Small Town Travel: Four of America’s Most Iconic Trails Converge in Damascus, Virginia

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April 8, 2014 at 11:03 AM | by  Comments (2)

When this writer went to the small town of Damascus in western Virginia to research a few stories, I basically ran myself into the ground, hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail in the morning and biking the Virginia Creeper Trail in the afternoon. Before my visit, when I was explaining to friends where I was going, I told them that Damascus sat alongside the App Trail. I was wrong about that. Turns out, the trail goes right through it.

Like, really through it, as in the sidewalk down the center of town is part of the trail. This in itself is what makes Damascus such an interesting place. Every person that hikes the Appalachian Trail – which is 2,184 miles from Georgia to Maine and takes the average person 6 months – must walk through the town of Damascus. You meet some interesting characters to say the least, from the hikers to the people in the town who help them out. It’s not unusual to see tents set up in front yards, locals taking in the weary walkers for a night or two.

For someone living on the East Coast who is into adventure travel, Damascus is a slam dunk. But only for those who want to hike and bike, because, honestly, that is the town’s bread and butter. That, and the people you meet along the way who have come for the very same reasons. No one is in Damascus by accident, that’s for sure, but it’s a pretty doable long-weekend destination, located six hours from D.C., five hours from Richmond, four hours from Raleigh, and three hours from Charlotte.

I told you that there are biking companies that will help the average person experience the Virginia Creeper Trail, and the same is true for the Appalachian Trail. Outfitters in Damascus will drive you up to 100 miles in either direction so that you can walk back to town. During my trip, I met many groups of families and friends that had been driven out 40-50 miles and were hiking it in three days. It makes hiking an iconic trail pretty reasonable, and you can set the distance in line with your effort and fitness level.

Despite a population under 1,000, Damascus hosts what is considered to be the largest congregation of App Trail hikers each spring during Trail Days USA, a festival that celebrates the convergence of four trails in town: The Appalachian Trail, U.S. Bicycle Route 76, the Iron Mountain Trail, and the Virginia Creeper Trail. It attracts 20,000 hikers each year. You won’t exactly get a true feeling for the town, but it is no doubt a scene and a party.

Funny story: Because of the town’s limited dining options and my desire to remove my shoes after all the exercise, I decided it would be best to cook dinner myself back at the cabin. I had a beautiful place with a patio and a view of the river (shown above). I threw salmon on the grill, went inside to make a drink, and came back out to two ducks on the deck, their noses in the air, turning and looking at me with an obvious curiosity. Nothing aggressive, just hope and curiosity. A few steps in their direction and they slowly retreated, waddling back down the steps to the safety of the grass below. There they sat, becoming a part of the scenery, a part of my view as I sat and sipped the whiskey-soda, my socks hanging on the line and my feet airing out in the breeze atop the railing.

That’s the image that comes to mind when I think of the town, putting my feet up on the railing with a drink after a fulfilling day, looking out at the river and having some space to move around. In a nutshell, that’s what Damascus is all about, getting into the wilderness and clearing your head, exercising your body and feeling fine about all of it at the end of the day.

That, and those damn ducks.

[Photos: Will McGough]

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