Final Stop: Grindstone Federal Campground, Virginia

Friday, August 4

Not much of note about the drive to Grindstone, which, of course, is always good news. Although on the main road out of Oak Hill (Rt. 93) there had been two accidents, the first of which appeared to be the result of the alternating-lane road work the crew had probably just begun. It looked to be a serious rear-ending, likely from the second car going to fast around a curve and right into the back end of the last car waiting at the one-lane-only construction.

It was mostly interstate the rest of the way. I tried but was unsuccessful in the attempt, to load a blog post or two as we ate at a McDonalds, so I dropped a line to my Facebook page instead. As Grindstone has no cell service, never mind wifi, I’ll have to upload once I get back home. What we WERE able to do, since we had finished our audio book and both of us had finished our Kindle books, was to get more entertainment via Mickey D’s wifi. I love technology (when it works).

Anyway, we arrived between 2:30 and 3PM, set up in the totally lovely site 52 (Cottontail Loop), and still had plenty of time to cook burgers on the grill. Both of us reported having very tired eyes, but thoroughly enjoyed the Carl Hiaasen book we listened to, Razor Girl, an oldie, but thoroughly enjoyable.

Climbing up to Grindstone, our temps fell from the high 80s down to the low 70s, and we just sat around and soaked up the cool, rejoicing in not having to close up and hit the AC. This site is one we had spied last year when we were here, and really liked the looks of. It’s deep and wide, and behind is a clear meadow (although not a huge space) where we want to bring the doggies and let them run just a little bit. The fire ring is well positioned away from the awning, and the shade is constant.

Site 52 on Cottontail Loop
The woods throughout offer plenty of privacy
Roomba is as happy as Lee and Jack
The meadow for doggie ball-throwing action next time

As we were setting up, the clouds kept rolling past, making it quite a dark site, and inside Roomba, I had to turn on lights so I could “nest.” It never rained on us, but it sure looked as if it wanted to.

The plan for both full days of our stay at Grindstone is to head to the Creeper Trail and get some pedal-pushing under our belts. So we hit the hay after an adult beverage and bundling against the cold; and cocooned ourselves, knowing we didn’t have to arise early.

Saturday, August 5

It was 8:30 before we emerged on Saturday. We got right to the business of breakfast, finishing up the last two sausage patties, and the two remaining eggs (from the spinach pie) for brekkie sandwiches. Then we kitted up for the drive to Damascus, where we’d jump on the trail, ride, and do some provisioning before returning.

Remembering that the Creeper Trail toward Abingdon went right behind Damascus’s primary grocery store (a really good Food City), we decided to park there and catch the trail, ending back in the parking lot for shopping. We both really like the Creeper, as it’s a truly lovely, mostly shady run. Like most rail-to-trail conversions, there’s a gradual downhill coupled with a gradual uphill for the day. What I hadn’t remembered, however, was this: even though you’re riding downriver headed to Abingdon, because of these mountains, the way is not a steady downhill going out with the prospect of a steady uphill on the (tired) return. It’s actually about half and half both ways.

For the history and naming of the trail, see Peregrinations post from last year, and scroll toward the end to read all about it:

By starting at the Food City (around 12:30), we cut about a mile off where we’d begun the ride last year, so we had about 15 miles by the time we turned around in Abingdon. Turning around, we went back to Alvarado and (like last year) we stopped for lunch somewhere between 2 and 2:30. The River Cafe does a great job with lunch and they also offer free wifi, so we settled in for about an hour and a half, hydrating, eating, and resting; and finished the ride sometime around 6:30P.

Damascus is a serious outdoors person’s town, specializing in bicycling and hiking (this is where the Appalachian Trail enters Virginia)


Cycling stats:

  • Ride time = 2:32
  • Stopped time = 1:25
  • Distance = 30.24
  • Average speed = 12mph
  • Fastest speed = 18mph
  • Ascent = 556 ft.

Shopping was quick and easy, and we embarked on the half-hour drive back up to Grindstone around 7-ish. Honestly, neither of us was terribly hungry when we got back, but we decided not to shower, since we planned to ride the same distance next day. We even left the bikes on the car, so we could make it a slightly earlier day. Happily, dinner was quick and easy to throw together: chicken salad on a bed of good greens with cheese, croutons and crackers on the side.

I opted for a couple of the beers I’d picked up at the Full Bottle Swap event at the Convention. The idea is to take one of your fave local brews (or a selection thereof) and for every one you bring, you are able to take a similar sample from others participating, brought from their own locales. My first sampling was from Six Rivers Brewery in McKinleyville, CA — it was their self-named India Pale Ale. Next I tried SnapBack, “A west coast IPA for the weird at heart.” This came from Mother’s Brewing Company in Springfield, MO. I liked the SnapBack best of the two.

We had picked up some kiln-dried firewood and kindling at the Food City, so we had a very nice fire, while our neighbors to the left and over the “meadow” were sending smoke signals. Feeling quite smug, we enjoyed the fire and some tunes while the Saturday Night frolics happened amongst friends all around us (although this loop is quite staid and relatively quiet, as compared to the Groundhog loop, where we were sited last year). We saved enough of the wood to enjoy another round tomorrow night. Around 9PM we packed it in and made sure to open the blackout curtains a little after our lights were out so we’d see some daylight in the morning and not sleep until all hours.

Sunday, August 6

After a breakfast of cinnamon rolls from the Omnia, we headed out moderately early, around 9:30A. The plan for today was to find a parking lot midway up the White Top Mountain end of the Creeper Trail — a section I’ve not ridden for many year, which most folks ride only on the downhill side, having been shuttled or dropped off at the tops. Jack had made an effort to ride up to the top of White Top a couple years back, but was toppled off the edge by someone coming down who didn’t remember she didn’t have coaster brakes on her rental unit, and never slowed down before nearly hitting him. He left the trail and tumbled down the side in his effort to avoid a collision.

What we thought we’d do this time, to get our 15 miles out and 15 back (and not have to take the same ride as yesterday) was to park at this waypoint not too far up the Mountain and not too far from Damascus, then ride uphill as far as we could before the “downhill bombers” met us, then turn around and head (in front of the people who don’t know how to ride) into Damascus.

Evidently, the families and troops and reunions that shuttle to the top get a later start on Sundays. We rode every bit of 7 miles before the packs of folks who haven’t been on a bike in 100 years came wobbling past. It was a tough climb, and our tires were too inflated to make the rough surface any easier on our fannies and hands, so we paused at our selected turn-about to let some air out of the tires, planning to stop at the car en route back down to re-inflate them for the flats (generally speaking).

It was a good plan and worked out quite well. There were two family packs that bombed past as we deflated, so once we began our descent it was a bit of a trick to get around those two unsure, wobbly groups. And due to the rough surface (very sharp and difficult-to-see rocks sitting significantly proud of the surface, mostly — but also roots and mud and sand) we had to concentrate and hang on to our handlebars and brake levers with a death grip.

Finally down the steepest part and re-inflated, we meandered through Damascus thinking to find a Gatorade for a spot of energy, but ended up at the Food City again, with fruit juice instead. This time, our stoppage time was only 45 minutes. We had two more miles past Food City to go so we’d close in on 30 miles by the time we got back to the car, because we’d calculated that our trip would be about 8 miles from our Food City turn-around to finish.

Those were just about the longest 8 miles I’ve ridden in a while. Tired from yesterday, tired from the earlier climb up toward White Top, my legs were just depleted for that final climb, all uphill from Damascus to the car. I stayed in the largest crank ring, and wavered between the #2 and #3 sprockets in the back, really working hard. When Jack, who had led the whole way and “cleared the path” for “wheezing-behind-Lee” (clearing the path against the remaining “downhill bombers” still making their way toward the shuttle parking lots), reported that we were about 9 tenths of a mile short of 30, I was happy to stop despite being disappointed that the Big Three Oh had not been logged. Overall, it had been a hotter day than the one before, even taking into account the fact that the first climb up toward White Top had been gloriously cool, moist, and shady.

Quite near our finish line, we overtook a group that had distinguishing features enough that we could identify them as the very first “downhill bombers” we’d passed after we’d turned around to descend that morning.

Typical scene along the steep part headed up White Top, from one of the many trestle bridges

Cycle stats for day 2 of our back-to-back 30-milers:

  • Ride time = 2:45
  • Stopped time = 44 minutes
  • Distance = 29.1
  • Average speed = 10.6mph
  • Fastest speed = 18.85mph
  • Ascent = 1120 ft.

In town, Jack had checked the weather, and we decided the better part of valor would be to get back and break down as much camp as we could that day. The rain was forecast to begin at around 10 that night, and carry on throughout the night and into departure day. Minimizing the amount of wet stowing we’d have to do, we got most stuff packed up, and then showered.

But there was plenty of time for a good dinner of hamburger steaks, boiled potatoes, and grilled veggies, plus an adult beverage or two around our second fire. While we were fixing dinner, a teensy teardrop pulled in with operators who obviously did not know how to back into their site, across the way from us – newbies to this camping routine, we guessed. Eventually, they created the strangest setup we’ve seen, with a large tent as their main living quarters and an awning pitched so high (to include the large tent) that all the rain water would flow back onto their little trailer. And forget their setup if the wind came up!

I mention that because after our dinner, they stopped by and we gave our final Alto tour of the trip. Although they seemed happy with their tiny teardrop (towed, incidentally, with a Subaru Outback) they called it “a bed in a box.” It was custom-made by a guy who does this, I think they said he operates out of Texas, but I might be mistaken.

It did, indeed, rain most of the night and we managed to await a break in the showers to hitch up, but we still took our time and didn’t check out until the area’s 1PM checkout time. We noticed that the neighbors’ reverse awning had, indeed, caught a pool of water overnight, and they’d tried to offset that weight by pushing a pole up in the center – but still the water flows back onto their trailer and living space. Strange, but I guess they’ll learn as they go.

It’s been a great trip and will be difficult to get back to “real life” after the 3-hour drive home from Grindstone, still one of our favorite camping places of all time. Looking forward to seeing the puppies again!


August Trip Final (Belated)

I never quite finished the series about our August trip back from by business engagement in Carmel, IN. When I left off, we were ready to move from Breaks Interstate Park to Grindstone, a federal camping ground near Damascus, Virginia. So I’ll do a quick catch-up here (on September 23) before I begin to relate our freshest upcoming adventure, Cooperstown v. 2, starting September 25, 2016.

So, we began our drive from Breaks Interstate with Kerry & Gloria in their Class C; and Jim in his car, trundling our way across the mountains toward Damascus, on August 11 via Route 80. If anyone reading this and dragging a trailer or driving an RV considers using Rt. 80, all I have to say is that the road is fine until right after it diverges from Rt. 19, headed toward Clinch Mountain. My advice is to use Rt. 19 NOT to stay on Rt. 80, but find any other way you can manage OTHER than Rt. 80 to continue heading southeast.

We stayed on Rt. 80 and it was the most harrowing experience I’ve had to date dragging a trailer, and I wasn’t even driving. Crossing Clinch and Poor Mountains, the road narrowed to a 6 or 7-hundred road size, and switchbacked high and long, without the merest ghost of a guardrail on the steep slope. If we had met anyone headed the opposite direction, our lead vehicle would have acted as the “airbag” for the rest of the group following behind. There would have been no where to pull over to allow another vehicle to pass; and lord help us if we’d met a logging truck or larger equipment vehicle.

So NEVER follow Rt. 80 southward all the way to Meadowview or Interstate 81.

Once we survived Rt. 80, we headed to Saltville and then south toward Chilhowie, then wound our way into the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, and then along Rt. 603 to Grindstone.

We had a lovely site there, and zero insect disturbance, excellent weather, and a really fun time with Gary, Lorrie, Kerry, and Gloria (Jim decided to head back home instead of camping with us). Damascus was our shopping center and the beginning of the Virginia Creeper Trail, a Rails-to-Trails conversion that includes a steep ride down WhiteTop Mountain and many shuttle-your-bike-to-the-top options that make the Creeper famous among cyclists. Damascus is also famous as the entry to Virginia for the Appalachian Trail. If timed right, through-hikers can make it to Damascus by May and be feted and spoiled by the community’s Trail Days Festival, where everyone in the small city puts on the dog to celebrate the through-hikers and their journeys.

There is quite a lot more to the Creeper Trail than the thrill-ride down White Top. Lorrie, Gloria, and Kerry decided to walk the dogs around Damascus while Gary, Jack and I rode the 16 miles to Abingdon and back (total 32 miles). It was a lovely ride, although quite a hot day. We got some refreshment in Abingdon before reversing course, and then stopped at the Alvarado Station for a super delicious sandwich and homemade potato chips for lunch at the Happy Trails Cafe.


But before we leave the Creeper, here’s some history about it from the Abingdon side:

The Abingdon Branch
“The Virginia Creeper”
Norfolk & Western Railway’s Abingdon Branch began in 1887 as the Abingdon Coal & Iron Railroad (AC&IRR). The Virginia-Carolina Railroad (VCRR) bought the AC&IRR in 1900, and extended rail service to Damascus. By 1915, VCRR trains ran over the 76.5 miles of track between Abingdon and Elkland, NC. The parking lot (adjacent to the sign) was the VCRR’s Abingdon yard, where equipment was kept, and the VCRR joined the N&W main line. In 1916, the N&W bought the VCRR, and the route became The Abingdon Branch. The track from Elkland to West Jefferson was abandoned in 1933.

The popular nickname, “Virginia Creeper” fittingly describes both the steep twisting mountain route and the speed of the trains. In some places, the posted speed limit was only 5 MPH.

The Abingdon Branch crossed some of the highest and most scenic terrain of any standard gauge railroad in the US. In the 55.5 miles from Abingdon to West Jefferson, there were 108 bridges, most made with timber, and no tunnels. In a classic series of photographs entitled A Day on the Abingdon Branch, O. Winston Link captured memorable scenes along this historic route during the last days of steam operations. Some photos from this series are on display at the Historical Society of Washington County Library in the former N&W passenger station in Abingdon.

The last train between Abingdon and West Jefferson ran on March 31, 1977. The Abingdon Branch rail bed was converted to the Virginia Creeper Trail through a cooperative effort of the Town of Abingdon, Town of Damascus, and the US forest Service.

Norfolk & Western Railway
Class M Locomotive #433
American Locomotive Co., Richmond Works

The N&W owned over 100 Class M locomotives from 1906 to 1961. Today, two survive: 433 in Abingdon, and 475 operated by the Strasburg Railroad, Strasburg, PA. By the early 1920s, heavier and more powerful locomotives had replaced the Class M on mainline service. Because of their light weight and small size, the Class M had a useful life until the very end of the steam era, working in rail yards and on local freight and passenger trains where roadbed conditions prohibited using heavier locomotives.

In 1952, 433 came from Roanoke to Bristol as a backup engine on the Abingdon Branch. While in Bristol, 433 was a common sight in the railroad yard and on the many industrial tracks lacing the Bristol area. Although 433 was then equipped with a spark arrestor smoke stack, it rarely ran on The Abingdon Branch.

Steam operations ceased on The Abingdon Branch in 1957, marking the end of an era and a way of life. Except for 433, all Class M locomotives based in Bristol were immediately scrapped. Number 433 avoided the torch and moved to Radford where it worked until retired in July 1958. In October 1958, the N&W donated the engine to the Town of Abingdon, and on November 24, 1958 it was moved to its current location at the junction of the N&W main line and The Abingdon Branch. Today, 433 sits at the junction of The Abingdon Branch and the main line as a tangible reminder of the era when these small hand-fired steam engines struggled up the steep, twisting grades through remote mountain communities along the 55.5 miles between Abingdon and West Jefferson, NC.

The next day, I took the Mount Rogers Trail hike about halfway up the 7+ miles of the hike to the top of Mount Rogers, the tallest mountain in Virginia. We’d had some rain the night before, but the temperatures and humidity were just fine and I had a wonderful walk, enjoying many newly-sprung mushrooms.

On our last night together, we gathered at our Blue Roomba to share a meal, but the rain returned for some of the early evening. Thankfully, it quit by the time we were set to eat, and we didn’t have to get wet for our celebratory supper before we all headed home the next morning.


We will definitely be returning to Grindstone and are thankful that Lorrie and Gary introduced us to this beautiful campground.