Visiting Damascus, Virginia? Bring your Mountain Bike!

Lush rhododendron forest on the way up to the Iron Mountain Trail on a soggy spring day.
Lush rhododendron forest on the way up to the Iron Mountain Trail on a soggy spring day. Jeff Bartlett
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Damascus, Virginia is a trail town. Everyone knows that; after all, the Appalachian Trail comes right through the park downtown, alongside the rail trail known as the Virginia Creeper. Trail town culture is a big part of this picturesque mountain town.

One thing Damascus isn’t known for, though, is mountain biking. Excellent mountain biking, actually. No, there’s not a slew of new purpose-built trails cropping up at the outskirts of town, nor a cache of funds earmarked to build some. These trails have been there for a long, long time.

A shallow, rocky creek crossing at the Damascus End of the Iron Mountain Trail.
A shallow, rocky creek crossing at the Damascus End of the Iron Mountain Trail. Icon Media Asheville

In this case, those trails are the Iron Mountain Trail and the adjacent ribbons of deeply-forested singletrack which connect to it from either side of the mountain from which it takes its name. Iron Mountain itself is 20 miles long, and the many ways to access it—Beech Grove, Chestnut Ridge, Sawmill—offer up countless more miles of trail just begging for knobby tires.

Other than the A.T., which is (of course) designated as foot-traffic-only, you’re welcome to it. You can ride all day on old, weathered trails which cling to steep slopes above town and weave across the ridgeline, and you’ll probably not encounter another mountain biker. In fact, you may not encounter any hikers, despite the steady flow along the Appalachian Trail.

Leaders of the 2015 Iron Mountain 100k cross a bridge deep in the forest.
Leaders of the 2015 Iron Mountain 100k cross a bridge deep in the forest. Icon Media Asheville

Really, how are these trails not packed with enthusiastic riders like the favorites in the nearby Pisgah National Forest? It blows my mind.

“It blows my mind, too,” says Chris Scott. Chris is the owner of Shenandoah Mountain Touring, as well as the race director for the Iron Mountain 100k. He’s hosted this mountain bike race in the area every year since 2009, hoping to expose the trail system to a larger audience.

“It was probably 2002, and we were working on the Seng Mountain National Scenic Area. I’d heard there were some cool trails to ride just outside of Damascus, so I checked it out, and that’s just what we found—amazing trails! It’s the best place to ride in the region, sort of a local secret at the time. I knew we had to build an awesome event making use of the system, and bring this to everyone’s attention.”

Huge trees and fun singletrack on the Iron Mountain Trail ridgeline.
Huge trees and fun singletrack on the Iron Mountain Trail ridgeline. Jeff Bartlett

The endurance race Chris hosts here, by the way, is fantastic. It’s the best race you didn’t do last year. I’ll spare you my own hyperbole and simply quote from a series of blog and race reports from previous events:

“After having raced it, I could kick myself in the pants for not having done it sooner… if you like old school single track, fire road climbs of death followed by single track descents of death, all sprinkled with some sh!ts and giggles flowy trail, you must put this on your calendar.” -- Carey Lowery
“I would describe the single track as very WV-like in that there were many off camber greasy roots, lots of embedded slimy baby head rocks, very steep washed out fall line trail climbs and plenty of mud that lingers under the damp forest canopy. It was just the kind of trail that real mountain bikers like to ride.” -- Metro Williams
This network provides no shortage of route options, depending on how epic you want your day to be, all within a stone’s throw of downtown Damascus. Hop on Beech Grove right from the Virginia Creeper, or ride up a paved cul-de-sac from downtown Damascus until it simply turns into the southwestern end of the Iron Mountain Trail itself.

The IMT descent back into Damascus is a blast. Lean back and hang on!
The IMT descent back into Damascus is a blast. Lean back and hang on! Icon Media Asheville

It’s challenging riding, too, with plenty of narrow bench-cut singletrack—it’s really only “half track” in several places—and some seriously loose, rocky sections. The steep grades of the trails on either side of the IMT let you pick your poison: which do you want to claw your way up, and which do you want to rip down? We particularly enjoy the descent down Jerry’s Creek Trail.

Lush rhododendron forest on the way up to the Iron Mountain Trail on a soggy spring day.
Lush rhododendron forest on the way up to the Iron Mountain Trail on a soggy spring day. Jeff Bartlett

On a recent ride, from which a few of these photos are taken, I reprised most of the southern half of the race course and was reminded at how varied and interesting the trails are. This is backcountry mountain biking in its true form, in the mountains, deep in the forest, with narrow singletrack and natural features.

The junction of Beech Grove and Iron Mountain. The descent into town from here is a blast, either way!
The junction of Beech Grove and Iron Mountain. The descent into town from here is a blast, either way! Jeff Bartlett

Our recommendation? Make time for a trip to Damascus, and leave that cyclocross/cruiser bike at home this trip. Bring your mountain bike, instead!

Originally written for Backwoods.

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