Riding down the Virginia Creeper Trail
Start your ride with a shuttle to the top
It’s early on a Saturday morning in early August and we pull up to the Shuttle Shack in Damascus, Virginia. This bike rental shop is one of about half a dozen scattered throughout this small town nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. For decades, Damascus has welcomed hikers along the Appalachian Trail which runs through the heart of town. In the late 1980’s an old rail line was transformed into another National Trail named after the rail line that "creeped" up into the mountains. The Virginia Creeper Trail quickly grew into a juggernaut of outdoor recreation now drawing more than 100,000 people to this part of Southwest Virginia each year.
I attended college not far from Damascus at Emory & Henry. That was in the early days of the Virginia Creeper Trail. Despite my close proximity to the trail, I had only been on a few very short walks on it until this most recent visit. My son, however, had already biked the stretch from Whitetop to Damascus, three times with one of those journeys down the mountain starting in the snow. Needless to say, I was excited about tackling the trail which took me to new places in an area I already knew well.
We were the first people to arrive at the Shuttle Shack that morning. I had chosen them after "googling" it and seeing they had very reasonable rates, with a discount for weekday excursions. Eventually more people started arriving until there were two van loads of us ready to take the 17-mile journey up to the Whitetop Station to being the ride out of the mountains. For people not familiar with the trail, the shuttle service is something I would consider to be vital. From Damascus to Whitetop, the trail steadily ascends toward one of the highest peaks in Virginia, so naturally starting at the top and coming back to Damascus is certainly easier on an “old” body like mine.
Arriving at the top
As the vans and trailers filled with bicycles pulled up to Whitetop Station, dozens of riders shuttled by other companies were getting ready for their trips along the trail. Our guides told us to make sure and check out the inside of the Whitetop Station and a few other places further down the trail.
Two of the state’s highest mountains are nearby. The highest is Mt. Rogers (5728 ft), the other is Whitetop Mountain (5518 ft.), which my son and I had visited earlier in the summer. (It is the highest point in Virginia where you can drive). This is an area known for its wild mountain streams, thick forests and thousands of acres of Christmas Tree farms. After a quick look inside the old train station and its historical displays, it was time for the ride down the mountain to begin.
Whitetop to Green Cove
After leaving Whitetop Station, the Virginia Creeper Trail moves into the forest. Almost immediately that fresh mountain air overwhelms you and you know it’s going to be a refreshing ride. Just a short distance down the trail, you cross one of the largest of the more than 45 trestles. According to vacreepertrail.us, this bridge (#46) is 270 feet long and 63 feet high. So, if you’re afraid of heights just get across it as fast as you can, but if not, slow down a bit to enjoy the view from the top of the bridge.
The next place that is a “must stop” is the Green Cove Station, three miles down the trail from the Whitetop Station. This old building now serves as a U.S. Forest Service visitors center. If it's open, go inside and you’ll be transported back into a time when the "General Store" was the cornerstone of commerce and more in a community. From old packages of Red Man Chewing Tobacco to boxes of Royal Gelatin, all of the items on the shelves are the actual inventory left when the old General Store that operated there shut down in the early 1970’s. Old customer credit log and the remnants of the old U.S. Post Office can also be found inside.
The serenity of your surroundings
Much of what makes the Virginia Creeper Trail special is the serenity it can provide, even on a day when hundreds of people are out on the trail with you. Heading down the mountain we had to stop several times as the scenery was just too beautiful to ignore. The refreshing sounds of the nearby creeks and the abundance of wildflowers meet you at just about every turn. For awhile you are in a place where you don’t see other roads, hear any cars, and the only sounds outside of nature are those of your fellow riders along the trail.
A stop in Taylor's Valley
As you spend time on the Virginia Creeper Trail you grow to love the small communities it runs through. That includes, Taylor’s Valley, a place that consists of a church, a few homes and one of the most popular spots along the trail, the Creeper Trail Cafe. On the way up the mountain our shuttle guide told us about it and said it was a great place to eat. The restaurant is apparently well known for it’s “world famous chocolate cake.” On this trip, we didn't try out the cafe, but we will make a point of stopping there the next time, to at least have a piece of cake.
Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area
The next few miles of the trail take you through more of the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, a part of the Jefferson National Forest. The terrain was familiar, but the vantage different than what I saw many times traveling along U.S. 58. At one point, the Appalachian Trail runs parallel to the Creeper Trail until the two become one for a short distance in Damascus.
The final stretch of the trail heading into Damascus levels off a bit and works its way closer to U.S. 58. One of the most striking remnants of the old Virginia Creeper Railroad is the old steel bridge crossing Whitetop-Laurel creek just a mile or so outside of town. It’s one of the most photographed and recognized landmarks along the trail.
Eventually, the Virginia Creeper Trail makes its way back into town. On this trip, you had to stop for construction at the main intersection of U.S. 58 and Highway 91 (which takes you into Mountain City, TN). We were told that a tunnel underneath the road is under construction so bikers and hikers no longer have to stop to cross.
For those who want to see even more than the 17 miles of trail running from Whitetop Station to Damascus, the trail does go on another 17-miles into Abingdon, an extremely charming town that is home to the world renowned Barter Theater, the Martha Washington Inn and the William King Arts Center.
A few tips before hitting the Virginia Creeper Trail
Book your bike rental and/or shuttle in advance
Allow yourself 3 to 4 hours for the entire experience from Whitetop to Damascus
Bring snacks and plenty of water
There are restrooms along the trail, with most near the top part
Have a repair kit for your bikes (some rental companies provide them)
Have a first aid kit or at least some bandages
Remember to bring a camera
Remember you may not have a cell phone signal along parts of the trail