West Virginia’s New Mountain Bike Trails Gets Gentle, Not Wild
Mountain biking, like other outdoor activities, has grown in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bike sales increased by more than 150% in 2020, and some mountain bike trails saw more than five times the increase in traffic, said David Wiens, executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association.
These new runners, many of whom are children or families, present a challenge and an opportunity for areas of the United States where this warmer weather, often the sport of downhill, is prevalent. This is why mountainous states like Colorado, California, and Utah are turning to “flow” style paths.
Where old-fashioned mountain bike trails were often rugged and steep, the smooth courses aim to make it easier for newbies to the sport with smoother surfaces, wider widths and sloping edges. Rolling and scenic, the Flow Trails are named for the way they put cyclists in a concentrated trance state where the rest of the world crumbles. “It’s a rhythmic, almost musical way of the track interacting with a mountain bike,” says Wiens.
These easier and more elegant cycle paths are also found all over the Appalachians. West Virginia, which experiences less snow for skiing due to climate change, has been at the forefront of the movement, hoping to attract tourists who use two wheels instead of two poles.
“West Virginia is known for its mountain biking, but the trails here tend to be hard and gnarly,” says Doug Arbogast, professor of tourism at the West Virginia University Extension Service. “Our reputation is that West Virginia is a great place to be tortured and abused.”
That’s not the case on the new 3.2-mile Rock and Roll Trail from Cacapon Resort State Park in Berkley Springs, where Kevin Ellsworth and his five-year-old son Landon ride regularly. “This is the best family trail,” says Kevin of the flow style course. “My wife is a beginner and she can ride it. Landon can ride it. I like it and I run professionally.
Trails like this are popping up across West Virginia as part of a concerted effort to attract mountain bikers as tourists and new residents, while giving locals more ways to get active in the great outdoors, explains Chelsea Ruby, Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Tourism. “We’re really looking at how we build these beginner trails and how we bring these kids, and people of all ages, into the sport,” she says.
To broaden the state’s appeal to a greater variety of cyclists, many parks are building interconnected trail networks that include many beginner and intermediate level trails, he says. Flow-style paths are built by full-time trail builders using new, narrow and nimble construction equipment.
It can get expensive, says Mark Hoyle, mountain bike trails coordinator for the Cacapon Resort State Park Foundation. The Rock and Roll Trail, for example, cost $ 60,000, plus 1,200 hours of volunteer work.
“Parks are quickly seeing a return on their investment,” says Hoyle. “Every weekend I see five to 25 vehicles parked in Cacapon with bike racks, and the new lodge has been occupied by bikers.”
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While most cross-country ski trails are cross-country ski-style, ski resorts with warm-weather mountain biking programs are also following the trend. On the southeast side of the state, Snowshoe Mountain recently opened two new downhill trails: an intermediate called “Dirt Beaver” and a beginner-friendly trail called “Whistle Pig”. Both trail names are local terms for “groundhog”.
“I swear to you, we’re not obsessed with groundhogs here,” says Cole Evans, manager of the Snowshoe bike park. “We thought ‘Whistle Pig’ would be a fun, easy-going name that wasn’t intimidating at all.”
Whistle Pig, which opened in August 2021, has quickly become one of the park’s most popular trails, he adds. “I see people taking the trail over and over and then coming back and bringing friends,” Evans says.
As climate change shortens the ski season, parks like Snowshoe are increasingly turning to mountain biking to make up for lost income, says Arbogast. “Pocahontas County, where Snowshoe is located, tries to have equal tourism spending in summer and winter. Right now, they earn two-thirds of their money in the winter, ”he says.
West Virginia’s former coal towns also have a lot to gain in attracting mountain biking enthusiasts, Arbogast adds. “These abandoned mining lands have the perfect topography for mountain biking.”
A popular new flow trail on the west side of the state, at Mountwood Park, directly passes through the abandoned mining town of Volcano. The Pumphouse Trail, which opened in October 2018, slaloms around old wooden oil barrels and stone foundations dating from the 1860s.
“I like to call it a roller coaster through history,” says Chris Swarr, president of Mountwood Park.
Sustainable, eco-friendly, and a lot of fun, the Pumphouse Trail and similar trails are triumphs of modern engineering, adds Swarr. They use local materials, channel water to prevent erosion and become more stable with use. It’s a stark contrast to the unsustainable old school trails, which often follow fall lines and turn into gushing streams during torrential rains. Poorly designed trails also tend to get steeper over time, leading cyclists to take alternate paths and stomp on flora.
“We’re in the midst of a real renaissance in trail building,” he says.
Seeds of change
Zach Adams walks the Rock and Roll Trail on September 25, hours after it officially opened. He brushes aside some brush to reveal a stream of water gushing out from the side of the path.
“West Virginia: wild, wonderful and wet,” he says.
Adams, founder of the Appalachian Dirt trail building company, channeled runoff under the trail by building a French drain, a trench filled with rocks and topped with flatter rocks. All of the material used to build the trail was found at or near the trail site, Adams says. “I’m sort of rearranging the furniture here,” he says.
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Indeed, the Rock and Roll Trail almost seems to have arisen naturally from the landscape as it winds through lush undergrowth and ancient oak trees. To protect the trees near the trail, Adams carefully dug their roots by hand.
Another key sustainable practice, he says, is to avoid mixing soil types. In Cacapon, this meant separating the nutrient-rich topsoil from the sandy, orange soil below. He then used the orange ground to ‘pave’ the trail and build the bumps and berms that make it so fun to ride.
“The mineral-rich soil compacts and becomes harder over time,” says Adams. “The more you ride on it, the better.”
Once Adams was finished, the volunteers completed the trail by spreading the reserved topsoil over land that had been disturbed by the construction process. The seeds hidden in the ground quickly sprang to life and filled the undergrowth with mountain blueberries and other small plants, making it seem like the path had been there for decades.
Volunteering to build and maintain trails is a major part of mountain biking culture, and Hoyle hopes it will continue even as professionals like Adams take on the trail design. Visitors are always welcome to have fun, he adds.
“In tough times, it really feels good to get together and do something for the community,” Hoyle says.
Sadie Dingfelder is a writer based in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, who focuses on science, nature, and the arts. Follow her on Twitter or TikTok.
Cacapon Resort State Park: Access to the park’s 25.5 miles of mountain biking trails is free. Bring your own bike or rent one from C&O Bicyclles in Hancock, Maryland. Stay in the park’s newly renovated pavilion or in historic cabins. Other activities include: guided nature hikes, golf, and clay trap shooting.
Mountwood Park: Ride the the park’s 36-mile system of interconnected mountain bike trails for free. Rent a full suspension ATV from Marietta Adventure Company in nearby Marietta, Ohio. Stay in a primitive cabin or in a modern house by the lake. The park also includes a museum, mountain biking trails and a disc golf course.
Snowshoe mountain resort: An ATV park accessible via lift tickets is open from Memorial Day to mid-October. The resort also offers bicycle rental. There are several lodges and vacation rentals nearby.