By Laura Simon
When my husband first suggested heading up into the mountains to ride bikes, I was less than enthused. For starters, there was the mountain biking experience in which I wound up hugging a tree. Literally. Also, I don’t particularly like heights, and the idea of biking in the mountains conjured up images of roller-coaster hills and cliffs with huge drop-offs. Plus, it had been at least a decade since I’d been on a bike.
My husband’s plan was to ride a section of the Virginia Creeper Trail just over the state line in Virginia. Once a railroad, the trail consists of 34.3 miles of crushed gravel or pavement, winding from Abingdon, Virginia to White Top, near Mt. Rodgers. It’s a popular day trip destination for adventurers and families alike, and it winds through beautiful mountain vistas, periodically ambling next to a mountain stream surrounded by rhododendrons, an old train station (now a museum), several tiny mountain towns, and a Christmas tree farm. And – I’ll be honest – it’s nothing like what I was anxiously expecting.
By the end of the day, my husband and I both agreed that we hadn’t had that much fun in a long time. We’re avid hikers, but biking allowed us to cover more ground and see more of the beautiful topography in that part of the state. We chose to treat the treat as a “date day”, but there were many families with young children on the trail. We plan to go back this summer with our boys (7 and 9) on bikes and our daughter (4) in a trailer. If this adventure appeals to you, here’s the low-down on the trail.
-The trail is naturally divided into two sections, with a break in Damascus. If you start in White Top, Damascus is a 17-mile ride. That portion of the trail slopes gently down – nothing like the roller coaster I was envisioning – and is really suited for anyone comfortable on a bike. They say to plan 2-3 hours, depending on how long you want to stop and take in the views. We took every bit of the 3 hours.
-If you want to continue to Abingdon, which is a lovely city in its own right, they suggest planning for another 2-2.5 hours and more uphill riding. We didn’t have that option, which brings me to my next point.
-We did not make a reservation for our bikes, and by the time we got there, the 17-mile trip was our only option. It was a gorgeous October Saturday, and everyone had apparently gotten the same idea. If you don’t like people, consider making the trip on a weekday when the path will be less crowded. If you do opt for a weekend, or if you’re with a big group, I’d recommend making reservations in advance. That way you’ll be sure to have all the equipment you need.
-You can rent pretty much everything you need. I don’t even own a bike anymore, and my husband has a road bike (think: skinny tires). This is definitely a fat tire trail. We rented from a company just a few blocks from the start of the path, and they did a great job of making sure our bikes were a good fit and explaining the trail to us. When we reached Damascus, we found our way to their local shop and were shuttled back to White Top in a 15-passenger van. That was probably the scariest part of the trip, only because those are real mountain roads. But it really was a simple process.
-Bathrooms were available in the bike stores and at various points along the trail. This is not a situation where you’ll have to pee in the woods, but do expect some rustic facilities.
-We packed snacks that could be carried in a backpack. There’s one little town between White Top and Damascus that does have a restaurant, but an enterprising mountain church was hosting a hot-dog lunch and fundraiser on the day we rode the trail. It was perfection, but also not something you should plan on. Once you get into Damascus, there are some local and chain options for food, but you’ll have to leave the trail and venture onto city streets. The same is true when you get to Abingdon, which has even more to offer in the food and drink category. Both cities are darling, so venturing off the trail is recommended.
-There’s a little train station next to the trail, and it has been converted to a museum. When we take our kids, we’ll be sure to allot time for that. The Appalachian Trail also runs parallel to the Virginia Creeper, and many hikers come down to the Creeper trail for some human interaction. We really enjoyed talking with these folks about their experiences.
-Plan to take your time. The trail offers a number of scenic spots, and we stopped frequently just to enjoy the views. This isn’t a trail to practice your speed; it’s meant to be enjoyed.
-Dress for the weather. It will likely be considerably colder in the mountains than it is here in the Triad, so plan on layers so you don’t get cold.
-The trail is patrolled by a number of experienced bikers. They can help you with bike maintenance and get help for you, should you need it. Their presence also helps make sure the trail is an enjoyable experience for everyone.
At the end of the day, we were pleasantly tired, but not exhausted. We did venture into nearby Grayson Highlands State Park, and if we’d had more time, we would have visited Mount Rogers as well. If eating and shopping are more your style, you’ll want to allot time to spend in Damascus or Abingdon. We drove there and back on the same day, but you could certainly stay at a Bed and Breakfast, hotel, or cabin and create an extended vacation. Whatever you chose, you’ll be glad you chose to visit this gem.
For more weekend trip ideas on TMoM, click HERE.
Want to see more blogs like this and get notifications on local events in the Triad? Subscribe to TMoM’s free weekly newsletters here.
*A few of the photos above are courtesy of vacreepertrail.org