I am not a bike rider, and yet I got it in my head that biking the Virginia Creeper Trail would be a fun way to spend a fall day. I’m pretty sure my husband gave me one of those sideways looks when I shared my intentions; you know, the one that says, “are you sure you want to do this?”. My biking experience involves awkward and unsteady rides from my childhood, a tandem ride in San Francisco where Mike graciously ensured the safety of my life, and spin class where thankfully my bike is bolted in place. But I’ll repeat: the Creeper Trail was entirely my idea.
The Virginia Creeper Trail is a 34-mile long bike ride in southwestern Virginia from the top of Whitetop Mountain to the town of Abingdon. The fact that it passes so close to two other states (North Carolina and Tennessee) is pretty cool in itself, but I was also intrigued by the trail’s history. Today’s Creeper Trail runs on an old rail path, belonging to the Abingdon Coal and Iron Railroad in the 1880s. The US Forest Service secured the land in 1977 and began work to remove the old railroad tracks and turn it into a recreational area.
The Creeper Trail is a very popular outing, though most visitors bike only half of the trail, from Whiteop to Damascus. Logistically, this is a simple option: you just rent a bike from one of the dozen shops in Damascus, they’ll shuttle you to the top, and you make your way back to the shop in about 2.5 hours of no-sweat riding. Along the way, you enjoy the scenery, take plenty of photos, and potentially even make a pitstop for ice cream. It’s fun for everyone!
Despite the fact that I’m not a bike rider, we decided to ride the entire length of the trail, an endeavor expected to take 5.5 hours. While the first half is still downhill, the second half is flat and actually requires some amount of physical exertion on the section continuing from Damascus to Abingdon.
We showed up in Abingdon to pick up our rental bikes at 8am on a Saturday morning and then shuttle from there to Whitetop. I had really hoped that starting so early would mean we had the trails to ourselves, but there were at least 150 other bikers when we arrived at Whitetop Station. No worries, there’s 34 miles to spread out on.
After doing a test ride on the road, I was ready to get started. I may not be a biker, but I’m always up for a challenge. It never even crossed my mind that I wouldn’t finish a 34-mile bike ride, but a challenge this would be.
Within 100 yards of starting out, I fell off my bike. No…I take that back. I didn’t fall.
I flew off my bike, landing hard on my left side. The bruises on my thigh resemble those of someone thrown from a bucking bronco, my elbow had split open, and both hands were scraped, bleeding, and interspersed with tiny, dirty gravel that had embedded into my skin. Meanwhile, I’m being passed left and right by six-year-olds that are steadier on a bicycle than I am. Not only was I hurt, but my pride was severely injured. And I still had 33.9 miles to go!
My sweet husband went to work performing skillful surgery on my bike, which had been injured just as much as I was. The front brake had broken entirely and the chain had come off. Did I fall because of a brake malfunction or did my brake snap because I fell off the bike? Officially I have no idea, but I’m pretty sure that I was the one who caused the accident. Bloody and trying (failing) to hold tears back, I got back on the bike fifteen minutes later and didn’t say a word for the next five or six miles. It was going to be a long day.
Thankfully, the scenery really is beautiful and was a good distraction from my personal embarassment. The beginning of the trail heads steadily downhill inbetween trees just starting to turn color. It passes along the Whitetop Laurel River, crossing a number of wooden bridges, conveniently numbered so you can track where you are along the trail. In late September, the crisp fall air even smelled good. I was actually beginning to enjoy myself!
By ten miles into the trail, I had gotten the hang of this bike riding thing. The people had spread out based on different riding speeds and frequency of stopping, so we had the path to ourselves. Mike and I were able to ride next to each other, a romantic symbol equivalent to holding hands. We were even having a pleasant conversation, laughing the whole way downhill. That fall of my bike was just a fluke!
Before I knew it, we had made it to Damascus, the ending point for most bikers and the halfway point for us. At this point, the trail starts to parallel the main roads in and out of town. For a few miles, you’ll bike past houses, warehouses, and other private property. There weren’t nearly as many scenic photo stops, but eventually we made it to rolling farm countryside.
Passing through pastures and hay fields required opening and closing private gates along the route. If you’re the type of person who wants to break out on a long stretch of pathway, it’s annoying. If you’re the type of person who needs momentum just to make it through (yup, that was me), it’s annoying.
Still, everything was going okay and eventually we entered a fairly narrow valley near Laurel Creek. The trail became scenic again, and I was motivated to push on. That is, until about milemarker eight when I hit a brick wall. No, not literally (although that’s not a far-fetched assumption, given my biking skills). Physically my legs were starting to burn and I had had enough of my still-stinging palms. Not to mention, the trail itself was under construction at this point and instead of hard-packed gravel, it was relatively large loose stones on a hilly path too steep to bike. The sun seemed to burn down on me as I got off my bike and walked it uphill when in reality it was only sixty degrees.
The next five or so miles were brutal. I was physically wimping out and mentally done with this ride. The scenery was now country clubs and mansions rather than natural beauty and didn’t capture my attention. Did I press on? Yes, slowly. My husband’s patience was saintly and his picnic lunch suggestion was essential.
I can’t tell you how excited I was when we passed mile marker 1: a literal sign that we were almost done. With a new wave of energy, I pedaled hard (or so it seemed) for a strong finish. It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t know at the time that the mile marker was a distance to the Abingdon depot and not to the shop itself where we’d return our bikes, another half mile further.
The sense of accomplishment at the end felt great. I made it! I finished all 34 miles of the Virginia Creeper Trail! And seriously, if I can do it, anyone can.
If you go…
If you want to ride the popular (downhill) half of the Creeper Trail — which I enjoyed and highly recommend — you’ll start in Damascus, VA. It’s a small town without a whole lot going out, though it makes a pretty good base if you’re also heading to Hungry Mother State Park and/or Grayson Highlands State Park, both of which I’d also recommend. There are plenty of bike shops in Damascus, but reserving your rental and shuttle seat is advised, especially if you’ll be riding on a weekend.
If you want to ride the entire Creeper Trail, from Whitetop to Abingdon, then kudos to you. Although I’m proud of myself for finishing, I won’t be doing it again. My advice for you: make sure you know how to ride a bike ahead of time. There’s only one outfitter in Abingdon, and I won’t even link to their website because their customer service was entirely non-existent. Instead, I’d deal with the inconvenience of renting in Damascus instead and shuttling back from Abingdon at the end to turn in your bike. In my opinion, the scenery on the second half isn’t that great and there are probably better bike rides nearby.
It’s absolutely worth the experience on the Whitetop to Damascus section and a fun way to spend half a day. Get out there and enjoy the ride!