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Riding the Virginia Creeper Trail

Is there anything more American than a road trip in a Buick and camping in a National Park? What an exciting adventure Lynn and Steve had put together for us. Leaving from their home in Garner, North Carolina we packed both their cars with camping kit and supplies and after picking up ice and bagels from Bruegels, we hit the road for the 6 hour drive to Virginia🥯

The trip was impressively scenic, dominated by gentle valleys, soaring mountains, deep green forests and the peaceful rural countryside of western Virginia. We arrived in the town of Damascus late in the afternoon. Within the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is the Beartree Campground. 🐻 We chose a beautiful setting in a forest clearing, with hardly any people around. A small creek was flowing through the campground, leading to Beartree Lake which is also located within the recreation area, offering refreshing spots for swimming and fishing and also surrounded by dense trees that go right up to the shoreline.🌲

We pitched the tents while nieces Kelsey and Kristin checked out the area on their bicycles. I thought it so cute that we are staying in Chipmunk Circle 🐿. Lynn and Steve had thought of everything and gave us a blow-up mattress and loads of cosy bedding to make a comfy nest. And not a minute too soon because barely had we gotten set up, it started raining and pretty much didn’t let up all night. It was tricky barbecue-ing our pork chops and corn from beneath an umbrella, but we ate well and then retired to bed. 🏕 

We woke to a beautiful clear morning and breakfasted on salmon cream cheese bagels and condensed milk coffee. Delicious! After breakfast we drove into Damascus and parked the cars. We then spent much of the morning wandering around the stores looking at the plethora of cycling equipment. The plan was to get kitted up for the Virginia Creeper Trail. The Virginia Creeper is a trail that runs along an old train bed in the western mountains of Virginia, near the Tennessee and NC borders. There are many trails like this throughout the U.S. 🛤 

Geoff and I hired bikes and I bought some cycling gloves when I heard we were tackling 18 of the 34 mile route. It was really quite hot by the time we climbed onto the shuttle bus that takes you and your bike to the top of the trail up to its highest point, Whitetop Station in Abingdon, which is near the NC State Line. The bus driver told us they there was a strong chance that we would get rained on which seemed unlikely as we could only see blue sunny skies.🌞 

Nevertheless as we posed for our ‘before’ pictures, it began to drizzle. Steve gave me a plastic rain poncho to wear and in retrospect it was the best gift ever. Within a couple of miles, it began to pour steadily. Before we were even a quarter of the way, we were shivering with cold and everyone (except me) was soaked to the bone! 🌧 

Despite this, nothing could detract from the beauty of the trail. We followed the course of the heavily flowing river and crossed it on beautiful wooden bridges no less than 32 times! Finding a pace that was fast enough to reduce the stinging rain in our eyes and yet cautious enough not to slide on the muddy pathway, took some effort and the concentration kept us warm. One of the most striking remnants of the old Virginia Creeper Railroad is the old steel bridge crossing Whitetop-Laurel creek just a mile or so outside of town. the trail runs beside some of the best trout fishing in Virginia.

The railroad began in Abingdon, Virginia as the Abingdon Coal and Iron Railroad Company. It was believed that the land in the area around Abingdon was rich with minerals such as coal and iron, but there was no resource to transport the ore to market.The locals referred to the train that climbed eastward into the Iron Mountains as the “Virginia Creeper”, a name taken from the native plant that grows along the route. A steam engine laboring up mountain grades with heavy loads of lumber, iron ore, supplies, and passengers was also a “virginia creeper” in every sense of the word.The line earned the nickname of “The Virginia Creeper” due to the sluggish speed it traveled up and down the steep mountain grades. In fact, rail workers were able to walk beside the train and pick berries before hopping back on.in February 1900, the Virginia-Carolina Railroad Company rolled into Damascus Virginia ready for business. By 1912, the railroad was extended to Whitetop Virginia. In 1956 the last steam engine was retired from the line and replaced with diesel powered engines. By 1974, the Norfolk and Western Railroad Company petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the line. In 1977 hard rains flooded and damaged most of the track and it was left in disrepair. (www.vacreepertrail.com)

After leaving Whitetop Station, the Virginia Creeper Trail led us into the forest.  The first place where we simply had to stop was Green Cove Station, only three miles down the trail from Whitetop Station.  This old building now serves as a U.S. Forest Service visitors centre.  It was a real old world “General Store” that would probably have formed the cornerstone of business in the community back in the day.

The Green Cove Station is the only original remaining depot building along the Virginia Creeper Trail. Privately owned, the depot served as post office, general store, and freight office. The owner, William Buchanan and his wife Mary, worked the depot assisted by their daughters. The station was the center point for the community communication and storytelling. Today, the US Forest Service operates the depot on a limited basis during the warmer seasons and still serves as a rest location with soft drinks, snacks and souvenirs for bikers and hikers. The Buchanan home is located to the right of the depot and is operated as a bed & breakfast by the granddaughter of William Buchanan. (Green Cove Station, Virginia Creeper Trail Guide)

Despite the deluge, we stopped to take pictures of the gorgeous buildings and scenes that we kept passing. White steeple churches and homes from an early era dot the landscape as we entered and exited the villages. 🚲

Pushing on in the rain, the refreshing sounds of the nearby creeks, the green fields and wildflowers made us want to stop at almost every turn.   For a while you are in a place where you don’t see other roads, hear any cars, and the only sounds outside of nature are those of your fellow riders along the trail.

At the halfway mark we stopped for a late lunch around 15h30. We dashed into the local general store to purchase ponchos only to discover that they were completely sold out by a large group of school children on excursion. 😱 Dripping our way across the wooden floor of the restaurant, we ordered cheese burgers and hot chocolate and sat down to eat them, leaving a lake of muddy puddles. We bought the souvenir T-shirts to at least have something dry to wear and begged for garbage bags which then got fashioned into rain ponchos, “white-trash” style. 😂

Getting back on the road was not easy! Immediately we felt stiff and sore and our butts ached. But OMG, it was so much fun! We were exhausted and relieved to make it to the bike depot in Damascus. Our sneakers were completely sole-separating-from-the-shoe unwearable. They squished out gallons of water at each step and left mud tracks everywhere! We had a change of dry, warm clothes, but no shoes!

Steve drove us to K-Mart in Abingdon where we squelched through the store trying on shoes with stinky wet feet 🙈. We had so much fun in the store choosing shoes and exploring the range of available products. We bought some essential groceries and rain ponchos (#stabledoor #horsebolted?) and of course I found a hairpiece the exact colour of my hair so obviously that had to come home too!

We returned to our muddy campsite at dusk and built an elaborate lean-to and an enormous fire. Luckily the rain held off and we were able to braai our delicious yams and steaks. Lynn made hotdogs and I made a salad. A bottle of Australian red later and we had all defrosted and huddled around the fire toasting marshmallows

We slept like babies despite the damp, clammy environment and in the morning we simply shoved most of the wet things into garbage bags, then straight into the cars to be dealt with back home!

Those that know me well, know that I am definitely not a cyclist. But I have to say I loved this easy downhill ride and both Geoff and I look forward to doing it again one day.

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