The Greenbrier River Trail

Many of West Virginia’s scenic river valleys are lined with abandoned railroad tracks that at one time served huge coal mining and logging industries, only to deteriorate and eventually be converted into recreational trails. The Greenbrier River Trail is the biggest of them, and a cycling destination that has been on my list for years.

It begins just north of I-64, following the Greenbrier River northward along river bends and rolling green ridges for 78 miles before reaching its terminus at the town of Cass. I arrived at the south end in my car at 9am on a Saturday morning with my bike and gear.

I planned to ride almost the entire trail in one day, stopping at a reserved campground near the northern end, and then looping back the next day to Caldwell on country roads. It was an ambitious plan at best, exhausting at the worst. But awesome no matter how rough it gets. I got my cargo out of the car, loaded it up on the bike and got moving. Right away, I hit a surface of crushed limestone gravel and paced for a long ass ride into summer morning fog.

Soon, the trail was busy with other cyclists and hikers, and an occasional horseback rider. The trail went along mostly under a forested canopy, only to break out into a scenic vista through the openings in the trees. By late morning, the sun angled over the eastern ridge and onto the Greenbrier River, which had more than its share of weekend paddlers, canoes, fishing poles, intertubes, and beer.

Beautiful, though a complete and utter pain in my touring bike. I pride my bike for the rugged steel husk that it is, but it had no suspension, thin tires, cargo, and this trail was almost entirely gravel on an upriver incline.

After 20 miles, the shock started wearing in my palms and feet, and I started feeling exhausted. I was out of shape and untrained, and hurt just about everywhere. Every mile hurt than the one before it, and I wasn’t even halfway there.

Hours and distance went by in a blur before I reached the town of Marlinton around mile 55. It was mid-afternoon and I was glad to see pavement again, if only for a few miles. Marlinton is the only town along the trail of any size, and is typically a stopping point by cyclists for its food and lodging. I was on a schedule and was hours behind, so I made a quick stop for water and then kept going northward out of the town and back into the woods.

With 20 miles to go, I pushed onward into the late afternoon, already way past whatever my breaking point was supposed to be. Everything hurt. My feet, my bruised hands, my neck, and my ass on the saddle. 16 miles to go. It felt like 160. After what seemed like an hour, I got to another milemarker. 14 miles.. 13.5.. a tunnel.. 12… AAAGH!!!

As I crawled along, the sun began its descent to the west, casting an orange hue on the eastern ridges. 5 miles left, by the gods. My body was screaming at me to get off and just walk the rest of the way. With 3 miles to go, I could hardly even pedal. I wasn’t even looking ahead anymore.

I finally reached the crossing road, turned left, and climbed up a small hill to the main building. I got this, but Fuck. Me. I am getting a BEATING.

Somewhere around here was a campground area. The main house was empty, there was one RV behind it that was also empty. An empty barn and stable. Houses along the road were also empty. Nobody was around. And I needed to find my campsite before it got any darker.

I pedaled further up the driveway and tried knocking on a few doors to ask people if they knew. Nobody answered. I was almost about to keep looking around the gravel driveways further up the ridge for this elusive campground when I spotted fire rings in the yard behind the main building. A hassle, but I found it (not their fault; I told the guy that I would be there around 5, and by 5 I meant more like 8).

I sat down in cool grass to eat dinner as a waxing gibbous moon rose above the ridge across the river like a sharp white stone in the lavender summer sky. It was a couple days shy of the Strawberry Moon, my favorite full moon of the year. Over the years, the early summer evenings always brought good times, whether they be trips or hanging out with friends. And a blazing moon would always rise in the east. To me, it is when my summer truly begins.

The rushing water below echoed across the darkening hollows and ridgelines of the river valley to the chorus of a million locusts. Mist gathered, creating a canopy over the campground, and the world faded into a well-earned dreamless sleep under the river fog.

I was two miles from the northern terminus of the trail and the town of Cass, the location of the historic Cass Scenic Railroad. From there, old coal fired locomotives take tourists into to the mountains all summer long. And just eight miles northeast in the next valley, the Green Bank Telescope Observatory has huge radio telescopes that tower above the campus, gathering radio signals and data from outer space.

I had been to both of these places as a kid, and planned to ride out to both again the next morning, only to forego that idea and head southward instead.

First, I was exhausted. Second, skipping them would mean getting back to my car around mid-afternoon instead of mid-evening. And third, the forecast was calling for late afternoon thunder. I could take a shortcut out to 92 and head south from there first thing, saving about 3 hours before storms began hitting the countryside.

So that’s what I did, heading eastward and then south on winding country roads. It was great to be on pavement again, even though I was out of shape and taking breaks every 20 minutes. One night isn’t enough time to rebuild overworked muscles, so I had to just eat it and keep going. I made it to White Sulphur Springs around 3pm, crossed the river, and finally got back to my car and the south trailhead. All with just enough time to air dry my gear before a huge, dark thunderhead rumbled in from the southwest. I drove straight into what was certainly one of many hard downpours to hit Appalachia that day.

The Greenbrier River Trail was beautiful, but I probably won’t ride it again anytime soon. I’m a few weeks approaching a tour in the Canadian Rockies, and I clearly have a lot of training to do.