A Blue Ridge-Virginia Creeper Adventure
Two of my favorite places to bicycle are the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile road managed by the National Park Service, and the Virginia Creeper Trail, a 34-mile rail-trail conversion between Abingdon and Whitetop, Virginia. I was planning a two-night camping trip and I kept trying to choose which one I wanted to ride. Then it occurred to me that I didn’t need to choose; I could ride part of both.
Dan Edgerton, Janet Edgerton, and John Harmer at Cumberland Knob, Blue Ridge Parkway
On a Thursday afternoon I found myself with my wife, Janet, and our riding companion, John Harmer, starting from Cumberland Knob at the North Carolina-Virginia border on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We planned to ride 40 miles south to Glendale Springs for the first day. The only problem at the moment was that it was raining. There had been just a 30 percent chance in the forecast for showers; it seemed that the chance had changed into absolute certainty for continuous rain. Undeterred, we headed south on the parkway and started our weekend.
The initial ride south of Cumberland Knob is pleasant and rolls out easily, mostly following Big Pine Creek. It makes for a nice adjustment to riding the bike loaded with camping gear. The scenery alternates between dense mountain forest and fields.
After 10 miles, the parkway began climbing into Doughton Park, one of several parks located on the parkway. These parks are developed recreation areas often offering camping, picnicking, preserved historic buildings, and hiking trails.
Normally, the views from the parkway of the adjacent Stone Mountain State Park would be dramatic. However, as we passed through the low-hanging clouds and rain, no views were available. We just felt colder, as the increase in elevation had lowered the temperature. We descended from Doughton Park and stopped in Laurel Springs for a cup of coffee to warm up in a bar more oriented to motorcyclists than to any other group.
Once we were feeling better, we continued on to Glendale Springs and checked into Raccoon Holler Campground for the night. As we set up camp, the skies began to clear; by the time the sun went down, we had a most pleasant evening with a full moon in the sky above.
In the morning, we rode our bicycles to Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Glendale Springs. Holy Trinity is a small, white, framed church not much different from many others in the mountains, except that the wall behind the alter has a fresco painting of the Last Supper done by artist Ben Long.
After viewing the church, we left Glendale Springs, traveling northwest through Jefferson and Lansing. Our goal was to connect with the Virginia Creeper Trail at its southern end in Whitetop Station, Virginia.
The Virginia Creeper is a rail-trail conversion of a route operated by the Norfolk and Western Railway that featured a passenger train of that name. Virginia Creeper is a double entendre, as it is both the name of a plant that grows in the mountains and a pun aimed how how slowly the train travelled.
Whitetop Station has the distinction of sitting at the highest elevation of any passenger railroad station east of the Mississippi River, 3,571 feet above sea level. This meant we had plenty of climbing ahead.
The ascent began after Lansing; it was easy at first, following a stream. Soon, though, it turned away from the stream and attacked the hill directly. The best thing to do was put any thoughts of reaching the top out of mind, since all we could see was the hill ahead until the road turned around a corner. Once we rounded the corner, the hill again continued for as far as we could see.
At the last leg of the climb, the road turned to dirt and continued on for an additional mile. We reached the top of the ridge at a beautiful gap in the mountains with outstanding views to either side of the ridge. We stopped for a few minutes to rest from the climb and admire the views. Finally, we continued on to descend the dirt road on the other side. A few miles later we arrived at Whitetop Station.
John Harmer on the Virginia Creeper Trail in Whitetop, Virginia
Arriving at the southern end of the Virginia Creeper Trail, we found ourselves in another world. Having just ridden over roads that've probably seen very few bicyclists ever, we were now on a trail that hosts 100,000 visitors per year. Whitetop Station is 17 miles from Damascus, Virginia, and the entire run is downhill. There are many shuttle services that will take you from Damascus to Whitetop, where you then ride back down the hill. It takes little effort to do this, so you see every type of person imaginable making this ride.
The trail boss was sharing the rules of the trail to the masses unloading from the shuttle vans all around. People were asking us why we had so much baggage on our bicycles; we explained what we were doing, but they did not understand. We waded into the throng of people starting down the hill, found our spot in the flow, and continued on toward Damascus.
Damascus is a center of mountain recreation for southwestern Virginia. In addition to the Virginia Creeper Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail pass through town. There are many businesses catering to the people using these routes.
After finding the local grocery store and purchasing our dinner makings for the night, we started the ride to Beartree Campground east of town. We followed a stretch of the TransAm Trail running along US 58. We had seven miles to climb, going back up the same ridge we had just come down. Often, we could see the Virginia Creeper Trail below us on our right as we rode.
The campground, operated by the US Forest Service, is located three miles off US 58. We checked in with the office and they seemed surprised that anyone would ride bicycles to the campground. This made me assume that sensible cross-country riders spend the night in Damascus rather than riding 10 miles uphill before camping.
The conversation soon turned toward tomorrow’s weather, which was posted on the announcement board. It showed rain to be an almost absolute certainty.
The next day we awoke to overcast skies. I had hopes that we might get a few hours of riding in before the rain began. That wasn’t to be, however; as soon as we packed up and started pedaling, the first few drops began to fall. By the time we reached the main road, we were stopping to put our raincoats on.
We turned onto US 58 and continued to Konnarock, where our route turned away from the TransAm Trail. We encountered several short, steep climbs as we rode back to the Whitetop area. By the time we arrived there, the rain had settled in and the temperature was in the low 50s.
The area we were riding in is adjacent to Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia at 5,729 feet above sea level. We were facing a 13-mile descent to the New River in weather conditions that were not good. Needless to say, we quickly felt frozen as we came down the mountain. Near the bottom of the hill we stopped at a store to warm up, but by then we were too cold to feel much, except how numb we were.
The discussion quickly turned to: Wouldn’t it be better to get a hotel room when we passed through Sparta, North Carolina, than continue all the way to the car in these conditions? We all agreed that would be the better plan.
Soon, we turned and crossed the New River and entered North Carolina. The route we were following was NC Bike Route 4, one of the cross-state routes along the northern border. The route is signed, making for easy navigation. Reaching Sparta, we checked into the one motel in town and enjoyed the warmth of our rooms as the rain continued to fall the rest of the day.
The next morning the skies had cleared, and it was beautiful as we rode the final 15 miles to the car. The three of us had completed the loop with a slight change in the original itinerary. In the end, we had ridden 171 miles through an area boasting some of the best scenery in the East. Although it was difficult at times, we all felt the weekend was well worth the effort.
Tip for this adventure: Northwest Trading Post located on the parkway in Glendale Springs offers mountain crafts and bakery items.
Favorite local bike shop: Sundog Outfitter in Damascus sells everything needed for bicycling and camping.