Beginning in 1987, for three days each spring, 20,000 hikers descend on the sleepy burg of Damascus, Virginia, population 802, for Trail Days, the Appalachian Trail’s largest annual festival. Part Burning Man, part Camino de Santiago, part Fringe Festival thrown in for good measure, Trail Days is 72 hours of hiking mayhem. There are vendors, film screenings, book signings, and lectures.
Thru-hikers either try to plan their start times such that they walk into Damascus on their own two feet, or they hitch rides and pay for shuttles. Many alums come back year after year for the marathon bonfires, the garish parade (above), the endless free junk food and trail magic. It’s where more than a few marriages have begun (and some have ended in spectacular fashion). It’s also a big boon to a community that watched the lumber boom come and go and has struggled to remake itself every since.
“Damascus was really suffering from the loss of jobs,” says Suzanne Lay, executive vice president of the regional chamber of commerce. “Trail Days is a bigger boost than any of us would have thought possible.”