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The Virginia Creeper Trail

The fabulously beautiful Virginia Creeper Trail is a 34-mile hiking, biking, and horseback-riding route that follows an old railroad bed between Abingdon and White Top Station, at the North Carolina line on the southern flank of White Top Mountain, just inside Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. The name comes from the fact that steam locomotives had such a slow time on the grade that they became known collectively as the Virginia Creeper. If you can ride a bike, this is one of Virginia's top outdoor excursions.

The trail starts at an elevation of 2,065 feet in Abingdon, drops to 2,000 feet at Damascus (11 miles east on U.S. 58), then climbs to 3,675 feet at White Top. No one I know is about to ride a bike up that mountain, so the idea is to stay in Abingdon, take a shuttle bus to the top, and mostly coast for 17 of the 23 gorgeous miles downhill to Damascus.

Beginning 2 miles east of Damascus, the stretch between Green Cove Station and Iron Bridge crosses High Trestle (about 100 ft. high) and has swimming holes in the adjacent stream. Green Cove is a seasonal Forest Service information post with portable toilets and a snack bar. It was at Green Cove that O. Winston Link took one of his most famous photographs, of a mare bowing her head as the Creeper crawled past. It's on display at the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke and the Abingdon Passenger Train Station in Abingdon.

Outfitters in Damascus renting bikes and operating shuttles to the top of the trail include Blue Blaze Bike & Shuttle Service (tel. 800/475-5905 or 276/475-5095; www.blueblazebikeandshuttle.com); Adventure Damascus Bicycles (tel. 888/595-2453; www.adventuredamascus.com); and The Bike Station, 501 E. 3rd St. (tel. 276/475-3629; www.thebike-station.com). They are on Laurel Avenue (U.S. 58) in Damascus. In Abingdon, Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop (tel. 888/245-3648 or 276/676-2552; www.vacreepertrailbikeshop.com) is on Pecan Street near the trail head. All charge about $12 adults, $7 children for the shuttle; or $23 adults, $21 children for both shuttle and rental. Reservations are advised, so call ahead.

You can get a bird's-eye view of the highlands from the basket under a hot-air balloon. Balloon Virginia (tel. 276/628-6353) in Abingdon flies just-after-sunrise and just-before-dusk rides. Call for prices and reservations, which are essential.

For more information contact the Abingdon Convention & Visitors Bureau or the website of the Virginia Creeper Trail Club, P.O. Box 2382, Abingdon, VA 24212 (www.vacreepertrail.org).

Country Music's Crooked Road

Southwestern Virginia has been central to the evolution of country music since the first European settlers arrived in these hills and valleys with few possessions other than their mandolins and fiddles. Some of the great country artists hail from here -- the Carter Family, Ralph Stanley, and the Stonemans to name a few -- and numerous music festivals such as the famous Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Galax take place in this area.

The area's music heritage is formally recognized by The Crooked Road: Virginia's Heritage Music Trail, P.O. Box 268, Big Stone Gap, VA 24219 (tel. 866/676-6847; www.thecrookedroad.org). This official route follows U.S. 23, U.S. 421, U.S. 58, U.S. 221, Va. 8, and Va. 40 for more than 200 miles from Breaks in the west to Rocky Mount in the east. Along the way it passes such country music shrines as the Ralph Stanley Museum & Traditional Music Center in Clintwood; the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons; the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol; the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway; the Rex Theater in Galax; the Floyd Country Store in Floyd; and the Blue Ridge Music Institute in Ferrum.

New River Trail State Park

The exceptional New River Trail runs for 57 miles between Galax and Pulaski. The trail follows an old railroad bed beside the New River, which, despite its name, is in geologic terms one of the oldest rivers in the United States (it predates the Appalachian Mountains). The river flows toward the Mississippi River, on its way carving the New River Gorge in southeastern West Virginia, the best white-water rafting spot in the eastern U.S.

The park's headquarters are at Foster Falls State Park, a restored mining hamlet on Foster Falls Road (C.R. 608), about 20 miles northeast of Wytheville, or 2 miles north of U.S. 52 (take Exit 24 off I-77 and follow the signs). From April through November you can enter the trail here daily from 8am to 10pm. Parking costs $2 per vehicle during the week, $3 on weekends.

Other entries to the trail are at Shot Tower Historical State Park ; Draper, near Exit 92 off I-81; Allisonia and Hiwassee, both on C.R. 693; Barren Springs, on Va. 100; Austinville, on Va. 69; Ivanhoe, on Va. 94; Byllesby Dam, on C.R. 602; and Galax, on U.S. 58. There's also a branch trail to Fries, on Va. 94.

Foster Falls River Company (tel. 276/699-1034, or 276/228-8311 in Wytheville) rents bicycles, canoes, kayaks, inner tubes, and horses at Foster Falls. Bikes cost $6 per hour or $20 per day. Canoes and kayaks start at $7 an hour or $30 per day. Tubes go for $10 per day. The adjacent stables (tel. 276/699-2460) rent horses and have guided horse and pony rides along the trail (call for prices and reservations). The livery is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day daily from 8am to 5pm. The company also provides shuttle service between the key points along the trail, so you don't have to walk, ride, or paddle back to your car.

For more information, write or call New River Trail State Park, 176 Orphanage Rd., Foster Falls, VA 24360 (tel. 276/699-6778; www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/newriver.htm). The office is open Monday through Friday 8am to 4:30pm.

While in this area, you can stop at Shot Tower Historical State Park, on U.S. 52 near Exit 5 off I-77, which features a stone shot tower built about 1791. Molten lead, poured from the top of the tower, fell 150 feet into a kettle, thus cooling and turning into round shot. The lead was mined at nearby Austinville, birthplace of Stephen Austin, the "Father of Texas." (There's a monument to Austin at the New River Trail State Park in Austinville.) Admission to the park is free, but parking costs $2 per vehicle during the week, $3 on weekends. The park is open daily from 8am to dusk.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.