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A Path Toward the Future

Southwest Virginia ‘local legend’ has built over 13 miles of trails

March 2024

(Photo courtesy Ralph Robertson)

by Linda Jilk, Cardinal News

Most folks around Giles County know Ralph Robertson.

“He is a legend in this region. It seems everyone knows him or at least knows of him,” says Narrows Town Manager Terry Nicholson.

Robertson loves outdoor recreation and has seemingly done all that the area has to offer — paddling, biking, running, hiking, climbing, fishing, hunting, caving and backcountry skiing.

He especially loves Wolf Creek Mountain, where he grew up. “When I was a boy, we stayed in these woods … see, we didn’t have no trails back then, we just took off, we just bushwhacked,” explains Robertson in what he jokes has been referred to by outsiders as “not a hillbilly accent, it’s a charismatic drawl.”

And so he builds trails here. For himself, and so others can experience the beauty of the picturesque Mill Creek and Mercy Branch waterfalls, the peaceful woods that connect to the Jefferson National Forest and the Appalachian Trail, the spectacular Sentinel Point overlook.

Outdoor adventurers know Giles County for the Cascades, Bald Knob, the Appalachian Trail and the New River. And thanks to Robertson’s trailblazing, the town of Narrows’ Mill Creek Nature Park offers miles of hiking and mountain biking trails past four beautiful waterfalls and to a stunning viewpoint.

Ralph Robertson stands in front of a sign at Mill Creek Nature Park.

When Robertson finishes the new trail this summer, there will be 14 miles of trails in Mill Creek Nature Park. (Photo by Linda Jilk)


Robertson, who retired from 41 years at Celanese Corp. in 2013, has cleared and created more than 13 miles of trails to access the Mill Creek/Wolf Creek Mountain wilderness in Narrows.

“People say, ‘Thank you for your work,’” says Robertson with a laugh. “Well, it’s not work for me. It’s physical and mental therapy. Because I ride my bike up, work on the trails three to four hours and ride back. I mean, I just love it. Some people love to fish, some people love to hunt; well, I just love to build trails.”

“Ralph is responsible for many miles of trails in Narrows and Giles County, including most of the trails in Mill Creek Nature Park,” Nicholson says. “This is exemplary of his desire to share the joy he gets from being outside with everyone. He saw a need for the trails, and so he built them. That kind of dedication to a community is hard to find.”

Hikers, bikers and runners who explore the 145 acres of Mills Creek Nature Park may see the 73-year-old shredding the trails on his single-speed mountain bike, cruising down the switchbacks he has worked so hard to perfect. Or, if they’re really lucky, they may catch a rare sighting of the fun-loving adventurer dressed up as Sasquatch, roaming the mountain with a big smile on his face under that costume.

Or they may hear the chop of his swinging mattock echoing through the woods, as he moves earth, digs out roots, and breaks up rocks.

And perhaps the mountain man will hoot and holler at them from atop a rock outcropping, or pause from clearing downed trees to chat, always bubbling over with enthusiasm about the new and old trails, eager to connect with others who are exploring this land that is close to his heart and inviting them to join him on a next adventure.


Robertson hikes Wolf Creek Mountain located in Giles County, Va. (Photo by Linda Jilk)

He’s currently building a new section of trail that will lead to scenic views from Sentinel Point overlooking the curve of the New River and the town of Narrows, and providing sweeping vistas all the way to Garden Mountain in Tazewell County and Pipestem Knob in West Virginia. Riders and hikers will be able to do a 7-mile loop from the parking area up to the point and down past the waterfalls or explore all 14 miles of Mill Creek trails.

“I usually go to the gym about three times a week,” he jokes about his trail-building workout. “I start out with an hour-and-10-minute bike workout, then I do three to four hours upper body, and then a 25-minute cooldown. No membership required.”

Robertson’s been exploring, playing, camping, climbing, hunting, fishing, surviving copperhead encounters, and jumping in the lower falls’ “sacred pool” (clothing optional, he explains with a grin) on Wolf Creek Mountain for most of his life.

Born about “a mile down the holler” from the park, Robertson chuckles as he remembers the first time he was at Sentinel Point at 4 years old. “They had a lookout up there during the Civil War, we went up an old road and they didn’t believe in switchbacks back then, it went straight up the mountain. Daddy would cut up a stick and he would hold it out straight and I’d hold on to it and he’d pull me up the mountain.”

And that’s the same mountain that gave him his life back after alcoholism tried to steal it away from him as a young adult.

After graduating from high school, Robertson served in Vietnam for about two years and says he had a rough time readjusting afterward, becoming addicted to both alcohol and cigarettes.

When he decided it was time to turn his life around in 1979, he started trail running and bicycling — and heading into the woods. “I ain’t saying it was easy to quit, but when I just couldn’t stand it any longer, and had to have a cigarette or a drink, I’d take off and head to the top of the mountain and go as far as I could go.”

This year, Robertson will celebrate 45 years since he drank any alcohol or smoked a cigarette.

And he’s been on a mission ever since to clear old roads, create new trails, and improve access to this land — owned by the town of Narrows, private landowners and the National Forest Service — that has given him so much joy.

Robertson, who has moved rocks weighing over a ton and shouldered the setback of thieves stealing the tools that he hides in the woods, takes pride in the rideability of his trails.

“It feels good, seeing it take form, you know, the way you want. I want the trail to be where you can get on the bicycle and ride to the tower without stopping. In a 1-mile section there’s 14 switchbacks. I call them ‘Geezer Switchbacks’ — I made them so I can ride them,” he says.

He has no idea how many hours of trail work he’s dedicated to Mill Creek trails since beginning to clear old roads in the 1980s, but he estimates that recently he put more than 100 hours of labor into perfecting just one switchback. “It was too sharp coming down and I wrecked on it a couple times, so I widened it out another 2 feet and now it rides really good. Perfect. A lot of the bikers, they say, ‘Man I didn’t have to even touch my brakes on that one.’”

Robertson may be building these trails and trail signs by hand, but he’s definitely the bulldozer behind making the land accessible to recreators. In addition to the hundreds of hours he’s put into building the trail, he’s put many an hour into building relationships with important players — local governments, Virginia Outdoors Foundation, New River Land Trust, National Forest Service, USDA, New River Valley Regional Commission, private landowners — to create better trail access.


His efforts to work with the town of Narrows to build and refurbish trails has attracted the attention of numerous partners, not only friends and groups who have come to help with trail construction, but also conservation and economic development organizations that want to support his goal of expanding outdoor recreational opportunities.

“They say I’m the guy who builds those trails,” says Robertson, “but an incredible amount of people has helped me. People think of the trails and they thank me and stuff, but it’s incredible the people behind the scenes that they don’t even mention that’s helped with it. I feel kind of guilty when people say, ‘You sure have built some nice trails, Ralph.’ I’m thinking, I had a lot of help.”

Most recently, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation approved a town of Narrows grant application that allows a parcel of land to be placed in a conservation easement, and provides funding for signage and waterless restrooms.

“The town has placed Mill Creek Nature Park, totaling 146 acres, in a permanent conservation easement to protect the land, the viewshed, and the public’s access to the site. Ralph’s trails will be his legacy for many years to come,” says Nicholson.

Robertson dreams that an additional parcel, the 107 acres of now-private land that includes Sentinel Point and a cave, can also be placed in a conservation easement to protect his trails.

“The thing I’m doing, I’m just doing what I like to do. And it’s really great that someone else gets to enjoy it too. I love for people to use it, and I really love that local people use it,” he says. “The locals used to trash this place, but now they love it; they keep an eye on it, take care of it. Maybe 20 years ago they might be up here trashing it, but now it’s their playground, they love it.”

“Often locals who have lived here for their entire life lose some of their sense of awe about the place we live,” says Nicholson. “Ralph is a constant reminder in our community to appreciate our natural surroundings daily.”

Roberton hopes to finish the new Sentinel Point trail this summer, “if I don’t break down. But I think my warranty’s done run out,” he laughs.

Then, he says he will shift his focus to maintaining the current trails. “When I was a boy, all I wanted to do was get out of this ‘dead’ place, you know how that goes,” he says. “But now, I mean, to me it’s like I’m just on a constant vacation and I don’t have to travel. After I started running and biking and stuff, I realized I lived in paradise my whole life and didn’t know it. If I could live anywhere in the world, I wouldn’t even have to pack. I’m already there.”

This article comes from Cardinal News, an online nonprofit news agency based in Southwest Virginia.