A helicopter pilot by trade, my favorite way to take in the fall foliage for years has been to cruise around on a sunny day at about five hundred feet when colors are at their peak. It was my favorite – until I rode a bicycle down Virginia’s Creeper Trail in autumn. Sure, the more vertically challenged can still get great expansive views by driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway or Skyline Drive. Still, there is just something about being in the scenery itself – a part of it – feeling the warm sun on your skin, the cool breeze on your face and hair, hearing the rush of water nearby and smelling that crispness that is autumn in America.
The Down and Dirty
Virginia’s Creeper Trail is one of many projects in the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s effort to turn old railways into multi-use paths. The Creeper hosts hikers, bikers, runners, horseback riders, and cross country skiers. The trail has been open some 34 years and is just over 34 miles long, but the 17-mile gravel and dirt stretch from Whitetop to Damascus is nearly all downhill.
The Creeper is a worthwhile day trip or stop along a road trip any time of year. But in the throes of autumn you would not be remiss going well out of your way to experience this gem.
The Set Up
There are a number of rental shops in Damascus that will rent you a bicycle (and helmet if desired), then drive you and the bike about 45 minutes up into the hills to drop you off 17 miles from town by way of the path. Bikes of all sizes are available (mountain bikes and comfort cruisers), as are tandems with a child-size bike attached behind an adult bike. Your young adventurer can choose to pedal along or just hold on and enjoy the scenery. For even smaller viewers, pull-behind buggies to tote toddlers are also available for an additional fee. My husband and I have taken our two dogs on the trail twice now. They run next to us until they are exhausted then we put them in a baby buggy for the rest of the journey. You can also bring your own bike and still use one of the shops’ shuttle services to allow for a one-way coast.
The Ride Down
The shuttles drop riders off at Whitetop Station in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. From this open area you will very quickly find yourself under the canopy in a dense forest and soon happen upon your first of literally dozens of long wooden bridges that once eased the railroad over the creeks and terrain. When you emerge from the forest to spot your first Christmas tree farm you’ll know you’re close to Green Cove Station, roughly three miles in to your journey. This historic railroad station is now run by the U.S. Forest Service. Here you can use the bathrooms, find souvenirs and snacks, and let the kids enjoy the playground. Go inside and check the back room for a glimpse of life in the area a century ago when the railroad still ran through these hills.
From Green Cove, your bike will carry you through another 2 miles of open pasture, Christmas tree farms, and rolling countryside before entering the dense forest once again. A couple of miles into the trees the trail begins to parallel the Whitetop Laurel Creek. This wild trout stream runs next to the trail for miles, alternating sides as you criss cross over it on the old railroad trestles. When you exit the forest again into farm country, you’ll be less than a mile from the Creeper Trail Cafe near the Taylors Valley trailhead. With plenty of bicycle parking, outdoor seating, and views of the creek, the Creeper Trail Cafe is serving up burgers and dogs, sandwiches and sides, sodas and sweets. Enjoy a break on the lawn before the final seven mile stretch of your ride. From here the trail continues to meander next to and over the Whitetop Laurel Creek and parallels the Appalachian Trail for some time as both lead straight to Damascus.
Clock and Calendar Considerations
The whole ride may take 2 to 4 hours, or even longer, if stopping to picnic and take in the views. Most shops close around 6:00pm so taking the 2 o’clock shuttle leaves less time to enjoy the ride. Taking the early shuttle and going mid-week if you can are two ways to try and avoid the crowds if it’s solitude you’re after.
The Creeper is an ideal outdoor activity this fall, suitable for all ages and skill levels. For the majority of the ride you won’t even have to pedal – unless you just want to, for the exhilarating rush of unbridled speed. This year’s predictions have southwestern Virginia’s leaves near peak on October 29th, peaking around November 5th, and past peak by November 12th. The window to catch one of nature’s best shows is fleeting. You can be too, if you choose the best seat in the house. The time is now to hop on that bicycle. Feel like a kid again, and go see for yourself why the Creeper has been in the Rail-to-Trail hall of fame since 2014.
Learn more about the Rails to Trails Conservancy at www.railstotrails.org