Have you ever wished you could just bike downhill?
Overhearing my friends discuss plans to bike the “Virginia Creeper Trail” while coaxing me to join them on this famous 17-mile ride made me question my sense of adventure. I’ll try anything that does not include running for long stretches: skydiving, petting baby gators, bobbing for apples, inverted roller coasters, climbing Machu Picchu, batting a piñata, sport fencing, even walking a half marathon…but this sounded intimidating. I hadn’t biked in months and probably never topped ten miles in one stretch. I had been informed most of the bike trip was a gradual downhill ride. Still, you hear 17 miles, and you wonder.
In spite of the potential challenge (and muscle soreness) ahead of me, I decided this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. The Traveling Ink team made our reservations with the friendly SunDog Outfitter folks at Adventure Damascus to provide bike rentals, helmets, and shuttle transportation up to the trailhead. The weather threatened chilly downpours on our designated day so we layered accordingly, packed lunches, and carpooled our way to Damascus to begin our adventure. Upon check-in, the staff brought out bikes for each of us and custom adjusted seat heights, helped fit helmets, and loaded bikes on the trailer before we climbed aboard the Laughing Dog Shuttle for the forty minute drive.
Our driver, Lee, was very congenial, equally comfortable cracking mountain jokes and explaining the rich history of the trail. Turns out, it was an old railway spur that was converted in 1984 to a recreation biking trail that now attracts more than 70,000 visiting riders each year. The last Virginia Creeper train retired in 1977. Today, the 34-mile trail winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains from Whitetop Gap (approximately 3,500’ elevation) gently descending over 17 miles to the halfway point at Damascus (1,910’), before continuing to Abingdon (2,087’).
The trail is open to travel both ways, though we chose the popular Whitetop to Damascus section for its dramatic scenery and ease of travel (did I mention downhill?). Spring had just arrived, with stunning displays of dogwoods, rhododendrons, and wildflowers contrasting with lush green foliage of the trails’ namesake Virginia Creeper vine and other flora.
Claiming my bike, and happily noticing SunDog had included a full water bottle in the bike holster, I secured my waterproof gear to protect myself from the misting rain that met us at the top of the trail. I hopped on and away I went. The bikes we rented were the comfort rider type (not the mountain bike style which were available for the more seasoned rider), allowing us to enjoy a simple gear system and an upright pedaling position, great for casual biking. I quickly realized I didn’t need to pedal much due to the gradual grade, and we stopped often to view panoramic vistas, snap a photo, do some creekside exploring, or just munch on some trail mix.
The average descent is about 100 feet per mile, and is appropriate for riders of all ages as long as they can bike about 2.5 to 3 hours. Even first-graders have successfully completed the downhill 17 mile section. Our group of eleven varied in athletic ability. Some chose to zoom ahead while others casually enjoyed a slower pace. Old and young all enjoyed the quiet scenery and 47 trestle bridges.
Good bike manners were essential and calling out before passing on the left keeps everyone safe, especially families with junior riders. Horseback riders have the right-of-way; take care not to spook them (the horses more than the riders) if you do pass. And don’t forget to test out your brakes, especially when the trail’s damp. A biker (who may or may not have been Traveling Ink's own Audra Gibson) almost wiped out in front of me on the first wooden bridge, not realizing it was extra slippery, whew!
Thankfully, the misting rain didn’t last long and the temperature warmed up as we descended the gorge. Peacefully winding along the cascading creek, the occasional thud-d-d-d-d-d of my tires crossing the next bridge, listening to birds chattering, and watching a male Mallard bobbing through some whitewater are some of my favorite memories.
My speed varied according to the moment’s mood, sometimes pumping pedals to catch up with the trail leaders, sometimes riding alongside a friend to chat. Every once in awhile, I’d pass a biker headed uphill, and they’d give me a glance of distain, which I promptly ignored. I’ve seen that look before during my half-marathon when the path u-turned and the full marathon runners swept by.
There are many places to stop and picnic along the way and camping is allowed on the state and National Forest land, but the majority of the Virginia Creeper Trail runs through private property so check ahead before staking out a campsite. Cell phone coverage is weak over most of the trail, although rangers provide bike patrols from May to October. A small first aid kit and bike repair tools are wise to bring along as an extra precaution.
About three miles down the trail lies the old Green Cove train station, now converted into a visitor center and gift shop. If it’s chilly, this is your last chance to get some gloves! Eight miles later, you can rest at the Creeper Trail Café in Taylor’s Valley, grab some lunch and a piece of their world famous chocolate cake. A few other seasonal restaurants operate along the trail, and portable toilets are available sporadically, so packing some hand-sanitizer is a good idea.
The trail is maintained by joint partnerships between the U.S. Forest Service, the towns of Damascus and Abingdon, and the non-profit Creeper Trail Club whose volunteers are known as “Creeper Keepers”. If you’d like to support their efforts, individual membership is only $10/year and new members get a sticker and trail map. Also, if you ride the trail in the summer months, you may hear some live music at Taylor’s Valley or some banjo pickin’ several nights a week as you pass by the Iron Horse Music Hall located at the Iron Horse campground.
Before you know it, the trail has flattened out and street crossings hint that town is near. If you ask the locals, you’ll know where to find the natural spring outlet to refill your water bottle before the home stretch to drop off your equipment, buy a souvenir shirt, and treat yourself to an ice cream cone.
Afterwards, you can brag to your friends about your 17-mile bike ride! For folks considering a great weekend trip (and a ride that is more enjoyable than it is work), the Virginia Creeper Trail deserves its reputation as the best rail-trail in the Eastern United States. A great big thank you to Adventure Damascus for making our experience fabulous!
MUSC Pharmacy School brought Destine to the Holy City a few years back. Now that she's about to graduate, her friends will bring her back to visit. She has raised her own goats, built her own house, and is a gifted finder of sharks' teeth. She's a fan of Pirates of the Caribbean, country music, and board games. And she has logged enough road-trip miles to be more than qualified to write for a travel blog.