Family Vacation: Bicycling the Virginia Creeper Trail

Photos courtesy of Geoff Kohl

“You’re going the wrong way!”

The jovial shout erupted from a pack of four riders on beach cruisers coasting past us going the opposite way. From their angle (pointed downhill), I’m sure we did look like were going the wrong way (uphill), but our goal was to earn our right to coast all the way back down the mountain.

And for 17 miles, we did pedal uphill, earning every rotation of our cranks on the shady, crushed-gravel path that is the Virginia Creeper Trail, earning the right to coast back down, and perhaps earning the right to a slice of pizza and a scoop of ice cream, too.

We meandered through summer fields and alongside a babbling stream with rapids and small waterfalls where men plied the waters with fly-fishing casts. We pedaled under a massive train trestle and rode across many other trestles and former railroad bridges now specifically purposed for cyclists and hikers.

The Virginia Creeper Trail extends from its western terminus in Abingdon, Virginia (just off Interstate 81), and climbs as it extends 34 miles east to the little community of Whitetop. It’s all in the southwestern corner of the state, just a few miles above the North Carolina and Tennessee borders. The gravel path is what remains of an old railroad from when timber harvesting was the big industry of this area.

Eventually the locomotives of the Norfolk & Western Railroad no longer chugged up the iron rails (called the Virginia Creeper for the slow pace that it took the locomotives to ascend the steady grade). Later, in one of the early success stories for the “rails to trails” movement, the tracks were removed and the trail became a mountain paradise for hikers, cyclists, trail runners, horseback riders and anyone possessing a little love of nature.

The Virginia Creeper Trail crosses a trestle near Abingdon, Virginia. 

Damascus to Whitetop

At the trails’ midpoint sits Damascus, Virginia, a small Southern town heavily influenced by the Appalachian Trail that runs through it. You’ll find ice cream, craft beer, an outfitters store, cabins and even a microbrewery with regular live music performances. You’ll also find operators of bike shuttles.

Take your own bike (or rent one from the bike tour operators), and they’ll shuttle you up to the top of the Virginia Creeper Trail. At that point, you’ll hop on your bike and coast all the way downhill for 17 miles back to Damascus. And along the way, you might just want to shout to a couple like us pedaling uphill, “Hey, you’re going the wrong way!”

Damascus to Abingdon

The other half of the trail leads 17 miles from Damascus to the charming town of Abingdon. The grade is mostly flat, and the tight gorges above Damascus have opened into rolling fields, quiet forests and broad river plains of the South Fork Holston River. The old railroad route goes through private lands, and it’s not uncommon to have to stop, open a gate and then proceed onward.

At the Virginia Creeper's western-most terminus, a small park holds an original steam locomotive and coal car.

The Ride

The Virginia Creeper Trail can be ridden all in one day, but it’s really best to make a weekend of it so you can leisurely explore the trail and the area. The trail is very kid-friendly, making this a great family outing.

Mountain bikes, hybrid bikes and cruisers work well, as do cyclocross bikes, "gravel bikes" and other such adventure and touring bikes. Skinny road bike tires are best saved for another day (28 millimeter and larger road bike tires should be fine, however).

Gears are nice to have on your bicycle if you're riding the uphill grade to Whitetop, but certainly not required. A water bottle is about all the "gear" you'll need. Be sure to take cash as there are rest stops with drinks and snacks along the way.

Geoff Kohl is chief travel editor for Where and Follow him on Twitter @geoffkohl and on Instagram @gskohl.