By KAREN TESTA
It was an invitation even teenagers who had hoped to be watching college football or playing video games couldn’t resist: a mountain bike ride – all downhill.
Visitors to the Virginia Creeper Trail will find a remarkably family-friendly ride, adaptable to any skill level, and with scenery to hold anyone’s attention. With its broad paths and wide curves, the Creeper encourages riders to take it at any comfortable pace, with plenty of opportunities for breaks along the way.
The trail runs about 34 miles from Whitetop Station in Whitetop, Va. (about a mile shy of the North Carolina border) into Abingdon, Va. But its most popular segment is the first 17 miles from Whitetop to Damascus, on a stone dust and gravel trail that allows bikers to reap the benefits of gravity on a gorgeous, woodsy path over dozens of trestles and bridges back into town.
At least a half-dozen outfitters in the area rent bikes (including some with “comfort seats” for a slight upcharge) and provide shuttles to Whitetop Station. The shuttle trip up the twisting and turning mountain roadway – where speed limits reduce at several places to 20 mph – takes a bit more than an hour from Abingdon and about 40 minutes from Damascus. It’s well worth the $25 fee per rider.
Note to procrastinators: Book ahead during busy times, like fall foliage season when rental shops sell out on weekends.
Once at Whitetop Station, riders claim their bikes and head out. On a recent October weekend, with low humidity, moderate temperatures and near peak foliage, the trail was heavily traveled and sometimes crowded with bikers ranging from toddlers in trailers to grandparents. But calling out a simple, “On your left!” got most of the slower riders to ease to the side and allow others to pass.
Still, there was no hurry. Speed would be contrary to the spirit of the Creeper.
HISTORY OF THE CREEPER
The Creeper began as a Native American footpath. Later it was used by colonists and settlers including Daniel Boone, according to a history provided by the U.S. Forest Service. By the early 1900s, it was a rail line, where steam engines moved coal, lumber, passengers and other supplies from Abingdon to North Carolina.
The nickname, the Virginia Creeper, is said to come from the super slow speed at which the early steam locomotives navigated the many twists and turns and chugged up the mountain pass.
But the rail line struggled, and after decades of failing to turn a profit, the railroad company petitioned to abandon the line. The Creeper saw its last train run in the 1970s, and the U.S. Forest Service secured much of the land and started removing the track.
The most popular segment – the 17 miles from Whitetop Station to Damascus – requires only moderate pedaling given the gentle downhill slope. Signs along the route indicate when hikers or bikers are coming into the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area or moving onto private property.
There are plenty of spots to stop along the way, including restrooms.
Green Cove Station Visitor Center is the first significant stop, and is just 3 miles from Whitetop Station. One of the most picturesque areas along the path is the High Trestle, a little more than 7 miles from the top.
Taylor’s Valley is about 11 miles from the top, and a perfect spot for a break, especially if the volunteers from the local church are set up on the green. Recently, about a half-dozen church members were offering hot dogs with homemade slaw and chili, cookies, fruit salad, pumpkin roll, chips and cold drinks – all for a free-will donation.
The final approach to Damascus becomes obvious for several reasons. The trail levels a bit, and pedaling requires more effort; cars can be seen along the adjacent highway; and signs along the path remind travelers they are only a short distance from a cold beer or margarita.
Damascus has come to be known as “Trail Town USA,” as at least a half-dozen biking and hiking trails intersect there, most notably the Appalachian Trail.
READY FOR MORE
The popular downhill portion of the Creeper is only half of the trail. It continues another 17 miles through a more settled area that will require a bit more exertion for the biker or hiker but is still family friendly. The path undulates from Damascus to the trailhead in Abingdon, where there is a visitor center and an original steam locomotive on display.
And for a real challenge, the ambitious can always turn around, and take the path back up.