DAMASCUS, Va. – The day begins with a ride up the mountain in a van, our bicycles being towed behind on a trailer from one of the bike shops.
There is, of course, the option of riding the trail both ways, but most people opt for the easy route of riding a shuttle to the top of the mountain and riding their bicycles down. Taking a shortcut is called “blue-blazing” in trail-town parlance – and it’s a big part of what has made the Virginia Creeper Trail so popular.
There are, surprisingly, a lot of bike shops in Damascus, a quaint village in the mountains with a year-round population of under 1,000.
Damascus, with the Creeper Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the Iron Mountain Trail all running through town, markets itself as the town where trails cross. The town is also traversed by the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail, and the Crooked Road musical heritage trail.
Damascus has the distinction of being at the bottom of the Creeper Trail – the rough midpoint where most visitors end their rides. There are two shuttle options for downhill rides: 17 miles from Whitetop (the steeper, more wooded route), or a slightly shorter ride from Abingdon (the flatter, more agricultural side of the trail).
I usually choose to ride the shuttle to Whitetop, where the driver double-checks the bikes before we begin our ride, on a gravel loop beside a historic train depot. The building is bright in the sunshine, high on a mountain in the land of Christmas trees.
When my daughter was a baby, I rode pulling her behind me in a little wheeled trailer. When she was 5, she rode for the first time on her own seat; from one of the bike shops, I rented an attachment that pulls behind my bicycle where she can pedal but isn’t dependent on her own power to get down the mountain.
Once we get rolling down the trail, the air feels cool in the shade as we coast down the old railroad bed through the forest. Sunlight dances through the leaves, and we reach Green Cove, the next tiny train-stop community high on the mountain.
Roughly halfway down to Damascus, our lunchtime stopping point is at Taylor’s Valley, a sweet little town on a creek bank with a heavy wood-and-metal bridge that leads to a restaurant. Sometimes it’s crowded, with full bike racks out back, but the food is good and reasonably priced. The scenic ride continues until the last mile, which runs parallel to U.S. Highway 58 into Damascus.
To the people who live here, the Virginia Creeper Trail is more than just a rails-to-trails project; it’s an important economic engine that’s remade the economy of Damascus, an old logging town on the Virginia-Tennessee state line that has been reborn as a tourism destination.
The railroad was built more than a century ago to bring timber to market. The train, nicknamed the Virginia Creeper, carried freight through the late 1920s and passengers until the 1970s.
With the visionary leadership of a few local officials, the towns of Abingdon and Damascus partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to secure the abandoned railroad right-of-way for a recreation trail, 34 miles from Abingdon to the North Carolina line.
It evolved into its modern form some two decades later, when a local woman got the idea that she’d take visitors to the top of the mountain and let them ride down. People said she was crazy – and then the idea caught on. A few short years later, there were bike shops all over town offering rental and shuttle services.
A handful of local legends have also been along the trail – like the 80-plus-year-old Lawrence Dye, who has ridden the round-trip from Abingdon to Whitetop and back hundreds of times – and former Congressman Rick Boucher, who was married in a private ceremony on the trail during one of many rides to and from Damascus with his wife, Amy.
A new legend being added now is that of the 640-foot trestle near Abingdon that was destroyed by a tornado in 2011 – and the new trestle that’s being built. Though a temporary trail has been opened since the rubble was cleared, town officials broke ground July 12 on a trestle that will look a lot like the original.
On the Abingdon side of the trail, the rough halfway point is the Old Alvarado Station, which is open sometimes on weekends and is otherwise a good place to stop and eat a picnic lunch.
Whichever side of the trail you choose, the Virginia Creeper Trail is a beautiful way to enjoy nature, an exhilarating ride, and a good excuse to eat at one of the restaurants in Damascus. You may be tired, sweaty and dirty, but you’ll feel good after an experience that makes lasting memories.