Trail Days in Damascus, Virginia
The May Appalachian Trail Festival -- A Gathering Of Trail Hikers And Trail Lovers
I attended my first Trail Days event as a wanna-be thru-hiker, daydreaming about my own 2,000-mile walk. The following year, I actually hiked into Damascus, Virginia -- considered by some to be the friendliest town on the A.T. -- after walking nearly 500 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, and attended my second Trail Days while on my own thru-hike. And I was back again the following year, reminiscing about my 178 days walking from Georgia to Maine while cheering on those who were in the midst of their own hikes.
Trail Days, still held each May on the weekend after Mother's Day, is a fun, educational, and sometimes crazy event, which draws thousands of Appalachian trail supporters, enthusiasts, and hikers -- day-hikers, section-hikers, and thru-hikers -- to this otherwise small, quiet town in the mountains of southern Virginia.
See the Official Trail Days website for a schedule and more information about the festival, camping, and more.
...or stay here for a few more minutes to see some videos and see and read about some of my own Trail Days experiences.
A White Blaze In Damascus - The Appalachian Trail goes right through town.
That white rectangle painted on the telephone pole is a "blaze" marking the route of the Appalachian Trail. You'll find these blazes all along the trail's 2,179 miles on trees, rocks, posts, and even the occasional water fountain, speed limit sign post, and other random objects.
There are 165,000 white blazes along the length of the Trail, some of which are right in the middle of small towns like this one. I counted them all, of course!
Trail Days in Damascus: When and How it All Started
With An Anniversary
The year 1987 was the 50th anniversary of the Appalachian Trail, which passes right through Damascus. That year, members of the Town Council decided to celebrate the anniversary with an event for hikers.
At that time, there was no town park in Damascus, so the small festival was held in the parking lot of the town hall and behind the bank. The festival was held again the following year, the year after that, and every year that's followed, growing to the tens of thousands.
In the early years of Trail Days, a street was sometimes roped off for a dance, but there were no vendors. There were only the hikers and the cyclists who followed, who inspired the town to rebuild its economy, which had been devastated by flooding and the loss of most of its industry.
Nowadays, it's estimated that the Trail Days festival easily brings in more than $1 million to Damascus during that single long weekend. Many of the local businesses depend on Trail Days, which is said to be kind of like Christmas for Damascus.
Trail Days Activities
It doesn't matter which year you go; the Trail Days traditions are always very much the same. Here are some examples of what you'll see....
The Hiker Talent Show - Where just about anything goes
Are you a hiker who sings or dances? Do you play an instrument or write and recite poetry? Are you a hiking stand-up comic or Shakespearean actor? How about an acrobat? Whatever your talent might be -- or even if you're not particularly talented but want your time on the Trail Days stage -- there's a spot for you in the talent show. Actually, in the years I was there, I saw some really good to great acts of all kinds.
The Trail Days Parade - Considered the highlight of the festival
What I consider the signature event of Trail Days is the hiker parade, which takes place on Saturday afternoon. In the procession, you'll probably see a marching band, fire engines, and high school girls competing for the title of Appalachian Trail Queen. And you'll definitely see a few thousand hikers.
The hikers are loosely grouped by the year they completed the Trail. Some wear their grungy hiker garb, while others wear costumes, many of which are makeshift and some of which are quite small. Streams of water from big squirt guns fly between paraders and spectators along Laurel Avenue, the main street through Damascus. The years I attended, a moving catapult launched water balloons a very long way.
The Drum Circle And Bonfire - Another Trail Days Tradition
A bonfire, drumming and dancing go together like thru-hikers and eau-de-sweat. Or thru-hikers and blisters and funky-colored toe nails. Or thru-hikers and BIG appetites. And every year at Trail Days when the sun goes down, you'll probably hear the drumming well before you spot the glow of the fire.
See What Else Is On The Trail Days Schedule...
...including presentations and films, free gear repairs, contests, performances and more.
Check out the 2015 Trail Days schedule. This will update to the 2016 schedule when that information is available.
From My Appalachian Trail Journal
Part of my entry from my second time at Trail Days, as a thru-hiker:
"Total culture shock today, as I knew it would be. I woke up at first light to the sound of birds and will soon attempt to fall asleep to a drum beat. It's almost midnight in Damascus, and the drum circle is going strong. People are still walking all over. I wonder where everybody is going.
Okay, back up....
Hacker, Grant and I hiked a non-stop ten miles to the road into Troutdale. We wanted to get to town and shower, eat, and pick up Hacker's mail-drop before our ride back to Damascus arrived. The road was fairly quiet, and the few cars that passed, well ... passed. So Hacker and I did a can-can dance with our thumbs out, and a pickup truck immediately stopped and drove the five of us who were waiting to the two stores and post office that is Troutdale, VA.
Our ride -- Grant's friend -- arrived early, and we rode the forty-five minutes back to the place we'd been 49 trail miles and four days ago. I didn't really know what to do when I got back here to Damascus, so I went to the Mount Rogers Outfitters and spent some money. I got me a sports top which covers just enough skin that I can hike without a t-shirt, and a pair of nylon shorts. The ones I started out with are now way too big. Yyyayyy!
Shopping done, I proceeded to wander around town. I found Joker and Marie, who are still hiking together. They're seventeen miles north of Damascus. (Many thru-hikers who are here aren't really here, you see.) So Joker and Marie are about 32 miles behind where I really am right now. It seems so long since we hiked together. I miss them.
I ran into other current thru-hikers I know, including Superman and his dog, Winter, Shortcut and Datto. But I'm still looking for Obie. People have told me he's here somewhere. No sign of Just Ray yet, either. If he's coming back at all.
One of the people I came back here to Trail Days to meet is the person typing these journal entries into the computer. I knew Yogi the second I saw her, as we passed each other in Quincy's. We chatted for a few minutes and again later in tent city. I just returned from wandering around to look for her again, but no luck. There must be 10,000 people here!"
You can read more of my Appalachian Trail journal and view photos from my thru-hike on my Hiking Writer website.
Here's an article about the 23rd Annual Trail Days in Damascus
Baltimore Jack, who's hiked the A.T. 8 times (maybe more by now), was interviewed for this article. I met Jack during my own thru-hike.
Trail Days, Then And Now
How has the festival changed?
As far as I can tell (because I haven't been to Trail Days in a long time), there seem to be more vendors, presentations, and films than there used to be. And it looks like the official Trail Days three-day weekend has expanded to include activities on the Wednesday and Thursday before as well.
I also see that camping is no longer permitted in the Town Park, as we did when I attended in 1999, 2000 and 2001. At that time, camping was free. Now, there's a new tent city in a different location, with a $5 fee per camper and a $15 charge per vehicle for the weekend. I can understand why this would be necessary, though, given the huge number of visitors that inundate this small town for the festival.
Tent City in the Town Park at Trail Days 2000 -- That's my blue tent in the foreground.
Downtown Damascus, Virginia - Trail Town, USA
Learn a lot more about Damascus, Virginia on their official website.
Finding Damascus - The one in Virginia on that infamous trail....
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury