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THE VIRGINIA CREEPER TRAIL:

NO CREEPING (OR CREEPS) ALLOWED

Virginia's southwest mountains just may feature some of the most concentrated outdoors opportunities available to bikers, hikers, and others in search of adventure. The Virginia Creeper Trail (VCT) provides the perfect introduction and Damascus is the best base for hiking or biking the VCT, as well as other nearby options.

The VCT is one of the most popular Rails-to-Trails routes in the U.S. Running from Whitetop Station up on Whitetop Mountain down through Damascus to Abingdon, it is 33.6 miles long and drops in elevation from 3,500 feet down to 1,750 feet (it then ascends slightly to 2,050 in Abingdon). It's a very popular one-day bike ride (fat tires are best) from the top down to Damascus (17.6 miles) or to Abingdon (another 16 miles). Other cyclists choose to do all or part of the ride in reverse, while hikers have frequent access points for treks on all or part of the VCT (it's a great two-day hike, with an overnight stay in Damascus).

The VCT follows the route of a major Indian trace leading from present-day North Carolina to the Ohio River along the Big Sandy. In Abingdon, it crossed another trace that traversed the Great Valley of Virginia/Tennessee. Frontier hunters and explorers used the path and four of Daniel Boone's campsites have been documented along the route and other Indian paths.

A railroad was originally chartered in 1887, but the Abingdon-to-Damascus portion wasn't built until 1899. The railroad was nicknamed the Virginia Creeper because of its slow trip up the mountain, as well as for the vine of the same name that can be seen along the route.

The Virginia Creeper line eventually ran more than 75 miles and included more than 100 trestles, with typical loads including lumber, iron ore, supplies, and passengers. Though floods and economic downturns reduced service greatly, the train ran at least once a week until 1977. The steam engine is on display at the trailhead in Abingdon.

In the 1980s, Norfolk & Western sold their right-of-way to Abingdon, Damascus, and the National Forest Service. The hard work of locals and government officials at the local, state, and federal level led to removal of the rails and the transition into a popular recreational trail for hikers, cyclists, and equestrians.

Several outfitters from Damascus and Abingdon run shuttles to Whitetop Station. It's also easy to arrange pickups after a ride or hike. The best introduction is to take the shuttle to the top and ride down at any pace you'd like, from hammering downhill when it's not busy to meandering along with just a few pedal strokes.

The mile posts start high and work their way to Abingdon (MP 0). The first of many interesting stops is at Green Cove Station (MP 29.3). You can tour the original depot and view some signed prints by O. Winston Link, a famed photographer who toured the area in the 1950s to dramatically document old steam trains. His "Maude Bows to the Virginia Creeper" was shot at Green Cove Station. There's usually a Forest Service volunteer at the station from May to October.

The VCT follows Green Cove Creek for much of the early route, with great views available from many of the 31 trestles and bridges on the route to Damascus. The double trestle around MP 25 includes a 563-foot section, with great views of the junction of Green Cove and Whitetop Creeks. This is also the first of several times the Appalachian Trail joins the VCT.

Around MP 23, trestle #28 leads into Taylors Valley. The houses in this area are private property and many fields are divided by gates. Several times during the trip down to Damascus, gates mark the entry and exit through private land. All outfitters stress the importance of closing gates so that cooperative landowners stay that way.

This half of the trip can feature phenomenal wildflower displays, including painted trillium in the spring and rhododendron in late-June and early-July. You can literally see the seasons changing as you head downhill.

Damascus is around MP 16, with a wide variety of services (see below). This is a great place for lunch (Dot's Inn is a personal and local favorite). Known as "the friendliest town on the Appalachian Trail," Damascus has grown into an outdoors mecca for hikers, bikers, and other adventurers.

Along with an Appalachian Trail Hostel (known simply as "The Place"), Adventure Damascus (see below) has become the hub of activity here. They offer shuttles, sales, service, accessories, and lots of great advice. Co-owner Tom Horsch helped author the new edition of Mountain Biking the Appalachians and is a licensed guide, while Damascus native Michael Wright and two other active partners make this a hot place to hang out for cool company and insider information.

The scenery definitely changes after Damascus. There's a slight descent down to 1,750 feet at the confluence of the Middle and South Forks of the Holston River and then rises again to 2,050 feet in Abingdon. The route parallels the slowly flowing Holston River South Fork and crosses over 15 bridges and trestles.

Though there aren't the rocky gorges featured on the first half of the ride, the rolling pastureland makes for pretty scenery in which to bike or hike. Wildflowers include bloodroot, spring beauty, bellwort, and foamflower in spring, blue Virginia dayflower, stonecrop, and pipsisswa in early-summer, and purple ironweed, pink Joe-Pye weed, and rhododendron in summer.

At about MP 12.5, you'll reach the "bull lot," a gated area (don't forget to close them) where several huge bulls graze near the trail. A couple of miles later the VCT runs through the small town of Alvarado, which includes a small store that was the community's post office until 1956.

The curving trestle about MP 8 spans South Holston Lake, which is the confluence of the Holston River's Middle and South Forks (this is the low point of the VCT). This area includes a Daniel Boone campsite, an Indian trace fording spot, and farmland once owned by Patrick Henry.

Heading into Abingdon, civilization returns as the VCT passes through a golf course development with huge houses, under I-81, and into town. Be sure to check out the old Virginia Creeper engine at the trailhead.

The bike trip down just provides a taste of the VCT and other area options. The Mount Rogers National Recreation area feature approximately 119,000 acres of land around Virginia's highest peak (Mount Rogers at 5,729 feet). Along with biking and hiking the VCT, other favorite area trails include: Iron Mountain (13.40 miles), Beartree Gap (3.15 miles, joined to Iron Mountain), and Feathercamp (2.20, joined to Iron Mountain). Adventure Damascus and other area outfitters in Damascus, Abingdon, and elsewhere can provide details about these and more than 200 other miles of single track and National Forest roads open to mountain bikers (get a good trail map--Adventure Damascus sells cool clip-on laminated ones).

RESOURCES

For planning a trip, contact the Washington County Chamber of Commerce at 179 E. Main Street, Abindgon, VA 24120, 540/628-8141, email: wccc@naxs.com. Adventure Damascus is at 128 W. Laurel Avenue, Damascus, VA 24236, 888/595-BIKE, email: advdam@naxs.com, website: AdventureDamascus.com. Nearby, Apple Tree B&B welcomes outdoors types at 115 E. Laurel Ave., Damascus, VA 24236, 800/231-7626, email: appletree@naxs.com, website: www.appletreebnb.com. Of course, there are many other excellent outfitters and accommodations options in Damascus, Abingdon, and the surrounding area. Along with Dot's Inn in Damascus, Abingdon features a number of creative spots (Allison's, Peppermill, and The New Empire are all good).

Lynn Seldon is a Virginia-based freelance travel writer and photographer. His Blue Ridge sports coverage credits include Blue Ridge Outdoors, SKI Magazine, Blue Ridge Country, and West Virginia Outdoors. The new editions of two of his books, Country Roads of Virginia and 52 Virginia Weekends (NTC, 800/323-4900), feature many great road trips throughout the Old Dominion.