Virginia Creeper – Whitetop to Damascus
The Virginia Creeper Trail is a picturesque rails-to-trails path that winds its way for thirty-four miles through the Mount Rogers recreational area. The trail starts in Whitetop and ends in Abingdon, with Damascus sitting right in the middle. The area caters to bikers, offering plenty of opportunities for shuttles, bike rentals and food along the way.
The Virginia Creeper Trail is something we’ve wanted to do for years. It is very well known in the biking world as being one of the best rails-to-trails in the east.
The origin and history of the name has to do largely with the train that used to ride this route. The train was called the Virginia Creeper due to the slow churning of the train. The trail was also partly named in honor of the native vine that you will normally see turning crimson as an early sign of fall. The train ran its last trip in 1977 and it was converted and opened as a multi-use trail in 1984.
We were expecting rain that day and wanted to hit the trail as early as we could. We arranged for a shuttle to take us to Whitetop Station to begin our trip. We recommend the Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop. They are located in Abingdon and run a shuttle to Whitetop and will even pick you up in Damascus if you are thinking about only doing half of the trail. After we were dropped off, we decided to not lollygag, since the rain was imminent. We got through the first couple of miles of the trip with only a few errant raindrops, before the heavier rain started.
Despite the rain, we really enjoyed the beauty of the trail. There are 47 trestles and bridges that pass over the Green Cove Creek and the Whitetop Laurel Creek. You get gorgeous views of the rushing water in the creeks; pass by quaint, country farms; and canopy forests. We picked a perfect weekend to do this trip to see the beautiful fall foliage. The trail is shared by bikers, walkers, runners, horses, and even an occasional dog sledder in the winter.
Here are a few highlights along the way. There are also several information signs along the way that provide valuable insight into the history and nature of the area. You will see mile markers along the way to help point the way.
- Mile 34 – The Whitetop Station to park your car. Bathrooms are available. Highest point on the trail at 3576 ft.
- Mile 30.5 – Green Cove Station sells a lot of essentials and souvenirs. Bathrooms are also available.
- Mile 27 – Creek Junction – Parking and Bathrooms are available. 563 foot trestle.
- Mile 23 – Taylor’s Valley – Parking available. Daniel Boone campsite.
- Mile 20.7 – Straight Branch – Parking and Bathrooms are available.
- Mile 20 – Whitetop Laurel Falls – when you see a large overhanging rock, the falls are down a small path on the right side of the trail.
- Mile 16 – Arrive at the town of Damascus. Railroad exhibit is available.
For those that are interested in geocaching, there are a ton on this trail.
We definitely plan on coming back in the spring and tackle this another time. The rain got us fairly wet and also covered us with “Creeper Streak” – the streak created on your back from the wet dirt being kicked up from our back tire. We decided to stop after the halfway point and catch the shuttle back to our car. While the rain was annoying and kept us from relaxing and enjoying the trail as much as we wanted, we still felt the scenery around us made up for it.
I woke up early the morning of our Virginia Creeper bike ride, peeked out the hotel window and started silently chanting the mantra “please don’t rain, please don’t rain, please don’t rain”. The sky was that heavy gunmetal gray that promises rain is coming sooner rather than later. It wasn’t supposed to start raining until the evening, but I was fairly certain that we were going to be in for a soggy bike ride.
Nevertheless, I donned my new padded bike pants and a fleece top and headed over to the bike shop to catch our shuttle ride out to Whitetop Station. The shuttle services for the Creeper Trail are a great idea, as they let bikers enjoy the whole trail without making a return trip over repeat scenery to get back to your car. I think most people just bike half the trail – Whitetop to Damascus, but we were really hoping to do the full 34 miles back to Abingdon.
The van ride out to the trail’s end was pretty long – about an hour along winding mountain roads. The driver shared lots of trail trivia and helpful tips to kill the time. Some of the things he shared:
- Celebrities like to bike the Virginia Creeper (Clint Black, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, some NASCAR driver I don’t remember). Apparently, Brad Pitt even has a home near Whitetop and has been spotted fishing the area’s rivers. (although I can’t find any evidence to corroborate this as fact)
- Most of the accidents (75%) along the trail happen to males between the ages of 13 and 21. Boys on bikes are reckless, I suppose.
- It’s a very bad idea to slam on your brakes when crossing wet railroad trestles. You WILL wipe out. I can vouch that this tip is quite true. We saw the same poor woman wipe out on two separate occasions – both times she was on a wet trestle.
- The trail is probably the only 34 mile bike ride that you’ll actually gain weight on. There are snack shops, coffee house, bakeries, ice cream parlors and full service restaurants all up and down the trail.
On the ride out, the sky started spitting a bit of rain. It had stopped again by the time we were dropped off at Whitetop Station. We kept our fingers that it would continue to hold off. Adam and I don’t like biking or hiking in crowds, so as soon as we got our bikes off the trailer, we raced off to get a jump start on the crowd of bikers arriving at the trailhead. Our driver told us that on nice weekend days, the trail might see upwards of 2400 riders. Area bike shops have 1800 bikes available, and frequently sell out of rentals. I was a bit surprised that more people rent bikes than bring their own. Maybe most people don’t own bikes these days.
The trail was gorgeous – a leaf-covered pathway under an endless tunnel of fall-colored trees. Every now and then, we’d pass an opening that provided a view of the mountains or one of the area’s many vast Christmas tree farms. Around Green Cove Station the rain started in earnest, and never let up again. I had to put my camera in a trashbag I had packed in my bike rack. There were so many scenes along the way that deserved to be photographed with care. Sadly, with the rain, all I was able to do was take a few quick snapshots.
Even in the rain, the ride was incredibly beautiful. I loved crossing the old railroad trestles and riding alongside the rushing streams. We biked the entire stretch from Whitetop to Damascus in about ninety minutes. I would have loved to take more time to enjoy the scenery, but it was cold, wet and windy. I started thinking less about scenery, and more about a mug of hot chocolate and a steaming cup of soup.
In short order, we arrived in Damascus. We decided to try lunch at one of the places our shuttle driver had pointed out. He had mentioned that In the Country and Fattie’s Diner were both really good. I saw “Hot Soup” on In the Country’s sign, and I was sold.
The staff at the restaurant was so friendly and welcoming. They didn’t even flinch when we walked in through their front door, soaking wet – covered with mud and trail grit. My ponytail felt like I’d dipped it in wet concrete and my legs were coated with black sludge from my ankles to my knees. Adam even had mud splashed up and down his cheeks. They invited us to eat inside in the warmth, but I felt too guilty about my filthiness and chose a picnic table under their covered porch.
Adam and I both got their boxed lunches which included a sandwich, side, drink and dessert. I chose their potato soup as my side. It totally hit the spot. Lunch was washed down with hot chocolate and followed up with delicious homemade pumpkin squares. We sat on the porch after lunch, watching others from our shuttle group pass by on their way to the pick-up point. I think most bikers take about two and a half hours to bike the Whitetop to Damascus section.
The rain was still falling steadily, and although we wanted badly to see the rest of the trail, we decided to call the bike shop and let them know we’d be joining the shuttle in Damascus. We met up with everyone at the red train car in the middle of Damascus. Everybody looked cold, dirty and tired. The heated shuttle van was such a welcome sight.
It was a real disappointment to miss the second half of the trail, but it’s also a great motivator for us to make a return trip to the area in the spring. I’ve heard the rhododendron and mountain laurel bloom along the Creeper is amazing!
- Distance – 18 miles for this segment
- Elevation Change – From Whitetop to Damascus, you lose 1646 feet in elevation
- Difficulty – 1.5. You hardly have to pedal at all on this stretch of trail, so it is suitable for bikers of all fitness and skill levels
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. The trail is in good shape. There are some errant holes and jutting rocks to watch out for. Entrances and exits from the trestles can be jarring if you’re going moderately fast.
- Views – 3. While the views aren’t high and lofty, they are still beautiful and showcase Virginia’s most picturesque scenery.
- Waterfalls/streams -4. The two streams that flow along the trail are gorgeous and include many small waterfalls.
- Wildlife – 1. We didn’t see anything, but our shuttle driver told us people regularly spot deer and the occasional bear.
- Ease to Navigate – 5. The trail is very simple to follow.
- Solitude – 0. People love the Creeper! On nice days in the spring, summer and fall, the trail can see over 2000 bikers in a single day.
Directions to trailhead:
We recommend hiring a shuttle service in either Abingdon or Damascus. For a reasonable fee, they will drive you and your bikes to White Top Station. This lets you enjoy the entire trail without having to backtrack on the return trip to your car.