Monday, September 29, 2014

Damascus Adventure Part 3: Virginia Creeper Trail

If you've already seen my first two posts about
our trip, today the action begins.  Biking the
Virginia Creeper Trail.

This marker in Abingdon denotes the original
first mile post of the Creeper Trail.

Many of these old markers remain along the 33 mile trail.

This authentic steam locomotive of the Norfolk &
Western Railroad marks the beginning of the
Virginia Creeper Trail in Abingdon.  Although Judy
and I walked about a mile of this end of the trail,
today's adventure would start at the other end of
the trail, at old Whitetop Station.

The Bike Station is a very reputable rental and shuttle
service in Damascus and we were well pleased with their
service.  Note their website in the picture if you'd like to
check them out.  We actually met and shared the trail with
the gentleman who does their website.  He has been photo-
graphing sites all along the trail to include in his interactive
map.  But I think I took more pictures than him!

Though the morning was chilly, the owner signed
up 11 of us for the 11 o'clock shuttle.  

"Load 'em up and move 'em out!"

This map follows our route, from east to west.

After a 40 minute ride on winding Highway 58,
we arrived at Whitetop Station.  We had also gained
1500 feet in altitude and the temperature was in the 50's.
But we were ready for that.

There's Judy in her green sweater.
"C'mon, Ken. Don't take all day."

One of the first things I spotted on the trail was a
virtual sea of one of my favorite plants: ground
cedar. Its colonies spread over entire hillsides.
I don't know these next two wildflowers.

The first big trestle we came to.

Three miles into the ride we arrived at historic Green
Cove Station.  The above history gives you a glimpse,
but there's much more to its history.

To me, this is pure Americana.

This old store still has the items on the shelves that
were there when it closed years ago.  Now how many
museums can say that? The Forest Service employee
was most informative.

I was interested to learn that the brakeman on the
last train to run in 1977 visited the museum this
summer.  These were some of his memories.
In another place, I read of how a young boy
remembered that same brakeman throwing a
piece of candy down to him from the train
as he waved from the station platform that
long ago day.

Most of these old tools were specifically for
railroad-type jobs.
Back to the trail . . .
we never knew what to expect next!

A short side trail gave us easy access to this local
Christmas tree farm with a view of the valley below.

The same farmer raised a bumper crop of pumpkins
in this valley.

Quite a dropoff to the water beneath this trestle.

From Abingdon, VA to Todd, NC, 60 miles away,
the train line once had 100 bridges and trestles.  We
crossed about 30 on our 17 mile bike ride.

One thing I like about following mountain streams is
that no two are exactly alike, so you're always
encountering something new.

We didn't stop to eat at the Creeper Trail Cafe, but
it is a well-known fixture of the trail, located in
Taylor Valley.  They tout their chocolate cake, but
I expect many bikers would devour anything set
before them at this juncture.

A nice lady offered to snap our pictures.

Not once, but twice.
More scenic beauty along the way.

The rock formations can be just as captivating as any
of the other natural wonders.

What?  Another wooly worm?!

I spy a hornet's nest!

The berries of another of my favorite plants--

If you've walked the Sandhills Farm Life Nature
Trail, this wonderful plant is found in abundance there.

We're down to the last few miles of our journey now.

I believe this was our last bridge before Damascus.

Invasive kudzu competes with a pretty
native orange blossom.  I wish we could win
the war against kudzu, but it's not likely.

This plant is common in the Virginia woodlands, but
I haven't looked it up yet.

Just before entering the Damascus town limits
we encountered the Appalachian Trail again.
No bikes.  DUH!

We're back!  We've completed the 16.8 miles from
Whitetop Station to Damascus.  And if it sounds challenging,
believe me, it's NOT!  After all, it's almost entirely downhill.
So anyone in reasonably good shape, including children as
young as 6, could conceivably negotiate this trail.  As long
as you can dodge the occasional rock or hole, can keep from
plunging down a ravine while you're eyeing some natural
wonder, and can avoid crashing into your traveling companion,
maybe the Virginia Creeper Trail would be right for you.

Arriving in Damascus, the crossroads of
seven trails, we were deeply satisfied with
how we spent our day.  And not nearly as
tired as we expected.  We took about 4 hours
to complete what many did in less than 3, but
that's largely due to my frequent stops for
picture-taking.  No regrets there.

That pretty well sums up our experience.
I'd be happy to share helpful information if
you and your family might be interested in
this adventure.  Many consider this to be the
best rails-to-trails venue in the eastern U.S.
I wouldn't argue with that.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Damascus Adventure Part 2: Around Abingdon and Damascus

The two Virginia towns of Abingdon and
Damascus are very different, but we love
them both. A year ago we stayed in Abingdon,
where there are all kinds of shops and plenty
of great restaurants.  This year we stayed in
Damascus, just 15 miles away.  While it
doesn't have many stores and most of the 
eateries are seasonal or don't serve dinner,
we were enthralled with the atmosphere of
the town.  We spent plenty of time in both 
places, and this post will show some of the
sights around the towns.

Our first meal was dinner at JJ's.  We had catfish and
meatloaf and we both raved about the quality as well
as the reasonable price.  The guy at the bike shop had
recommended it highly.
On a chilly morning we spent a couple of cozy hours
at the Damascus library.  We love to do that when we
travel.  Judy found many interesting things, and I mainly
read up on local history of the Virginia Creeper railroad
and trail.

This memorial beside the town park and library was
called the Wheel of Freedom.

The Appalachian Trail goes right through the town park.
Damascus is known as the friendliest town on the trail.
Hot Springs, NC might put up an argument.

This town mural shows the surrounding countryside.

Damascus is all about trails, for sure.

128 Pecan is the only restaurant that we ate at a year
ago and returned to.  We wanted to check out some
new places, but couldn't resist this one because it
reminds us of our dear 195 in Southern Pines.

I never thought a burger, fries, and Caesar salad
could seem so gourmet.  But it did.

Judy loved her pork loin, asparagus, and wild rice.
And she graciously shared some of the pork with me.

We made sure we could finish our trail bike ride in
time to get to Abingdon's Tuesday farmers market.

Judy was delighted with several non-perishable
items she picked up (AND paid for).

Here are some sunsets we viewed on our
evening ride from Abingdon back to our
lodging in Damascus.

Another old caboose in Abingdon.

We didn't eat full lunches.  Two days we had energy
bars and fruit.  But on Wednesday we happened upon
a little shop called The Cupcakery.  Couldn't resist
photographing this clever plaque.  We wish the
place success.
You may know how much I love "Gypsy Trips."
Also called wild goose chases.  Well, I knew of
a little community called Alvarado which is on
the portion of the Virginia Creeper Trail we didn't
ride on.  Last year, we failed to locate it using a
map of local roads.  This year we used the same
map, but had success coming from another direction.

Notice how placid the waters are as the river becomes
the headwaters of Holston Lake.

These trail maps are very helpful, and make you
realize how the contour of the mountains made
construction of the railroad such a monumental
task, requiring such a volume of bridges and trestles.

The old Alvarado station has been restored and is
open on certain days, but not daily in the off-season.

Read this plaque if you're interested in how places
get unusual names.

From Alvarado, we would hike (not bike) about
a mile and a half to the longest trestle on the trail,
over 600 feet (that's two football fields).

It's always exciting to arrive at a landmark that you
have been anticipating and have never seen before.

Some bridge.  At every bridge and trestle, I tried to
envision old steam locomotives making their daily runs.
The mountainous terrain limited speeds to 10 to 15 miles
per hour.  And the 120 mile round trip from Abingdon to
Damascus to Todd, NC (near Boone) and back again
would consume from 8 to 16 TONS of coal per trip!

A recent dry spell had contributed to a low water
level where the Holston River enters Holston Lake.
Note the cracks in the mud.

A shot of that amazing bridge from the western side.

As we retraced our steps we observed the transition
of the river to its true character.

This caboose greets folks at the Damascus town park.

I had wondered if this little engine was built for parades
or such, but it actually was used for hauling logs in the
mountain lumber camps.

This trestle is also in the town park, traversing
Laurel Creek. One of the many peaceful settings
in this quiet town.

We ate our final dinner at the place we were
staying, the Damascus Old Mill Inn.  We were
extremely pleased with our meal.  I got Old Smokey
Yardbird, which was chicken glazed with house
sauce, cheddar cheese, and crumbled applewood
smoked bacon.  They also had seasoned criss-
cross potatoes.  They were like Chik-fil-a waffle
fries on steroids.  Seriously.  Judy got Sally P's
Chicken.  This was a chicken breast seasoned and 
braised in a buttery white wine sauce.  Her veggies
were also very good.  A fitting way to end our
culinary experience.

We were here between the summer season
and leaf season, which is just the way we
wanted it.  Things were slow and quiet.
At other times, the towns and the trails
can be like Grand Central Station.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
But we were quite pleased with the
weather, the food, the lodging, and the
 activities.  We highly recommend it all.