The clatter of bicycle tires on the wooden bridge sound louder in the cool air of early fall. And on re-entry to the trail, the color of the trees on either side is almost overwhelming. Those familiar with the southeastern woodlands and this classic ride will agree, this time is the best for riding these rails.
ℹ️ The Virginia Creeper Trail (VCT) is a nationally acclaimed Rails-to-Trails project that draws visitors from across the country to Southwest Virginia. Only a four-hour drive from Chattanooga, Abingdon and Damascus are charming Virginia towns that welcome visitors through all four seasons. Both offer easy access to the VCT and have outfitters that rent bikes and run shuttle services.
Wayne Miller, president of the Virginia Creeper Trail Club (VCTC), says the rail bed from Abingdon to Whitetop, North Carolina was designated a National Scenic Recreational Trail in 1987. The VCTC was formed two years later to maintain, enhance and preserve the trail. The staff is devoted to promoting memberships and writing grants for improvements. Recently, club members built a picnic shelter and renovated the 100-year-old ℹ️ Green Cove Station, an important historic point and now a small museum.
Outdoor adventures here are plentiful, including paddling and fishing on the South Holston River and hiking in the ℹ️Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. In addition to amazing outdoor experiences, the area is also known for its traditional mountain music scene, charming inns and cultural highlights like the storied Barter Theatre. Nearby Damascus is at the halfway point along the trail, a rural village that was once almost forgotten.
“Damascus was pretty much resurrected by the VCT,” says Miller. “It’s a beautiful place and visitors will ride through old growth forest along the trail from Green Cove to Whitetop Station.” Miller is a wealth of local information and he brags about the area and its people. When he suggests events to attend throughout the summer he likes to tell about 85-year-old Lawrence Dyer who rides the trail during the ℹ️ Virginia Highlands Festival, the last week of July each year. Dyer has logged 192,400 miles on his bike. “He’s a legend.”
Mike Fowler, 37 years old, from Greensboro, North Carolina rode the Trail last year. “I ride quite a bit, and the trail was more challenging than I thought it would be, if you do the whole ride. There is some good elevation for about 10 miles,” says Fowler. “We found a nice lunch spot, too—it was a great experience.”
The trail is 34.3 miles long. From rustic campsites to 5-star hotels, accommodations in the area are abundant and the adventure-bound will find a variety of places to stay, excellent restaurants and cultural pursuits, too. Taylor’s Valley Restaurant is one pleasing option along the route, according to Miller. Back in Abingdon, there are coffeehouses, a craft brewery and plenty of restaurants. The Tavern, serving German cuisine offers a “fantastic cocktail menu.” The restaurant celebrates Oktoberfest this year on September 8th and 9th. But there are events, exhibitions and performances throughout the year. That said, most people come for the VCT.
Amanda Leslie Livingston with the Abingdon CVB says the area is fantastic for all ages. “Although, my 72-year-old parents came just to do the 17-mile downhill section of the Trail—they loved it.” ℹ️ The Martha Washington Inn will even shuttle guests up to Damascus for the easy ride down. The Martha, as it is fondly known, is a member of Historic Hotels of America, part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation—a special treat, all its own.
With popularity come crowds, especially on the weekends, so many serious bikers prefer to ride on weekdays. Chattanoogans David and Susan Eller have ridden the Creeper Trail at least 10 times over the past 20 years and have noticed an increase in the numbers.
“It is still an incredibly beautiful area and is in the same neighborhood as one of our favorite hikes. It starts from ℹ️Grayson Highlands State Park and includes a section of the new Appalachian Trail (AT) and uses the old AT as a loop. The exposed balds and herds of wild ponies make for an incredible experience,” says David.
“One of the places we’ve really enjoyed staying at in the area is the Maplewood Farm Bed & Breakfast, just outside of Abingdon. It is a great location to access, not only the biking and hiking trails, but also near enough for an evening at the Barter Theatre.”
ℹ️ The Barter Theatre on Main Street in Abingdon began during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when a young actor named Robert Porterfield had the idea for residents to barter produce from area farms to gain admission to a play. The idea was a hit! It not only brought entertainment and culture to rural Virginia, but the theatre became a launching pad for talented young actors on their way up. Gregory Peck and Patricia Neal were among many to perform here. Although the theatre now charges admission, it celebrates its heritage by accepting donations for area food banks as the price of admission to at least one performance each year. It is a fine example of historic preservation.
For biking enthusiasts, living examples of historic preservation may be merely accessories to the experience, and yet for culture hounds, the opportunity for hiking and biking is just a recreational amenity. Either way, this pocket of Appalachian Virginia has something to be shared.
Abingdon Visitors Center
335 Cumming Street
Abingdon, VA 24210
Open seven days a week,
9:00 am to 5:00 pm
Virginia Creeper Trail
300 Green Spring Road
Abingdon, VA 24210
Open Thursdays – Sundays
Photography by Jason Barnette and courtesy of the Abingdon CVB and the VCTC