6Written by Toni Sherwood
A landmark steeped in history, the 34-mile Virginia Creeper Trail beckons cyclists of every skill level. What began as a railway has since been converted into a well-maintained path, welcoming hikers, bikers, and horses. Although the ‘Virginia Creeper’ is also a native plant, the name originated from the old railroad days. (Originally published September 2015.)
“There used to be trains that carried supplies up Whitetop Mountain,” Chris Lowe, general manager at the Martha Washington Inn & Spa explains, “It’s a tedious road with lots of switchbacks. The engines would barely creep up the side of the mountain. That’s how the trail got its name.”
The trail begins behind the Martha Washington Inn & Spa in Abingdon, meanders through the quaint town of Damascus, and winds its way to the peak of Whitetop Mountain to a breathtaking vista.
“A group of us have been going up to Abingdon for 13 years now,” Asheville resident Lynn Kieffer says. Each year, Kieffer and a group of friends make the 2 hour drive from Asheville to Abingdon on Halloween weekend. “Abingdon is the perfect distance for a getaway,” Kieffer says. “It’s very tranquil up there; it’s a real respite.”
The group includes an array of successful professionals: surgeons, hospital administrators, pharmacists, dentists. “There are about 10-14 of us who go up every year,” Kieffer says. It was Dave Schroeder, a cardiologist in Asheville, who initiated the tradition.
“We all like to exercise; we like biking,” Schroeder says. “There are great restaurants, and we love going to the plays.”
“It began as an excuse to celebrate David Schroeder’s birthday,” Leon Elliston explains. “I’ve never missed a trip.”
Rather than hauling their bikes with them, most of the group rents bicycles from the Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop. “We’re mostly road bikers,” Kieffer says, “but you need a hybrid bike for these trails.”
Although Elliston doesn’t consider himself much of a cyclist, he enjoys riding the trail. “It goes through pastures and along the Laurel River; it’s just beautiful.”
One very appealing aspect of this trail is that it can accommodate every fitness level.
Cyclists looking for a challenge can take the trail from Abingdon to Whitetop Station, and then ride all the way back for a rewarding 64-mile route. “We met a local man in his 60s who does that ride every day,” Kieffer says. “You’re exhausted by the end of it.” The most difficult leg of the route is the mountain ride to Whitetop Station.
“You can get all the exercise you want, but it doesn’t kill you,” Schroeder says. “Except the ride up Whitetop, that will kill you.”
Elliston says he has ridden a few miles up, but never gone to the peak. His favorite option is to take the trail from Abingdon to Damascus, have a leisurely lunch, and then return. “Abingdon to Damascus is fairly flat, or you think it is until you start heading back,” Kieffer quips. “Still, it’s very doable for average cyclists.”
But for those who want the adventure and sightseeing with little physical exertion, there is a fun option for them, too.
“We have a private service to drive people to the peak of Whitetop Station,” Lowe says. “We can fit ten people and ten bikes. We drop them off and then pick them up in Damascus.”
Abingdon native Donnamarie Emmert has done the 17-mile downhill ride several times.
“Even if you’re completely out of shape, the only time you’re going to get insulted is the last mile,” Emmert quips.
The Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop is open seven days a week to shuttle cyclists to Whitetop Station and pick them up in Damascus.
Whatever route you choose, when the cycling day is done Abingdon has a lot to offer. For one, it is home to Virginia’s state theater, The Barter Theater.
Founded in the depression-era, The Barter Theater allowed citizens short on funds to barter for their theater ticket with produce, eggs, or whatever they had to offer. These humble beginnings resulted in a professional repertory theater that houses a full-time staff and a company of actors.[quote float=”right”]Famous alumni who got their start at The Barter before going forward to illustrious careers include Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine, and Ned Beatty.[/quote]
“The town of Abingdon has a population of 9,000 or less, but over 160,000 people come through to attend shows at the theater,” Amanda Livingston, marketing manager of the Abingdon Convention and Visitors Bureau, says.
This October the line up at The Barter Theater includes the seasonally inspired I’ll Be Back Before Midnight, a comedy thriller by Peter Colley, and Curtains, a murder-mystery musical comedy.
“The Barter Theater is such a treat,” Kieffer says, “We always go to a play on Friday night.” They always wear Halloween costumes, another tradition. They choose a theme based on the play they are going to see, and they keep their costumes secret from each other until the big night.
The group stays at The Martha Washington Inn & Spa, which was originally built as a private residence in 1832. Over the years it has been transformed into a women’s college, a makeshift hospital, a rooming house for actors performing at the theater, and, finally, a hotel. Miraculously, the original brick residence still comprises the central structure of the modern-day hotel. “We’re a small hotel,” Lowe says. “We have 63 rooms, so we can really cater to our guests.”
“The Martha Washington is so accommodating,” Schroeder says. “They give us a room for our birthday party. We can store our bikes there and you can walk to everything.”
Its red brick structures, white columns, and porches that span the length of the building are reminiscent of the Old South. Yet, there are modern accommodations including a heated salt-water pool that is open year round, spa services, and a Jacuzzi to help soothe tired muscles. There is also a restaurant, Sister’s American Grill. “The restaurant is wonderful,” Kieffer says.
Another landmark you won’t want to miss is The Tavern; built in 1779, it is the oldest building in Abingdon. “The ceiling has these low wood beams that make you feel like you’re stepping back into another century,” Livingston says.
Always a tavern and inn, the building was also the first post office on the Western slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The original mail slot can still be seen from the street. The Tavern has transformed over the centuries into a bank, bakery, general store, and barbershop to name a few, but today it is a restaurant serving intercontinental cuisine. Weiner schnitzel, Jambalaya, and Peppercorn Encrusted Duck are all on the eclectic menu.
Livingston also recommends visiting Wolf Hills Brewing Company, a craft brewery situated in an old icehouse built in the 1800s. Their beers are all inspired by local history and landmarks. Offerings include the namesake Creeper Trail Amber Ale and the Fightin’ Parsons Pale Ale, named in honor of early settler Reverend Charles Cummings, who was known to rest his rifle on the pulpit during sermons.
If hiking is your thing, there are hundreds of miles of trails accessible in the area around Damascus and the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. The Appalachian Trail travels right down the main street in Damascus.
Legends and tales are part of the local culture in Abingdon. With family ties dating back as far as the 1800s, myths and facts intertwine into an oral history handed down generation after generation.
One intriguing landmark that has spawned legends is an underground tunnel beneath Main Street. It runs between The Barter Theater (which used to be the town hall) and the Martha Washington Inn & Spa (a hospital during the Civil War). The tunnel entrance is still visible via the Barter Theater’s backstage tours. “It’s a dirt and stone tunnel that is now collapsed,”
Livingston says. “Rumor has it they used it to smuggle arms to Confederate soldiers. There’s a legend about a soldier being caught and shot in the tunnel.”
If you want to delve into the area’s rich oral history, don’t miss the ‘Abingdon Spirit Tour’. The two-hour walking tour begins at the gazebo of the Martha Washington Inn & Spa, continues to The Tavern, and ends at The Barter Theater. “I hit all the spots,” Emmert says.
Emmert has been guiding the Spirit Tour for 19 years. The tour is a mixture of tall tales, historical facts, and ghost stories, delivered with Emmert’s enigmatic and engaging style. “Dry history and facts are a little dusty,” Emmert explains. “The way I tell it, it’s gossip.”
Emmert grew up hearing these stories – some closer to the truth than others. She has picked up bits and pieces of information over the years and intertwined them into her tour. One of her favorite stories involves two controversial local legends: Steven Alonso Jackson and Gordon Rife. “This is the first story I ever remember hearing. My mother told it to me on car trips,” Emmert recalls. The two men had an ongoing feud, purportedly over Rife’s interest in Jackson’s wife. “Jackson murdered him in cold blood,” Emmert says. But exactly how it happened is where the tale gets murky.
Emmert continues to investigate the facts of this story, from courthouse records to old newspaper accounts. “Someone invariably has something new to add to it,” Emmert says. “I’ve heard six or seven different versions. It just keeps getting better and better.”
After so many trips to the area, Schroeder has his own tales to tell. “Rumor has it slaves are buried under the trail,” Schroeder says. “And as you ride along it you see apple trees, which are not native to the area. When people rode the train they would eat apples and throw the cores out the window, and now they’ve grown into trees.”
Although the entire group enjoys cycling, eating at great restaurants, and going to plays, Schroeder says the key to their longevity is flexibility, allowing time for everyone to do their own thing. “There’s no way to herd all these cats together,” Schroeder quips.
But what keeps them coming back to the same destination every year is the friendly community spirit they find along the Virginia Creeper Trail. “People are nice. They let you pass through their private land,” Schroeder says. “You open and shut the gates as you ride through.” Once his bike broke down and a stranger with a truck offered to drive him back. “He wouldn’t even let me pay him anything,” Schroeder says.
With school back in session and leaf season waning, October is a great month to experience Abingdon. The only wild card is the weather. “It can be hot or cool, you never know,” Schroeder says. “Last year we had three inches of snow.”
The Martha Washington Hotel Inn & Spa
The Barter Theater
The Virginia Creeper Trail
Wolf Hills Brewing The Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop Abingdon Spirit Tour; October 16,17,18, and 21-30. For more info call the Abingdon CVB (276) 492-2236. The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…
No reservations required. Meet at the gazebo of The Martha Washington Hotel Inn & Spa at 7:15 pm. $15.
Wolf Hills Brewing
The Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop
Abingdon Spirit Tour; October 16,17,18, and 21-30.
For more info call the Abingdon CVB (276) 492-2236.
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…