Imagine the year is 1900 and you are somewhere between Abingdon and Damascus, Virginia. It’s a sunny but cold day in February and all of the sudden you see black smoke shooting into the air, you hear strange “chugging” sounds, and then out of nowhere comes the loudest steam train whistle you have ever heard.
This would have been the first day that the Virginia-Carolina Railroad Company first rolled into Damascus from Abingdon, ready for business. Fast forward to 1912, and the steam train was rolling up to Whitetop, Virginia and in 1918, a full seventy-five miles into Elkland, North Carolina.
In 1957, locomotive #433 (now on display at the Abingdon trailhead) was one of the last steam engines to run on the tracks, being replaced by the newer, larger, and faster diesel engines. While these steam-powered beasts were huge in size, they were still no match for the steep grade while pulling a full load of lumber or freight up the mountain. Often one would hear the locals referring to the engines as “creeping up the slope,” coining the phrase, The Virginia Creeper. The new diesel engines would run the tracks until March 31st, 1977, when the very last “Creeper” would blow its eerie, chilling-sounding whistle before the tracks were removed later that year.
After the tracks were pulled up in 1977, the towns of Abingdon and Damascus worked with the U.S. Forest Service to acquire the land where the rails once were for use as a recreational trail. This pathway, now known as the Virginia Creeper Trail, runs for thirty-four miles from Abingdon to the Virginia and North Carolina state line, just past the former Whitetop Station and opened for public use in 1984.
With the cooler fall/winter weather now here, we recently decided to ride the trail from Whitetop down to the town of Damascus. This is the easier part of the trail to ride, as most of it is downhill, allowing you to coast while enjoying the view. We highly recommend making reservations with one of the shuttle services in town. We have used Blue Blaze Shuttle Service (276.475.5095) each time we have gone to ride the trail. The staff is more than friendly, and provide the perfect bike for every age. We use their mountain bikes, and is around $27.00 each, including a free bottle of water and repair kit. With your own bike, the cost is only $17.00 to ride the shuttle to Whitetop.
After getting our bikes in Damascus and loading onto the shuttle, we enjoyed the thirty-minute ride to the top of the mountain. Here the shuttle will let you off at Whitetop Station to begin your journey. The Whitetop Station is actually at milepost 32.7, so if one wants to bike the full trail, they’ll need to go to the right and travel the 1.3 miles to milepost 34.0 at the state line with North Carolina and then turn around to start the journey down the mountain.
Although the path may be crowded at first, one will eventually be able to enjoy the ride in solitude as everyone finds their own pace. Since the trail drops almost two thousand feet in elevation as it descends the mountain, travelers are easily able to complete the route within two or three hours. In order to appreciate all the sights and sounds of the trail, however, one should travel at a slower speed, taking time to meander and enjoy the beauty of the Southern Appalachians to their fullest.
Almost the entirety of this portion of the trail lies within Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, a swathe of protected land spanning over 200,000 acres in the highest of Virginia’s peaks. Bikers cannot help but gaze in awe as massive Whitetop Mountain looms nearby. Keep your eyes on the trail too, however, as it quickly descends into the narrow and winding gorge carved out by the Whitetop Laurel River. Here in the gorge one will discover some of the most interesting historical features of the trail, which include more than twenty of the original wooden railroad trestles built to cross the wild stream. Bits of charcoal lie mixed in with the gravel of the trail, another leftover vestige of the era of the steam engines.
After passing through the community of Taylor’s Valley, the path shares its tread with another far more famous trail, none other than Appalachian Trail. This is one of the few places along its two thousand mile course that one is able to bike along the renowned footpath.
Not long after the A.T. splits away on its own course into town, the sounds of birds and waterfalls begin to be replaced with the roar of automobiles along J.E.B. Stuart Highway, which soon comes to run alongside the trail. Although the tranquility of the wilderness is broken and a chancy road crossing must be performed soon after, the rest of the route into town is still enjoyable and makes for a pleasant walk or ride when one may not have the time to commit to the entire trail. All in all, the Virginia Creeper Trail serves as one of southwest Virginia’s outstanding destinations and makes for an excellent half day activity for families, history buffs, and nature lovers alike.