Destination Damascus

The longer I live the more my mind dwells upon the beauty and the wonder of the world… I have loved the feel of the grass under my feet, and the sound of the running streams by my side.  The hum of the wind in the treetops has always been good music to me…

~John Burroughs

Last week, I went to visit my parents in Damascus, VA, to celebrate Mother’s Day and my Dad’s 84th birthday. In what has become somewhat of an annual tradition, we went up to see the wildflower display at Elk Garden, part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. It did not disappoint, and the array of blooming flowers was spectacular. Here are just a few of the stars of the trail…

Fringed Phacelia

Fringed Phacelia (click photos to enlarge)

Twisted Stalk

Twisted Stalk

Umbrella Leaf

Umbrella Leaf

 Violet

Canada Violet

Wake Robin pair 1

Wake Robin Trillium

Beech leaf out

American Beech leaves bursting out

While we were up the trail gawking at flowers, my folks stayed at the parking lot and talked with the many hikers heading north on the Appalachian Trail (AT). The wildflower display is on part of the AT. Damascus, known as the Friendliest Town on the AT, is hosting its annual Trail Days on May 15-17, where thousands of people join hundreds of hikers to celebrate all things AT, so traffic on the trail tends to increase this time of year.

Packages waiting for hikers at Mount Rogers Outfitters

Packages waiting for hikers at Mount Rogers Outfitters

Another sign of trail traffic is the large number of packages waiting to be picked up by through-hikers at the Damascus Post Office and trail-friendly vendors in town like Mount Rogers Outfitters.

There is another famous trail that passes through this little mountain community, and one that, In spite of having spent a lot of time in Damascus over the years, I had not made the time to properly visit. I am speaking of the famous Virginia Creeper Trail.

Creeper Trail

The Virginia Creeper Trail

The Virginia Creeper Trail is a 34-mile rail-to-recreation trail that runs from Abingdon, VA, through Damascus, and up to Whitetop Station near the VA-NC border. The last train to run this route was in 1977. The conversion to a trail was completed in 1984. Over 100,000 people now ride the trail each year, bringing tens of thousands of dollars into the local communities. There are at least five bike rental shops in Damascus alone. The sight of multiple vans hauling trailer loads of bikes on almost any warm weekend is one of the reasons I probably have put off doing this trail (crowds not being my thing). It has also probably been twenty years since I have been on a bicycle, so that may have entered into the equation as well. But, being there on a weekday, early in the season, I thought it was finally time. As it turned out, there were very few people on the trail that morning, other than the family of 6 that rode the thirty minutes up to Whitetop Station in our van. After traveling only a few hundred yards down the trail, my first thoughts were you really do never forget how to ride a bike, and why had I waited so long to experience this – it is beautiful!

Trestle

One of the 47 trestles on the Virginia Creeper Trail

Even though the trail is at times a fairly narrow path through private lands, it is full of pastoral scenes, lush forests, and abundant wildlife. A favorite part of the trail for me was passing over the numerous trestles that bridge ravines or the many creeks along the way.

Snake and millipede on trestle

Some elongate visitors on one of the trestles

On one of the higher trestles, I stopped to take some photos and was surprised to see two linear sightseers seemingly enjoying the view down into the ravine – a Black Rat Snake and one of my favorite millipedes, Narceus americanus. These large millipedes (they can attain lengths of over 4 inches) are common in eastern forests, especially in the mountains. By the way, notice the milky eye color on the snake – this is a sign it is getting ready to shed its skin.

Scene along Creeper Trail

Farmland scene along the trail

Fire Pink

Fire Pink flowers on a moss-covered cliff

We stopped in Taylor’s Valley for a leisurely lunch at the Cafe, a welcoming destination for hungry and thirsty cyclists.

Taylor's Valley

Creeper Trail Cafe in Taylor’s Valley

William Lane Dunn bridge

William Lane Dunn bridge in Taylor’s Valley

Before leaving, I had to pose for a photo at the bridge in Taylor’s Valley, named in honor of my Dad’s Uncle Bill. William Dunn was an important member of the community, and loved to fish from that bridge, so the townsfolk had the new bridge named in his honor when it was rebuilt.

Laurel Creek

Laurel Creek, one of the waterways along the Virginia Creeper Trail

Laurel Creek

Inviting mountain streams wander along much of the route

Laurel Creek, Straight Branch, and a host of small mountain streams are your company along much of the trail, providing a beautiful backdrop to the experience. We biked the 17 miles from Whitetop Station to Damascus in a little less than four hours, stopping frequently along the way to bird watch, look at plants, enjoy the scenery, and have lunch. The ride was magical, and, as the proprietor of the bike rental shop told us, once you go, you will come back. I think he is right. Spring is great on the trail (lots of migratory birds to enjoy), but I bet autumn would be spectacular as well, with the areas’ renowned fall colors. I almost forgot to mention one of the primary reasons this bike trail is so popular with everyone…the entire 17 miles we rode is downhill or flat, making it a very easy trip, even for beginners.

If you are in southwest Virginia, I encourage you to consider exploring the region around Damascus – Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, Grayson Highlands State Park, the Virginia Creeper Trail, and so much more. And, if you need a cozy place to stay while in the area (Warning – shameless family promotion about to occur), I can highly recommend a rental property run by a very nice couple (Mom and Dad). Check out the Country Cottage, and tell them you know me:)

8 thoughts on “Destination Damascus

  1. The Virginia Creeper Trail is one of our favorites – especially since it’s all downhill! Lots of wonderful scenery both in and out of forests and meadows. We had root beer floats in Taylor’s Valley that never tasted soooo good! Now I want to go again – soon!

  2. Thank you for sharing the beautiful photos, Mike. I’m sure this is the only piece of writing I’ll read this week that contains the phrase “one of my favorite millipedes.”

  3. Really enjoyed my trip to Virginia while sitting in Garner drinking my coffee. As always I get off the path (task I should be doing while on the computer) and get to look at the natural world though your eyes. What a blessing. Thanks for sharing your days with me.

  4. It’s true. I went. And then, guess what? I went back. Both times in summer. One year, along the upper part of the trail, we could see the deep coves all around us festooned in a rosebay rhododendron super bloom. I loved the changes in scenery and the charming features along the way, and I think I had, not a burger, but two, at the Cafe. We also joked about how “difficult” the ride became toward the end, when it had stopped going downhill and we actually had to pedal.

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