4 trails, 3 days, 2 people, 1 excellent adventure! Charles and I just completed our three day bikepacking trip through the Monongahela National Forest from Lewisburg WV (near the Greenbrier Inn) to Deep Creek Lake in MD. It was a fantastic tour of about 210 miles over very remote terrain, mostly rail trails, but some rural chip and seal roads, gravel and finally smooth pavement into DCL. Lots of great industrial history in the area in addition to the riding, which included the gently sloped rail trails and some fairly steep hills that we used to connect the trails. These were very hard with a fairly loaded touring rig. And of course we found local beer at all of our overnight stops, which were not camping… The short version in video form:
For the long version, read on!
I had done two trips on the C&O Canal Towpath in 2012 and 2013, but after the 2018 Edition of Charles’ and Alex’s Excellent Adventure from Pittsburgh to DC I really got the bug to do more off road riding on my gravel bike. Google maps is a great first order tool to scout locations. Just turn on the “Bicycling” feature, zoom out and pan to an area you know is not in a big city and you get a sense for where trails might be. Lisa does a fair amount of work in West Virginia so I focused there as I could stay with her on some of her business trips and ride during the day.
In the fall of 2018, we spent a couple days in the Clarksburg area and I rode some of the North Bend Rail Trail (Clarksburg to Parkersburg) and the Southern/Northern Harrison County Hike and Bike Trail. These were just out and back day trips but it really fueled my hunger for more of this remote off road riding. A few pictures from that trip:
A little later in the fall of 2018 we made a trip to Deep Creek Lake (DCL) to visit friends and I again used the Google to scout potential rides. I found the Allegheny Highlands Rail Trail (more on this later) and scouted a ride from Parson WV to Elkins WV and returning on a gravel road along Shavers Fork river. A quick video of that loop, which gives you a sense for this kind of riding:
Route Planning For the 2019 Edition
After those trips in the fall of 2018 I started to think bigger: multi-day trips in remote parts West Virginia. A few of the things I really like about this area are obviously the trail riding, but from a cultural standpoint there is so much history of the area from the 1900s relating to Timber and Coal and the associated network of railroads that enabled this intense industrial expansion. This post is about biking and not railroad history, but if that is of interest, here’s a great site that goes into some detail of the Western Maryland Railway and its right of way. This former network of railroads makes this an attractive place for bikepacking because a number of rail alignments that have been repurposed as rail trails. These alignments are typically 1-2% grades that are easy to negotiate with a fully loaded bikepacking set up. However, as you will see, there can be some steeper rail trails and often one needs to use surface (paved or gravel) roads to connect between trails which can be really steep.
In looking at trails in the eastern West Virginia area, one of the longest is the Greenbrier River Trail at slightly less that 80 miles from Lewisburg to Cass. With that as a starting point, I started to look for a multi-day destination. I have friends at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland so that was a convenient endpoint. The next thing was connecting the dots with other trails or paved/gravel roads and breaking the distances up into manageable days. Also since we were not planning on camping, we had to end days in a place that had lodging opportunities.
Fortunately, Google maps satellite view has just enough resolution to see whether there is an actual, road although one can not really tell what the surface is and there is really no street view for rural roads. But I did locate Back Mountain Rd (CR 1) that ran parallel to the Greenbrier River to fill the gap between Cass and Durbin where the West Fork Trail starts. The best information I could find on the West Fork Trail was a site called www.wvbike.org which has great sets of pictures for the West Fork Trail as well as descriptions of the route. However, all the pictures were 10+ years old and in this area and since the trail is owned by the National Park Service we were really unsure of what we would find. From the end of the West Fork Trail in Glady WV to Elkins we had a few options over land but chose again via Google to use Bemis Rd (CR 22) into Elkins WV from the south and again from the satellite view it appeared to be unpaved until close to Elkins. From Elkins to Thomas WV was via the Allegheny Highlands Trail that I rode last year followed by the Blackwater Canyon Trail, another trail with very little information about the conditions. wvbike.org site, also has a good description of the trail, but also about 10 years old. I found another description of the trail and it warned of being very rugged, but you never really know because it depends on the experience and perspective of the writer. From Thomas to the southern end Deep Creek Lake I again found some back roads. We were able to stay away from busy US or State routes with fast traffic for much of the ride.
The next step was to start mapping the route out using my favorite mapping and navigation too Ride With GPS. Many people use Komoot.com, but I have a lot of experience with Ride With GPS and I really like it. Below is a composite of the three routes. The green and red are alternatives for day two, and we ended up using the “alt 1” (red route using Bemis Rd) because it looked a bit more “sporty”. Ride with GPS produces turn by turn directions that you can export and import into a Garmin bike computer to give you excellent navigation without any internet connectivity. Also you can download offline maps to use in the Ride With GPS app on a smartphone as a backup with a bit more resolution. This was important because there is virtually zero cell coverage in this area.
The full Ride With GPS Event has the overview and detailed route maps.
Once we looked at the distances and the relative difficulties of the routes based on elevation and expected conditions, we started looking for suitable lodging and found good places in Lewisburg, Cass and Elkins. The efforts for each day were all similar with the first being the longest, but flattest and the second the shortest but with the hardest climbing. The last day into Maryland was long, but had mostly rolling hills. More on each in the description of each day’s ride.
Given the A-B nature of this ride, logistics were going to be a challenge and we knew there would be some driving involved. It is very unfortunate that no bikes are allowed on the the Amtrak route that goes from Washington DC past the White Sulpher Spring (where the Greenbrier Inn is) because had we been able to do that, we would not have had to leave – and retrieve after – a car in Lewisburg. But Amtrak still has this thing about no checked bags/bikes on untended stations like White Sulpher Springs. Thankfully on the Capital Limited to Pittsburgh, they now have bike racks which makes logistics on the GAP/C&O much easier. Oh well, maybe eventually they get their heads out of their butts and figure this out.
My bike is a Raleigh Roker gravel bike with a SRAM Rival1 1×11 setup with 42 chain ring and 11×42 cassette. I use the following gear:
- Ortlieb Top-Tube Frame Pack
- Ortlieb 16.5 L Seat-Pack
- Apidura Expedition Top Tub Pack
- Dual seat post water bottles and standard frame mounted bottle (4 – 16oz bottle total)
Since we were in a very remote area I carried a lot of extra stuff:
- 2 tubes, patch kit, tire boot, waxed thread/needle to sew ripped tires
- multitool, hand pump
- front/rear lights
- electronics: extra battery, charging cables, ac/usb bricks, go pro/extra battery, iPhone, Garmin 520
- tape, zip ties, laundry detergent, chamois creme
- cliff bars/hammer gel/heed powder
- 2 short sleeve kits
- knee/arm warmers
- long sleeve cycling jesey
- casual t-shirt/shorts
- lightweight sneakers
- rain jacket
- sun hat
The drive out to Lewisburg was about 4.5 hours and we left Thursday afternoon just in time to beat the DC mess westward. Of course it would not be Charles’ and Alex’s Excellent Adventure if there were not rain involved and it did not disappoint. Big thunderstorms in the Shenandoah Valley:
Once in Lewisburg, we checked into the Relax Inn, unloaded our bikes and gear and made a beeline to the Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company to sample some local beer – this will be a theme of this ride – and then to a local restaurant Del Sol for some excellent Mexican food.
We went to sleep relatively early anticipating the long next day – as it was raining out.
The morning brought chilly, humid and overcast weather, but we were raring to go. After packing the bikes, taking the requisite “we’re off” pictures and social media, we stopped up the street at Biscuit World for the morning’s fuel.
The route for the day was the entire length of the Greenbrier River Trail, which was very straightforward. We had about a 4 mile ride to the Greenbrier River trail head and because we mapped the route from the trail head, didn’t realize there was quite the descent down to the valley. It was basically the same vertical as the entire 77 miles of the trail in about 4 miles. Wheeeeeee! The profile from the Strava record for the day tells the story of the descent:
The Greenbrier River Trail has a very similar feel as the C&O Canal Towpath in terms of scenery, especially the early parts of the C&O up near Paw Paw, but the surface is MUCH better being mostly crushed limestone or pea gravel double track with the river on one side. Fortunately, the trail bed is always significantly above the river so doesn’t flood like the C&O, keeping the trail surface in much better condition, even with the rain the previous day and evening. We really did not see anyone other than a few other touring cyclists headed the “right” direction (downhill) when we navigated a downed tree over the trail. Also, despite indications of places for food and water on the Greenbrier River Trail maps and names of essentially defunct towns on Google maps, we did not find anything other than a few camp sites until we got to Marlinton at mile 58. There are some good services there and a great Cafe/Bikeshop called the Dirtbean where we had an excellent pizza for lunch.
We pushed on uneventfully to Cass and arrived after about six and a half hours of riding immediately hitting the Cass Company Store for a coke and pickle as it was quite warm by that time of the day. We headed across the river to the Bear Creek Lodge to check in, buy a few craft beer singles, clean up and chill. The Bear Creek Lodge is simple, but well apportioned and clean and they have a full set of services including wifi (there is no cell service near Cass), a general store and restaurant on the first floor.
Cass began as a company town for those who worked for West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, logging the nearby Cheat Mountain. Cass’s skilled laborers, who worked in the mill or the locomotive repair shop, lived with their families in 52 white-fenced houses, built in orderly rows on a hill south of the general store. In 1960 the mill closed. In 1963, the state bought the logging railroad and converted it into a tourist attraction, carrying passengers into the vast Monongahela National Forest. In the late 1970s, the state bought most of the town and its buildings for the new Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. More on Cass. It might be fun to take some of the train trips out of Cass sometime.
After cleaning up and a beer, we spent some time doing the usual chores: bike maintenance, washing/hanging kit and charging various devices. Then we headed over the the Company Store for some dinner and retired back to the lodge to prepare for day 2.
For the most part there were no real surprises on the route, as there is a fair amount of information on the web about the experience along the trail. Although long with a loaded bikepacking rig, it was not a particularly hard ride. The only notable thing was the more rural than expected nature as mentioned above.
Strava Day 1: https://www.strava.com/activities/2394203473
As is typical in a river valley, we woke up early to cool temperatures and mist hanging over the Greenbrier River valley. The restaurant downstairs from the Bear Creek Lodge was not open until 8am, so we got packed up for the day and ready to go before heading down for free coffee and a filling, inexpensive breakfast.
The route for day two contained the most uncertainty of the ride. This part of West Virginia is definitely not on the typical casual cycling day trip radar since it is quite remote. As shown on the route overview above, the only official trail in the day 2 route is the West Fork Trail, but there are gaps on either side of the trail. In addition to the trail gaps, there is very little information about conditions on the West Fork Trail. Our route took us along CR 1 from Cass to Durbin. From Google Satellite view it appeared this route would be unpaved, but turned out to be really nice chip and seal, a bit of a treat. After a climb out of Cass, there were lots of pleasant rolling hills with some beautiful scenery and eventually a fast descent into Durbin and across the river to the start of the West Fork Trail. The bridge across the Greenbrier River was closed; it appears structurally unsound, but certainly passable on a bike.
The West Fork Trail ended up being about what was expected, basically a single/double track mountain bike track. In places where there was a lot of sun, the grass was quite tall, but the trail was intact under the tree cover. The Park Service probably only mows the trail every few years. I really expected it to be almost impassable eventually the farther up we got, but it never got to that point. We only managed to average about 5 mph as it does go gently uphill, hard to see, but you can definitely feel it, especially going through the tall grass. As shown in the profile below, there is the “Lynn Divide” between river watersheds flowing north or south and it was a nice surprise to that we had a downhill-ish run to the end of the trail. Toward the end in Glady there were a lot of horseback tracks and a bunch of horse trailers in Glady, although we did not actually see any riders on the trail.
Along the trail there were informational signs that illustrated the history of the timber and coal industries that went gangbusters in the early 1900s. The WV Bike site has a really good overview of that history. I took pictures of all the signs to read and digest later because the bugs were biting if we stopped too long – note to self: don’t forget bug spray/lotion! Here’s collection of all the signs along the trail. Amazing that this entire area was completely, I mean completely clear cut and looked like it had been bombed out.
Once off the trail in Glady – pronounced I learned later “Glade-y”, you know because it looks like a glade, not Glad-y, a name your grandmother might have – we climbed out of the valley. We talked about checking out the closed rail tunnel under Cheat Mountain, but opted to keep going. Bemis Rd (CR 22) over Shavers Mountain between the West Fork and Shavers Fork rivers has some brand new, buttery smooth pavement. It was short and steep on the way up, perhaps 15-18% and my 42×42 gear was a bit tall with the gear and full complement of water, but easy enough to grunt over. Charles had a bit easier time with a 36×42. The descent down into Bemis WV was awesome and when we crossed Shavers Fork, there were to our surprise quite a number of people swimming off the bridge enjoying a warm Memorial Day weekend. It was a little surprising to see so many people after not seeing anyone all morning.
Then the fun began – “sporty” it was! We knew the elevation of the climb over Cheat Mountain based on the Ride With GPS profile, but we again had no idea of the surface conditions. This time, we were surprised in the other direction, because not only was it unpaved, it was very rough gravel and large rocks with washouts. At about 6% and 5 miles up and 5 down, it was a grind with 20 lbs of gear on the bike. I climb a bit faster than Charles, due in large part to my taller lowest gear. He was able to spin better; I had to just grunt it out. It was a very inconsistent surface and we ended up weaving all over the road looking for a smooth line.
We ended up seeing a lot of ATVs and the drivers kept joking “you’re almost there”. We chatted a little and they offered some water, but were were all set and of course had the routes in the Garmins, so joked with them we weren’t fooled. This is one of the really awesome things about riding in this kind of remote area, the people are super relaxed and friendly! While the ride up was hard, the descent was tiring having to be on the brakes a lot, but at least it was much quicker.
Once back on paved roads, it was gently downhill all the way into Elkins from the south. The weather forecast was for thunderstorms all afternoon, but thankfully, we were off Bemis Road over Cheat Mountain before we had any significant precipitation. The ascent would have been a slippery mess in the rain. We never had much direct rain but the ground near Elkins had a lot of puddles, so we must have gotten lucky. We cruised into Elkins as the sun came out and it was quite hot. Even though the day was the shortest at about 60 miles we were pretty tired from the Cheat Mountain climb and really had not had any real food all day, just cliff bars and a gel, so I was ready to be done and not thinking particularly clearly, getting a little turned around (maybe just old age and declining sense of direction?). We arrived at our lodging for the evening, The Brewstel on Davis St. in the center of Elkins.
There are a lot of other more tradition options for lodging in Elkins as it is a reasonable sized city, however part of what I like about these kinds of trips is to learn about the area and contribute to the local economy in a real way. What really resonated with me about the Brewstel – a combination micro brewery and a traditional hostel – is the uniqueness of the business model as well as more personal contact with locals and contributing directly to the local economy. Upstairs there are two bunk rooms with 6 bunks in each room. There are several shared bathrooms and a shared kitchen. It’s very basic but functional and clean. They do rent sheets/pillow/blankets too, which is great for bikepacking. We were able to carry our bikes upstairs and lock/store them on their back deck with no problems. They do a lot of business in the winter as a low cost option for skiers at Snowshoe.
Once we got checked in and showered, we went downstairs for a beer. They brew very small batches on site and have some live bands. Charles had a Mango Habanero Blonde Ale and I had a Rusty Bucket IPA. The habanero ale was interesting, but the heat was very pronounced and seemed a little like drinking fireball so not sure I like that combination of flavors. We were pretty hungry and went down the street to Ginos Italian restaurant for some basic comfort food (evidently an “interesting” choice we heard later). But the ultimate destination for the day was Big Timber Brewing which Charles had scoped out before the trip.
I had a couple of Doublebit IPAs which I really, really liked. We chatted with the bar tender and another patron for quite a while and got some local scoop on Elkins, which still has a lot of employment in the timber industry, although current practices fortunately have moved to a sustainable model. Evidently the brewer’s family still owns and operates a saw mill. I was impressed all around and had to have a Big Timber t-shirt to bring home. After the beers we stumbled back up the street to the Brewstel. I had a good time chilling and chatting with the 20 somethings staying there. It’s definitely a young person’s establishment. My only negative comment about the Brewstel was that their live music was heavy metal (not my favorite genre) and it was loud until about 12:30am, but it was a Saturday night so to be expected. In the future I would definitely stay there again on a bike trip, but maybe not on a live music night if I were going to get up early. In retrospect it would have been better to just go listen to the music rather than try and sleep through it even though I was dead tired.
Strava Day 2: https://www.strava.com/activities/2397068291
I woke up at about 5:30am after not a great nights sleep (still antsy from metal music thumping my bunk…), and walked around downtown Elkins waiting for the Mountain Mart to open at 6am to get some coffee. We were packed and out by about 7:30am and headed to Scotties of Elkins for a great breakfast. The route for the day included two trails followed by about 25 miles of back roads in Maryland up to Deep Creek.
From Scotties, a mile north we picked up the Allegheny Highlands Trail. As mentioned above, I rode this last year although it was in the other direction. It’s basically a slight incline up with a long run down into Parsons. We stopped at the construction site for the overpasses of the Corridor H highway which will eventually go right over the trail. We stopped briefly in Parsons to rewater and head on to the next unknown part of the ride, the Blackwater Canyon Trail. As with the West Fork Trail, it turned out to be basically single track with a pretty good surface on the track. It was a little soft in places due to the off and on rain during the day, but all in all very pleasant and the rain, mist and occasional sun poking through made it really beautiful. About half way up we chatted with a family of 4 that was riding down with a pickup at the bottom, the more typical way people ride the trail. At the end of the single track, but not at the top, we stopped and hiked down to the falls, a definite highlight.
After the falls we continued on to Thomas WV and were looking to find some lunch. We were a bit antsy to keep going and did not want to go to a sit down restaurant, especially since there were a fair number of day trip tourists there, so we ate a bar and set out on the last mile or so of trail, some boulder sized gravel to finish off the trail part of the ride. We eventually existed onto US 219 for a few miles north and then turned off to CR 9 towards Fairfax Stone which is right at the tip of Maryland. We stayed on this chip and seal road (Kempton Rd) all the way up to the ridge of Backbone Mountain where it meets US 50. I had found a gravel road that descends Backbone Mountain, connecting to some other back roads into Oakland that I have ridden on in the past. However, I should have realized we might not want to do this given Google Maps did not show a road even though the satellite view indicated one. As we looked down this 20% grade, we saw a jeep bouncing up it and decided we were so done with the gnarl by that point, especially since we had gone through several hard downpours since getting into Maryland. “Garrett County sunshine” we call it.
So we took the easy way out using US 50 to US 219 to MD 135 to Deep Creek which all have nice wide shoulders despite fast moving traffic. A freewheeling 40 mph descent off Backbone mountain definitely beat a 20% pounding gravel road! When we turned onto 219 there was an excellent 20 mph SW tailwind and the riding was pretty easy. At that point about 3pm I was really, really hungry not having had any real food all day and saw Saffiticker’s ice cream shop so promptly screeched off and grabbed a soft serve ice cream.
I commented on Facebook that even though it was not “real food” it was damn good, and was quickly corrected that soft serve IS a food group all on its own! The rest of the route was uneventful other than Charles getting a flat with just a few miles to go. Isn’t that how it always works?? We arrived at Deep Creek about 5 pm, hot and tired ready for a shower and beers with friends!
Strava Day 3: https://www.strava.com/activities/2400138976
Monday ended up being an 11 hour day in the car to unwind the logistics. I drove Charles back to Lewisburg via US 33 to get his car – which he drove directly back to Annapolis – and I then drove back to Deep Creek via US 219 to get Lisa (who had driven up to Deep Creek) and then we drove back to Annapolis later Monday night. At least Monday was a beautiful day and the scenery was nice. Made me realize, damn we rode a long way.
All in all, it was an excellent trip. This direction was definitely more up than down, but that what makes it fun! A full album of uncurated photos can be found here.