You can hike it. You can bike it. You can take it by horseback or on cross-country skis.
Zipping across most of eastern Washington County, the Virginia Creeper Trail is a multi-use recreational trail linking downtown Abingdon to the North Carolina border near Grayson County’s Whitetop community.
The 34-mile-long trail is the former site of the old Virginia-Carolina Railroad, which ran from 1900 to 1977. The trail opened a decade after the railroad’s demise and has since spurred a series of rental cottages, bed-and-breakfasts and bike rental shops along its route.
Views virtually anywhere are awesome, especially on this trail’s 100 trestles and bridges, including a 529-foot-long span crossing the headwaters of South Holston Lake.
Here, the trail overlooks the confluence of the middle and south forks of the Holston River - an area that is wooded, rocky and remote. About 200 years ago, this site was known as “Carrickfergus,” when it was planned to be a port city, set up to ship wares west to what eventually became Kingsport and Knoxville.
Today, Carrickfergus is a quiet portion of the Alvarado community, a place named for the Alvarado of Texas.
THE VIRGINIA CREEPER TRAIL begins in Abingdon at an old steam locomotive used on the line, which came to be called the “Virginia Creeper” either from the Virginia Creeper vines that grow along the route or from early steam locomotives slowly creeping up the railroad’s steep grades.
East of Damascus, most of the trail section lies in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area - with a short exception through Taylors Valley. This especially scenic section, at Mount Rogers, almost continually climbs uphill to Whitetop.
Wanna hike this portion?
You may be better off - or simply more comfortable - on two wheels.
Bike riders of all ages love starting at Whitetop and coasting 17 miles downhill to Damascus as the trail’s elevation drops about 1,500 feet. And, on weekends, this section can get mighty crowded.
Damascus-based businesses such as Blue Blaze or Adventure Damascus rent bikes and shuttle riders to Whitetop Station, near the eastern trailhead.
At this place, in Grayson County, you’ll find a replica of the original Whitetop Train Station. It was built in 2000 as a Virginia Creeper Trail visitor center.
Painted white with green trim, Whitetop’s 1,500-square-foot station includes restrooms, a souvenir shop and displays detailing local rail history. Inside the station, you’ll also find information on the local Christmas tree industry as well as the legendary story of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt making a visit in 1933 to Whitetop Mountain.
Going three miles downhill from Whitetop, you’ll discover the Green Cove Depot. It’s not a replica; it’s an original station, built in 1914 for $2,600. It’s now another visitor center.
RUNNING THROUGH FARMS AND FORESTS, the Virginia Creeper Trail is basically flat from Abingdon to Damascus - and welcome to folks strolling with a dog on a leash.
On this stretch, the trail right-of-way belongs to the towns, giving the public a right to use it, though most of the land is privately held.
A town about 1,000 residents, Damascus serves as the mid-way point of the Virginia Creeper Trail. Damascus, also, has been dubbed “The Friendliest Town on the Trail” in reference to its place on the Appalachian Trail, which crosses the Virginia Creeper Trail at Damascus Community Park.
Make a point to stop here.
The Damascus Community Park is a pleasant green-space marked by a gazebo, a playground and a trestle crossing Beaverdam Creek. Here, too, the U.S. Forest Service uses a railroad caboose to distribute brochures on the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area at the corner of West Laurel Avenue and South Beaverdam Avenue.
VIRGINIA CREEPER TRAIL
HIKING LENGTH: 34 miles.
WHERE TO START: Washington and Grayson counties in Virginia.
TO GET THERE: Parking access is available at the corner of A Street and Green Springs Road in Abingdon; along VA-677 at Watauga; near the Holston River bridge on VA-710 at Alvarado; on US-58 in Damascus; along US-58 near Whitetop Laurel Creek (about four miles east of Damascus); at the junction of VA-725 and VA-726 in Taylors Valley; off VA-728, near US-58, at Creek Junction; along VA-600 in Green Cove; and off VA-726 at Whitetop (in Grayson County). Maps are available at the Abingdon Visitor Center (800-435-3440) at 335 Cummings Street.
PARKING: No fee.
DURATION: Varies. Most parking access points are located about four miles apart.
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Joe Tennis is the author of “BEACH TO BLUEGRASS: Places to Brake on Virginia’s Longest Road” (The Overmountain Press), which profiles legendary landmarks along U.S. 58, including the Virginia Creeper Trail.