“You’re going the wrong way!”
The jovial shout erupted from a pack of four riders on beach cruisers coasting past us going the opposite way. From their angle (pointed downhill) I’m sure we did look like were going the wrong way (uphill), but our goal was to earn our right to coast all the way back down the mountain.
And for 17 miles, we did pedal uphill, earning every rotation of our cranks on the shady, crushed-gravel path that is the Virginia Creeper Trail, earning the right to coast back down, and perhaps earning the right to a slice of pizza and a scoop of ice cream, too.
We meandered through summer fields and alongside a babbling stream with rapids and small waterfalls where men plied the waters with fly-fishing casts. We pedaled under a massive train trestle and rode across many other trestles and former railroad bridges now specifically purposed for cyclists and hikers.
The Virginia Creeper Trail extends from its western terminus in Abingdon, Virginia (just off Interstate 81), and climbs as it extends 34 miles east to the little community of Whitetop. It’s all in the southwestern corner of the state, just a few miles above the North Carolina and Tennessee borders. The gravel path is what remains of an old railroad line that followed this grade from Abingdon up to the North Carolina border when timber harvesting was the big industry of this area. Eventually the locomotives of the Norfolk & Western Railroad no longer chugged up the iron rails (called the Virginia Creeper for the slow pace that it took the locomotives to ascend the steady grade). Later, in one of the early success stories for the “rails to trails” movement, the tracks were removed and the trail became a mountain paradise for hikers, cyclists, trail runners, horseback riders and anyone possessing a little love of nature.
Damascus to Whitetop
At the trails’ midpoint sits Damascus, Virginia, a small Southern town heavily influenced by the Appalachian Trail that runs through it (not unlike Hot Springs, North Carolina). You’ll find ice cream, craft beer, an outfitters store, cabins and even a microbrewery with regular live music performances. You’ll also find operators of bike shuttles.
Bring your own bike (or rent one from the bike tour operators), and they’ll shuttle you up to the top of the Virginia Creeper Trail. At that point, you’ll hop on your bike and coast all the way downhill for 17 miles back to Damascus. And along the way, you might just want to shout to a couple like us pedaling uphill that, “Hey, you’re going the wrong way!”
Or do what we did, and after 17 miles and an elevation gain of nearly 1,800 feet, you’ll reach the end of the trail at nearly 3,500 feet above sea level. A small visitor center is built to look like a former railroad depot, and inside is a small pantry and a collection of historical items marking this mountainous area from the era when the big trees were being removed from the mountainsides. A photo shows Eleanor Roosevelt visiting the community in 1933 and being welcomed by a local group of mountain musicians. As we look at the faces in the black-and-white image, a volunteer comes over and points to one of the musicians and tell us he was her grandfather.
Just a few miles back down the mountain as you coast from Whitetop to Damascus is the old railroad stop of Green Cove. The little depot here, an original rail station, sells postcards and cool drinks, but don’t overlook it for some fascinating history. Photos and a collection of old tools in a back room are testament to the hard labor it took to farm and harvest timber in these mountains a hundred years ago.
From here to Damascus, the grade carries you lightly through the forest, and before you know it, you’ll be springing from the woods into the quiet town.
Damascus to Abingdon
The other half of the trail leads 17 miles from Damascus to the charming old town of Abingdon. The grade is mostly flat, and the tight gorges above Damascus have opened up into rolling fields, quiet forests and broad river plains of the South Fork Holston River. The old railroad route goes through private lands, and it’s not uncommon to have to stop, open a gate and then proceed onward.
Not far out of Damascus, you’ll pass the Alvarado station railroad depot with much the same appeal as the ones in Green Cove and Whitetop, and if you have time, pedal off the path and across the river to Abingdon Winery, which is settled in beside a timid little brook. Enjoy a glass of wine and snacks (bring your own), but call first to make sure they don’t have the space rented out for a wedding.
From Damascus to Abingdon, it’s mostly downhill on this section of the Creeper, except for a little climb to its western endpoint in Abingdon.
If you have time, tour the little town of Abingdon. A railroad history park is at the end of the trail, and an original Norfolk & Western locomotive sits here. The town is “old Boston” style quaint, and dates back to 1776. Behind the main streets, the town’s old icehouse is now Wolf Hills Brewery where brew master Drake Scott serves up a selection of ales to meet every taste; a small stage brings local musicians, and the yard caters to adults and kids.
The Virginia Creeper Trail can be ridden all in one day, but it’s really best to make a weekend of it and take a leisurely time exploring the trail and the area. The trail is very kid-friendly so don’t hesitate to make this a family outing, either. Mountain bikes, hybrid bikes and cruisers work very well, as do cyclocross bikes, "gravel bikes" and other such adventure and touring bikes. Skinny road bike tires are best saved for another day (28 millimeter and larger road bike tires should be fine, however). Gears are nice to have on your bicycle if you're riding the uphill grade to Whitetop, but certainly not required. A water bottle is about all the "gear" you'll need; bring cash as there are rest stops with drinks and snacks along the way.
- If you only have one day and are a serious cyclist, by all means go for the ride from Abingdon to Whitetop and back (approximately 68 miles).
- If you only have one day and are a casual cyclist, the section from Damascus to Whitetop and back is your best bet (approximately 34 miles).
- If you only have one day and you hate to pedal, then get in on one of the Damascus shuttles and coast along for your ride (approximately 17 easy miles).
- Abingdon to Damascus: Approximately 17 miles and 300 feet of elevation gain (lightly rolling and flat terrain)
- Damascus to Whitetop: Approximately 17 miles and 1800 feet of elevation gain (go reverse and it's all downhill)
Things to Do Near Damascus and Abingdon, Virginia
Looking for places to eat, stops to make and more adventures? Follow this short guide:
The Appalachian Trail runs from Georgia to Maine, but you can always do a day hike out of Damascus, especially if you’d rather not sit on a bicycle seat another day. appalachiantrail.org
Wolf Hills Brewing Company serves tasty ales and live music. Your fun fact is that Daniel Boone named the Abingdon area as “Wolf Hills” following a wolf attack. You, however, can attack a pint and a barstool. 350 Park St. SE, Abingdon, VA, 276.451.5470, wolfhillsbrewing.com
Damascus Brewery is small (tiny, really) microbrewery with occasional live music located in a small metal barn at the edge of town. You might even call it a nanobrewery. 32173 Government Rd., Damascus, VA, 540.314.2782, thedamascusbrewery.com
Abingdon Vineyards and Winery is a small operation nestled on a side creek beside the South Fork Holston River in a pastoral setting in the Alvarado community just off the Virginia Creeper—and the wines are quite good. 20530 Alvarado Rd., Abingdon, VA, 276.623.1255, abingdonwinery.com
Green Cove Station is the last remaining original railroad station from the days of the Virginia Creeper railroad route; it’s operated by the Forest Service as a rest stop and is open April through October. 41259 Green Cove Road, Damascus, VA, 276.388.3386
Whitetop Visitor Center, at the trail’s eastern terminus, is a small visitor’s center with restrooms and refreshments. 1595 Whitetop Gap Rd., Whitetop, VA, 276.388.2919
Mt. Rogers Outfitters in the center of Damascus is where you go when you need fuel for your camp stove or gear for your AT thru-hike, and they also operate a hiker’s shuttle and hostel. 110 W. Laurel Ave., Damascus, VA, 276.475.5416, mtrogersoutfitters.com
SunDog Outfitter in Damascus runs bike shuttles on the Virginia Creeper. 331 Douglas Drive, Damascus, VA, 866.515.3441, sundogoutfitter.com
Adventure Damascus, with its colorful storefront, is another operator of bike shuttles for the trail. 128 W. Laurel Ave., Damascus, VA, 276.475.6262, adventuredamascus.com
Bella’s Pizza is a casual Italian restaurant in Abingdon loved by locals and visitors serving pizza pies and Italian staples. 872 E. Main Street, Abingdon, VA, 276.628.8101
Rain Restaurant and Bar is an upscale American bistro in the heart of historic Abingdon.283 E. Main St., Abingdon, VA, 276.739.2331
The Tavern delivers upscale American and German food in a historic space (the building was originally built as an inn in 1779 and served as a hospital during the Civil War). 222 E. Main St., Abingdon, VA, 276.628.1118
Barter Theatre, found in Abingdon’s historic district, has been operating since 1933 and is therefore one of the oldest, continually operated professional theaters in the country. 127 W. Main St., Abingdon, VA, 276.628.3991, bartertheatre.com
Creeper Zipline is a 4-line zipline at the top of the Virginia Creeper Trail in Whitetop; the bike shuttles will drop you off here, so you can go for a quick zipline canopy tour before hopping on your bicycle and coasting back to Damascus. 1667 Old Park Rd., Whitetop, VA, 276.388.2817, creeperzipline.com
Where to Stay: Hotels and Lodging Near the Virginia Creeper Trail
You can stay in a variety of lodging options, from tents to campers to cabins to hotels, AirBnBs, VRBOs and historic B&Bs. The list below is by no means exhaustive, but gives a good sampling of the accommodations beyond the standard hotel rooms you will find in Abingdon, Virginia and Bristol, Tennessee (home of the Bristol Motor Speedway).
The Buchanan Inn is a historic old home in the Green Cove community near Damascus, preserved from its days as the Buchanan family home, and today operated as a vacation rental that’s ideal for bringing the entire family. 41261 Green Cove Rd., Damascus, VA, 877.300.9328, thebuchananinn.com, $ ($140/night for the entire house)
River Trail Cabins is a collection of three small cabins overlooking the Virginia Creeper Trail and Laurel Creek in Damascus. The chief draw is the back porch of each, where you’ll watch fireflies and hear the rush of the stream’s mellow rapids. 726 N. Beaverdam Ave., Damascus, VA, 276.628.8123, rivertrailcabins.com, $ ($115-125/night for each cabin, which sleep 2-4)
Damascus Old Mill is a historic property today operated as an inn, pub and restaurant in the heart of Damascus. 215 W. Imboden St., Damascus, VA, 276.475.3745, damascusinn.com, $-$$ ($159-$219 per night for rooms on weekends)
Summerfield Inn is a bed-and-breakfast inn with a beautiful front porch in the heart of Abingdon. 101 Valley St. NW, Abingdon, VA, 276.628.5905, summerfieldinn.com, $$ ($170-$200 per night)
The Martha Washington Inn and Spa is an 1832 mansion built for a U.S. General Robert Preston and later operated as a women’s college, the Martha Washington College. It’s where you head when you want an upscale experience to tie in with your rustic cycling tour. 150 W. Main St., Abingdon, VA, 276.628.3161, themartha.com, $$-$$$$ ($250-$690 per night, from deluxe rooms to premier suites)
(All photos ©Geoff Kohl)