Our big trip for 2020 was supposed to be spent at Oktoberfest. Sadly, the Germans cancelled that event due to Covid issues. Undeterred, we seized upon the idea of another bike tour and quickly found a promising one in southern Arizona. Within weeks, the tour operator reported that it wouldn’t be possible to hold the event as most hotels in the area were closing. We pressed on. We found a fun bicycle tour in South Dakota – an area largely free of the virus. Then we learned that the Sturgis motorcycle rally would occur a few weeks before our tour. Faced with the aftermath of 400,000 motorcycle riders (sans mask) gathering in a small town, we decided to pass on that tour.
We then focused on something more local. This is how we found ourselves in Damascus, Virginia, preparing to ride 67 miles on the Creeper Trail.
You didn’t realize that Virginia had a town named Damascus? You’re in good company. The 2010 Census places the population at 814. It’s in southwestern Virginia, tucked into the mountains east of Abingdon (itself not exactly a metropolis). We booked a room at The Old Mill Inn and were not surprised to learn that the hotel once served as the town’s mill. It features pleasant views of the Beaver Dam Creek and there were plenty of geese and ducks present each day to give us a good show.
Damascus is at the midway point of the trail, giving us the choice of going uphill to White Top or downhill to Abingdon. For our first trip, we chose the uphill route, saving the milder trip for Day 2.
DAY 1 – Damascus to White Top
The Creeper Trail is named after a railroad that once traveled from Abingdon to White Top. The nickname came from the slow speeds the steam locomotives had when climbing up the mountain. The railroad was operated by several companies from 1880 to 1977, none of which seemed to be very profitable. After some hard rains in 1977 flooded much of the line, the Norfolk & Western Railroad closed up shop and the U.S. Forest Service moved in to create a gravel hiking/cycling trail along the old railroad bed.
We picked the route to White Top first because we thought it would be the harder of the two rides. We were not disappointed. The climbing started almost immediately after we left Damascus and it did not stop. Ever. Fortunately, the slope was reasonable – only 3-6% the entire way.
The scenery was gorgeous. The trail follows a series of creeks, which offered fetching views as we pedaled alongside or over 25 trestle bridges that were once used by the railroad. We passed through small towns with names like Taylors Valley and Green Cove. These places advertised a cafe or general store where water and a meal could be had. We had plenty on our backs, so we pressed on with the climbing.
Initially, Maureen and I had the trail to ourselves. We marveled at our solitude. Sure, this was a weekday morning and school was back and session, and yes there was a pandemic that was keeping folks away, but still we thought there should be somebody else with us. After about eight miles of pedaling, we had our answer – the trail shuttle service.
There’s a cottage industry along the Creeper Trail, with much of it centered on Damascus. Most folks don’t care to pedal uphill for 16 miles, so they pay a small fee to one of several shuttles that take them to the top and let them conduct a pleasant downhill ride to Damascus (more on the “pleasantness” of the downhill later). Maureen and I briefly considered this option but Maureen immediately discarded it, insisting that we climb to the top. I knew that taking a downhill we did not earn without climbing was a major cycling faux pas and I was very pleased that Maureen seemed to understand this rule intuitively.
So after an hour of peacefulness, we began to encounter those people who had spent their early morning hours descending. These were mostly very casual cyclists, as indicated by their lack of helmets, cycling attire, or a general ability to handle a bicycle on a rutted path. Fortunately there were only a couple dozen of these folks, so the ride up was still very nice.
After 16 miles and 1,600′ of climbing, we reached the top – White Top Station. It’s a quiet setting, with little to offer a weary traveler apart from a nice picnic pavilion. There’s a small store/museum where the station used to be but this was closed due to Covid. Maureen and I unpacked a small lunch and enjoyed being done with our climbing. We came across a few folks who had just been left by the shuttle service for their descent to Damascus. One lady was nursing a bruised knee. She had crashed shortly after she started and didn’t feel safe continuing down the hill. Her friend was going to continue to the bottom and come back to get her with their car. Another gentlemen was fussing over the position of his seat on his rental bike. I was very pleased to pull my hex wrench set out of my saddle bag and offer assistance. In short order, he was on his way.
It was now time for the supposedly fun portion of our trip – the descent. Here’s the thing about rocky and rutted gravel trails – hitting a single rock/rut is tolerable. Hitting a few dozen is bothersome. Hitting a few hundred or thousand can be painful. Once or twice, we were able to sneak onto local roads which paralleled the trail. These short breaks were slices of heaven. Had the entire descent been on roads, our average speed would have been well over 20mph. As it was, we managed about 9mph by the time we rode into Damascus, saddle sore and happy to have achieved our goal of conquering White Top.
DAY 2 – Damascus to Abingdon
It’s always interesting to see how everything feels on the day following a long(ish) ride. On this day the answer was, “surprisingly tender.” Clearly, 36 miles on a gravel road is NOT equivalent to the same distance on asphalt. I felt more like I had completed a century the day before. My shoulders/arms were sore from absorbing the shocks of a 16 mile rocky descent. My posterior was sore from absorbing the shocks my shoulders/arms failed to take care of. Fortunately, today’s route was far more sedate.
The trail to Abingdon is lightly rolling. The forests gave way to some farmland, which made for a nice change in view. There were also 15 more trestle bridges to cross and several of them were impressive.
On the whole, the trail was in better shape than the route up the mountain. There were far less rocks and many parts were downright smooth. I suppose this is to be expected on the flatter portion of the trail. We were grateful for it all the same. After 15 miles we made it to Abingdon, where we inspected a train exhibit at the trail head, locked up our bikes, and walked about half a mile to eat our lunch in a nice restaurant with outdoor seating. This was certainly an improvement over White Top!
Having had our full at lunch, we wandered about downtown Abingdon for a bit. We learned that none other than Daniel Boone came up with the original name for the town – Wolf Hills, after his dogs were attacked by a pack of wolves when camping there in 1760. We briefly inspected some churches, old homes, and the town hall. We then made our way back to our bikes and began an uneventful trip back to Damascus.
We rolled into Damascus, happy to have covered 66 miles of gravel in two days. I had never gone so far on a trail and was repeated reminded of why I like riding on roads. The views from the Creeper Trail were great and you can never not enjoy yourself when on a bicycle adventure, but gravel is punishing. And dirty. The mountain bike community will be sad to learn that it failed to gain any converts on these rides.
For our next trick, we were fully prepared to cycle the New River Trail, another gravel road about 80 miles north of Damascus that (appropriately) follows the New River. However, there was rain in the forecast and we decided to cancel that event in order to achieve another goal of our vacation, hiking McAfee Knob. Hopefully, the picture below shows you why we didn’t want to miss that hike!