August 11, 2010
Damascus--Virginia Creeper Trail
Virginia Creeper was a nickname for the early steam locomotives that huffed and puffed their way slowly up the mountains in what is now the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, hauling loads of logs along the Virginia-Carolina Railroad. Between 1914 and 1930, they hauled about 15 million board feet of lumber out of this area every year. Then, when the forest was all clear cut, there was little to attract anyone to come here, and hence little need for a railroad. The last train straggled through in 1977. By that time, the second-growth forest was maturing nicely, and it wasn’t long before locals and politicians got the idea to turn the abandoned rail bed into a rail trail.
And, what a rail trail it is. The Virginia Creeper trail runs for 34 miles from near the top of Virginia’s second highest mountain (3,576 feet) to Abingdon, Virginia. Our group of ten reserved spaces on a shuttle van that took us and our bikes from Damascus almost to the top of the mountain (road work closed the very top of the trail), and dropped us off trailside, leaving us to wend our leisurely way sixteen miles back down the mountain to Damascus.
Just as we arrived, a group of thirty or so Old Order Amish or Mennonite people were organizing to begin their bicycle ride down the mountain. We remembered the Amish we saw in Lancaster County earlier this summer—they all rode scooters with bicycle tire wheels, and were not allowed to ride bicycles. I was glad not to be trying to ride my bicycle down a mountain wearing a long dress; given the attire, a scooter might be an easier way to go.
The trail passes through dense woodlands, crosses over deep ravines on trestles, and descends the rugged rocky terrain to follow the winding path of Whitetop Laurel Creek. Wildflowers are blooming abundantly along the sunny margins of the creek, and butterflies are fluttering about nectaring. There are many spots along the way that lure you to stop and dip your feet in the rushing water, enjoy a creekside picnic, or just take pictures. The creek’s cool waters are not only refreshing to people—they also are attractive to trout, which in turn attract anglers fly fishing along the creek banks.
There are over a dozen geocaches hidden along the trail, and we found seven of them, including one hidden on the Appalachian Trail, which crosses the Virginia Creeper trail in several spots.
We lunched a little over halfway down at the Virginia Creeper Café, a bustling little trailside restaurant that boasts “World Famous Chocolate Cake.” Our shuttle driver told us the cake was a must-have experience of the ride, and we are glad he did. After sharing a slice, we concur that the cake deserves to be called world famous, and we are only sorry that we cannot justify eating it by having burned off any calories on the ride. The most exercise we got was in our hand muscles, which we clenched frequently on the brakes as we cruised down the mountain.
Both the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Creeper Trail pass through the center of downtown Damascus, which clearly has built its economy on the two trails–there are bike rental/shuttle businesses, outdoor outfitters, and bed and breakfasts aplenty in this little town of 1,070. As a sign along the Virginia Creeper trails says, “The rail bed which was the means of removing huge amounts of wealth from the forest is now returning ecotourism dollars to the region.” It worked for us.