the state. In 2013 the population of Abingdon was 8,186 and the population of Damascus was 781.

Trail Type

The Virginia Creeper Trail (VCT) is a 34-mile long rail-trail that was developed and is maintained by federal, state and local government agencies together with private organizations. The trail is well-known and popular regionally. About 55 percent of users bike, 33 percent walk, and the remainder jog, fish, ride horseback, or camp overnight.


This paper quantifies the total benefit to users, known as “consumer surplus,” when they use the VCT. This is the benefit, measured in dollars, that a user experiences beyond what they have to spend directly during a trip to use the trail. These values can be used to help justify the investment in trail construction and maintenance, and facilitate comparing public investment between projects. This study, prepared for the Virginia Department of Conservation, was one in a three-part series quantifying trail use and user benefits related to recreational trails in Virginia (the other trails were the New River Trail and Washington and Old Dominion Trail).


Individual net economic value for recreation access to the VCT was estimated at $23–$38 per person per trip. An estimated 106,000 people used the trail during the year studied, a very large figure relative to the size of local towns. Aggregate net economic value of the VCT to users was estimated at $2.3 million to $3.9 million.

VCT tourists spend about $1.2 million yearly directly in the two-county community around the trail. This tourist spending in the local economy generates about $1.6 million in total economic activity, which supports 27 jobs and $610,000 in labor earnings. For context, this represents 0.7 percent of employed people and 0.3 percent of labor earnings in Abingdon and Damascus.

The combined aggregate net economic value and total economic impacts of the VCT indicate that the trail is a highly valuable asset both to users of the trail and to people in the local community, who benefit economically from tourist expenditures.

Forty-seven percent of trail users were local (living within 25 miles of VCT). Local users traveled an average distance of 7.8 miles to reach the VCT; non-local users, on average, traveled 260 miles or 4.6 hours.

Overnight, non-local users account for five times the economic impact of other trail users, but they make a small proportion (10%) of trips on the trail. Increasing the number of overnight users could significantly boost the trail’s economic impact.


Data was collected in the VCT survey via two different methods: exit counts and user interviews. Trained interviewers (pairs located at high-use access sites and a single interviewer located at low-use sites) counted each exiting trail user. A screener survey was used to determine whether the trail user was local (living or working in Washington or Grayson counties) or non-local. Additional information on the screener survey was directly observable data, including race, group size, gender, activity mode and approximate age.  Individuals were asked to voluntarily participate in a more detailed five-minute interview. From these data the authors used statistical models and IMPLAN to estimate economic benefits and economic impacts.

A total of 1,430 screener and 1,036 detailed survey questionnaires were completed during the sample period. Their response rate was 72 percent.


Bowker, J. M., J.C. Bergstrom, J. Gill, 2007. “Estimating the economic value and impacts of recreational trails: a case study of the Virginia Creeper Rail Trail.” Tourism Economics. 13(2): 241-260.