Fewer than a thousand people live in Damascus, Virginia. But for one weekend every May, twenty thousand people flood into the town for the Appalachian Trail Days Festival. Live music, backpacking workshops, and amusing events celebrate the previous Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and herald in the newest batch on the trek.
For decades, Damascus has coveted the title “Trail Town USA” because of its friendliness to the thru-hikers. When the Virginia Creeper Trail opened in 1987, it forever cemented the small mountain town’s fate as an outdoor recreation hub. Today, the tiny town features over a dozen restaurants, outfitters, and bicycle rental shops.
And every May, people descend on the town for the Appalachian Trail Days Festival. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about attending the festival.
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What is the Appalachian Trail Days Festival?
The annual Appalachian Trail Days Festival is a celebration, inauguration, and initiation for anyone who has hiked the Appalachian Trail. The earmarks of the festival are workshops on outdoor recreation, outdoor gear demonstrations, and live music to keep the masses entertained.
The first Trail Days Festival was hosted in Damascus in 1987. Over the next two decades, the town earned the “Trail Town U.S.A.” moniker because of the growing community supporting the thru-hikers. In the early 2000s, the town’s travel industry boomed with the popularity of the Virginia Creeper Trail – a 34.3-mile rail-to-trail connecting Abingdon, Damascus, and Whitetop Mountain.
Today, the Appalachian Trail Days Festival is a reunion of previous AT thru-hikers, a celebration of the current batch thru-hiking the trail, and a chance for visitors to enjoy great food, music, and outdoor gear.
Tip: Visit the town’s official website for last-minute announcements and to download the 2023 Festival Guide – https://www.visitdamascus.org/traildays.html
When is the Appalachian Trail Days Festival in 2023?
The Appalachian Trail Days Festival is May 19 – 21, 2023. The festival is timed to coincide with northbound thru-hikers passing through the town.
The festival begins with live music Friday evening. Then, it continues through Saturday with workshops, live music, and demonstrations – the primary event day everyone should attend. Finally, the festival ends on Sunday with a church service open to anyone.
Did You Know?
Damascus is 463 miles from the southern end of the Appalachian Trail in Springer Mountain, Georgia. Thru-hikers have been hiking for about thirty days before they pass through Damascus. But it will take over 100 additional days to complete the trail to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
The three-day Appalachian Trail Days Festival is earmarked by workshops for hikers, live music for everyone, tournaments, and contests. It’s a great event for aspiring backpackers, families, or anyone looking for a spring festival.
The three biggest events of the festival happen in succession on Saturday evening: the Hiker Parade, Trail Days Auction, and Hiker Talent Show.
Live music begins early on Friday and Saturday and continues until after sunset. The stage is in Town Park at the pavilion. Bring a lawn chair and get comfy – there’s plenty of room, but there will also be plenty of people looking for a place to sit.
The hiker workshops are a hallmark of the festival. Topics range from foraging for food to finding herbal remedies for ailments on the trail. The workshops are typically held at the Damascus Public Library, where visitors can work on crafts like whittling and knitting.
Many manufacturers of outdoor gear set up tents during the festival. Representatives offer free gear repair, demonstrations of their products, and sales to keep the thru-hikers well-equipped on their journey.
The Hiker Parade has grown into infamy as the most popular event of the Appalachian Trail Days Festival. The parade is a showcase of past and present thru-hikers. It’s an opportunity for the previous thru-hikers, especially those who completed the trail the last year, to walk in a ticker tape parade in “Trail Town USA.”
Except there is no ticker tape. Instead, there are Super Soakers.
A hallmark of the parade is to come armed with Super Soakers filled to the very top. As the hikers proudly march through town, attendees soak them to the bone – something any backpacker is familiar with at one point or another. But watch out because, sometimes, the hikers are also armed with Super Soakers – though I doubt they packed them in from Springer Mountain.
However, not everyone is a viable target for soaking. Parade participants like trail clubs, honor guards, and local police should not be soaked. Your only target is a thru-hiker. No offense to the thru-hikers, but you’ll recognize their trail shabbiness when you see them.
Parade participants begin lining up at 1:30. That’s a good time for visitors to find a place along Laurel Avenue, the “main street” through town, and get ready to celebrate with the thru-hikers.
Hiker Talent Show
After the Hiker Parade and Trail Days Auction, the Hiker Talent Show takes center stage at the gazebo in the Town Park. Another long-held festival tradition, the talent show, is an opportunity for the current thru-hikers to demonstrate their talents in front of a captivated audience.
The talent show takes on many forms. Some thru-hikers snag a guitar and belt out some tunes. Others bring their own lightweight, packable instruments. Short skits, magic tricks, and oral stories delight and entertain.
The Hiker Talent Show begins at 4 p.m. in the Town Park. I recommend plopping your chair in the park shortly after the Hiker Parade to guarantee a good seat for the great show.
What to Pack
Attending the Trail Days Festival requires a few additional items you may not usually pack for a festival. Here are a few essential items that will come in handy during the festival:
- Coleman Camping Chair for relaxing at the Hiker Parade or the live music
- NERF Super Soaker for participating in the drenching at the Hiker Parade
- Hydro Flask Water Bottle to stay hydrated throughout the day
- Osprey Daylite Plus Daypack for carrying essentials throughout the day
- ChicoBag Reusable Tote Bag for carrying purchased items
Visit the Travel Gear & Tips page for more packing lists for all kinds of travel.
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Where to Park
Damascus is the kind of small town where public parking is free and readily available. But the town is like a gallon jug and during the festival, it’s overflowed with twenty gallons.
Paid parking is only available at the town’s baseball fields on South Shady Avenue. It’s slightly more than half a mile from the middle of town. But don’t fret – a shuttle provides a complimentary ride.
Tip: Parking is $20 per vehicle and cash only. The Food City at the edge of town is a good place to get cash at the last minute.
Where to Stay
Tent City appears in Damascus every year during the Appalachian Trail Days Festival. It’s where the thru-hikers pitch their lightweight tents and spend a few nights recovering from the first month of the grueling northbound hike. And other hikers crowd into the dozens of hostels throughout town.
But what if you didn’t bring your tent with you?
The best place for festival goers to stay is nearby Abingdon. About half an hour from Damascus, the town has plenty of quality hotels perfect for staying during the festival.
The Damascus Old Mill Inn is a great place to stay in town, but you must book the rooms early! The historic grill mill turned into lodging only features twelve rooms.
If you’re used to sleeping in a tent, the Red Roof Inn will seem like a Four Seasons. The roadside lodging is barebones on amenities, but the rooms are renovated with modern comforts like laminate hardwood floors and plenty of outlets to charge your tech. (Booking.com | Hotels.com | Expedia)
Comfort Suites is another option for families – and this hotel features an indoor swimming pool! It’s in the quiet end of town behind Moon Dog Pizza, just in case you’re hungry. (Booking.com | Hotels.com | Expedia)
Fairfield Inn & Suites is one of the best places to stay in Abingdon. The hotel features a nice indoor swimming pool and stunning views of the nearby mountains from some of the rooms. (Booking.com | Hotels.com | Expedia)
The Hampton Inn is a recent addition and the best place for solo travelers and families. The hotel lacks a swimming pool but makes up for it with a fantastic complimentary hot breakfast. (Booking.com | Hotels.com | Expedia)
The Martha Washington Inn & Spa is one of the best independent hotels in Virginia. Each of the 63 rooms features unique décor and comfortable bedding. Take advantage of the on-site restaurant, indoor saltwater swimming pool, and pamper yourself with a spa treatment.