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Bikers, hikers trail each other to Damascus, Va.

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / January 28, 2007

DAMASCUS, Va. -- Saying that all trails lead to Damascus might be an overstatement, but it is easy to believe in this hilly southwest corner of Virginia.

For motorists, the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail roughly follows the famous pioneer's wanderings, while the Crooked Road Musical Heritage Trail winds through mountain-music country. For road cyclists, there's the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail; and for mountain bikers, the Iron Mountain Trail has miles of single-track riding.

Hikers have the Appalachian Trail. Damascus is one of nine communities along the route where the trail crosses the center of town, a cause for celebration if you are hiking the entire 2,175 miles and have been in the woods for a few weeks.

Dubbed the "friendliest town on the trail," Damascus lives up to its nickname every May. Its Appalachian Trail Days Festival is a weeklong celebration planned around the time most hikers are passing through on their way to the trail's end in Maine.

But the path that draws the most people here is the Virginia Creeper Trail, a 34-mile shared-use trail, which is bicycled by about 200,000 people each year. Damascus is halfway along the Creeper Trail, making it a starting point for treks to either end.

The trail got its start as a Native American footpath and then was used by European and early American explorers. In the early 1900s, it was converted into the Virginia-Carolina Railroad, which hauled lumber, iron ore, supplies, and passengers. The name Virginia Creeper came from the early steam locomotives that struggled up the Blue Ridge Mountain grades. The original engine and tender are on display in town. (Virginia creeper is also the name of a vine common in the area.)

The locomotive made its last run in 1977. In the 1980s the conversion to a recreational trail began. One of the longest continuous rail trails in the country, the Virginia Creeper has put Damascus, a town of about 1,000, on the map.

Being an avid cyclist, I was surprised and delighted that so many people would visit a place mostly to ride bikes. When I arrived, I learned the secret: Most of them only go downhill. People of all ages and athletic abilities take shuttles to Whitetop Station at the top of the trail and coast 18 miles to Damascus as the elevation drops from 3,576 feet to 1,930 feet.

In the opposite direction along the trail is Abingdon, population about 8,000. Shuttles drop visitors there, too, but those folks have to pedal back the 16 miles on the mostly flat terrain, so that direction isn't quite so popular.

We brought our bikes, but there are several places in Damascus to rent. Fat tires are preferred as the surface is crushed gravel or hard-packed dirt.

The first day, we had enough time to ride 10 miles out and back between Damascus and Abingdon. Just outside the two-block-long downtown, the trail passed a few manicured front lawns and then continued through woods and past farms. We encountered a few other cyclists and a lot of cows and horses. The dogwoods, lilacs, and wild irises were showing off, though many trees were still bare. We stopped at the Old Alvarado Station Country Store & Deli, a former train depot and the only place to eat before Abingdon.

The next day we headed uphill to Whitetop, hugging the side of the path when the downhill coasters rolled by. We started off in a forest that opened onto rolling farmland. Though some land along the trail is private, most is public, and on this end that includes the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in the Jefferson National Forest. We rode over restored railroad trestles that spanned mountain creeks and passed numerous small waterfalls.

About an hour uphill, near mile 23, is the Creeper Trail Cafe, in scenic Taylors Valley. Locals come for the burgers, homemade desserts, and especially for the weekend fish fry.

One of the few people we encountered going up was Lawrence Dye, 75, a man famous in these parts for cycling more than 106,000 miles on the trail. That may be one reason why he looks to be about 60. There's a tribute to Dye at the Green Cove Station, built in 1914 and once the site of the general store and post office.

The station became known as the setting for photographs taken by O. Winston Link, the steam locomotive photographer, and many are on display. You can visit mid-April to late October, when Forest Service employees and volunteers staff the center .

Somewhat weary after reaching Whitetop Station, we finally got to turn around. From there we enjoyed the long, sweet, coast downhill back to Damascus.

Contact Diane Daniel at diane@bydianedaniel.com.

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