From Abingdon to Damascus, Route 58 Delivers Historical Stays, Metropolitan Culture and a Trove of Outdoor Adventure
Abingdon has long been the bright cultural light of southwest Virginia. But the past decade or so has brought a quiet yet marked revolution to this small imminently Southern city.
“We’ve benefited hugely from state and national trends toward ecotourism and outdoor recreation,” says Amanda Livingston, a spokesperson with the Abingdon Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The area’s incredible natural resources pique folks’ interest and, once they see our cultural amenities, that seals the deal.”
Put another way, tourism trends have led to an explosion of visits to nearby Damascus. Described by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy as “the friendliest town on the AT,” the 814-person municipality is nestled in an idyllic mountain valley surrounded by Blue Ridge peaks—including the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and Grayson Highlands State Park to the east, and the Cherokee National Forest to the south. Eight local, state and national hiking trails pass through nearby (the AT less than a mile from downtown). Tributaries of the Holstead River offer excellent canoeing, kayaking and fishing opportunities. Horseback riding and mountain biking are popular as well. With multiple outfitters, a thriving artistic community and more than a dozen inns and hostels catering to hikers, the town brims with authentic trail culture.
Better still, it’s a 14-mile jaunt along scenic Route 58 from Abingdon’s historic downtown—a Designated Virginia Mainstreet Community since 2007. United by a partnership with the National Forest Service to create the 34-mile rail-to-trail masterpiece, the Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail, the towns have been closely allied since the 1990s. Increased visits in Damascus have helped spur a slew of new restaurants, shops, breweries, music venues and more in Abingdon.
“Damascus is like this amazing mecca of outdoor adventure, which we augment with the kind of culinary scene, lodgings and cultural opportunities you’d expect to find in a city 10-times our size,” says Livingston.
With Abingdon’s rich history and invitingly genteel Southern vibe, the combo makes for a unique and charming visit.
The Abingdon aesthetic is nowhere more apparent than the Martha Washington Inn and Spa. A fixture of Main Street, the four-star, 63-room boutique hotel was built in 1832 and served as a women’s college before being transformed into a luxury inn in the early-1930s. Extensive renovations have subsequently melded modern tastes with historical elegance.
A classic brick facade replete with floor-to-ceiling windows faces onto a wide front porch lined with white wicker chairs and three-story columns. Inside, hardwood floors and wainscoting, ornate crown molding, encased fireplaces, crystal chandeliers, leather sofas, marble countertops, antique furnishings and paintings of bucolic landscapes and historical personages abound. A grand stairwell leads to spacious, individually decorated rooms boasting 16-foot ceilings and a tasteful blend of vintage and modern fixtures.
Toward the back of the property, gardens studded with tall mature oaks encircle a dual-level stone hot-tub and jacuzzi conjoined by a waterfall. Connected to the heated pool and adjacent spa by a stone promenade and glass corridor, the area feels astonishingly contemporary. Passing through the spa’s stone-tiled corridors—hung with panoramic landscape photos courtesy of Smithsonian-featured nature photographer Benjamin Walls—it’s hard to believe this is one of the state’s most sparsely populated regions.
Somewhat incongruently, the parking lot features a rack of rental bikes. These, I’m told, are for patrons interested in exploring the nearby Virginia Creeper Trail.
Less than half-a-mile from the Martha by way of Railroad Street is the trail’s welcome center. Beside the overhauled historical train station sits a refurbished 4-8-0 steam locomotive dating to 1907—one of just two in existence. According to a nearby placard, the engine once ferried passengers and cargo to and from Abingdon and the booming early-20th century lumber towns of Whitetop and Elkland, N.C. It is from this line the trail takes its name.
Moments later, I encounter the first of the route’s 48 railroad trestles. Despite being one of the smaller offerings, it sets the tone for what’s to come: At about 50-yards-long, the high wooden bridge has me gliding over a gurgling brook through a canopy of leafy treetops.
From here, it’s a 17-mile ride to downtown Damascus. Though 200,000 people visit the trail each year, for the moment, I am alone.
Roughly the width of a single-lane road, the flat graveled path winds gently through the outskirts of town past parks and a golf course community for about a mile before entering dense forest. Cut into a steep hillside overlooking Berry Creek, it carries me through the woods to a spectacular second trestle. This one is curved, about 100 yards long and 50–60 feet high. It spans a deep, boulder-lined gully and swift-running mountain stream.
I pause. The echoed crash of water caroms through towering pines, poplars, sycamores. Sunlight razors through the canopy in oblique golden shafts, illumining worlds of bright-green moss. Coruscations leap from the cascading water like hot sparks.
I pedal on.
For the next few miles the path wends through alternating stretches of forest and farmland. Crossing state route 677, I pedal along an old dirt lane lined with fences and cedar trees, past faded Dutch barns and eccentric cabins, through rolling hilly pastures spotted with distant sheep and blanketed by a diamond-blue skyscape filled with parading cumulus. To the east, the Grayson Highlands dominate the horizon like blunted monoliths.
Then I’m swooping through a stand of high trees toward a long corridor of blasted rock. Entering through a towering gateway of stone, I am overshadowed by sheer 100-foot cliffs oozing with mossy rivulets and, in places, stained white by eroded limestone.
Five-and-a-half miles into my journey, I cross the small but lively middle fork of the Holston River by way of another trestle. Paralleling its course for about 3 miles—through isolated woodlands punctuated by numerous wooden bridges—I arrive at an awesome 529-foot span that ushers me over the river’s confluence with its sister southern fork. Here, the waterways collide to form the northernmost tip of the 7,500-acre South Holston Lake. But surrounded by steep rocky banks, pine forests and thin meadows speckled with wildflowers, it looks less like a popular recreational destination and more like a lazy river winding through the middle-of-nowhere.
I pedal on.
Approaching Damascus, things get more civilized. The path follows route 58 and the Holston’s South Fork through orchards, fields and occasional clusters of interesting homes and cabins. I pass the former village of Alvarado, now comprised of the river-fronting Abingdon Vineyards and an old railroad depot turned gourmet country store.
A mile or so before town, the route diverges to pursue Laurel Creek—a swift-flowing, 30-40-foot-wide trout stream rife with rhododendron thickets, rapids and mountain boulders. Here and there, fly-fishermen dressed in waders and floppy safari hats brace themselves against the current. I pause, mesmerized by the rhythmic arch and snap of their casting, the flies flitting millimeters above the white-crowned water.
I pedal on.
Soon, the town’s artsy, patently colorful Victorian-style homes emerge (think, Boulder, Colo. meets Richmond’s Carytown or Norfolk’s Ghent). Smiling, I chug into the central park and take a seat in the grass between a refurbished caboose and Beaverdam Creek. Only then do I realize how tired I am. The trip has taken about three hours. After phoning my shuttle driver, I sit and contemplate dinner.
Down a side street a few blocks from the Martha is Jack’s 128 Pecan. Housed in a renovated residence-turned-restaurant, the smallish eatery specializes in solid, soulful surf-n-turf and has the feel of a beloved Key West dive.
Entering the doors, a delightful wood bar trimmed with bulbous Christmas lights and '50s-era advertisements lurks in the corner of a converted front porch. Tables are arranged atop salvaged hardwood floors in a series of interestingly reconfigured small rooms and feature checker cloths, metal chairs and booths in the style of a vintage diner. It’s clear the space’s every detail has been curated with love. Founded in 2012 by native culinary staple Jack Barrow, the restaurant exudes the kind of quirky warmth that makes refusing an after-dinner drink seem like a missed opportunity.
The menu is unassuming, but don’t let that fool you. I have the shrimp and grits—a simple medley of jumbo prawns sautéed with okra, heirloom tomatoes, beer and spices, served over a bed of creamy corn grits. In Barrow’s hands, the classic dish offers a near-magical balance of sweet and savory flavors that leads me to believe he learned his craft from a troupe of James Beard-worshipping country grandmothers. Delicious!
Eat & Drink
Morgan’s, Abingdon—Located in a fabulously revitalized corner-building downtown, Morgan’s offers a modern take on classic Abingdon chic. The street-level dining room is lined with large windows and features exposed wooden beams, hardwood floors and an open kitchen. Former Tavern executive chef turned restaurateur, Stephen Gilbert, dishes up a reserved but delightful take on casual New American fine dining. Expect seasonal menus and local-sourced ingredients. Fans of craft cocktails: Don’t miss the bar! The brainchild of gifted mixologist and namesake, Morgan Gilbert, its top-shelf is a marvel.
Rain, Abingdon—Opened by Owner-Executive Chef Ben Carroll in 2010, Rain has become the flagship of a transforming downtown. Housed in a funky modern building filled with contemporary local art, à la mode décor and a gorgeous pinewood bar courtesy of artisan woodworker Ben Smith. The menu is studded with goods from all-star local farmers and, if the cuisine isn’t quite daring, it is superbly reliable. Try, for instance, the seared sea scallops with crispy fried Anson Mills polenta, basil pesto, house-pickled banana peppers, slaw with golden raisins, fresh herbs and lemon-white anchovy dressing.
Anthony’s Desserts, Abingdon—After more than a decade of working in area kitchens as a pastry chef, master baker Anthony Perkins struck out on his own in 2011. Since then, Anthony’s Desserts has become an Abingdon staple. Patrons can expect gourmet espresso and coffee drinks, and a full menu of chocolates, cakes and sweet treats. Try anything, it’s all incredible.
Wolf Hills Brewing Co., Abingdon—Named after Daniel Boone’s 18th century sobriquet for the region, the company’s brews embody the adventurer’s legendary spirit. Located in a transformed residence downtown, the brewery has the feel of a benevolent local dive. Fifteen rotating, small-batch offerings are kept on tap. We like the White Blaze Honey Cream Ale, made in the traditional manner with local honey, Saaz hops and a dash of corn in the malt bill.
The Damascus Brewery, Damascus—Just off of Route 58 on the western outskirts of Damascus, this little brewery makes 45 different beers and keeps 10 rotating on tap. Situated in a big repurposed garage, expect live music, regulars and a hardy dose of local flavor. Brewmaster Adam Woodson has a knack for crafting sour beers. Tart, refreshing and fruity, we like the Honey Mango Sour.
Stay & Play
Catch a show at the Barter Theatre—The Barter is the official state theater of Virginia and the longest continuously running professional dramatic venue in the U.S. Opened in 1933, the 85-year-old playhouse has been overhauled more than once, but its original historical grandeur has been meticulously maintained. With just 167 seats, billings are intimate and include elite musical performers like Sam Bush or Bela Fleck, and contemporary shows by artists like Mel Brooks and David Sedaris. With star-studded alumni including Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine, Ned Beatty and more, actors are at the top of their game.
Visit the William King Museum of Art—The premier visual arts facility in Southwest Virginia, bar none. The WKMA was founded in 1992 and is housed in a beautifully revamped century-old former school off West Main Street. The Museum contains studios for a handful of esteemed local artists and five galleries including permanent installations and an ever-rotating array of world culture exhibits. With “Never the Same Museum” as its slogan, the WKMA offers nine major and 24 minor exhibits per year.
Explore South Holston Lake—About 15 minutes by car from Abingdon, not only is the rural 7,580-acre lake surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, more than 60% of its shoreline is bordered by the Cherokee National Forest. Straddling the Tennessee border, it is one of the most scenic freshwater impoundments in the state. Take advantage of the isolation via renting a pontoon boat or jetski from Abingdon’s Sportsman’s Marina. Spend a half-day exploring the lake’s inlets and waterways for around $35 per hour + fuel.