Riding the Virginia Creeper Trail – Damascus to White Top
There’s not much that hasn’t already been said about the Virginia Creeper Trail. From being a part of the Rails to Trails Hall of Fame to its accolades from local and national writers, the trail is well loved and documented. All I can add is the experience for our group, which was a good one.
We hit the trail on Easter weekend 2018. The weather was finally beginning to break after winter dragged all the way through March. It was also my wife, Mary’s birthday. So we bought tickets to see Bright Star at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, booked a night at Creeper’s End Lodging and loaded up the bikes. More on the theater and accommodations later.
Our group of five couples met in Damascus at eleven on Saturday morning. We planned to do the uphill ride from there to White Top – about 17 miles – then enjoy the downhill trek back to the car.
The little town of Damascus has a handful of bike shops and shuttle services that take riders to the top so they can enjoy the downhill experience without the daunting task we had laid out for our group. It was nice to see how an attraction like the trail could generate so much outdoor related business in a rural area like Washington County, Va.
We found public parking near a caboose, located directly on the Virginia Creeper Trail and started riding uphill. It was one of the first true spring mornings of the season. Temps were about 50-degrees at the start and would reach the mid 60’s by the time we finished.
Though it’s uphill, the trail never tipped above four percent. We pedaled steadily, but it was never hard. Our group of intermediate riders ranged in age from mid-fifties to low seventies. For the record, the oldest rider may also have been the strongest! Bicycles varied from my heavy, full suspension 29er mountain bike to a carbon framed cross bike that weighs in at under 20 lbs. Most of the group rode hybrid bikes. All the bikes had their own advantages, but I wouldn’t enjoy mine until we came back down!
The ride up was spectacular. We rode among mountain laurel, wondering how beautiful it would be when it’s in bloom in May or June. We crossed numerous small bridges and trestles over ravines and the bold running White Top Laurel creek. The creek ran beside the trail for long sections and my mind drifted to some of the riffles and pools that screamed fly fishing. Again – for another trip.
The further up the trail we traveled, the more we began to see large groups coming down courtesy of the many shuttle services that had taken them to the top.
I was amazed at the diversity of bicycles. They ranged from rentals to 1970’s garage bikes. There were also beach cruisers, Huffys and BMX bikes. Children made up a good percentage of the riders, including boys wearing helmets with mock Mohawk haircuts and little girls on Barbie bikes.
There were relatively few riders attempting the uphill as we were. I would bet if you asked most of the downhill cruisers if they identified as cyclists, the answer would be, “no.”
I don’t want to be a bike snob – that’s not the point. Granted, my group rides all the time. We have bike stickers on our cars and the racks stay on our vehicles year round. Yes, we are those people. But here, (everywhere?) we are the minority. That’s where I was conflicted.
When my mind wasn’t focused on drifting a fly in the nearby river, I was vacillating on the topic of whose trail this really is. I wanted it to be my trail. A remote outpost with quiet and solitude. Chirping birds and fast flowing waters. Instead it resembled a gravel highway with dozens or even hundreds of other people on bikes — all on this little path through the mountains. At the end of the day there are more of them. They are the ones driving the local economy. They are the ones who came in numbers to take advantage of a rare, 17-mile downhill. It only seems right that they lay their claim.
Though I self-righteously judged them not to be “cyclists” I had to give them credit for being out on their bikes. They were not home watching TV or playing video games. They were here to enjoy the same scenery as my group. I just couldn’t help thinking that at some level, the Creeper trail was being loved to death. There’s certainly much to love.
Thanks to my philosophical meandering, we arrived at White Top faster than expected. Mary and I sat on a bench in the sun and shared some trail mix and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
After a half hour rest, it was time to point the bikes toward the bottom. This was serious fun! My 29er was a joy, as it absorbed the occasional rock and caught air over the whoop de dos. By now many of the shuttle folks had already finished their descent. For those who remained we were careful to call out, “on your left” and I made sure to slow when there were kids present.
A couple members of our group said they wanted to ride slow to see the scenery, but most of us couldn’t resist the sheer joy of the easy speed.
On another day, I might stop at one of the depots or the outdoor café for an ice cream, but after a long winter, this was just what my soul needed.
The next thing it needed was a craft beer. We all retired to the Wolf Hills Brewing Company in Abingdon for a couple of cold ones and brash discussion of who was the best downhiller. Maybe I should say best “old” downhiller.
Day Two on the Virginia Creeper Trail
The next day Mary and I stayed and rode 22 miles by ourselves from the trail head in Abingdon which was across the street from our little hotel. It’s mostly a gentle downhill on the way out. The trail doesn’t offer the majestic scenery of the upper section, but it is still gorgeous.
We rode through narrow cuts that made us wonder how the trains ever made it without rubbing the rocks on either side. On our left for much of the ride out was the fast flowing Holston River. We passed through pastures and had to stop for numerous gates. This was a bit of a pain – but worth it.
At one point we found a half dozen chickens scratching the leaves right on the trail. I tried for a picture from the bike but all I got was a shot of the bird’s behind. At the micro community of Alvarado there was a general store with benches and picnic tables. A restored depot offered rest rooms and a place outside to refill water bottles.
At eleven miles we turned around for the return trip. Our goal had been to do a 56-mile weekend to match Mary’s birthday!
Accommodations at the Trail Head in Abingdon
Mary and I stayed at Creepers End Lodging. It’s a small inn with just a few rooms. Ours was beautiful and super clean with a kitchenette, four-poster bed and sitting area with a big screen TV. The best part is that it’s directly across the street from the trailhead. It was within walking distance to the Martha Washington Inn where we had a delicious meal before walking across the street to see the show.
The Barter Theater is famous for a reason. We saw the Broadway hit Bright Star, which was written by Steve Martin. Mary had seen the show on Broadway and loved it. The Barter version – which was the first presented off Broadway, was obviously scaled down a bit, but well done and enjoyable. The players received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end.
What a weekend! Two days of gorgeous cycling on the Virginia Creeper Trail, a brewery stop followed by a fantastic dinner (I had the filet mignon. Mary had salmon.) and the show. Any reasonably fit person could accomplish the cycling – though the uphill part of our ride on Saturday might be a bit much if you are not an avid cyclist. Damascus and Abingdon are brimming with bike shops and lodging opportunities as the region has really embraced the culture that’s evolved around the Creeper Trail. If you go, I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.