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.
We biked the Creeper section from Whitetop to Damascus on a rainy day many years ago. We planned to do the whole thing that day, but the rain became a heavy downpour and it was too muddy to enjoy biking. We tried to come back a couple times to bike the second half, but were foiled by more rain and tornado damage. Last summer, we finally made it back to officially finish the remaining 16 miles between Abingdon and Damascus.
We have our own bikes, but they were badly in need of tune ups, so we left them home and rented from Blue Blaze Bike and Shuttle in Damascus, Va. Adam rented a mountain bike and I decided on a cool, purple cruiser. The trail’s terrain is generally smooth and covered with small gravel, so I decided to go with plush comfort rather than more rugged equipment. The rental shop was affordable and their bikes were impeccably maintained.
We booked seats on their first shuttle van of the day, and ended up being the only riders. Our driver was fun to talk to and was a regular hiker and biker. The shuttle took us from the shop back to mile zero in Abingdon, Va. From there, it was a mostly flat 16 mile ride back to their shop.
The section from Whitetop to Damascus is far more popular than the section we did this time – it’s a little more scenic and it’s all downhill, so it requires very little exertion. Our ride was still very easy, but we did have to pedal! The nice thing about biking the less popular half on a weekday was that we practically had the whole trail to ourselves. We saw just a handful of other runners and cyclists. The Creeper can get very crowded and congested, so this was a treat!
The main things to see along the Creeper Trail are beautiful waterways and railroad trestle bridges. The section we rode passed mostly through farmland, whereas the other half is more wooded. It was still really pretty, and the breeze from riding the bike made the heat bearable.
We stopped for a short snack and drink break at Alvarado Station about 8.5 miles into our ride. The station was once a railroad stop halfway between Abingdon and Damascus. It is the only stop for snacks and restrooms on this half of the trail. Across from the restroom building, there was a nice trailside park with a pavilion and porch swings. We sat by the river and enjoyed the view. We even saw a heron!
After our break we pedaled the remaining seven-ish miles into Damascus. The last mile or so follows the main road into town, so there are more road crossings and car noise. The nicest thing about trails like this is that the mostly keep car and bike traffic separated, so you always feel safe riding.
We got back into town, returned our rentals, got some lunch at Wicked Chicken Winghouse – another decent lunch stop in Damascus. Afterwards, we drove back to our AirBnB and picked up the dogs and took them for a two mile walk along the Creeper. After we got them nice and tired, we headed to Abingdon Vineyards to try some wine. The winery is dog friendly and has lots of outdoor tables along the stream. The day finished up with desserts from Anthony’s Desserts in Abingdon. If you’re in the area, this place has the most amazing sweets – don’t miss it!
This 56-mile backpacking trip traverses some of Virginia’s very best Appalachian Trail scenery! There are panoramic vistas, windswept balds, meadows full of wildflowers, pretty streams, and even wild ponies. We were lucky enough to have six days of nearly perfect weather and not a single drop of rain!
Day One – South Fork Holston River to Hurricane Creek Campground (9 miles) – Christine
Bright and early on Monday, May 20, we piled into our car and made the three and a half hour trip down to Damascus, Virginia. Town was busy with many thru-hikers still lingering after Trail Days (the huge, annual hiker festival and party hosted by the town.) Knowing we had six days of oatmeal and trail mix ahead of us, we enjoyed a fresh lunch at Mojo’s Trailside Cafe. Their food is excellent and the place has such a cool hiker vibe. After eating, we drove over to Mt. Rogers Outfitters to meet our ride. Our shuttle driver turned out to be a local woodworking artist named Matthew Newman (he has a gallery in town.) He was right on time and the trip to our start point flew by as he shared stories about the area’s history and geology. The Appalachian Trail crossing of the South Fork of the Holston River is in the middle of nowhere – just a tiny one-car pullout along a lonesome back road. We crawled out of his van, made sure we had all our stuff, and hit the trail. It was already 1:30 and we had nine miles to go before we reached our first camp stop.
We signed the wilderness-area logbook and crossed the wooden footbridge over the Holston River. We immediately started a gentle climb uphill through the woods. Eventually we reached a gravel road that paralleled a farm field. We climbed over a stile into a livestock pasture. The cows were completely indifferent to us, grazing and swinging their tails to swat flies away. The trail climbed steadily across the open terrain. We had some nice views of mountains behind us, but the sun felt hot and strong. We were glad to get to the stile on the south end of the pasture and duck back into the shade. After leaving the pasture, we had almost four miles of non-stop climbing. It wasn’t terrible uphill, but it was steady. Kris and I took a detour and visited Trimpi Shelter about a mile into the climb. It was a cute shelter with a center aisle, indoor stone fireplace, and abundant flat space for tenting around the shelter. Even though it was only a bit after 2:00, there were already a few hikers stopped for the day.
We climbed for another three miles. At the end of the ascent, we had a gorgeous, flat ridgewalk through lush fern. We trekked along until we reached the junction with a blue-blazed side trail that leads down to the forest service campground at Raccoon Branch. We stopped at the junction for a snack and gave Kris a chance to check on her feet. She was feeling a few hot spots in her new hiking boots and was dismayed to find several big blisters already forming just several miles into our hike! From there, we had a long meandering downhill to Dickey Gap. We passed lots of blooming flame azaleas and Catawba rhododendrons – and even a few early mountain laurels. We got to Dickey Gap a bit after 4:30. We chatted with a couple thru-hikers sitting in the shade under kiosk at the road crossing. They asked about the terrain headed north and indicated that they were going to try and make it to Marion (which was still 14 miles away!) You really have to admire thru-hikers’ ability to crush big miles like that.
The trail sign on the other side of the road said we had about 2.5 miles to go to reach our first campsite of the trip. About a mile later, we found ourselves at the base of Comer Creek Falls. The bridge across the creek was partially sealed off with yellow hazard tape. A sign indicated that the bridge was closed and hikers should backtrack and follow the detour indicated on the map. Well… we were all tired, Kris’s blisters were excruciating, and Adam was having back spasms. We just wanted to get to camp. We made a joint judgment that the bridge looked sturdy enough and decided to cross it one by one. Clearly, since I’m now writing this post — we lived! It really wasn’t all that dangerous. And, I guess sometimes you have to break the rules and live on the edge.
A mile later, we found the spur trail down to Hurricane Creek Campground – one of the USFS campgrounds in the area. We had already paid for a site ahead of time, but found the entire campground pretty much empty. We easily could have claimed any of the walk-in, first-come-first-served sites. I chatted briefly with the campground host. He handed me a pamphlet and told me a bear had been opening car doors and stealing food. He recommended we store our food in the locked trunk of our vehicle. Hmmm… I guess he didn’t really notice that we all showed up on foot!
One of the perks of staying at the campground instead of an AT shelter was the fact that the campground had hot showers. I don’t need a shower every day on the trail, but any time I can get one, it’s a nice morale boost. It feels good to be clean when I crawl into my sleeping bag at night. We made a campfire, cooked dinner, and did our best to dodge the thick clouds of mosquitoes swarming around. Adam wrote a hilarious rap tune for our section hike, and each night during the trip he added and performed a new verse about our adventures for the day. After discussing the bear issues in the area, we ended up storing our food inside the vault toilet building across from our campsite. The door to the bathroom latched securely and the campground was empty, so it seemed like the best option. We ended up staying up until almost 10:00 – way past typical hiker midnight. Eventually, we headed to our tents and drifted off to sleep.
Download DAY ONE Maps and Elevation Profiles
Day Two – Hurricane Creek Campground to Old Orchard Shelter (8.7 miles) – Adam
We started off day two from the campground, following the spur trail for about .7 mile back to the junction with the Appalachian Trail. Most of the day consisted of uphill climbing, but fortunately there were many water sources, so we didn’t have to carry a large (and heavy) amount of water.
About 1.5 miles into our walk, we passed through a beautiful section of trail surrounded by blooming rhododendron and azaleas. For a while, the trail was rolling and easy, but at the junction with the Hurricane Creek Trail, the trail took a turn steeply uphill along a wide, road-like section. Around the 3.9 mile mark, we took the .1 mile side trail on the right that led us to Hurricane Mountain Shelter. It was a nice place to eat a snack and stretch out our legs and backs (and tend to our feet). After the shelter, we had just over a mile more of steep climbing to reach an area known as Chestnut Flats. We had climbed about 1400 feet already; this wasn’t that bad over a long stretch, but there were some short steep sections along the way. At this top bump, the AT also reaches a junction with the Iron Mountain trail. We passed lots of hikers sitting trailside, using their phones. This was one of the few spots on the hike that actually had cell reception. Lots of people were catching up with texts, calls, and social media. We also came across a thru-hiker that told us there was some great trail magic ahead. That is always a motivator to any backpacker – you want to move quickly so you don’t miss out.
It was a steep downhill for the next mile and a half, but we soon reached Fox Creek, VA 603. As soon as I crossed the road and parking lot, I saw a sign in the tree pointing to Trail Magic. When I walked into the area, I was blown away by the setup. There were two guys, Greybeard and Been There, that had set up a large trail magic area. They said all hikers – thru and section – were welcome. They had grilled hot dogs, marinated chicken, a tub of fruit, homemade pie, cold sodas, and tons of snacks to take with you. They had a table filled with medical supplies for the taking and a handwashing station. They even had camp chairs (with backrests – a true luxury) and a campfire. Greybeard has been setting up here for years on the week after Trail Days. He runs a GoFundMe page for contributions to buy all of the food and supplies. Been There was helping out with cooking and making sure everyone was in good health and spirits. It truly restores your faith in humanity to see people out there caring for other hikers and it was great to relax and talk trail with everyone there. Greybeard left camp while we were there because he found a stuff sack of food that one of the thru-hikers had left behind. He went further up the trail to leave it at a shelter the hiker would find – it would stink to leave days worth of food behind. They also told us the previous night they had a bear come into camp. After not getting food near the tents and campfire, he ambled over to the nearby parking area and broke into a trailer. Apparently, he made off with a full case of hot cocoa packets before moving on to steal feed from the horse camp across the road.
While it was tempting to stay near the trail magic camp, we pressed forward to our planned stop. We had another steep climb to reach our endpoint, but we felt renewed from our brief respite. At 8.7 miles, we reached Old Orchard Shelter. We were one of the first groups to arrive for the day, so we staked out a prime spot on in a flat grassy area – taking care to avoid the abundant poison ivy. Over the course of the evening, more than 20 people arrived and set up their own tent sites. The water source was a bit of a walk from the right side of the shelter, but was flowing nicely. We set up camp and then began to make some dinner – PackIt Gourmet Kickin’ Chicken Wraps. There was an odd-acting person at the shelter, so we ended up having about 14 people come sit at our campfire. We joked that we felt like the “cool kids” since everyone came to hang out with us. You always meet interesting people on these hikes. We met a Texas acupuncture doctor (who I discovered knew a mutual friend), a woman that was flying home to get married in just a few days, a woman from Germany out with a guide, a college professor hiking with her niece, and a couple of fire fighters from New York that drove down to do a section. It’s crazy how so many different people can come together over a fire that all share a passion for hiking. We had a great night talking with everyone and were excited about the next couple of days on the trail.
Download DAY TWO Maps and Elevation Profiles
Day Three – Old Orchard Shelter to Massie Gap (8.7 miles) – Christine
Our miles for the day started with a thousand foot climb to the summit of Pine Mountain. At the top of the mountain, we passed through a gate and followed the edge of a sunny meadow for a short distance before going through another gate where the trail went back into the woods. We descended through pretty forest for about a mile – there were pine roots, ferns, and abundant yellow flowers. As the trail leveled out, we found ourselves walking in a cloud. The sunshine we’d had back at the top of Pine Mountain had given way to low clouds settling between mountains. Through the mist, we could see a small building on a hillside off in the distance. At first I thought we were coming up on Wise Shelter, but I soon figured out the shelter was still miles away. What I actually saw was the vault toilet building at Scales Livestock corral. It has to be the most scenic privy in Virginia!
After Scales, we had a short but steep uphill to the top of Stone Mountain – the four mile mark for our day. The long, pleasant ridge-walk should have offered beautiful views, but we were still socked in by heavy clouds. It was cold and windy along the summit walk. After a gradual descent of Stone Mountain, we entered Little Wilson Creek Wilderness. It was lovely and green. At 6.2 miles, we reached Big Wilson Creek and the junction with the horse trail. We crossed the stream on a wooden footbridge and went over another stile. I was paying close attention to my footing as I crossed a rocky area. Adam looked back at me from ahead and nonchalantly said, “Hey… I’m going to stop here and take photos of some ponies.” PONIES! I thought he was kidding at first. I didn’t expect to see ponies until day four. But sure enough… there was a band of six ponies grazing in marshland along the trail. Adam stepped slightly off trail to get a better view when suddenly a tiny black foal popped out of the deep grass. He couldn’t have been more than a week old and he was beautiful! The three of us all greatly enjoyed spending time watching these wonderful animals. The ponies eventually wandered deeper into the marsh, and we continued another .2 mile to Wise Shelter – our lunch stop for the day.
We decided to take a long break and enjoy a hot lunch. We had some extra food to use up since we had a trail magic lunch the day before. Kris made a salmon pesto meal and Adam and I shared a package of Good To Go Mushroom Risotto (one of our favorites!). We had delightful lunch companions – two women from Sweden, a man from Kentucky, and a British guy – all thru-hikers. After they hiked on, we were joined by a man who was less-than-pleasant company, so we packed up and made our way into Grayson Highlands State Park. The park’s boundary is just south of the shelter.
From the shelter, we just had about 1.5 miles of climbing to reach the spur trail to the parking area at Massie Gap – our end point for day three. That 1.5 miles was incredibly scenic. The area is covered with only low shrubs and small pine trees, so the views are open in every direction. There are rock formations, wide meadows, ponies grazing, and (if you’re lucky like we were) blooming rhododendrons. We took tons of photos, watched ponies frolic, and enjoyed the magnificent views. It was everything we hoped the trip would be!
Around 2:30, we made our way down to Massie Gap where we were meeting the owner of the Grayson Highlands General Store and Inn. We had called him from the junction of the AT and the spur trail down to parking. After about 15 minutes of waiting, Dennis came along in a truck and whisked us away for a night of hiker-luxury. We had reserved the inn suite for the three of us. We also sent a resupply box with food for the second half of our trip. Carrying a full week of food is very heavy (backpackers typically carry 1 – 1.5 pounds of food per day), so it’s a treat to be able to resupply every 3-4 days. At the inn, we enjoyed pizza, beer/wine, and ice cream! Our suite had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and even a washer/dryer. We were all able to shower and wash our sweaty clothes. We spent most of the evening relaxing and repacking our bear canisters. It was nice to sleep in a queen size bed – so spacious compared to the floor space in our tiny tent! I would highly recommend the Grayson Highlands General Store for anyone who wants a night off-trail in the area. The accommodations are simple, but they’re very clean, affordable, and comfortable. Also, the staff at the inn takes great care of hikers! We really enjoyed our stay.
Download DAY THREE Maps and Elevation Profiles
Day Four – Massie Gap to Whitetop (10 miles) – Adam
Day four was the highlight of the entire trip. It turned out to be the toughest day physically, but everything we saw helped make the pain bearable. We started off our morning with breakfast at the inn. Kris and I had french toast with bacon and Christine had a grilled bacon and cheese sandwich. We also got some deli sandwiches to pack for lunch on the trail. Dennis, the inn’s owner, gave us a shuttle ride back to Massie Gap parking. We had about a mile walk back up to where we rejoined the Appalachian Trail.
We took a left and headed south on the AT. The climb was steep and slow going at the beginning, but we were soon greeted with expansive views all around. It was quite easy to just say that you were stopping to take photos when you really needed to catch your breath. The terrain was relentlessly rocky and rugged. The clouds that were hanging above the mountains added to the visual drama. We thought we were going to get stormed on, but luckily the rain held off all day. The one thing that amazes me about this area is how fitting the word “Highlands” is to describe the terrain – in this area you may feel like you are walking in Scottish Highlands.
At about the 1.5 mile mark, we reached the southern edge of Grayson Highlands State Park, marked by a turnstile to an open field. From here we went back onto national forest land. The trail climbs up steeply and we reached a spot called ‘Fatman Squeeze’ at 2.2 miles. It is an interesting rock formation that you can climb through. It wasn’t that much of a squeeze, but if you don’t want to risk humiliation or don’t like the claustrophobic feel there is a path that loops around the feature.
After the Squeeze, we reached Wilburn Ridge at 2.5 miles. As we crossed over the bump, we spotted another band of ponies lounging next to the trail. While they call these “wild” ponies, they are accustomed to people and may try to grab some food from an unattended backpack. The ponies all have such interesting markings and we talked about which one was our favorite. The trail had another short uphill bump before we came to Rhododendron Gap and a junction with the Pine Mountain Trail. On the ground, someone had arranged rocks into “500” noting the 500 mile mark of the Appalachian Trail for northbound hikers. There is another bit of fairly easy walking on this ridgeline – and the views keep coming if you’re lucky to visit on a clear day.
At 4 miles, we reached the Thomas Knob shelter. As I approached the shelter, I paused to take a photo and startled a retired police officer eating lunch there. Just a minute before I arrived, a bear had come right up to the shelter where she was sitting. She thought I was the returning bear. We stopped to eat lunch and heard more from the woman about the bear. The shelter log said that at night, gleaming bear eyes can be seen in the nearby trees, watching the open shelter.
The area has been extremely problematic for aggressive bears over the last couple years. In 2018, several miles of AT in this area were closed to camping after tents were shredded and over 70 hikers’ food bags were taken by a bear. Now, there are bear lockers installed near the shelter, so be sure to store food and other ‘smellables’ securely if you decide to stay near Thomas Knob. Despite the addition of bear lockers, some hikers are still continuing to sleep with food in their tents and in the shelter, so bear problems have persisted into the 2019 season. After lunch, we continued on and just a short distance along the trail we reached a junction with a spur trail that leads to the summit of Mt. Rogers (we wrote about this in another post – no views but something worth doing if you want to bag the highest peak in Virginia).
After the Mt. Rogers junction, the trail descends steeply over rocky terrain until you reach Deep Gap at 6 miles. We saw dozens and dozens of northbound thruhikers coming the opposite direction as we descended from Grayson Highlands. More than a few mentioned that they were not enjoying the big climb and asked if the scenery ahead was as amazing as reputed. We assured everyone that the big climb was totally worth the payoff at the summit.
We took off our packs for a break, but we knew we still had more miles to cover. Continuing on, we kept descending and reached the beautiful mustard fields of Elk Garden. It was hot in the open sun. We crossed VA 600 at 8 miles and ran into a grandfather that was hoping to meet his thru-hiking granddaughter along the trail. We hadn’t seen her yet (we would the next day), but we rested again for a bit as we reentered the woods.
The day had already been tough and we had a big climb ahead of us. We debated stopping there for the night, but decided to camp where we had originally planned. We summoned what little strength we had left and pressed on to the end. We had 2.4 miles of an uphill climb to make it to the end of our day and it was all fairly steep. We hiked separately, setting our own paces, with Christine in the lead.
When we got to the high point on Whitetop Mountain, almost all the campsites had been taken, but Christine managed to grab the last decent one when she arrived. It was probably the worst of the campsites that we had for the trip, but it was still fine. Lots of other hikers ended up squeezed into tilted rocky sites that couldn’t have been comfortable.
Water was quite a distance from camp, but on our way to the source we enjoyed great views along an open ridge. The water source was a piped spring that came out of the mountainside. It gushed ice cold water and might be one of the nicest water sources we’ve ever seen. Christine and I both doused our heads and splashed our faces and rinsed away a lot of the day’s salty sweat. We made PackIt Gourmet All American Cheeseburger Wraps for dinner – maybe our new favorite backpacking meal. They were delicious! After brushing our teeth and finding a good place to wedge our bear canisters, we watched sunset from the open ridge, and then went to bed before 9:00. We were all exhausted. It had been an amazing, but tiring, day.
Download DAY FOUR Maps and Elevation Profiles
Day Five – Whitetop to the Virginia Creeper Junction (8.5 miles) – Christine
Day five dawned with our high-elevation campsite blanketed in fog. We hoped enough of the mist would lift to allow us to enjoy the views from Buzzard Rock, but with only a mile to cover, we were at the vista about twenty minutes after hiking out of camp. At the viewpoint, we found ourselves still standing in the middle of a cloud. Luckily, we could still make out faint views of the valley below. Even veiled, Buzzard Rock is a gorgeous spot – and also our last opportunity to enjoy the highlands on this trip. Shortly after the viewpoint, the trail takes a steady 3.8 mile downhill drop from 5,080′ all the way down to 3,160′. At the beginning of the descent, we saw the fading final red trillium of spring and at the bottom of the descent, we saw abundant pink lady’s slippers. The drop in elevation let us see both early and later bloomers on the same day!
At the bottom of the descent, we crossed Route 58 and made our way back uphill for a mile to reach Lost Mountain Shelter. The lower elevation brought on the extra heat and humidity. Paired with the exertion of climbing, we were all pretty hot and tired when we arrived at the shelter for lunch. The area was crowded with a crew of volunteer maintainers from the local trail club and about ten thru-hikers in for a mid-day break. The trail club kindly carried out everyone’s garbage! It’s such a small thing, but to have a day hiker offer to take your trash out is true trail magic! We collected water and decided to make our PackIt Gourmet cheese spread for lunch. It’s a really delicious meal, but I think everyone was too hot to really be hungry. We couldn’t finish everything, so we passed our leftovers on to a thru-hiker from Colorado.
After lunch, we had a tiny bit more uphill climbing before the trail switchbacked downhill for 1.8 miles to its junction with the Virginia Creeper Trail. The Creeper is and old railroad grade converted to a multi-use trail. It’s most heavily used by bikers, but also by equestrians, hikers, runners, and even the occasional dog-sledder in the winter! Kris was about fifteen minutes behind us, so Adam and I sat on the Luther Hassinger Memorial Bridge and waited for her to catch up. While we waited, we noticed that there were several really nice streamside campsites under the bridge.
When Kris caught up, we had a team meeting and decided to camp under the bridge instead of hiking another 2.3 (mostly uphill) miles to our planned campsite. We were all hot and tired, and the campsite ahead sounded not-so-great (stagnant, mosquito-laden pond nearby) according to accounts in our Guthooks AT App. We set up camp, waded in the stream, played cards, and had a relaxing evening at camp. We even met a couple guys fishing nearby, and they kindly shared a couple cold beers with us.
Over dinner, we discussed altering our plan for days six and seven. We tossed around the idea of finishing in one day instead of two and following the Creeper Trail instead of the AT. We agreed to sleep on the plan and make a decision in the morning. It was really a fantastic campsite and everyone slept so well with the sound of rushing water nearby.
Download DAY FIVE Maps and Elevation Profiles
Day Six – Virginia Creeper Junction to Damascus (11 miles) – Adam
We woke up early and discussed our plan for the day. Kris’ feet were in pain and we knew the elevation gain and rough terrain were going to be hard on her blisters. The initial thought was that I would stay on the AT, while Christine and Kris would walk back along the Creeper Trail, but meet up along a spur between the two trails to camp together. After looking at our AWOL guide and the Guthooks app, there was no solid information on how the spur trail would connect or how far it would be. I ultimately made the call to stick together and finish in one day via the Creeper Trail back to Damascus. I am probably more of an AT purest and want to hit every blaze, but Christine was fine just getting to Damascus another way. But, she promised to come back together and do the AT miles to appease my desire to see every white blaze. Sticking together was definitely the best call for everyone’s safety and peace of mind.
The AT parallels the Creeper Trail for a good portion, but it is much higher in elevation and there aren’t really any easy access points between the two trails. Going back the way of the Creeper Trail also meant that the entire hike was either flat or downhill and the footing for trail conditions was much easier on injured feet (the AT section would have added about 1800 feet of climbing and a couple more miles).
We packed up camp and were on our way. We crossed the Hassinger bridge, where the AT and Creeper begin to share trail for about .7 miles until the AT takes a hard right up the mountainside. We stayed on the Creeper Trail, crossing 21 trestle bridges and enjoying gorgeous stream scenery along the way. When we biked this section many years ago, it was raining which forced us to rush along the trail, so it was nice to take in the sights at a leisurely pace. Much of the Creeper Trail follows Whitetop Laurel Creek – one of Virginia’s largest and most pristine trout streams.
There were a good number of bikers out for the Memorial Day weekend, so we got used to hearing “ON THE LEFT” as they sped past. A few cyclists paused and gawked at us carrying our gear. For some of these casual family bikers I guess we seemed like hardcore professional athletes. People randomly applauded and one woman said she was ‘in awe of us.’ It was funny!
Overall the Creeper Trail is fairly shady, but we also passed by farm houses and through wide pastures. The sun was quite hot in open areas. After finishing a long sunny stretch, we stopped in the shade along a roadside. A father and son were fishing nearby. When they saw us, they offered us a cold Mountain Dews and homemade cookies from their truck. We never stop being amazed by the kindness of strangers. We eventually managed to motivate ourselves to get back up and shoulder our heavy packs.
As we drew closer to town, there were billboards on the side of the trail advertising places to eat and drink in Damascus – they helped motivate us to finish. We ended up crossing US-58 on the outskirts of Damascus. The Appalachian Trail comes down a steep set of stairs on the right and rejoins the Creeper Trail again as it passes through town. We finished our hike walking alongside the road in the blazing sun. Kris had a near brush with danger as a kid on a bike carelessly ran her off the side of the trail. That was a real issue near the congested town section, since many bikers may not be as well-trained on etiquette or skilled enough to avoid others. We talked to another couple that had been hit twice by inexperienced cyclists on their run.
We made it back into town and ate at Wicked Chicken Winghouse & Tavern. There was a guy outside singing and playing guitar and a ton of people enjoying the music, food, and ice cream. We ate inside the air-conditioned restaurant and had some great wings and beers from Damascus Brewery. When we were finished eating, I walked a few tenths of a mile back into town (following the Creeper Trail further into town and then going down Shady Ave to get back to Mount Rogers Outfitters) to pick up our car. Christine and Kris stayed at the restaurant and finished their beers before I picked them up. Before we headed home, we stopped and got some souvenirs from Sun Dog Outfitter.
We had an amazing trip and shared a lot of good memories together while covering a bunch of miles. Everything isn’t always easy when you do a longer section of trail like this, but we felt very accomplished and glad to have each other to help us get through.
Download DAY SIX Maps and Elevation Profiles
Distance – 56 miles
Elevation Change – 11,095 ft. (daily gain is included on each profile download)
Difficulty – 3. Most of the terrain is moderate and uncomplicated.
Trail Conditions – 4. The trail was clear and easy to follow. Bridges and footing were mostly in passable condition. The bridge at Comer Creek Falls was technically closed when we hiked. We had one tough blowdown to negotiate in Little Wilson Creek Wilderness.
Views – 5. We had spectacular views on three of the six days of the trip.
Streams/Waterfalls – 4. There were many beautiful cascading streams along the route. Comer Creek Falls was small, but lovely.
Wildlife – 5. High chances of seeing bears along this section. Even though the ponies aren’t technically wild, we count them as wildlife.
Ease to Navigate – 5. The trail is well marked and easy to follow.
Solitude – 0. This is a very popular section of Appalachian Trail. We maximized crowds by 1)Joining the thru-hiker bubble 2) Starting the day Trail Days ended 3) Hiking over a holiday weekend. If you choose a different time of year, you might have significantly more solitude.
Directions to trailhead: We left a car in Damascus at Mt. Rogers Outfitters. We used their shuttle service to drop us off at the Appalachian Trail Crossing at the South Fork of the Holston River. GPS coordinates for our start point are: 36.7631, -81.4939.
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.
The summit of Mount Rogers, Virginia’s highest peak, can be reached via a nine mile (total, out-and-back) hike starting from Grayson Highlands State Park. The hike follows the Appalachian Trail for most of the way and crosses into Jefferson National Forest.
Mount Rogers has long been on my list of must-do hikes. The peak’s status as the state’s highest point was one draw, but personally, I wanted a chance to see the feral highland ponies that roam the area.
Our trip started under rather inauspicious conditions. We missed a turn on our way to the park, and ended up an hour out of the way. The weather had been forecast to be sunny, but the morning dawned with a thick, wet, windy cloud of bleakness blanketing the entire area. But when you have driven almost four hours to do a long-anticipated hike, you’re going to do it regardless of minor complications like gloominess and getting lost.
We parked at Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park. From there, we walked across a wide pasture, passed a sign warning of extremely erratic weather in the area and went through a horse gate. The trail climbed upward along a wide, gravel path.
We almost immediately saw our first small group of wild ponies, clustered under the trees on a hillside next to the trail. The fog was so thick; they looked like silhouettes in the mist. I quickly got my camera out and started snapping shots. The ponies were so small and rugged looking. Their coats were thick and their manes long and wavy. Some were solid colored and some were spotted. They also turned out to be incredibly inquisitive and gentle. While I was squatting down to take photos, a dark brown pony walked up to me and nuzzled her soft nose onto the back of my hand. I know she was looking for food, but I had nothing to offer. We lingered with the ponies for a while, and then moved on.
(note: The park rules prohibit feeding the ponies.)
We soon reached the junction with the Appalachian Trail, followed the white blazes and headed south. The fog was such a transformative element on the morning of our hike. Instead of the amazing mountain views we’d heard about, the thick mist made the scenery feel closer and more intimate. I told Adam several times that I didn’t feel like I was in Virginia at all. I felt like I was walking through some storybook version of the Scottish Highlands. It was so quiet and mysterious-feeling – no people, no tall trees rustling in the wind, no birds chirping. The terrain was open, studded with rocks and covered with scrubby low-lying brush.
The Appalachian Trail exits Grayson Highlands State Park at around the 1.5 mile mark. The trail becomes increasingly rugged and rocky at this point. There are a couple route options for the middle section of the trail. Hikers can continue along the AT, or choose to branch off on the Wilburn Ridge Trail for a short rock scramble (and nice views on a clear day). We chose to scramble. In retrospect, we probably should have stuck to the AT. The boulders on Wilburn Ridge were quite slippery. After we finished scrambling, we passed through a thick tunnel of rhododendron that spilled us back out into another open pasture area.
When we rejoined the AT, we started to see signs of the sun burning through the cloud layer. We soon reached a horse camp next to an enormous rock outcropping . When we climbed to the top of the rocks, we both gasped in awe at the view. The valley below us had been mostly cleared of clouds and fog, and a blanket of fall color spread out before us, as far as the eye could see. Only a few wisps of mist were left hanging on the ridges below. We sat on the rocks and took a break from walking. A couple backpackers passed below, and we overheard them talking about hearing coyotes howling in the night before. Instead of coyotes, we heard the distant squeal of ponies whinnying ahead on the trail.
After a short break atop the rocks, we continued along, passing through another thicket of rhododendron. The area was completely shaded and nearly ankle deep in mud. My trekking poles came in very handy traversing the sloppy footing. This section of the trail runs almost parallel to the Mount Rogers horse trail. There are many beautiful backcountry campgrounds nestled into the trees along this stretch. We saw about a dozen more wild ponies near the campsites, including a couple stallions.
By this point in the hike, all the fog and clouds had blown off the mountain, giving us a great look at the gentle rolling terrain and spectacular open views. You can’t help but feel like you’re on top of the world walking along this ridge. The fall color was amazing! We stopped for lunch at the Thomas Knob Appalachian Trail hut. We shared the picnic table with several groups of day hikers and backpackers. We read the logbook, stretched a bit and then made our final push for the summit.
The spur to the summit departs the AT and heads into a dense, rainforest-like grove of spruce-fir trees. It was damp and green and draped with moss. It reminded Adam and I of the forests in the Pacific Northwest. The summit of Mt. Rogers is rather anticlimactic after passing by so many sweeping panoramic views and rocky pinnacles. The marker lays set in stone, tucked into a shady spot in the woods. There is no view to speak of, just a quiet little spot under the trees.
We only stayed at the summit for a few minutes, as there were quite a few people there. We hiked the return trip to Massie Gap fairly quickly, stopping briefly along the way to admire ponies and take in views that had been obscured by fog earlier in the day. The hike almost felt like a loop because the weather changed so dramatically between the hike up and the hike down. My final treat along the hike came less than a mile from the end, when a young foal came bounding out of the brush, nickering loudly for his mother. The foal was absolutely adorable. I wanted to pack him up and take him home with me! (Incidentally, the wild ponies are periodically rounded up and sold to keep the herd at a sustainable size. Although, I don’t think our property owners association would appreciate me bringing a miniature horse home, so I’ll just have to keep the pony ownership idea in the realm of fantasy for now.)
We got back to our car, tired and happy. The entire hike took around six hours – even with lots of breaks and dawdling along the way. For its nine mile length, it’s a surprisingly easy hike.
I really can’t fully put into words how much I loved this hike. I went to sleep that night dreaming of wild ponies and gorgeous fall views. I know I’ll revisit Mt. Rogers often in my mind until I have a chance to hike it again.
We had such a great hike up Mount Rogers! A co-worker that had previously hiked the mountain had described the scenery as God’s country and I couldn’t agree more. While walking across the highlands, you can’t help but feel reflective about the beauty before you. The land around you is vast and I guarantee you will be humbled by the nature.
Mount Rogers was originally named Balsam Mountain, but the name was changed to honor Virginia’s first state geologist and first president of MIT, William B. Rogers. With the peak being the highest in Virginia at 5,729 feet, this is quite an honor.
One thing that does make this a special hike is the ponies. Another co-worker of mine didn’t believe that there were wild ponies here (even with photographic evidence). The ponies were originally placed here by the park service in 1974, but are currently maintained by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association. The ponies help protect the area from wildfires by eating grasses and underbrush. The Wilburn Ridge Pony Association takes care of their veterinary needs and provides supplements of salt and hay in winter months. There are close to 150 ponies, that are separated into three herds – some are in Grayson Highlands State Park, more are in the Scales area of Pine Mountain, and the most are near Rhododendron Gap on the Mount Rogers trail. The proceeds from the sale of the ponies at the end of September supports the vet and winter feed costs.
The geology of Mount Rogers provides an interesting tale of how things were formed over the years. Geologists will be able to see evidence of gneiss, sandstone, rhyolite, and shale on their hike along the trail.
For people that like a little more direction for the route that we took, here are some points of interest along the way:
Cross the field at the Massie Gap parking lot and go through the gate to start the trail.
You will now be on the Rhododendron Trail for .8 mile until it intersects the Virginia Highlands Connector Trail. Take a left on this trail for just .2 miles.
When you reach the junction with the Appalachian trail, head south. You will shortly leave Grayson Highlands State Park and enter Mount Rogers National Recreation Area through a gate – continue straight on the AT at this point. After another .25 mile, you will have the option to stay straight on the Appalachian Trail or turn left and proceed on the Wilburn Ridge Trail. The distance is about 1 mile either way. The Wilburn Ridge Trail does join back to the AT. It is a tougher rock scramble, but I would recommend doing it on the way up rather than the way down.
Once you are back on the AT, proceed for another mile until you reach a junction of trails. This area is known as Rhododendron Gap and comes to an elevation of 5526 feet. At this junction, there is a large pinnacle rock. Climbing up the rock will give you gorgeous panoramic views that are a must-see of the hike. This area joins the AT with the Pine Mountain Trail and Crest Trail. Once you enjoy the view, make sure you follow the white blazes to stay on the AT.
You will then proceed on the AT for about 1.5 miles, walking through the bald area known as the Crest Zone, until you reach the Thomas Knob Shelter, protected by gates on both sides. This is a great place to grab a snack. There are also great views behind the cabin. This cabin sleeps plenty, since there is a ladder that goes to a second floor, allowing a little light through two small windows on the side.
Once you leave the shelter through the gate, you will be entering Lewis Fork Wilderness. Shortly after this point, to reach the summit you will need to leave the AT and proceed to the summit by taking the Mount Rogers Spur Trail for .5 mile straight ahead. The summit is marked by a simple USGS benchmark in the stone. There are two within 100 feet of each other, so make sure you find the correct one for any of you peakbaggers.
Overall, the trail was really quite manageable for a 9-mile hike. The terrain is very nice in some points walking across flat lands, but there are some rocky parts, especially around the Wilburn Ridge Trail. My back and feet were in pain from having too much weight on my pack, but my muscles didn’t feel sore at all the next day.
There are just a few geocaches that you can find along the way. A couple of them are earthcaches, which do not have you finding a physical cache, but it teaches you about the geology of the area.
Christine told me that this hike has been her favorite ever. While there are a lot of contenders for me, this would definitely be a strong candidate for me as well. I feel that anyone interested in hiking in Virginia should make this a trail you must do. It is a day you will remember forever.
Distance – 9 miles the way we went making a partial loop in the middle with the Wilburn Ridge Trail.
Elevation Change –About 1100 feet
Difficulty – 4. The actual trail wasn’t too tough, but due to the length we upped the difficulty. The Wilburn Ridge Trail does include a few rock scrambles, but is also manageable for most people that are the slightest bit nimble.
Trail Conditions – 3.5 The trail is well-maintained and traveled. There are muddy spots, especially through the Mount Rogers Spur Trail. The hike on the AT and Wilburn Ridge before the Rhododendron Gap area is quite rocky, causing you to watch your feet.
Views –5. Great views walking along the trail in all directions. The views from Rhododendron Gap are especially beautiful.
Waterfalls/streams –0. Non-existent.
Wildlife – 5. It doesn’t get much better than wild ponies. Bears and coyotes have been spotted also. Lots of bird-watching available also.
Ease to Navigate – 3. It is easy to get a little confused at Rhododendron Gap, but overall things are very well-maintained. Make sure you grab a map to have a backup plan.
Solitude – 2. You will get good spacing due to the length, but you will see other people due to the backpackers, AT hikers, and day visitors. It is the highest summit, which is going to draw crowds, especially at the shelter and summit.
Directions to trailhead: From Abingdon, take 58 East until you reachGrayson Highlands State Park on the left through SR 362. Continue for three miles to reach the Massie Gap parking area. The start of the trail at the gate is across the field to the north.