The Appalachian National Scenic Trail through Southwest Virginia's Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is a fairly famous place among hikers—but the Appalachian Trail and more lately, the Virginia Creeper Trail, are making it even more obvious why nearby Damascus, Virginia is rightly called "Trail Town USA."
This little burg is a a hotbed of outdoor enthusiasm, just one of many reasons why Damascus' Trail Days celebration has become a must-attend regional event. This year the fest runs May 18th through 20th but events start Saturday May 12th and continue through the 17th for early arrivals.
The festival is a major draw, and Damascus is a quintessential setting for it. The fact that the AT literally passes along the town streets—makes Damascus a pretty rarefied hub of outdoorsiness. Then there are the other trails that in 1996 led the American Hiking Society to name Damascus "Trail Town USA." The Virginia Creeper is one. The Trans-America National Bicycle Trail, the Iron Mountain Trail, the Daniel Boone Heritage Trail, the Crooked Road Musical Heritage Trail, and Virginia's Birding and Wildlife Trail all zip through town, lending this spot a pretty special pedigree among paths.
It's the perfect spot to pursue the outdoor lifestyle, as Thomas Horsch knows. He's the East Coast rep for RuffWear, the outdoor-oriented dog gear company. Since 1996, Horsch has lived in Damascus, a town he says is "all about playing outdoors."
This year, the Trail Days celebration runs the gamut of events and activities that have made it the "largest gathering of backpackers in the United States," says Horsch. "A true celebration of the Appalachian Trail and its hikers."
"Where else but Damascus," Horsch asks facetiously, "would we parade smelly homeless people through town and hose them down?" Yes, it happens. The festival parade—which includes sweaty thru-hikers who indeed welcome the hosing—is a popular part of Trail Days. "The hikers parade right through the middle of town," says Horsch. "Townsfolk spray'em down, maybe even offer a few water balloons, and give them a much-needed bath!"
The festival includes everything from lectures to a beauty pageant, a talent show, free gear repair and more. It's a truly trail focused cultural convergence, and every year the schedule of events is worth a close inspection for events that any hiker would want to attend.
There is camping available but Damascus has blossomed with places to stay and eat, not only with Trail Days, but with the growing popularity of the Virginia Creeper Trail. There are great accommodations right in town, so definitely plan on an overnighter. There are plentiful B&Bs (like the Dancing Bear B&B/ 276-475-5900) and even a hostel (Mount Rogers Outfitters Hostel/ 276-475-5416; no reservations March-June thru-hiker season).Even longterm resident Horsch has his own lodging business—Creeper Trail Cottages, with "the Creeper Trail on one side and Laurel Creek on the other."
Dining spots include the Lazy Fox for great breakfasts and Quincey's Pizza for a full range of lunch and dinner options plus deserts and live music. Damascus Old Mill is a full service hotel with fancier dinner fare and a mill pond waterfall view. And Mojoe’s Trailside Coffeehouse (276-475-5505) won’t disappoint.
Ramble Up On Rogers
The hiker's high point of this town is evergreen and meadow-covered Mount Rogers. It tops out at 5,729 feet, almost 1,000 feet shy of Western North Carolina's nearby, nearly 7,000-foot highest summits. But there’s awesome appeal anyway. All across the mountain’s crest, alpine-appearing meadows thrust rocky summits at racing clouds.
Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park is a great place to start a hike—and car camp. The AT swings right by the park, easily reached from the lofty Massie Gap parking area bordering spectacular grassy views of craggy peaks. Avoid the AT, and Rhododendron Gap Trail soars straight for scenic Rhododendron Gap with access beyond to Thomas Knob Shelter and day hikes to the evergreen dome of Mount Rogers proper.
On the Appalachian Trail or almost any of these meadows, you’re bound to encounter the peak's herd of wild ponies wandering the waving grasses.
Grayson Highlands has a worthwhile visitor center and other high altitude trails, and in winter, the road to Massie Gap is plowed making it easy to find Nordic skiing not far from Damascus.
Careen Down the Creeper
But adventure here isn’t just hiking—it’s mountain biking.
The Virginia Creeper Trail—a former logging railroad, now without the tracks and trains—starts near Mount Rogers on the lofty heights of White Top, the state’s second highest peak, and runs across scenic rolling foothills 33.4-miles to Abingdon, one of Virginia's oldest mountain towns, on Interstate 81. Between White Top and Abingdon—the Creeper runs right through trail town—Damascus.
Many Damascus businesses rent mountain bikes and ferry riders up to Whitetop Station for an unforgettable 17.4-mile ride back down to town—down as in downhill—through evergreen forests, over 30 railroad trestle bridges, and along gushing Whitetop Laurel Creek.
You could take an 8-year-old on this 3-hour, gravity-furthered family adventure—and countless outdoorsy families do just that. Halfway down to Damascus, in the almost hidden village of Taylor Valley, have lunch and great chocolate cake at the Creeper Trail Cafe (276-475-3918).
Check out Adventure Damascus Bicycles for rentals, shuttles, and referrals. Not far from the start, stop at the only remaining train station, Green Cove, for history exhibits. Just next door to the old station, the Buchanan Inn at the Green Cove Station is the best-kept-secret place to stay for complete access to the Creeper Trail and blissful isolation at the same time.
For more of a challenge, ride up to Whitetop and back—a more energetic but still gradual 35-mile ride. Or remember that the White Top section is only half the trail. Start in Abingdon, on I-81, and the ride to Whitetop is more of a challenge at 34 miles, almost 70-miles roundtrip. Best of all, that’s split between the mountainous upper forests and stunning pastoral scenes from Damascus to Abingdon.
Single track mountain bikers aren’t left out. Various loops emanate from Damascus and shuttle services will also drop off at the Iron Mountain Trail for the 20-mile ride back to town.
Consider Atmospheric Abingdon
Anyone coming from a significant distance may find themselves rolling in on I-81 through Virginia's Great Valley to the north and east Tennessee to the south (with access east or west on I-40 or I-64)—which makes richly historic Abingdon a great starting point.
Damascus shuttle services will pick up in Abingdon or run you back to town whatever ride you concoct (though weekdays are best for this service/reserve in advance). But, new this year, Abingdon's Martha Washington has been drawn into the Creeper Trail phenom and offers it's own adventures that include shuttling out to Damascus. Not to mention—the Creeper begins in Abingdon very close to the Martha, so on the day or so you don't focus on Damascus, access to the easy, scenic Abingdon side of the trail is a breeze.
Fittingly, the town of Abingdon was just officially designated an Appalachian Trail Community in early May, 2012. The designation was awarded by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and recognizes communities that promote the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. The program began in 2010.
If you base yourself in Abingdon, there’s great dining. Sisters and The Market are dining spots at the Hotel, and both are satisfying choices. Not far away in town, The Tavern is an atmospheric eatery that occupies Abingdon's oldest structure (276-628-1118). The Tavern claims the status as "one of the oldest" buildings west of the Blue Ridge. Built in 1779, it was a tavern and overnight inn for stagecoach travelers that has welcomed guests such as Henry Clay, Louis Philippe, the King of France, President Andrew Jackson, and Pierre Charles L'Enfant, designer of Washington D.C.
The sad thing about “Virginia’s Premier Biking Trail” is that it stops at the Virginia border—while the Creeper railroad grade continues through Jefferson, NC and on to bike-crazy Boone. Fans of Damascus, the AT, and the Virginia Creeper Trail who live in nearby North Carolina can only imagine riding from Boone to Damascus and on to Abingdon!
For now, Damascus, Abingdon and its attractions are the domain of people who aim directly at "Trail Town" and environs and make this corner of Virginia a destination. It's a rich assortment of world-class outdoor adventures—well worth a detour off the beaten path.