Friday, May 9, 2014

AT Project in VA: Virginia Creeper Trail to Damascus

Appalachian Trail Project in VA – 2/28/14 – Virginia Creeper Trail Southbound to Damascus – 13.7 Miles

Itching, itching, itching… Is a good scratch worth driving 6 hours round trip?  Of course.

Dovetailing calendar flexibility with the weather forecast, Friday was a good day to go walking in the woods.  Where is the closest I can get to the AT, finish the day not too far from a main road, and make it home for, um, dessert?  Looks like Damascus.   I made arrangements for a shuttle ride from Sun Dog Outfitters – but I had to leave home at 6:00 a.m. to meet the shuttle by 9:15 a.m.

Driving through Mountain City, TN, a bank sign said 19 degrees – and so did the cigar-curled rhododendron leaves.  Better get that extra headband out of the glove compartment.  I really hate cold ears.

My shuttle driver was a five-time AT thru-hiker called Lone Wolf - long ponytail, Duck Dynasty beard, very nice, soft-spoken fellow my age.  We dropped my car at the western edge of town (the trail walks all the way through town) and he drove me to where the Virginia Creeper Trail intersects briefly with the AT, at the Luther Hassinger Memorial Bridge.  Along the way he told me about a recent reroute because of a washed out bridge, said it was very clearly marked (an under- statement.)  As a bonus, he then explained that I could either walk a half-mile up the access road to join the trail or scramble up the embankment beside the bridge pylon directly onto the trail.  Scrambling is always better.  As I have said before, shuttle drivers are an invaluable part of the AT hiking community.

Pause for background on the Virginia Creeper Trail:  A 34-mile gentle trail converted from an old railroad grade of the Virginia-Carolina Railroad, used by hikers, cyclists and horseback riders.  The Creeper Trail runs from Whitetop Station to Abingdon, VA and the town of Damascus sits right about in the middle.   Going east to west it’s almost all downhill – and vice versa the other way.  (Bike rental and shuttle companies abound.)  The AT runs concurrently with the Creeper Trail for a little less than a mile. 

After the scramble to the top of the bridge, I had a few moments of head- scratching to determine   which way was trail south.  Trying to remember what Lone Wolf had said about the access trail, and then looking down at Whitetop Laurel Creek that flowed by, I chose a direction.  A mile or so would tell me if I was right.  I reasoned that the Creeper Trail slopes downhill toward Damascus because the railroad sloped downhill following the flow of the creek – so I should walk in the direction the creek was flowing. 

I guessed right.

For the first couple of miles I tried a faster pace for “training” for my upcoming trip to hike Machu Picchu in Peru (yes, stay tuned!) but then settled into my comfort zone and enjoyed a chilly day in the deep woods.  Very peaceful, glimpses of the Creeper Trail on the far side of Whitetop Laurel Creek. 

I told you it was cold – ice chunks broken off from the edge of the creek

I told you it was cold Part 2 – ice bubbles formed from a little trickle across the trail

A rocky boulder field

Winding my way uphill towards Saunders Shelter I passed through a burn area, crispy pine needles

About six miles into the hike, I stopped for lunch near a sweet little campsite between the Trail and Whitetop Laurel Creek (it probably shouldn’t have been there, too close to the water in my opinion).  Fun Fact:  Whitetop Laurel Creek is a habitat for the hellbender  salamander, the largest in the U.S. 

On one short section where the narrow trail cut across a steep slope with the creek at the bottom, the leaves were so deep that I couldn’t tell where the trail was and where the slope started.  Similar to feeling my way along in a snow drift, I inched forward feeling through my boots for solid ground. 

Nearly knee deep in loose leaves
The reroute was indeed clearly marked, complete with details posted to the trees.  This shortened my hike by about a mile, which was okay by me.  No severe climbs today, just steady gentle uphills, and after about 10 miles my legs and feet were tired, but still no knee issues.  I did wonder how people do this day in, day out.  I surmise that constant conditioning is the key, something I always fail to acquire as a weekend warrior.
A set of steps descends to Highway 58, where hikers cross the road and again join the Creeper Trail as it runs concurrent with the AT into Damascus.  I followed the white blazes through town.  A fellow in a tow truck slowed down to holler that he liked my winter fleece Liberty hat.  Very friendly place, Damascus.  Have you heard of Trail Days? 

I finished my hike just before 4:00 p.m.  A few more miles marked off and the peaceful contemplation of nature.  Going home singing along with my eclectic homemade CD’s.  Yes, it was worth the drive. 

“Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.”  ~Henry David Thoreau

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