Fall colors were just beginning to peak through the leaves that formed a canopy over and around us as we coasted down quickly enough through the chilly air to sting our cheeks while our eyes watered. Some reds and yellows dotted the paved pathway and our bikes crunched over the browns. I can’t quite put my finger on the smell of crunchy leaves. It’s often described as “organic,” but that doesn’t seem quite right. That doesn’t imply enough of the earthy scent mingled with the faint reminiscence of summer. Our sounds alternated between the crunching and zipping of bike tires, running water as we passed creeks, and Mogwai barking when he saw a member of our party up ahead.
Fall break took us for our first trip down the Virginia Creeper trail. As Ian’s bike riding abilities have improved due to his miles looping around various campgrounds, he’s been begging Brinn and I to join him so he can bike for longer distances. Nana has taken him biking several times, and she’s frequently mentioned the Virginia Creeper Trail, so the time came that we needed to explore. Some good friends visited the trail earlier in the year and had some great recommendations for us. Fortified with a campground suggestion, and the advice to only attempt half the trail, we began planning.
After making reservations at the Beartree Campground in Damascus, and reserving a small bike trailer from a local outfitter, there was relatively little planning left. We’d already determined we would be doing self shuttle, so we just needed to pack for our meals and organize our packing based on the weather. Despite warm sunny days in the forecast, the nights were projected to be cool, and we knew it would be even colder up in the mountains at our campground. Packing consisted of lots of layers and our heavy duty sleeping bags.
We made the decision to travel on a Sunday in order to ride the trail on Monday and Tuesday. In hindsight, this ended up being a brilliant plan. My mom left on Saturday in order to meet with my brother in Delaware and bring him back with her to meet us at the campground Sunday evening. It’s been years since I last saw my brother, and Ian barely remembered his uncle Preston. We practically had the entire campground to ourselves as all other campers had moved out Sunday morning and only one other camper arrived before we left on Wednesday.
After hypothesizing about this trip, then finally committing to, and eventually booking our minimal reservations, the time finally came to go. We dropped Chaco off with Tabitha and Jeremy Saturday evening, went to bed early, then left out Sunday morning with the camper, a truck full of bikes, Mogwai, and Balto. We detoured through Wartburg for a quick stop at Grandma’s house to check in on the horses (who were staying there for the fall) and take a short trail ride to give Balto a chance to run in the woods and wear him out to keep him calm for the drive to Virginia. Reggie and Promise enjoyed their trot, and Ian even snuck in a bit of cantering with Promise. After coming back to the barn, we gave everyone an extra bite of grain, said bye to Grandma, and headed off to Oak Ridge to grab lunch and a few last minute groceries. Ian divided the shopping list with me at Kroger so we could divide and conquer quickly. By Sevierville, the dogs needed a potty break and a walk, so we pulled off the interstate at Bass Pro. Brinn and Ian ran into the store for a quick shopping trip, then we made the last leg of our journey.
We arrived at our campground with plenty of daylight left and found the other half of our group settled in with a cheery fire going. Brinn had the camper set up in no time, and we soon had chicken wings grilling over the fire while Ian left with Balto to explore our surroundings. No cell service left us completed disconnected from the rest of the world, and gave us the opportunity to truly enjoy each other’s company. We all huddled near the fire as evening set in, and we soon began pulling on extra layers. Mogwai demanded to always be sitting in someone’s lap under a blanket with a sweater and a jacket. After a pleasant evening of catching up with Uncle Preston and watching Ian learn how to split kindling, we all crawled into our sleeping bags to rest up for our big adventure.
Monday morning broke clear and cold. The sky was probably blue, but we couldn’t see it through all the trees covering our campsite. Balto thought the weather was delightful and couldn’t understand why the rest of us moved a little slowly. Brinn is our main cook while we’re camping, and he soon had bacon and coffee heating on the Coleman. Ian and Preston are both breakfast eaters. They would happily enjoy breakfast foods anytime of the day, so our giant package of bacon was soon demolished. While Brinn cooked, Nana and I packed lunches and Ian walked the dogs. In no time we were ready to head to the trail. The boys dropped Ian, Nana, the bikes, the dogs, and me off at the Whitetop Station put in point while they drove both cars to the bottom. Bobby decided that he didn’t feel up for a bike ride for the day, so he brought Brinn and Preston back up to the top along with the rented bike trailer, then he headed back to the campground to spend the day dozing by a fire.
Mogwai slowed down on us this year. Our best copilot and adventure dog was having more trouble keeping up with us, and he began to take several days, and sometimes even weeks to recuperate after a big trip. We didn’t realize it until later, but Mogwai was actually suffering end stage renal disease. There’s no way he would want to miss out on a trip like the Virginia Creeper, but we knew that there’s no way he could run 17 miles, so we reserved a bike trailer for him. These trailers were actually designed for small children, but Mogwai’s small, and he’s a fur child, so we gave it a try, and it ended up working beautifully! We let Mogwai run beside us for just a few hundred yards at the beginning of the trail, then we settled him into his seat with his jacket on. Whenever he saw one of our group ahead of him, usually Ian or Preston, he would bark his head off until we caught up and moved ahead. Preston actually began using Mogwai as a sonar device to determine how far ahead he was of the group!
Once Brinn and Preston returned to Whitetop, we strapped on our helmets and backpacks and were ready to hit the trail! After an initial flat stretch that crossed back over the road that brought us to Whitetop, we entered Jefferson National Forest and quickly found the steepest section of trail. This portion of the trail required very little peddling and allowed most of us to coast leisurely, but Preston and Ian enjoyed racing on ahead of us as fast as they could go. Balto wore his sled harness and ran ahead of Brinn. Cold mountain air combined with running was a perfect combination for an energetic husky. In no time at all we found ourselves riding over tree tops as we crossed a trestle bridge suspended over a long valley. The trail actually crosses 47 trestles in all. After a few short miles, we reentered farm land, and rode into the Green Cove Station. After a quick bathroom break, water, and a snack, we were all eager to jump back on our bikes to keep exploring. Our next stop brought us to an intersection with Chestnut Mountain Road, where Balto and Mogwai eagerly jumped in the creek for a drink. Balto used the water for a cool down while Mogwai hunted crawdads.
We rode past pumpkin fields, Christmas tree farms, stunning overlooks, small creeks, big creeks, and lots and lots of forest. Other bikers occasionally went past us, but not many. We passed maybe two small groups who were taking the trail uphill. We found a beautiful spot near the Creek Junction Trailhead to stop for lunch. We parked our bikes at the convenient bike racks, then followed a small path down to the water, and found rocks to sit on while we ate. Pringles and ham sandwiches have never tasted quite so good before! The dogs tore into the snacks we’d packed for them and didn’t leave one crumb behind. Preston and Ian led us most of the way down the mountain while my mom and I cruised leisurely. Brinn went at Balto’s pace, which started to slow down as the day wore on.
Around mile 10 Brinn announced that Balto needed a break. Brinn parked his bike off to the side and hiked Balto down to the creek to let pup pup jump in and splash around. We finally, for the first time, had completely worn out Ian’s husky! At this point, we were all feeling the strain in our legs. The trail began to flatten out, and I could certainly tell I had Mogwai’s weight behind me. Ian even started to slow down a bit. The last 3 miles were the hardest of the entire day. We were all thrilled to pull into Damascus to find our truck. Despite an amazing day and a fantastic time on the trail, we were all ready to return to camp.
Bobby had kept the fire going for us, and had it ready for our arrival. Mogwai returned to his position by the fire, and Balto made himself a pile of leaves under a mountain laurel bush. Balto stayed in his leaf nest until it was time to go to bed in the camper! We were all excited to enjoy an ooey gooey cheesy carb filled dinner after a day of exertion, so I was glad to have found this recipe for Dutch oven ravioli on NRS’s Ducktape Diaries. We all dug in enthusiastically and had the rest of the evening to laze about at the campground. Brinn and Preston began discussing possibilities for the next day and decided that they wanted to ride the trail again. Obviously when Ian picked up on the conversation he was in full agreement that we should all take another trip down the trail. My aching seat bones disagreed, so I volunteered to drive shuttle and let Mogwai ride shotgun. Brinn and Preston stayed up late to mind the fire and enjoy the forest at night. Ian climbed in his sleeping bag with his kindle, but he only lasted a matter of minutes before he passed out and I had to turn his movie off. Both dogs happily followed me and jumped in bed with me.
The next morning was not quite as cold as the previous morning had been, but we were all moving more stiffly. I expected Balto to eagerly bound out of the camper to enjoy the cool air, but he stubbornly refused to get out of bed. He may have been a smidge sore. Mogwai also elected to stay in bed, but he was wrapped up snuggly in many blankets on top of his sweater and coat. Brinn put the coffee on in a repeat of the previous day, and we discussed our plans. It turns out, Brinn, Ian, and Preston were the only ones interested in riding the trail again, so after breakfast we loaded up and returned to Whitetop Station. We unloaded bikes, located helmets and backpacks, and the boys set off. I jumped in the truck to head off to Green Cove, but as I approached the intersection where the road crossed the trail, the boys were flagging me down. Balto was DONE and refused to move another step. He ran as far as he did because he saw his truck drive away, but once he caught up with me, he wasn’t going to move anymore. So Brinn tossed him in the backseat of the truck and he happily hung his head out the window to watch the boys pedal away.
The boys were not completely crazy, and decided against riding all 17 miles of the trail, so they only rode the first few miles, then jumped back in the truck. We decided to do a little exploring for the rest of the morning and went back to the Creek Junction Trailhead to walk the path we had seen from the Creeper trail. Brinn and Ian eagerly made plans for bringing fishing poles the next trip. Mogwai was happy for the diversion, so after walking around for a while, we returned to our campground to prep our final group meal. Nana and Bobby were going to leave out after a late lunch to take Preston home, while Brinn, Ian, and I planned on staying at Bear Tree for one more night.
We had premade and froze a giant batch of chili before this trip, so lunch prep was very simple and required heating the already cooked soup, opening bags of chips, and setting out shredded cheese, tomatoes, and onions. We enjoyed a warm, belly filling meal, then helped the departing trio to pack up their portion of the campsite. Once everything was loaded, we all drove down to the Bear Tree Lake hiking trail and enjoyed one last walk together. The dogs were thrilled with all the smells and access to water. No wind allowed for a still lake surface which reflected the trees and skies. Minimal investment for a big payoff left us all happy that we’d come down to explore this trail.
After half of our group left, Brinn and Ian and I continue to explore around the hiking trails in the Bear Tree recreation area, then finally returned to our campsite. The dogs happily returned to snoozing, while we humans broke out the dominoes for the evening. Despite a few heated arguments, we managed to complete an entire game with no hurt feelings. As usual, I don’t stay up too late once darkness falls, so I crawled down in my sleeping bag with Mogwai against my feet and Balto jumped in bed with Ian. Brinn stayed with our fire until it burned down and he could smother the coals.
Ian woke up asking to ride the trail again for a third day. As this was our last day, we would be making a five hour drive home, and didn’t want to completely exhaust ourselves before this drive, so Brinn and I decided on a compromise. I’d ride the first three miles of the trail with Ian from Whitetop to Greencove, then Brinn could switch with me and ride the next four miles to Chestnut Mountain Road. This let Ian ride for seven miles on some of the prettiest sections of the trail. Brinn took a reluctant Balto to run for the second section of trail, but once Balto warmed up his muscles he was happy to zoom around corners again. Ian probably could have ridden all 17 miles, but he was easily persuaded to switch back to hiking after his 7 miles.
After Mogwai and I picked the boys up, we decided to drive down to explore a small section of the Appalachian Trail. Brinn is very interested in thru hiking the AT at some point, but I think I’m completely happy to dabble on short day hikes. Hiking has become one of Balto’s favorite activities. He’s happiest in the woods, but then, so is Ian! We only stayed on the trail for a few hours, but we saw some beautiful scenery and enjoyed giving our legs a different type of burn. Ian took his Sawyer water purifier and had fun filtering water from the creek. Mogwai and I enjoyed going at a leisurely pace while Balto and Ian ran up ahead of us for most of the journey.
Ian’s always enthusiastic about any adventure we plan, and he hopes to return to ride the Virginia Creeper again soon. We learned just how economical an option this trip is for a family vacation. There is quite a bit of free camping along Jeb Stuart Highway (although we paid to use Bear Tree in order to leave our camper set up and unattended all day). Because we had two vehicles, we were able to self shuttle, saving us the shuttle fee. We all own our own bikes, so we had no rental fees (except for Mogwai on day 1). There are no restaurants available near Whitetop, so we saved money by packing and preparing all of our meals. Really, our only costs were Mogwai’s bike trailer, our campsite, and our fuel to get there and back. We cooked the same types of foods that we make at home, so groceries were nothing out of the ordinary for us. If we hadn’t owned bicycles, we likely could have borrowed them to avoid rental fees. I expect we will likely return to Damascus soon for another trip coasting down the mountain.