Winding thirty-four miles one-way through the high mountains of southwest Virginia runs one of the most popular biking trails around: the Virginia Creeper Trail which follows an old railroad grade between Abingdon and Whitetop Station, Virginia. The most beautiful section of this trail lies within the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area between Damascus and Whitetop Station where it follows scenic mountain streams, crosses meadows studded with wildflowers, and cools you off in the fragrant shade of the many wooded sections.
This natural paradise is an easy day’s drive from several major metropolitan areas, the closest being Roanoke, VA, which requires about a 2.25 hour drive. From either Atlanta or Washington DC, Damascus is a six-hour drive, and about a five-hour drive from Nashville, TN.
The little town of Damascus, which touts itself as “Trails Town” because of the major trails running through it, is about halfway along the full length of the Creeper. Most visitors to this area, however, prefer to have their bikes shuttled to the highest point at Whitetop Station, situated at 3576 feet in the shadow of the second highest mountain in Virginia, Whitetop Mountain with an elevation of 5520 feet. No bike? No problem. About half a dozen bike rental/shuttle shops abound in this bike-friendly town. Among them are Blue Blaze Bike Rental & Shuttle (276-475-5095), Creeper Trail Bike Rental & Shuttle (276-475-3611), JC’s Outdoors (276-475-5727), and Sundog Outfitters (276-475-6252).
From Whitetop Station the trail descends about 1646 feet to Damascus with the steepest grade of 6% over the first three miles to Green Cove Station, one of the surviving depots from the trail’s glory days when steam trains chugged their way along here, transporting mostly timber until 1977. As a matter of fact, the last locomotive to operate on this line is on display at the Abingdon trailhead on Pecan Street.
The ride from the highest point on the trail to Damascus is practically all downhill, making it one of the easiest bike rides you’ll ever encounter. That allows cyclists the luxury of relaxing and enjoying the natural beauty surrounding them. For those looking for a little more excitement, the downhill grade allows them to work up a pretty good head of steam (pun intended) if speed is what they are looking for.
Several locations along the trail offer cold drinks and restrooms including the reconstructed Whitetop Station and the original Green Cove depot, which will transport you back to the early 1900’s, thanks to the work of volunteers and National Forest Service folks who have worked hard to preserve and maintain it.
If you opt to take the shuttle to Whitetop (mile 33.4), the ride back to Damascus (mile 15.5) should take anywhere from 1½ to 3 hours at an easy pace, allowing for stops along the way. (Those who choose to pedal uphill to Whitetop should allow more time, depending on your condition.) Quaint Green Cove Station is just three miles down the trail and definitely deserves a stop to immerse yourselves in its old-timey charm. Creek Junction with its HighBridge is at mile 27.0, while Taylor’s Valley, where you could get a substantial lunch, is at mile 23.0. At mile 17.5 is the famous IronBridge (pictured above). Beyond Damascus at mile 8.5 is the site of the old Alvarado Station where snacks and cold drinks can be purchased. From this site, if you continue to pedal toward Abingdon, you’ll pass through the River Knobs and finally the Great Knobs before reaching mile 0.0 at the Abingdon trailhead.
Although Damascus, Virginia, is a small main-street town, it is exceptionally bike friendly and offers interesting accommodations from cabins to bed-and-breakfast inns, along with a smattering of various types of eateries. As you re-enter the outskirts of town, do stop at Off The Beaten Path Ice cream Shoppe for some of their fabulous Hershey’s ice cream. The following link gives much more detailed information on the local area as well as links to individual businesses and more lodging: http://www.damascus.org/index.html.
In addition, nearby Abingdon with its beautiful historic district (about a 20-minute drive) provides even more in the way of motels, B&B’s, restaurants, and shopping. Go to http://www.abingdon.com for those details and website links. If you plan your visit for early August, you must take in the famous Virginia Highlands Festival near downtown Abingdon. Not only does it include a huge number of vendors displaying various arts and crafts, but also numerous nature programs, workshops, music groups, food, and more food. Go to http://www.vahighlandsfestival.org for all the information.
Even parents with small children can enjoy the VA Creeper Trail. The local rental shops offer a variety of equipment including tandem bikes and trailers for toddlers or four-legged fur-children. Although the trail is unpaved and tends to be a bit bumpy in places, it’s not unusual to see young children sound asleep in their trailers while their parent pedals them along.
Cyclists who also enjoy fishing will find numerous opportunities, as the trail parallels a number of streams, some stocked with trout. These fishing spots are easily accessed by anyone wanting to try their skill and luck. On hot summer days, these streams offer tempting swimming holes as well. Cyclists who prefer to cycle up the trail as well as down might appreciate a cool dip even more than those who choose to do just the downhill part.
Now the Creeper Trail is a multi-use trail, meaning that pedestrians and equestrians also use it, including dog-walkers who are supposed to keep their dogs under control at all times, meaning on a leash. Weekends can be somewhat crowded in the summer and especially in October, typically the busiest month of the year. However, the Abingdon section of the trail, which is also quite lovely, tends to experience less traffic, even on weekends.
Damascus is not called Trails Town simply for the Creeper Trail. The famous Appalachian Trail passes right through town as well as the Iron Mountain Trail which can be hiked or biked, although you might need quads of steel to bike it because of its many steep grades. Buns of steel wouldn’t hurt either, since it is rather rocky in places.
Whether you come to southwest Virginia to bike, hike, fish, or just enjoy the beauty, you won’t be disappointed. Not only is this an incredibly scenic area but the local people are friendly and will go out of their way to help you. In fact, Mount Rogers Area volunteers patrol that section of the Creeper Trail and have been know to go to extraordinary lengths to help cyclists in distress.