Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail (2023)

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Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail (1)

Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail

While biking the Creeper, you’ll often come across scenic views of a bucolic nature.

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Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail (2)

Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail

Michele Sparks of Bristol birding near the Abington trailhead.

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Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail (3)

Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail

Botetourt County’s Mark Ingram motoring past the Whitetop Train Depot near the beginning of the VCT.

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Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail (4)

Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail

Abingdon’s Ed Morgan often birds the Virginia Creeper Trail throughout its length.

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Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail (5)

Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail

On their way to a favorite fishing spot, Chris Mann and Zac Stovall share a trestle with day trippers.

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Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail (6)

Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail

Zac Stovall with a nice brown trout that he caught from Whitetop Laurel.

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Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail (7)

Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail

Joe Pye weed is a common sight in late June and early July on the VCT.

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Finding Fun along the Virginia Creeper Trail (13)

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Beginning high in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area near the community of Whitetop Station—not far from the Tennessee and North Carolina border—the Virginia Creeper Trail rambles 34.3 miles to Abingdon. A rails to trails byway, it is one of the premier destinations in our region for outdoors enthusiasts who relish birding, biking, hiking, and fishing.

All of which drew my son Mark and me there for a two-day sojourn. The first leg of our exploration was to bike the 17 miles of the trail from Whitetop Station to Damascus. Before going, I called Michael Wright who operates Adventure Damascus Bicycle and Outdoor Company, which offers shuttle and rental services for the trail. Although I walk three miles daily and have experienced the VCT numerous times, I’m 68, haven’t ridden a bicycle in over 50 years, and, frankly, was a little concerned about the length of our junket.

“We’ve had people as young as eight months and as old as 88 go on the trail,” Wright assured me. “So I don’t think you’ll have any trouble. Besides, it’s mostly downhill and only takes about four hours to bike if you don’t make many any stops.”

Wright added that Damascus is the hub of eight national, regional, and state trails. Besides the Creeper, the Appalachian Trail, the Iron Mountain Trails, North and South, the Crooked Road, and the Trans-America Bike Route are examples of byways that traverse the area.

So on a refreshingly cool, late June morning, Mark and I arrived at Sundog Outfitter, the biking arm of Adventure Damascus. There we met Eric Crabtree, the self-described “gopher” of the business who does everything from driving the shuttle bus to matching the right bike and helmet with day trippers to guiding groups. I told him about my anxiety.

“We have over 300 bikes,” he said. “There are ones with 16-inch wheels for really young kids, 24 inchers for 9-to-12-year-olds, beach cruisers that have their brakes in the pedals, and mountain bikes with 21 gears and flat handlebars at a height even with the seats. Many of our guests prefer comfort bikes which are designed for ease of riding and have seven gears. I think that’s the best bike for you. We also have tag-alongs for young riders that pull behind an adult bike, as well as baby and dog buggies that pull behind adult bikes.”

Eric spent a goodly amount of time matching bikes and helmets with me until we found ones that I was comfortable with. The 17-mile trek from Whitetop Station ends at Sundog Outfitter, so I tentatively ventured out onto the VCT to practice. Two phrases kept running through my mind. ‘It’s as easy as riding a bike,’ and ‘You never forget how to ride a bike.’ Unfortunately, my first attempts were wobbling misadventures lasting only a few yards and that ended with my having to plant my feet on terra firma before I crashed into something. Eric reassured me that if needed, we would work on my form some more when we arrived at Whitetop Station, elevation 3,742 feet.

Besides desiring to bike the byway for the first time, I wanted to engage in some bird watching, something I have enjoyed on many other visits to the Creeper trail. So I told Eric and Mark to start without me while I listened for birds for a while. I made note of such common avian species as song sparrows, mockingbirds, crows, catbirds and towhees, and then, determinedly, mounted my bike. After a few tentative starts, the act of riding did come back to me and although I wasn’t as graceful or as fast as my two companions, I was able to move along at a decent clip and caught up with them a hundred yards down the trail where they had kindly waited for me.

“I thought you’d get the hang of it again pretty quickly,” Eric said. “Everybody does.”

We continued down the trail for a mile where we came to the Whitetop Train Depot. Crabtree possesses a font of wisdom about the Creeper’s history.

“One of the original purposes of the trail was to take timber from the mountain’s forests to buyers throughout the country,” he said. “In fact at one time, there was more timber being harvested here than in any other place in the Southeast. The downside, of course, was that our forests were ravaged in the early decades of the twentieth century.”

My trio traveled down the mountain for a mile or so stopping often so that I could look and listen for birds. We then debarked at a spot where forest exists on the right side of the Creeper and a path to an informal overlook lies to the left. I recorded wood thrushes, ovenbirds, American redstarts, scarlet tanagers, and hooded and black-and-white warblers in the forest before walking up a short path to the overlook.

“Roughly every four miles or so down the trail, you’ll come to a small community of some kind,” Eric said. “Beyond those farm houses and fields is Whitetop Mountain.”

I heard goldfinches, robins, cardinals, house wrens, and field sparrows singing in the fields below us, and recorded tufted titmice and pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers where the openings meet scattered woodlots. This brings up another interesting point about birding the Virginia Creeper Trail. Although much of the forest along the trail is mature, timber cutting has taken place on the private land that borders it. That timber harvest has created much needed diversity in the landscape, which enables a variety of birds to dwell in the private land bordering the byway.

Our next stop was at the old Green Cove Train Station, a little over three miles down the trail. A marker there memorializes the famous O. Winston Link photo of a train pulling into this station where a horse drawn timber cart awaits. Of course, I had to snap a picture from the same vantage point where Link did so.

“The train station also served as a post office and a telegraph office,” Eric said. “This was really the hub for the area.”

As we continued down through the highlands, I asked Mark and Eric to stop frequently so I could take pictures and listen for birds. Photographers will enjoy the VCT just as much as other outdoor enthusiasts do. I paused several times just to take pictures of old farmhouses and barns. At one photo break, I snapped pictures of a barn as well as heard/saw red-wing blackbirds, chimney swifts, barn swallows, chipping sparrows, and one of the best birds of the day—a common yellowthroat. At another stop, I noted a chestnut-sided warbler singing—the best bird of the outing. This species needs young forests to thrive.

After returning to the trail and crossing over one of the 47 trestles that exist along the byway and over Whitetop Laurel and other streams, I heard two of the birds I most associate with the stream: Louisiana waterthrush and Acadian flycatchers. The clear, whistling notes of the waterthrush make me think of pristine trout streams like Whitetop and hearing the flycatcher’s song (which phonetically sounds like “flea-check”) makes me glad to know that he is on the job doing what he does best—catching and eating insects.

My trio also passed by great rhododendron thickets where these evergreens had just started to bloom as had Joe Pye weed. Eric informed that the rhododendron’s peak blooming period is usually the first fortnight in July.

Soon afterwards, I heard a voice exclaim “Passing on your left,” and seconds later observed a young girl, pedaling furiously, charge by.

At mile 11 down the mountain, we stopped at the Creeper Trail Café in the community of Taylor’s Valley. There, I met the girl and found out from her mom that she was five, named Callie, and they hailed from Tampa Bay, Florida. The mother’s information was not altogether correct as Callie announced, “Mama, I’m not five, I’m 5 ½.”

We pedaled the six miles to Damascus and Sundog Outfitter in a little over an hour. At that point, I felt like I was born to bike and was cruising almost as fast as Eric and Mark though none of us motored at the speed of Callie. Upon our arrival, I tallied up my bird list and found that I had recorded 39 different species—solid numbers for an early summer outing.

Afternoon Destinations

Next, it was time to check in at the nearby Damascus Cabins which lie adjacent to Whitetop Laurel. Mark and I found our temporary abode immaculately clean with the kitchen well-organized and the air conditioning already on. Later I talked to owner Stuart Wright.

“People can go fishing right behind our cabins, and every evening I arrange to have a good blaze going in our fire pit,” he said. “On average every year, 200,000 people ride the Virginia Creeper Trail, and I want the ones that stay at our cabins to feel like they are at home here.”

Zac Stovall and Chris Mann, co-owners of Feeld Trips, arrived to take us fly fishing on Whitetop Laurel. I had fished with Zac once before and was well aware of his expertise with the long rod. Chris is likewise quite adept concerning all matters fishing.

“One of many great things about Whitetop Laurel is that the stream is so long that people can spread out and find places to fish that haven’t been worked in a while,” he said. “Another great thing is the accessibility. The Creeper trail is a big part of that, of course. You can orient yourself by the trail’s mile markers and the trestles and plan how long you want to fish each spot. There are even piers along the creek that are wheelchair accessible.”

I then added that I consider Whitetop Laurel one of the top five trout destinations in Virginia, perhaps the best one in the Commonwealth, and definitely the most scenic with great rhododendron, sycamores, witch hazel, and striped maples among the flora shrouding its pools.

“I don’t disagree with any of those statements,” laughed Mann. “But I’m prejudiced; this is my home water.”

Stovall said one of the most enticing aspects of Whitetop is the variety of trout-related experiences that exist on the river itself and its tributaries.

“I recently caught browns, rainbows, and brookies from the river, what I call the ‘Whitetop Grand Slam,’” he said. “Whitetop itself is known for its big wild browns, and many of the tributaries have certain reputations. Laurel Creek and Straight Branch have a reputation for producing wild rainbows, and Green Cove is known for its wild browns. Then there are all these small tributaries that have native brook trout in them. And people visit the lower part of Whitetop Laurel because of its stocked trout fishery,” he said.

“Fish the edges on Whitetop Laurel,” Stovall said. “Meaning, work your fly where shade borders sunlight or where chunk rock borders pebbles, or sand is next to gravel, for example. Those places are where the best-sized trout seem to hold.”

Moments later, Chris landed a rainbow and Zac a nice brown-typical action on Whitetop Laurel.

Birding the Trail

The next morning, we met Ed Morgan and several birders from the Bristol and Abingdon areas. I’ve birded with Ed, who lives in Abingdon, several times and was eager to share my adventure with him. He agreed that the chestnut-sided warbler and common yellow-throat ranked as the top birds for the outing, and was sympathetic that I had not observed any raptors.

“Kestrels and red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks are breeding birds on the Creeper and can often be seen,” Ed said. “Fall is a good time to spot broad-wing hawks and winter is best for sighting golden eagles. As far as the warblers, the upper section is a good place to hear such uncommon ones as black-throated green and black-throated blue warblers, magnolia warblers, as well as hermit thrushes.”

The lower section of the trail in the Abingdon area features a different subset of birds with mallards, Canada geese, killdeer, bluebirds, and various swallow species being birds that I associate with that trailhead. Morgan’s party and I added the above birds and several other common species to make my overall two-day tally an even 50 species.

The Virginia Creeper Trail is one of the jewels of the Southern Appalachians. And that’s true whether you are a birder, biker, hiker, angler or an outdoor enthusiast of just about any kind.

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