It’s hard to believe spring is almost here. The daffodils have already turned brown and the blossoms on the Bradford pears have succumbed to the bright green of new leaves. Winter seems to have missed our region entirely. For the last month, many have been anxiously waiting for the snowy winds to swoop down from the north once again, but with each sunny March day, that chance seems to fade faster than the daffodils.
Summer bugs, heat, and humidity are sure to arrive in force within record time, so it’s best to make the most of the warm weather before allergy season sets in. Last weekend was so beautiful that we decided to return to a favorite location of ours: the Virginia Creeper Trail. The ride from Whitetop to Damascus is an easy downhill cruise we’ve enjoyed several times over the past few years; in fact, it was the subject of our very first article last year. This trip we decided to conquer the lower portion which winds its way north from Damascus to end in Abingdon.
This lower portion is much more challenging, as there is very little cruising and several uphill portions. Stretching sixteen miles through the suburbs and countryside, the terrain and sights vary widely from the upper stretch through the forests of Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. You’ll want to give yourself a good four to five hours to complete this segment, so it’s best to arrive early. Take your time to enjoy the views, have a riverside picnic, or take a much-deserved rest.
Once again we enjoyed the great services provided by Blue Blaze Bike Rental and Shuttle. Friendly staff have a thorough knowledge of the trail and a great selection of bikes to choose from, so you can be sure to receive one perfectly matched for your size. Since they are located in Damascus, we had them drop us off at the Abingdon end so we could bike back to their trailside location. A small parking area and a historical steam engine mark the start of the pathway, located just a mile from downtown. This portion is popular with local residents who use it as a jogging and walking path. Watch out for the occasional stray puppy!
Soon the houses and sounds of the busy town will be far behind as the trail passes under Interstate 81 and escapes into the countryside. Soon the woods begin to close in and offer a refreshing respite from the hot morning sun. Several historic trestles cross high above the numerous creek valleys which pass through the area and offer some great views of the surrounding forest canopy. Shortly after is a parking area next to a dangerous crossing of Watauga Road. Cars travel fast along this road, so please be careful and look both ways.
Once again the trail enters a patch of woods as it passes through a gap. Cliffs rise up on the right side and offer some interesting views of geologic formations and several smaller caves. Soon the sounds of flowing water can be heard on the left, and as the trail rounds the next bend Middle Prong of the Holston River can be seen far below. The next portion of the trail passes through open fields of a farm and requires passage through several gates. Please be courteous and make sure they are closed as you pass through.
Throughout this area you may notice that the landscape may look a little odd; the trees are almost devoid of branches or are twisted into strange shapes. It was here in 2011 that a powerful tornado swept through the area after skipping across Watauga Lake. The long bridge you will soon cross is completely new, as strong winds ripped the original historic trestle completely off its foundation and threw it in the nearby field. After several years of planning and construction by the City of Abingdon, the new bridge opened in 2014.
Soon the Middle Fork will return and hug the left side of the trail until you arrive at its junction with South Fork. A long, curving bridge takes you out over the upper reaches of Watauga Lake. Interpretive displays explain the history and importance of the two rivers, as well as the reason for their different colors. Middle Fork is usually dark brown, as the churning waters are filled with silt and mud due to erosion from area farms. South Fork, on the other hand, has just arrived here after rushing down the slopes of Mount Rogers and through the national recreation area. The difference between the two is striking, as the waters remain divided even as they form one river.
South Fork will remain your companion the rest of the journey to Damascus as you wind through farmlands and begin to pass through area neighborhoods. Traffic noise will soon indicate the presence of Highway 58, and from here it’s only another two miles to downtown. While the quietness offered by the countryside may be lacking here, the river still provides beautiful scenery to accompany you on this last leg of the trek.
Directions: From I-81 North, take exit 19 in Virginia for US-11/US-58 toward Abingdon/Damascus. In 0.3 mile turn right onto US-11 N/US-58 E, and then turn slightly right to stay on US-58E. In 10.0 miles, turn right onto South Smith Street. Blue Blaze Shuttle will immediately be on the right, and parking is available behind the building in the gravel lot. Reservations are recommended but not required for Blue Blaze. Visit their website at blueblazebikeandshuttle.com or give them a call at 276-475-5095.
Photo: Riders will cross over a dozen original train bridges from Abingdon to Damascus. Here one crosses where the South and Middle Fork of the Holston River meets.