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


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!


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:)

Not Just a Garden for Elk

Each May for the past several years, I have made a pilgrimage to my parent’s home in Damascus, Virginia. It is my Dad’s birthday and, of course, Mother’s Day, so a perfect time to visit. It is also a perfect time to visit for the spectacle of spring in the mountains. We almost always manage a day trip up to Elk Garden, part of the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area. Named for the elk that once roamed these mountains, Elk Garden lies between the two tallest mountains peaks in Virgina – Whitetop and Mount Rogers. The elevation at the roadside parking lot at this saddle between the peaks is about 4500 feet. And this year, I made it to the Mt. Rogers Naturalist Rally, an annual gathering of over 100 people that come to learn about the flora, fauna, geology, and history of this unique area. I joined the morning salamander walk and learned a lot about that often difficult to identify group of mountain salamanders (we found eleven species and well over a hundred individual specimens). Unfortunately, it was raining (although the area needs the rain), so I was not able to do much photography until after that hike.

forest scene

Rich herbaceous layer in the forest at Elk Garden (click photos to enlarge)

This is probably the richest display of wildflowers I have ever seen, so it is a delight to visit each spring and see what is at peak bloom. This year was simply spectacular in spite of the dreary weather.

fringed phacelia

Fringed Phacelia

The forest floor at Elk Garden is carpeted with the deeply fringed petals of this beautiful wildflower. As the petals begin to age, they become tinged with purple. This is an unusual species in that it is one of the few winter annuals to be found amongst the many perennials in these rich woodlands.

trout lily buds

Flower buds of Trout Lily

trout lily grouping

Cluster of Trout Lilies

There are also huge populations of Trout Lily on these slopes. And this year, there were all stages of these flowers, from unopened buds, to waning yellow blossoms.

Wake Robin red grouping

The slopes were also covered with Trillium

Splashes of maroon and pale yellow were found everywhere you looked. These stately flowers are a type of trillium, specifically a species known as Wake Robin. This common name supposedly refers to the time of year when it blooms – spring can officially begin when this species flowers, as its appearance is supposed to wake up the robins.

Wake Robin red 1

The dominant color of this species at Elk Garden is maroon.

Wake Robin yellow 1

There is also a cream-colored or pale yellow variant.

This species can be highly variable in color with maroon and white being fairly common elsewhere in its range. But here, I saw no white flowers, just lots of maroon and some pale yellow and cream-colored ones.

Wake Robin yellow back view

Don’t forget to take in the back side of this flower

I saw several people attempting to get “the shot” of these often slightly nodding flowers, which usually requires some contortions. But, the reverse side is worthy of a look as well (and not nearly as tough to get).

Wood Anenome

Wood Anemone

Spring Beauty

Spring Beauty

Scattered in patches across the several slopes I visited were patches of two small flowers that are true harbingers of spring – Spring Beauty and Wood Anemone. Spring Beauties can be almost all white or have some intense pinkish purple lines on the petals. Wood Anemone looks like a delicate 5-petaled flower, but, it actually lacks petals altogether. The five white floral parts are the sepals.

yellow Mandarin 1

Yellow Mandarin

blue cohosh

Blue Cohosh

Two less common species offer a more subdued floral display. Yellow Mandarin tends to hide its flowers under its leaves. Blue Cohosh has beautiful, blueish-green foliage, and flower clusters that require close inspection to appreciate.

rose twisted stalk plant

Rose Twisted Stalk

rose twisted stalk flowers AV

The delicate blossoms of Rose Twisted Stalk

Rose Twisted Stalk is shy wildflower in spite of its heavy metal band sounding name. It occurs in a few patches along the main trail up the slope from the parking lot. The small rose-colored flowers hide beneath the lance-shaped leaves. And the plant does have a stalk that is branched and twisted, giving it a distinctive zigzag appearance.

Squirrel Corn 1

The unusual shaped flowers of Squirrel Corn

I always look for the unusual flowers of Squirrel Corn along the trail. Many of the flowers were in poor condition, either because they were past their prime, or because of what looks like a dry spring in this area.

Squirrel Corn leaves

Squirrel Corn leaves

Squirrel Corn leaves black and white

Squirrel Corn leaves in black and white

The lacy leaves of Squirrel Corn are almost as attractive as the unusual flowers, especially when covered with rain drops. I always like black and white versions of these images that have so much pattern to them.

Tree on boulder

Tree growing on large boulder

This unique area has always drawn me to it and I have visited often over the years. The wildflowers are definitely worth a spring trek, so I will be back again next year to celebrate the beauty of the wild garden of the elk.

A Black and White Spring

The question is not what you look at, but what you see.

Henry David Thoreau


The forest floor in early May at Elk Garden, VA (click to enlarge)

Winter is usually thought of as gray and stark. Spring is viewed as a time of color – the varied greens of leaf out and the splashes of color from the unfolding display of wildflowers. But there are times even in spring when something catches my eye – a pattern, a texture, a shape – and I stop and look at it in a different way, aim the camera, and focus on the essence of the subject, which is often best relayed through colorless glasses. Here are some examples from my recent trip to Elk Garden, Virginia:


Wake Robin trillium (click to enlarge)

Fern fiddlehead

Fern fiddlehead (click to enlarge)

Fern fiddlehead

Fern fiddlehead (click to enlarge)


Solomon’s Seal flower buds (click to enlarge)

Unfurling leaves

Unfurling leaves (click to enlarge)


Violet (click to enlarge)


Squirrel Corn (click to enlarge)


Trout Lily (click to enlarge)


Mayapple leaf (click to enlarge)

Take a moment on your next stroll though the woods and stop and look with a new set of eyes and see what you see.

Elk Garden

View toward Mt. Rogers from Elk Garden

View toward Mt. Rogers from Elk Garden parking lot

My Dad’s birthday and Mother’s Day are both the second week of May so I try to get home each May for a visit. As it turns out, it is also the prime time for a visit to one of my favorite areas in Virginia – the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Covering over 200,000 acres in southwest Virginia, the Mt. Rogers NRA contains four wilderness areas, mountain balds, high elevation spruce-fir forests, 500 miles of hiking trails (including a portion of the Appalachian Trail), beautiful mountain streams, wild ponies, and is adjacent to my favorite Virginia State Park, Grayson Highlands. But in early May, the place to be is Elk Garden. Easily accessible via Rt. 600, Elk Garden lies between the two tallest peaks in Virginia – Whitetop Mountain to the west and Mount Rogers to the east.

Lush herbaceous layer in the forest at Elk Garden

Lush herbaceous layer in the forest at Elk Garden (click to enlarge)

Each May I always enjoy traveling back in time to early spring (relative to the Piedmont of NC) as we climb the winding road to an elevation of about 4400 ft. Climbing the trail from the parking lot toward Whitetop, the trees are just starting to leaf out and various neotropical migrant songbirds can be seen flitting through the branches. But the show is down below, in the rich herbaceous ground cover lying between the boulders and bordering the numerous small streams cascading down the mountain. This is one of the richest wildflower displays I know and I always love to spend some time with my camera capturing their beauty. This year, the cool weather delayed some of the flowers so the balance of blossoms was slightly different than past seasons. Here are some of my favorites seen a few days ago:

Wake Robin

Wake Robin (click to enlarge)

Everyone seems to love trilliums. They tend to be big and often showy with bright colors. The name trillium refers to the “threeness” of these plants – three leaves, three petals, three sepals, and fruit with three ridges. The name, Wake Robin, refers to the blooming time of this plant (and other species of trillium) which often coincides with the return of robins in early spring. This particular species also goes by several other, less flattering names, including Stinking Willie and Stinking Benjamin, both of which refer to the unpleasant aroma of the blossom (go ahead, get down and stick your nose up to it the next time you find one). Lacking nectar, these flowers rely on deception to bring in pollinators which are primarily flies and beetles that are typically attracted to dead animals.

Wake Robin, red form

Wake Robin, red form

Wake Robin, yellow form

Wake Robin, yellow form










This species is primarily a red-flowered one, which, when combined with the foul odor, mimics decaying flesh which attracts the pollinators. Less commonly they have white flowers, and even rarer still, are yellow-flowered plants. The petals on all varieties tend to turn pinkish with age. The flowers of this species nod toward the ground making them somewhat less noticeable, although the distinctive leaves quickly draw your attention.

Trout Lilies

Trout Lilies (click to enlarge)

The bright yellow Trout Lilies cannot be overlooked – they stand out against the surrounding greenery for your attention as you hike. Only a small percentage of the plants usually flower in any season (some references say less than 5% typically). Flowering plants have two leaves whereas the vast majority in a population have only a single leaf. The upside down flowers close every night and the petals and sepals re-curve upward again every morning during their short blooming period.

Fringed Phacelia

Fringed Phacelia (click to enlarge)

High on my list of favorites is the Fringed Phacelia, a low-growing annual that can blanket the forest floor with a carpet of white that resembles a late-season dusting of snow. The delicate fringed petals reward any hiker that kneels for a closer look. Some species of Phacelia in the western U.S. apparently contain compounds that can itch and sting causing a skin rash similar to poison ivy and giving the plant the unkind name of Scorpionweed.

Spring Beauty

Spring Beauty (click to enlarge)

Spring Beauties appear to pop up from almost every available space in the ground cover at Elk Garden. They can be quite variable in the amount of color in the striped petals (this specimen was noticeably brighter than most).

Spring Beauty Bee

Spring Beauty Bee with loaded pollen baskets (click to enlarge)

They have a tasty edible corm and are the primary source of nectar and pollen for the aptly-named Spring Beauty Bee. This foraging bee looked like it was wearing pinkish chaps due to its full pollen baskets (Spring Beauty pollen is pink).

Wood Anemone

Wood Anemone (click to enlarge)

Like most of the spring ephemerals (those woodland wildflowers that bloom before the trees leaf out reducing the amount of light that reaches the forest floor), Wood Anemone has a short growing season of only a couple of months. Plants spend most of the year dormant as an underground rhizome. Studies have shown that these and many other spring ephemerals are now blooming earlier than they did just decades ago due to warming temperatures associated with climate change. One study of Wood Anemone showed they bloom an average of 15 days earlier now than they did in the early 1970’s.

White Violet


Yellow Violet











Violets are scattered all along the Elk Garden trail. In addition to the well known purple-blue colored species, there are white and yellow violet species in this rich cove forest. Violets have two types of flowers – open and closed. The closed flowers (called cleistogamous) are often partially hidden under the leaves and are self-pollinating, ensuring at least some seed production even in years of poor pollinator success.

Squirrel Corn grouping

Squirrel Corn (click to enlarge)

The plant that gives me the greatest delight when I find one along the trail is undoubtedly Squirrel Corn. The delicate, blueish-green foliage and unusual blossoms of this plant often occur in dense patches and immediately catch your eye.

Squirrel Corn

Squirrel Corn (click to enlarge)

The flowers are somewhat heart-shaped with the upper lobes being more rounded than in the plant’s close relative, Dutchman’s Breeches. Squirrel Corn gets its name from its underground food storage structures, which look like corn kernels.

Blue Cohosh

Blue Cohosh (click to enlarge)

A variety of other species carpet the ground throughout early spring along this section of trail including Blue Cohosh, Yellow Mandarin, False Hellebore, Jewelweed, Umbrella Leaf, Solomon and False Solomon’s Seal, Twisted Stalk, and many others. The region is so rich in wildflowers, birds, and other natural wonders that the local community center hosts an annual Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally each May with speakers, hikes and other programs. While this area is beautiful any time of year, spring in these mountains is truly spectacular.