Monday, August 24, 2015

Biking the Virginia Creeper Trail

The Virginia Creeper Trail travels from Abington, Virginia, to White Top Mountain and the Virginia-North Carolina border for a total of 34.3 miles through rolling countryside and into the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area of the Jefferson National Forest. First a Native American footpath, the route was later used by settlers, including Daniel Boone, and in the early 1900s a railroad was built, all well before the first road through the area. The Abington Branch of the Norfolk and Western Railroad ended operations in 1977 and in 1978 the Forest Service purchased the right-of-way. The trail is named for either 1) the old railroad which was nicknamed the Creeper after how the old steam locomotives slowly crept up the steep 7% grade to Whitetop Mountain, or 2) for the prolific local Virginia Creeper vine.

The trail is mostly in excellent condition. Several sections are used by the Appalachian Trail for short distances, and all of the Creeper Trail is open to hikers, bikers, and equestrians. I saw no horses but did see several piles of evidence that horses had recently passed (in both senses of the word!) A trail club maintains the section outside Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area and the Forest Service maintains the 15.9 mile section within. 

The uphill pedal of course is more strenuous than downhill, which is why most riders take one of the available shuttle services in Damascus to the top and then ride the 19 miles downhill. On my pedal up, I saw over a hundred bikers coming down, many of them families with children of all age ranges (and quite properly, nearly all wearing helmets). On my downhill return to my vehicle, I encountered only four riders heading up. For most of the uphill, the grade is about 3%, although the final section to whitetop is nearly 7% grade.

Many dozens of trestles carry the trail across the creeks, and at 563 feet, this is the longest, spanning Creek Junction. On my downward trip, I had to keep my speed under control because I had seen many rock outcroppings on the way up, some up to a height of 3 inches, as well as patches of loose gravel. Also, some of the approaches to trestles are rough where gravel meets wood.

The Whitetop Station at the top is a museum of old railroad paraphernalia and worth a look-see.

There is scenery to see, so stop every so often and get off your bike!

After descending from the top of the mountain, the trail passes through Damascus and then heads across farms and meadows to Abbington.

The original railroad required over 100 bridges. When the railroad was being built between 1900 and 1912,  most were wooden because of the abundant timber along the route. This crossing of South Holston Lake is the trail's lowest point at 2000 feet, which is 1600 feet lower than at Whitecap Station!

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