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  • Writer's pictureCharles Harned

Travel: Southwest Virginia

For a few weeks in October the Blue Ridge mountains transform into a striking palette of reds, yellows, and oranges. At over a billion years in age the Blue Ridge mountains are the second oldest mountain range in the entire world, created by tectonic plates colliding and worn down by the forces of time, but standing tall as part of the fabled Appalachian mountains that stretch from central Alabama to Newfoundland, Canada.

(Plenty of photos to follow)

Truth be told, I’ve been traveling to the Blue Ridge Mountains my entire life. They’re like a second home, in a sense. My grandparents were professors at Virginia Tech, and I have fond memories of visiting Blacksburg and neighboring Roanoke, breathing in that cool mountain air and watching the leaves change colors on a brisk fall day.

I’ve gotten used to driving past the little towns of Wytheville, Dublin, and Pulaski on the way to Blacksburg. Passing the exit to Claytor Lake as we chug up I-81, eager to reach our destination. But until this past weekend I had never traveled in the other direction, toward the sometimes forgotten corner of the state that is Southwest Virginia in all its outdoorsy, mountainous truth.

Damascus is a little town near the Tennessee and North Carolina borders that has the charm of a place that knows it’s small and maybe a little outdated but has no desire to change. A local brewery and a distillery are some of the only odes to the vogue leisure activities of the day. A restaurant called Wicked Chicken a block from the heart of town has outdoor seating dotted with space heaters and live music. But there’s one thing that draws people to Damascus, a bustling industry that you can’t pass through town on a shimmering autumn afternoon without noticing:

The bicycles.

Damascus, like neighboring Abingdon, is home to the Virginia Creeper Trail. Thirty-four miles of tree-lined, mountain paths that were once a railroad line before the tracks were ripped up and converted to a bike path. Cyclists and hikers can start in either Abingdon or Whitetop Station and brave the full thirty-four miles through the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area, or do seventeen miles and wind up in the heart of Damascus.

Before biking we made a quick stop at Backbone Rock. Like its name suggests, the rock formation favors a spine, partially lost in heavy forestation, jutting out of the earth. In 1901 a railroad tunnel was drilled through the rock to connect the towns of Shady Valley and Damascus. We climbed to the top of the ridge and walked to where it passed over the road, taking in a stunning view of the surrounding mountains.

Next came the Virginia Creeper Trail. We chose the truncated version and were shuttled to Whitetop Station, atop a mountain roughly ten miles from town, on a gorgeous fall afternoon. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle for any longer than a couple minutes in the past decade or so, but right away the trail brought back all those old memories of biking around as kids.

The first several miles were a steep downhill descent. No pedaling necessary. We stopped to take pictures and have a small picnic lunch a few miles in. The trail wasn’t overly crowded, and oscillated between stretches of faded pavement and (mostly) compacted earth, but it was immediately apparent that this was a popular attraction. The weather was nice; sunny and just cool enough to mandate a light jacket and gloves. Most of the trail was lined with heavy forest, but when the trees broke we saw wild goats grazing along steep hillsides.

The trail runs alongside a creek (multiple creeks?) most of the way down. In total there are forty-seven trestles and bridges on the trail. Taking an estimated guess I’d say we crossed about half of them.

After around twelve miles we stopped for ice cream and drinks at a little outpost in a clearing next to the trail called Hellbender’s Café. With the day turning out so nice and so many people on the trail they were quite busy. From there it was a pretty level ride back into town.

You really can’t go wrong visiting Southwest Virginia on a sunny autumn day. I’ve been in the region when it was so cold you wished you were anywhere else, and hot enough that I wondered if someone had driven me back to South Carolina while I was sleeping. This early October afternoon was just about perfect.

But the story wouldn’t be complete without a quick summary of where we stayed. Damascus, Virginia isn’t exactly abounding with Marriott’s and Hiltons. I’d never stayed at a Bed & Breakfast in my life until last weekend.

The Millsap-Baker Estate is the kind of old Victorian house that would make the perfect setting for a horror movie. And I mean that in the best way. The estate sits on several acres and the Victorian Manor house itself was built in 1895. Over 120 years of history is readily apparent when you step inside. The furniture was antique. Ornate patterns were carved into the high ceilings.

The kitchen with its long dining room table sitting adjacent looked like something out of a Gothic castle. A library off the foyer was full of dusty, old books. At night the moon shone on a backyard terrace in a way that made you feel miles from civilization instead of minutes from the heart of Damascus.

In all, the estate and the trail were well worth the three-hour drive from Charlotte. Every now and then it’s refreshing to get away from the city and sample a quieter side of life, a side where things slow down and the most pressing objective is not missing your shuttle up the mountain so you can bike leisurely back down.

Southwest Virginia will always feel like home away from home to me. Whether it’s the New River Valley or further down toward the Tennessee and North Carolina borders in the most remote corner of the state, beauty abounds. In both fall and spring there might not be a better place to enjoy the outdoors and breathe in that clean mountain air.

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