I took a day off in Damascus, Virginia (a.k.a. Trail Town, USA) to sample the Virginia Creeper Trail and the Appalachian Trail
Damascus is a confluence of seven different trails and routes. It’s no wonder why. Deep in the heart of the Appalachians, the town of just 1,025 people is surrounded by fabulous scenery and cultural significance.
Damascus lives up to its reputation as “the friendliest town on the Appalachian Trail.” Everyone I met here genuinely cares about the hikers and bikers that pass through and wants to help us on our journey. Stop and meet them!
Ride the Virigina Creeper Trail
I had heard great things about the Rails to Trails Conservancy, which repurposes decommissioned railways into a nationwide trail network. So I jumped at the chance to ride one of their biggest success stories — the Virginia Creeper Trail.
The U.S. Forestry Service estimates that over 200,000 people visit this trail each year. That provides enough business for eight bike rental and shuttle services in Damascus. They’re all so friendly that they recommend each other. I went with Bicycle Junction and rented a bike because Blucifer is just a road bike with skinny size 28 tires, so I didn’t want to stress him out on the gravel. The shuttle carted us up to Whitetop Mountain for the group to enjoy the 17 miles of downhill, dropping 2,000 feet in elevation.
For TransAm cyclists whose bikes can handle the gravel, the DIY way is to pedal yourself up to the top of Whitetop Mountain on the road, which is on the route anyway. For Westbounders, you could even take the trail down into Damascus instead of the road!
I was happy to do it the touristy way. Blucifer got treated to a chain cleaning at Sundog Outfitter while I was out riding not-Blucifer. The mechanic didn’t charge anthing. I repeat. Friendliest. Town. On. The. Trail.
Walk a mile on the Appalachian Trail
I believe that through-hikers and traveling cyclists are two species of the same genus. We’re both on these months-long, muscle-powered, transformative journeys. We’re both outside all day swatting at bugs and dodging rainstorms. We’re both roughing it with the occasional splurge.
We cyclists can meet our on-foot counterparts in Damascus. This is where our route intersects with the Appalachian Trail, which stretches 2,190 miles from Georgia to Maine. Each May, Damascus hosts a big Trail Days Festival that attracts thousands of hikers, past and present.
If you want a glimpse into the life of a through-hiker (minus the heavy pack), you can walk a few miles on the Appalachian Trail from Damascus. I went up the stairway marked ‘Appalachian Trail’ and started following the white blazes on the trees. A segment of this trail is trail is now on my autumn hiking wish list.
Feel the LOVE at the Old Mill Inn
As the saying goes, Virginia is for lovers. You can find the photo-op to prove it at the Damascus Old Mill Inn. My stay at this historic landmark hotel stands out a lodging highlight of the entire cross-country trip. It’s the perfect retreat for trail-weary hikers and bikers. They even have a special room rate just for us.
If you can’t stay the night, I recommend stopping by for a local craft beer, a good meal, and a photo with the LOVE sign that reflects on the water. Did I mention they serve local gourmet cheesecake? Main ingredients: love and friendliness.
Eat at the 7 Trails Grill
This is another good spot in town to mingle with locals and trail travelers alike. The bike mechanics at Sundog mentioned there’d be live music, so I mozied on over for some entertainment. Good times! I learned that “country outlaw” is a music genre.
Damascus is also on The Crooked Road, Virginia’s music heritage trail. The town attracts talent from all over the Appalachian region. Between 7 Trails Grill and the Old Mill Inn, you’re likely to find a good live music performance, and a local craft beer to go with it.
My spin on it: if you’re needing a day off from the road (or a “zero day”, as the through-hikers put it), Damascus, VA is the trail-friendliest place to do it.