The Virginia Creeper Trail
And if you aren’t planning to be in the area, find a reason to be. This is a must-do for anyone living within a day’s drive…and it may just be the most popular off-road mountain biking trail in the entire Eastern United States. If you don’t believe me, check out the reviews on Tripadvisor…try to find a single bad one among the thousand or so.
One reason that it’s so popular; it very scenic. The trail runs along an old railroad grade, through forests, farms and alongside swift running streams and rivers. Another reason its so popular; the very excellent trail service provided by various outdoors providers in Damascus.
But the main reason it’s so popular? It’s just about all downhill. 😊
The trail follows the grade of the former Virginia Western Coal & Iron Railroad Company right of way. The rail service began in the late 1800’s, reached its peak in the early 20th century, creating several boom towns along the way which are now all but gone. The last train ran through in 1977; only the right of way and some rotting ties remain.
The line became known as a Virginia Creeper, perhaps because locals got used to watching the trains creep up the grades with heavy loads, and beings the wits they were made the obvious play on words involving the plant of the same name (Parthenocissus quinquefolia.)
Now, the major commodity being hauled along this line is people, and the locomotives being used are human powered. Some counts claim over 200,000 people do this trail a year.
We rolled down the trail in April 2014 in gorgeous weather and greatly enjoyed it. It did not seem very crowded (though it was not devoid of people by any means.) The fact that most people do this trail in the same direction (down) means that very few people come at you in the opposite direction, and that gives one the impression of greater solitude than there really is, because most people are moving along at much the same speed as you. It was only when we stopped at the popular places like Taylor’s Valley that we really noticed it was crowded.
The Trail is 34 miles in length, stretching from Whitetop, VA (almost on the NC border) to Abingdon, VA, with Damascus lying at about the halfway mark. However, very few people do the entire trail in one go. In fact, most people do ONLY the 17 miles section from Whitetop to Damascus. Fewer do the Damascus to Abingdon section, which is on the whole considered somewhat less scenic, being mostly on private land — though this section is reputed to have the longest trestles. We did not do the Damascus-Abingdon section, nor did we see many people embarking on it.
But almost everyone who does either section starts in Damascus, shuttles by van to one end or the other, and then bikes back downhill to Damascus. The ride outbound from Damascus in either direction is uphill…moderately to Abingdon, while the trip up to Whitetop would involve Herculean exertions.
We can tell you that the ride down FROM Whitetop is almost ridiculously easy. 😊 It is 80% downhill, with the rest being flat. Miles pass with no need to pedal at all. It is no exaggeration at all to say that Sylvia and I spend more energy on a typical section of the paved Neuse River Greenway than on this trail.
You can use your own bikes, of course…but even if you do, you will need to arrange some sort of shuttle service. The smart thing to do is simply park in town and arrange to be shuttled to Whitetop, where you can cruise downhill at your own pace. A tire patch kit is strongly recommended because, while it is not a true dirt biking trail, it’s not flat either. The chance of popping a tire is real. Most of the outfitters do provide one.
Note that I said this is NOT a true mountain biking trail. Most hardcore dirt bikers will doubtless find this trail to be insufficiently challenging. My advice for the hardcore is to use this as an opportunity to bring along some friends who are less hardcore and introduce them to the joys of biking. It’s a trip anyone of any age and skill level can enjoy.
And to everyone who is not a hardcore mountain bike enthusiast – including people who have NEVER mountain biked, or haven’t set foot upon a peddle in twenty years – don’t worry. If you can sit on a bike for three hours or so (about the time it takes to do the Whitetop to Damascus section, with stops) then you can do this and likely you will LOVE it.
Last note involving the trail itself…you could probably do this on a road bike, but your butt won’t thank you and the bike may well fall apart. The trail is NOT paved and is definitely NOT flat. If you don’t own a mountain bike with shocks, rent one.
Along its route the trail crosses some 47 wooden trestles. Some of these are quite impressive.
It does not cross any heavily traveled roads en-route but there are a few minor road crossings. Obey the rules of the trail and be aware of motorists and fellow bikers.
At about the midway point there is an opportunity to ‘resupply’ at The Creeper Trail Café at Taylor’s Valley. You can’t miss this café…it’s the one with about a hundred bikes parked out front. The café boasts of having ‘world famous’ chocolate cake. I believe I passed on the cake in favor of a hamburger and ice cream. It may not be the world’s best, but it may be the world’s most expensive. 🙂
With all due respect, what the café REALLY has are three things…location, location, location. And a sizable number of hungry bikers.
The great thing about the trip is you can go entirely at your own pace, as fast or slow as you want as long as daylight remains. You simply coast or pedal in leisurely fashion back into town, to either drop your bike off at the rental place or (if its yours) put it right back on your car.
We signed on with a rental company who provided bike, helmets, pump, repair kit, and a shuttle to the top. There are many in town and we make no particular endorsements recommendations…there is a list of agencies here on the Damascus chamber of commerce website. Adventure Damascus, Sundog, Blue Blaze and Shuttle shack are a few of the more established ones.
Brian’s ‘trick brain’ doesn’t fully recall the details but he THINKS we used Sundog. This is NOT an endorsement. Caveat emptor.
(Note that the website has a lot of busted links last I checked. But hey…they’re outdoor outfitters not webmasters, right?)
We would strongly recommend adding the Whitetop to Damascus section to your list of things to do. And while you are in the area don’t forget to hike the Grayson Highlands, and maybe through in the summits of Mt. Rogers and Whitetop Mountain as well. You will not be disappointed.
Though there maybe better places to hike, the combination of things to do in the Damascus area makes in unsurpassed. It ranks with Brevard NC as one of our favorite small towns in the southern Appalachians. We hope that it continues to retain its small town charm and character as it grows into the outdoor mecca that it has rightfully become. Don’t be a creep…visit Trail Town, USA.