Rails to Trails: West Virginia

We spent several weeks in West Virginia hiking and biking as well as driving a number of backways. In this post we are primarily focusing on our Rails to Trails rides. In an upcoming post we will share our experience of spending several days deep in coal country – which is not the West Virginia that you see in the tourism marketing materials.

Also, just a clarification for the record – chronologically we visited West Virginia before Virginia so the trail rides we are highlighting in this post occured prior to the Virginia rides.

Mon river trail

The Mon (Monongahela River) River Trail was our first Rails to Trails ride of this journey. As you may recall from an earlier post OTR 5.2 got off to an inauspicious start ultimately requiring a 1200 mile round trip detour to Indiana for repairs to the Beast.

As a result our first round of planned rides in Pennsylvania and Maryland were postponed. If the weather co-operates we may have an opportunity to ride some of the trails as we return to Connecticut.

The Mon River trail is a 48 mile trail that sits on the right of way of the former Fairmont, Morgantown and Pittsburgh Railway. This railway began operations in 1886 and was a bulk carrier of coal, limestone, coke and sand which were and still are major sources of trade in West Virginia. The rail line was abandoned by CSX in the 1990s after a rock slide caused significant damage and CSX opted to shift coal traffic to a different route.

The trail provides a beautiful setting for biking and walking. The trail hugs the river for its full length providing great views and vistas as you follow the many curves of this meandering river.

The Mon River runs 130 miles northeasterly towards Pittsburgh where it meets the Allegheny River. The entire length of the Mon River is navigable due to a series of nine locks and dams. This engineering feat has made the river commercially viable for transporting coal by barge.

While riding we saw many coal barges being pushed up and down the river and being loaded and unloaded. The coal fired electric plant pictured above is the Fort Martin Station which is located on the west side of the river north of Morgantown. This power plant burns 2.8 million tons per year – hence the steady traffic of coal barges.

Interestingly, this plant is not a major source of air or water pollution. The scrubber systems at this plant remove over 98% of the sulpher-dioxide emissions. The river itself is very polluted – the culprits being steel and iron mills located in Pennsylvania

We stayed in Morgantown while riding the trail. Morgantown is home to West Virginia University with the campus being just up the hill from the downtown area. While the students were back on campus we did not see many college age folks in town which was surprising (perhaps Covid-19 related).

So, while Morgantown was not very lively, the trail itself warrants a couple of days in the area. Also, absent Covid-19 restrictions, WVU provides a number of attractions including a recognized art museum and a first rate arboretum.

The Beautiful, Loyal and Fierce Cardinal, West Virginia’s State Bird

North Bend trail

Tunnel #2, Brandy Gap Tunnel

After completing the Mon Trail we traveled south to Clarksburg to ride the North Bend Trail. The trail is a 72 miler running west from Clarksburg to the Ohio River at Parkersburg. This trail is one of the segments of the American Discovery Trail. The ADT runs from Delaware to California creating a 6000 mile non-motorized trail.

We began our ride at the eastern trail head in Clarksburg to bike west to Parkersburg. What we did not know at the time was that the eastern end of the trail has not been completed (not mentioned in any of the literature). In fact it took us a while to realize we were at the trail head because there was just a sign and a grass path. Nonetheless, we pushed off to the west assuming the trail would become a more developed trail as we went along. We were wrong!

As we realized the eastern portion of the trail was still a work in progress we made a decision to ride to Tunnel #2 at Brandy Gap. This tunnel is 1086 feet long! The tunnel is dark, wet and cold. At a certain point in the tunnel you can’t actually see light at the other end which was disorienting.

Having said all that – riding through the tunnel was a hoot! So we went through the tunnel pedaled on for a while (until we had another crash) and then turned around and rode back through the tunnel for a second time.

At some point we will return to this trail and having learned our lesson will start at the west end. The full trail ride takes you over 36 trestles and 10 tunnels including a tunnel twice the length of Tunnel #2.

While we have been heavily focused on bicycling the Rails to Trails bike paths we have been making sure to take some days off from cycling – and hiking instead. The views above are from Raven Rock in the Coopers Rock State Forest looking to the northwest at the Cheat River Canyon.

Greenbrier river Trail (GRT)

Greenbrier River

The Greenbrier River Trail was our final rail trail ride in West Virginia. This trail runs 77 miles along the 173 mile long river. The GRT is the longest trail in West Virginia and is one of fifty Millennium Legacy Trails ( http://www.millenniumtrails.org ) in the United States. The Greenbrier River Valley is a beautiful valley tucked in the shadow of the western approaches to the Allegheny Mountains. The river is the longest untamed river (no dams or locks) in the eastern United States and is only utilized for recreational purposes (fishing, boating, rafting).

The trail was originally a freight and passenger branch line of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. The primary freight hauled in this part of West Virginia was timber. This line was abandoned during the Great Depression and never used as a railway again. The trail is currently operated and maintained by the state as a linear state park.

We started our ride at the southern trail head in Lewisburg. Lewisburg is a great town to utilize as a base for riding this trail. It is a picturesque, small town with a number of fine dining restaurants as well as art and historic homes.

We had a great day riding north under the colorful autumnal canopy before retracing our ride back to Lewisburg. This trail also provides many opportunities to camp along the trail in the adjacent Jefferson and Washington National Forest as well as several state forests.

We would be remiss if we did not mention our three favorite coffee cafes in West Virginia: Mea Cuppa Coffee Lounge in Charleston, Range Finder Coffee in Fayetteville and Koin Coffee in Bridgeport.

Next stop: Virginia as we cross over the Allegheny Mountains and the Blue Ridge Trail to begin our next set of adventures.

Be seeing you!

Rails to Trails Adventures:Virginia

We have been keenly interested in cycling the significant network of Rails to Trails in Virginia and West Virginia for sometime. For a variety of reasons our previous plans to do so did not come to fruition.

Happily, we found while riding the trails in West Virginia and Virginia our expectations have been exceeded. The trails are well maintained and surrounded with breathtaking scenery and rich history.

In this post we are providing a brief overview of each of the trails we have completed in Virginia. We hope you enjoy it!

High bridge trail (HBT)

After riding the Greenbrier Trail in West Virginia, we journeyed east over the Allegheny Mountains and through the picturesque and pastoral Virginia Highlands to ride the High Bridge Trail.

The HBT is operated by the state of Virginia as a linear park. The trail itself is 32 miles long. The right of way that is now the bicycle trail dates back to 1838 when a nine mile section of track was completed and the City Point Railroad began operations. As with all of these abandoned lines, the original railroad was acquired by a number of successor companies finally coming under the ownership of the Norfolk & Southern. The Norfolk & Southern ceased operations on this line in 2005 and transferred the right of way to the state of Virginina.

Appomattox River

The high point of this trail is figuratively and literally the High Bridge Trestle. The trestle is almost a half mile in length and sits 125 feet above the Appomattox River, making it an exhilarating span to cycle.

The High Bridge is an historically significant bridge – beyond the engineering feat – as it was the site of two Civil War battles. During the first battle the Union Army attempted to destroy the bridge in order to stop Confederate troops from fleeing over the Appomattox River, however the Confederate troops repelled the Union Soldiers and were able to retreat across the bridge.

The very next day, 7 April, 1865 the Confederate troops attempted to burn the bridge in order to stop the Union troops from using the bridge to pursue the Southern troops. The High Bridge was rendered unusable but unfortunately for the Confederates the Union troops were able cross downstream on a wagon bridge and caught up with them just three miles north of the Appomattox River.

The High Bridge was repaired and put back into service by the Union Army to transport supplies and troops until the end of the war soon after these two battles.

TOBACCO HERITAGE TRAIL (THT)

Crossing Meherrin River

The THT runs from La Crosse to Lawrenceville in Southside Virginia. This area is in the heart of what was once the “Old Belt” of Virginia tobacco country. This trail was built on the former Atlantic and Danville Railway – which was formed to haul agrarian products including tobacco to market. LaCrosse, which is the current eastern trail head for this bicycle trail, was the site of the People’s Warehouse Company which stored and sold the tobacco grown in this area. Today, LaCrosse is a tiny town with a population of 575.

Tobacco in Virginia was cultivated during the early 1600s by British settlers. Prior to the British arriving the Native Americans were already growing and utilizing tobacco.

The British tobacco growers initially utilized indentured servants from Scotland and other European countries, but by the early 1700’s the growers could not import enough laborers from Europe so they turned to Africa and began importing slaves.

Tobacco is still very much part of the economy of Virginia today. The state is the third largest tobacco grower in the United States. Most of the “Virginia Gold” is used in cigarette manufacturing, although most cigarette manufacturing plants are located outside of the United States.

The five counties that the THT runs through are part of what has been called the Southern Black Belt. The Black Belt was originally areas in the deep south where cotton was grown and in North Carolina and Virgina where tobacco was grown. These areas had large populations of blacks because of the slave labor used to support the plantation economy. Today, many of these these counties still have majority black populations and the term Black Belt is used as a political construct as blacks are seen as voting largely as a block by political analysts.

Remnants of the Community of Charlie’s Hope, Virginia

The THT is a 22 mile trail and the plan is to double it in length as more funding is available to complete work on the abandoned right of way in additional towns.

It is an enjoyable ride through forest and field but lacks the dramatic aspects of the trestles, tunnels, waterfalls, river, mountain and valley views afforded by many of the other trails. THT is a trail that is less traveled than others we have ridden on this trip and we had the trail to ourselves.

Virginia Creeper trail (VCT)

The VIrginia Creeper Trail is a 33 mile bicycle trail running from Abingdon at the western terminus to Whitetop at the eastern terminus. The trail had its origins as a Native American footpath and was later used by early Euro-American settlers including Daniel Boone.

During the early 1900s a railroad was constructed between Abingdon and Damascus and operated as the Virginia-Carolina Railroad. The railroad hauled timber, iron ore and passengers. The line was taken over by the Norfolk and Western Railroad which continued operations as a branch line until 1977. It is surprising that the line was operated through 1977 as it was never financially profitable. The Virginia Creeper moniker was the nickname of the line because the original steam locomotives had to “creep” up the steep and winding grades.

Taylors Valley
Trestle #7, Watauga Valley

The former Virginia-Carolina has 50 trestles and bridges even though it was just a 33 mile branch line. From a bicycling perspective, the variety and number of high and curved trestles across hollows, valleys and rivers really adds to the excitement and enjoyment of this ride.

Trestle #12, South Holston

As you can see from the photographs we had beautiful weather during our two days of riding this trail and lots of solitude. The VCT is one of the best trails we have ever ridden.

New River Trail State Park (NRT)

New River

The New River Trail is a 58 mile trail which follows the rail bed of the former Norfolk & Western Railway. The rail line was established primarily to haul iron ore to the railway’s main line in Pulaski. This line was in service from 1882 until 1982 when the successor company, Norfolk Southern, abandoned the line and donated the right of way to the state.

New River from the Ivanhoe Trestle

The NRT follows the the New River closely for most of the route and crosses the river several times as you travel from the terminus in Galax to the terminus in Pulaski. The trail provides wonderful views of the river and the surrounding rolling hills dotted with grazing cows.

Between our time at New River Gorge and our three days cycling the NRT we have spent a fair amount of time with the river as a travel companion. The New River runs through three states and affords breathtaking scenery as it carves its way through the Appalachian Mountains.

Interestingly, the New River is claimed to be the second oldest river on the planet although there is some disagreement by the National Park Service. It is not disputed that it is among the top five oldest rivers while the Appalachian Mountains are considered by many geoligists to be the oldest mountains on earth.

Hiwassee Trestle, Hiwassee, Virginia

Alisonia, one of the tiny towns that was a stop on the former Northern & Western Railway line. The town still exists today, with a current population of 114.

In a future post we will share the highlights of our Rails to Trails cycling adventures in West Virginia.

Be seeing you!

Black Hills, South Dakota:

Iron Mountain Road and Mount Rushmore

Route 16A , also known as Iron Mountain Road, is a very exciting drive on a narrow winding road which climbs through and over Iron Mountain. The drive presents distant views of Mt Rushmore as you exit tunnels and from overlooks along the way.

Iron Mountain Road is only 17 miles long but has 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, three pigtails and three tunnels (pigtails pictured below).

Seeing this monument is far more impressive in person than the photos you have seen all your life. The history is just as fascinating as the entire genesis was to boost an ailing economy by creating a tourist attraction. During the 1920s the mining based economy in the area was ailing. Initially this effort was completely a private endeavor until President Coolidge became a supporter and pushed funding through Congress. Today the monument draws three million people annually so I would have to say that it was a heck of an idea. Fourteen years in the making and not a single worker fatality (obviously a former insurance underwriter)! 0040

Custer State Park

CSP is the largest state park in the United States and would stack up well against many national parks in regard to scenic beauty, wildlife and opportunities  for recreation (hiking, biking, horseriding, kayaking, canoeing and ohv). 0038,0039

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Mickelson Trail

This 109 mile trail runs through the heart of the Black Hills NF. The trail is the former Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad which came about as the result of the gold rush which started in the 1870s. This particular line was abandoned in 1983.

We biked several sections of the trail and were treated to many spectacular views and the opportunity to bike through rock tunnels and across numerous trestles. 0037

Western Michigan

Arriving in Traverse City marks our completion of the 117 mile long M22 which follows the Lake Michigan shoreline of the Leelanau Peninsula. The M22 is a beautiful scenic drive offering great vistas of Lake Michigan and the Grand Traverse Bay. 0014,0015 

Traverse City Coffee Scene: Higher Grounds + Planetary Coffee. We have been disappointed with a number of the coffee roasters/shops in Western Michigan. Arriving in TC has brought us a couple of notables with Higher Ground Coffee Roasters and Planetary Coffee (serves Half Wit beans). Erik Harms owner and barista (pictured below) at Planetary is a long time roaster having previously roasted at Higher Grounds and the well regarded Dogwood Coffee in Minneapolis. Erik has provided us with several recommendations for the UP which we are excited to try over the next week. 0015,0016

Biking the Leelanau Rail Trail TC-Sutton Bay-TC.  0015

Hiking the dunes at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. Camping at Leelanau SP. 0014

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Kayaking on the Pere Marquette near Lake Michigan. 0013

Biking on the Pere Marquette State Trail. 0012