DAMASCUS, Va. — For bicyclists riding the Virginia Creeper Trail, gravity rules.
Starting at Whitetop Station, elevation 3,576 feet, the trail begins a long downhill stretch. As in 14 straight miles. That’s right, it’s all downhill except for the last few miles to Damascus, the end point for most cyclists.
Sounds like your kind of trail? Well, get on a knobby-tired mountain bike, pedal briskly for about a quarter mile and then coast as the crushed-gravel trail slopes downward.
Coast through hardwood forests thick with rhododendron. Break out into sun-splashed pastures and hayfields marked with sagging red barns. Roll along beside Whitetop Laurel Creek, whose rapids and glassy pools hide brook, brown and rainbow trout.
Small wonder this super-scenic, don’t-break-a-sweat trail yearly draws tens of thousands of bicyclists to the southwestern Virginia mountains. Visitors rent a bike in Damascus, or bring their own, ride a 30-minute shuttle to Whitetop Station and spend three to four hours cruising their way back.
“You can sit on a rock and watch the rapids” said Blake Ragsdale, 43, of Thomasville, after an April ride with friends Stephen Grimes, 40, and Karalyn Grimes, 27, of Lexington. “Get to enjoy that while we’re mounted on our two-wheel steeds.”
The trail follows the rail bed of the defunct “Virginia Creeper” train, so named because of its slow crawl up the mountains. From the early 1900s, the Creeper ran 76 miles from Abingdon, Va. through Damascus, across Whitetop into North Carolina, through Ashe County to Todd. In 1933, West Jefferson became the southern terminus. The train carried freight and passengers until it shut down in 1977, its piercing whistle heard no more.
An ambitious rails-to-trails project converted 33.4 miles of abandoned rail bed, from Abingdon to the N.C. line, into a multiuse trail. With 47 trestles and bridges, the trail opened in 1984 to cyclists, walkers and horse riders. The N.C. trail bed reverted to property owners, who thwarted an attempt by the state in 2000 to extend the Creeper trail 14 miles into Ashe County. Today, nearly 200,000 users a year traverse the trail, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
The trail’s hub is Damascus, whose lifeblood is the Creeper and the Appalachian Trail, which goes through town and overlays the Creeper in three places before veering off into the Jefferson National Forest. Damascus calls itself “Trail Town USA.” Hirsute hikers with bulging backpacks share the trail with helmeted cyclists in spandex shirts and shorts.
In addition to Appalachian Trail hikers, cyclists also may see the quintessential Creeper biker, Lawrence Dye, who lives near Bristol, Va. Dye, 82, has ridden 180,000 miles on the trail since 1990. Last year, he put in 5,582 miles on his Litespeed bike. “I started out riding for pleasure,” he said. He pedals three to four days a week, sometimes doing 40 miles, sometimes the full 66-mile roundtrip from Abingdon and back, sans shuttle.
Dye will break the ribbon Monday at the completion of a new trestle near Abingdon. A 2011 tornado took out the existing 680-foot-long trestle.
At Whitetop Station, a mile from the N.C. line, a continual cavalcade of shuttle vans and bike trailers unload one-way cyclists. A quarter-mile away is a replica of the original station.
From here, it’s rapid transit. The elevation drops 1,600 feet over 14 miles. Three miles away, cyclists emerge from a tunnel of trees at Green Cove Station. The 100-year-old, restored station/post office/country store was the community’s center during the twice-a-day train’s heyday.
Visitors can view photos of the “Virginia Creeper” taken by renowned train photographer Winston Link. The stationmaster communicated with other stations by telegraph. A faded directory lists the Morse Code call sign for each. Damascus, for example, was long (dash), short (dot), long (dash).
Farther along, at Taylors Valley, log cottages border Whitetop Laurel Creek. A large pasture bounded by weighted cattle gates covers a hillside. At the lower end of the valley, calorie-short bikers can cross the creek for a treat at the “Creeper Trail Cafe.”
Long-time Creeper cyclist Stephen Grimes said he’s ridden 30-40 other trails, including some in Europe and Asia. “I would say this is the most beautiful of all,” he said. “The trick to this trail is not to take it quickly.”
Added Karalyn Grimes: “I would recommend it to anyone who has kids. It’s beautiful and easy.”