Deb thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and is a Search & Rescue volunteer and writer living in Flagstaff, AZ.
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.
The Appalachian Trail Goes Through Town
That white rectangle painted on the telephone pole in the photo above 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 signpost, 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
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.
The Hiker Talent Show
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
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
A bonfire, drumming, and dancing go together like thru-hikers and eau-de-sweat. Or thru-hikers and blisters and funky-colored toenails. 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.
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!"
Trail Days: Then and Now
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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury
Have You Been To Trail Days? Or to Damascus, Virginia, at any time of year?
astevn816 lm on May 04, 2014:
I have done a lot of backpacking and hiking, it is a great way to see the sites
TerriCarr on April 14, 2014:
I just looked at the directions and it looks like it is about 5 hours away from where I am. I would definitely like to get down that way...so maybe. This is nice to know about the A.T. running through town. Cool!
mariacarbonara on May 24, 2013:
Sounds like a great event.
anonymous on May 13, 2013:
No, but they sound like fun
Faye Rutledge from Concord VA on February 01, 2013:
I live about 200 miles from Damascus Virginia, but I don't remember ever visiting there. I didn't realize the trail went through the town. (now that's my kind of hiking!) I will have to visit now. Trail Days sounds like a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing. I always love reading about your adventures!
anonymous on January 23, 2013:
My dream is to hike the AT and have read so many awesome books in the past year. I do go to Damascus every year and ride the Creeper Trail. I plan on coming to the trail days this year 2013 just to be a part of it. A great town.
Takkhis on December 31, 2012:
No i have not been to trial days, it would be great to visit Virginia
anonymous on May 21, 2012:
@anonymous: Sorry you never get out. I had a great time. Met tons of people from all over the world. Saw "friends" from many previous Trail Days. Bought a funky t-shirt, enjoyed the music, fun in the sun, loved my breakfast at Mojoes, ate a free hotdog at Sundog, got bombed by water balloons in the parade, etc... Enjoyed it! I saw plenty of kids with painted faces, funnel cake, hot dogs, and big smiles on their faces.
anonymous on May 20, 2012:
Have lived here for 25 years and never been to trail days...After going I won't ever go again... The food stands were over priced and not very good..You don't mind paying for good food and when your dog won't eat it s pretty bad...don't bring your children it only had two things for them unless you took them to the town playground.... I was really looking forward to the outing, as the saying goes been there, done that and won't ever waste my time again... I only hope that people who went and have the same complaints are truthful with there comments..
anonymous on May 14, 2012:
Fun parties at the tent city at night at trail days. I have been twice and definitely the most memorable part if it.
aliciamaggie54 on June 26, 2011:
I never been but it looks like fun. Thank you for this information.
Mary Beth Granger from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA on May 17, 2011:
I've never been...but it looks like fun. blessed
LoKackl on April 12, 2010:
I've done a lot of hiking in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park but never made more than a few short clips of the Appalachian Trail. Not for lack of interest. I hope trail days festival damascus, Virginia leads many to the trail. great lens! roll to smokin-in-the-smokies.
julieannbrady on November 17, 2009:
Wow -- 500 miles! That is awesome -- say, I was looking for that picture of you in your hiking gear. Did I miss it? ;)
Deb Kingsbury (author) from Flagstaff, Arizona on November 16, 2009:
@NC Shepherd: *Gasp!* Well, if you're ever hiking or cycling or driving in your van around that area in May, you should try to go. Last time I went to TD (after my thru-hike), I went to the festival and then hiked for a week northbound through the Grayson Highlands and Troutdale. I'd love to do that again. Wanna?
NC Shepherd on November 16, 2009:
Can you believe I've never been to Trail Days? I've been through Damascus many times, though.
anonymous on November 15, 2009:
I had a great time at Trail Days 1999. I can't believe it's been ten years already.
Bambi Watson on November 14, 2009:
Looks like my kind of party!
HorseAndPony LM on November 12, 2009:
I have not been to trail days but they sound great. Thanks for sharing this is great info.
anonymous on November 10, 2009:
This looks like a wonderful event. Thank you for telling us about it.
Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on November 09, 2009:
I have never been this brave, but it sounds like fun! Great lens!!!
divacratus 2 on November 09, 2009:
Whoa! You truly are an inspiration!
anonymous on November 09, 2009:
Wow this is terrific! I doubt I'd be able to do this but looks like fun!
Nancy Tate Hellams from Pendleton, SC on November 09, 2009:
You absolutely amaze me. I keep thinking that this would have been something I would have loved to do in my younger, more healthier days. Keep Enjoying the beautiful Appalachian Trail and The Trail Days Festival in Damascus, Virginia. It all sounds so wonderful! Blessings.
Laniann on November 09, 2009:
No, I haven't been to Trail Days or to Damascus? You are a very brave and strong women walking all those miles! Did that poor dog walk all the way?