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!

Big Bend Ranch State Park or The Other Side of Nowhere!

We spent four days camping and hiking in the interior of Big Bend Ranch State Park. This park encompasses 300,000 acres of rugged and beautiful mountains, canyons and high desert. The park land was formerly a cattle ranching operation but when repeated droughts brought about the demise of the ranching operation the state of Texas acquired the land for recreational purposes and created BBRSP.

This park is very primitive. There are no paved roads – many of the roads are single track roads that require 4WD and high clearance. There are no water, elctricity or toilet facilities within the park except at the Sauceda Ranger Station.

We were able to camp on a vista at an elevation of 3600 feet above sea level with a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains including Mexico to the southeast. The night sky is a Class 1 Dark Sky – the darkest rating – spectacular.

The hiking opportunities are numerous with a range of hikes from desert floor hikes to canyon rim views. We had complete solitude on most of our hikes as the many of the trail heads require a 4WD vehicle for access.

This park is probably not for everyone because of the primnitive and rugged conditions. Having said that this park is a treasure – a place where you can get off the grid and enjoy beauty, silence, incredible sunrises, sunsets and night sky.

Big Bend National Park is our next stop.

Be seeing you!

P.S. We have included two photos of the Green Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus. This a variety of cactus that we had never seen before. The flowering leaves are edible and are supposed to taste like strawberries. This cactus is found predominately in this part of Texas and a small area of southern New Mexico. We think it will be a beautiful specimen when it fully blooms.

Camping on Vista Del Bofecillos, BBRSP

Bofecillos Mountains

Bofecillos Mountains

Bofecillos Mountain

Fresno Canyon and Flat Iron Mountains

Green Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus

Sunrise from Vista Del Bofecillos

Returning Home Part 1: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi

After deciding to shorten our trip due to the Covid-19 pandemic we are still keeping to more scenic routes, backways and small towns whenever possible as we return to Connecticut.

From Texas we passed into Louisiana and toured the low country along the Gulf before heading north and making stops in Lafayette and Baton Rouge.After Baton Rouge we continued north into Mississippi and spent a night in the beautiful town of Natchez which sits high above the Mississippi River on a bluff. From Natchez we traveled north on the Natchez Trace Parkway. The NTP is a 440 mile road that follows the path that Native Americans and later Euro-Americans used to travel by foot back to Tennessee and Kentucky after floating down the Mississippi on rafts to trading posts. The entire route from Natchez to Nashville is a national park. There are many historic sites as well as hikes and walks that can be accessed on this beautiful trip. We followed the road as far as the Tennessee/Alabama border before departing to travel east across Northern Alabama.

We will pick up the Blue Ridge Parkway in Asheville, North Carolina and plan on driving the full route which terminates in Front Royal, VA.

We have included a collection of some of our favorites sights as we drove through Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Be seeing you!

Saint Mary Catholic Mission Church, Marathon, Texas

Gage Hotel, 1927, Marathon, Texas

Gage Hotel Lobby

Marathon, Texas

Langtry, Texas – Home of Judge Roy Bean

Uvalde, Texas

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, Hackberry, Louisiana

Holly Beach, Louisiana

Cathedral of Saint John The Evangelist, 1916, Lafayette, Louisiana

The Cathedral Oak, Estimated to be 500 Years Old, Lafayette, Louisiana

Street Murals, Lafayette, Louisiana

Mississippi River, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Swamp Blues Legends from baton Rouge aka Red Stick

Martin Luther King, Jr., Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Bontura House, 1851, Natchez, Owned by Free Black Businessman Robert Smith

Rosalie Mansion, 1823, Owned by Peter Little, Cotton Broker

Line Boat Pushing Barges North on the Mississippi Under the Natchez Bluff

Natchez Trace, Mississippi

The King

Honoring the Soldiers of the C.S.A.

Tornado Damage in Tishomingo, Mississippi

Big Bend National Park

Hola!

After our terrific stay in BBRSP we journeyed east on FM 170 (farm to market) alternatively known as Farm Road 170. The local folks just call it the River Road. It is also a segment of the Texas Mountain Trail. Regardless of what name you reference it by it is an absolutely stunning drive. The road is an undulating strip of asphalt winding its way between the mountains of BBRSP on one side and the Rio Grande and Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains on the other.

Big Bend National Park is an expansive park with remarkable diversity in regard to the terrain and species of wildlife and flora. While it is wild and rugged it is far more accessible than Big Bend Ranch State Park. There are visitor centers, a gas station, drinking water, paved scenic drives and more people. The one thing that both parks have in common is the spectacular scenery.

We would rate this park as a “must visit” national park. A couple things to keep in mind – this is not a summer park due to the South Texas location and it is a spring break destination for many Texas families (making mid-March the busiest time).

Re-assessing our itinerary based on developments with Covid-19.

Be seeing you!

Video Clip: FM 170

Rio Grande, Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains, Mexico

St Elena Canyon

St Elena Canyon

Side Canyon Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off

Lower Buro Mesa Pour-off

Box Canyon, Lower Burro Mesa

Tuff Canyon

Scrambling in Tuff Canyon

Burro Spring Trail

Chisos Mountains

Early Morning Fog Lifting Off Chisos Mountains

Video: Chisos Basin Road, BBNP

Rio Grande

Boquillos Canyon, Wild Burro

Boquillos Canyon, Rio Grande, Mexico on the Right

Rio Grande, Sierra del Carmen Mountains, Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

We spent a day at CCNP exploring the Big Room which is one of the 119 caverns that have been discovered so far. The Big Room is the 5th largest limestone cavern in North America. It is 4000 feet long, 255 feet high and over 600 feet wide! The Big Room presents a fantastical display of columns, stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, soda straws and popcorn. You can actually see the formations happening as water draining downward leaves deposits of calcium carbonate – quite fascinating to see this happening real time.

You can reach the Big Room by elevator or hike in via the natural entrance to the cavern. We hiked down the series of switchbacks which eventually take you down 800 feet to the cavern floor. We thought the most breathtaking views we experienced were on the hike down – so we were glad we hiked down. We did however opt to take the elevator back up to the surface.

While this national park is largely about the massive cavern system below the surface there are a number of good hikes in the canyons within the park and a terrific 9.5 mile loop drive (unpaved) through Walnut Canyon.

We recommend a visit to this park in conjunction with other attractions in the area but not as a single destination. Carlsbad is adjacent to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and can easily be combined into a single destination trip.

One thing to remember is there is no lodging or camping within CCNP. It really is a day use facility. We camped on public lands in the Chihuahuan Desert about five miles south of the park – primitive camping.

Be seeing you!

P.S. If you travel from the north avoid Texas Route 652 if at all possible. Route 652 begins at the New Mexico – Texas border and connects to Route 285. Route 652 runs right through the heart of the Mid-Continent Oil Field which is in the middle of a major boom. The roads are a mess and the two lane road is congested with heavy trucks driven by crazed people!

Video Clip – Camp Site Chihuahuan Desert, Mile Marker 10

ABQ – White Sands – Lincoln National Forest

After our stay in ABQ we began our journey to southern New Mexico to visit White Sands National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We travel the backways as much as we can in order to take in as much natural beauty as possible. Fortunately, New Mexico offers many opportunities to travel overland on dirt roads and trails through public lands managed by the BLM and NFS.

From ABQ we journeyed overland via the Quebradas Backway which took us through rolling hills and canyons. Beautifully striated ridgelines are in view to the west throughout the length of the backway.

After completing the backway we continued further south stopping in Truth or Consequences before camping north of Las Cruces. Truth or Consequences was originally named named Hot Springs for the 40 different hot springs located in the town. The town changed its name to Truth or Consequences in 1950 to in order to have the radio show of the same name aired in town for the shows tenth anniversary. Our only recommendation if you find yourself in T or C is to stop into Ingo’s Art Cafe, have a cup of coffee and meet Ingo.

White Sands National Park is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. It is truely unique with its ever changing landscape of wind sculpted dunes that cover 275 square miles of the Tularosa Basin. The other unique feature is that the national park sits inside the White Sands Missile Range. When missiles are being fired the park closes for obvious safety reasons – check before you go so you are not disappointed.

We think the park can be experienced in one day by driving the loop road and taking a couple of hikes into the dunes. You will also see kids sledding on the dunes.

Video Clip

Video Clip

After leaving White Sands we traveled up into the Sacramento Mountains of the Lincoln National Forest. The Sacramento Mountains rise right up out of the basin floor to an elevation of over 8000 feet above sea level. There are a number of vista points that provide surreal views of the White Sands dunefield below.

Lincoln NF has hundreds of hiking trails through out the forest. The town of Cloudcroft sits at the top of the range, a cute mountain town that is a good base camp for hiking in the forest and offers several good restaurants and coffee shops. High Altitude outfitters is an excellent shop for anything you need for your outdoor activities and Black Bear Coffee will get you caffeinated. A number of the trails utilize the railbed from the former Almagordo & Sacramento Mountain Railroad which hauled timber down through the Fresnel Canyon. The railroad shutdown in 1947 but a number of the impressive trestles are still standing and can be seen while hiking. We also came upon several abandoned homesteads while hiking in the forest.

Be seeing you!

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

During our stay in Santa Fe we traveled south through the Cochiti Pueblo to hike at the KKTRNM. This monument is jointly managed by the Cochiti Pueblo and the Bureau of Land Management as the monument is only accessible by travel through the pueblo. The monument is a geologist’s delight as the Jemez volcanic eruptions left a thousand feet of tuff which has eroded into formations of caprock topped hoodos and tent rocks.

The hiking here features a short loop trail that provides fine views of a number of caprocks and several clusters of tent rocks. The real treat is the out and back slot canyon trail which winds its way up to a small table top at 6,760 feet elevation. The 360 view from the top is expansive and also provides a great birds eye view of several large formations of hoodos.

The Cochiti people are descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi). There are apx. 528 Cochiti remaining on the pueblo today. The total territory of the pueblo is just 1.2 square miles while the reservation manages about 54,000 acres of land.

The Cochiti were permanently displaced from their original lands by Spanish conquistadors in 1598. Subsequently, the Catholic Church followed the conquistadors and began to force the Cochiti to practice Catholicism. You know the rest of the story………

We definitely recommend spending time here if you are in either Santa Fe or Albuquerque. Our only caveat is that this monument is very crowded in the summer months due to very limnited parking at the trail heads. Also, this is a day area with no camping.

Be seeing you!

Bandelier National Monument

As we mentioned in closing our last post we were planning on traveling south to spend two days exploring and camping at Chaco Culture National Historical Park near Nageezi, NM. Chaco Canyon was occupied as early as 900 B.C. and as an archaeological site is on par with the fantastic Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. Unfortunately, the storm that passed through northern New Mexico rendered the 25 mile dirt road into the park impassable.

Not to worry! Northern New Mexico is rich with significant archaelogical sites. In fact, there are 19 ancestral locations which can be accessed in the Four Corners Region. So after a brief stopover in the badlands surrounding Angel Peak we set our sights on Bandelier National Monument.

The Angel Peak Recreation Area is managed by the BLM. It is a beautiful area of desolate badlands, occasionally marred by oil or fracking sites scattered through out the 10,000 acres. Angel Peak is still worth a visit.

We joined Route 96 to make the drive to Bandelier NP. Route 96 runs north then east skirting the northern boundary of the Santa Fe National Forest and parallels the Old Spanish National Historic Trail. This area is sparsely settled with only five settlements along the 60 miles -between Cuba and Abiquiu. The total population of all of the settlements is apx. 500 people.

Abiquiu is where artist Georgia O’Keefe did much of her painting while in New Mexico. We plan on visiting the Georgia O’Keefe Museum when we visit Santa Fe.

Badlands in Angel Peak Recreation Area

Angel Peak (elev. 6988 feet) Background Upper Left Frame

Sangre de Christo Mountains

Rio Chama from White Rock

Bandelier National Monument is a relatively small (33,000 acres) monument but protects an area of mesas and canyons where humans lived as long as 11,000 years ago. This area features both cliff dwellings and multi-room dwellings on the canyon floor. Much of the material here is tuff (compacted volcanic ash) which allowed the Puebloans to carve into the cliffs.

There are a number of dwellings where you can climb up into cliff dwellings using ladders modeled after the ladders the Puebloans used. The Alcove House pictured below provides the opportunity to climb up a series of ladders and provide the view of the canyon that the Ancesteral Puebloans had so long ago. Additionally, there are many petroglyphs on the cliff walls.

Alcove House

Maria Climbing One of the Four Ladders required to Reach Alcove House

View from Alcove House – 140 Feet Above Canyon Floor

Large Kiva on Frijoles Canyon Floor

BNP was closed to the public during World War 2 as the buildings and lodging were appropriated for the Manhattan Project which was based in nearby Los Alamos. The Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos depicts the history of the Manhattan Project which produced the first atomic bombs which were dropped on Japan in an attempt to hasten the end of the war with Japan. Replicas of the “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” atomic bombs pictured below.

Bradbury Science Museum, Los Alamos

BNP is within easy driving distance of Santa Fe. The park offers primitive camping and there are hotels in nearby White Rock. We would recommend visiting in the off season as parking is limited and the crowds make for lines if you want to climb up into the dwellings (according to the park rangers). We recommend one to two days here in order to hike the Frey Trail, visit the Long House, the Alcove House and the Falls Trail.

Be seeing you!

P.S. The Revolt Coffee truck is parked on Route 4 in White Rock so you can grab a great coffee to go on your way into or out of the monument.

Bisti/Di-Na-Zin Wilderness Area

From Mesa Verde National Park we traveled south into New Mexico spending our first night in Farmington (fika @ Studio Bake Shoppe). From Farmington we journeyed due south on NM371 through the Navajo Nation to access the Bisti Badlands. As wilderness areas by defintion allow no motorized traffic the only access from the parking area is by foot. There are no trails or markers of any sort. So bring your compass and utilize your gps. Line of sight navigation is impossible as once you enter into the outcroppings you are in a maze of strange sandstone, shale, coal, mudstone and silt formations. There are a plethora of hoodoos and just strange looking features that evolve based on the ongoing wind and water erosion that takes place with these soft materials.

The closest lodging is in Farmington which is apx. 40 miles north. There is no developed camping within the vicinty of the access area. However, exploring here is an easy day trip from Farmington. We boondocked in the wilderness area.

Our next segment will be at the Chaco NHP to visit more ancesteral sites assuming the road is passable in the aftermath of the major storm the occurred overnight.

Be seeing you!

Mesa Verde National Park

This trip will take us through New Mexico and deep into (the heart of) Texas before turning east along the Gulf Coast and eventually driving back to Connecticut. As usual we began our trip in Salt Lake City where we have been storing the Beast between trips.

After a day of travel to SLC and a day of preparing the Beast for this journey we departed for Moab, UT. We spent an overnight in Moab, UT (Moab Coffee Roasters) before traveling to southwestern Colorado to view some of the finest examples of Peubloan cliff and mesa communities in existence today.

Mesa Verde National Park was created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 for the explicit purpose of preserving the remarkable Ancesteral Peublo architecture. Mesa Verde was occupied by the Pueblo people for about 750 years beginning in 550 A.D.

MVNP is definitely a bit off the beaten path but we think more than worth the drive. The park is laid out with a loop drive that allows you to see many of the cliff villages from excellent view points. There are a number of kivas that have been excavated which are easily accessible by foot.

In the summer months you can also tour several of the cliff dwellings on ranger guided tours. The Far View Lodge offers acommodations with outstanding views of the mesa and canyons below. There is also a small musueum located in the park about twenty miles from the entrance.

There are a number of indigenous sites in the Four Corners area which could easily be combined with a visit to MVNP for an extended tour; Canyons of the Ancients and Chaco Culture National Historic Park are two major sites.

A definite recommend on our part.

Be seeing you!