Mountain Biking in the Mountain State
A Father & Son’s Journey on the North Bend Rail Trail in West Virginia
Story & Photos by Matt Bayman
A somewhat mystical experience happens when walking or riding your bike through the longest tunnel on the North Bend Rail Trail in West Virginia. Tunnel #6, known as Central Station, is 2,297-feet-long, or almost a half-mile. It is one of 10 former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tunnels that can be explored while mountain biking or hiking this 72-mile stretch of trail from Parkersburg to Clarksburg, roughly.
It takes close to nine minutes to walk through tunnel #6. While other tunnels on the trail bend and curve, #6 is nearly a straight line. This means you can see the exit of the tunnel before you ever enter it. However, about four minutes into the walk, your eyes and mind begin to play tricks on you. It becomes so dark that the small light at the end of the tunnel begins to appear to move upwards, as if you’re being pulled towards it or it’s floating away from you. A rush of adrenaline makes you walk faster, but the light doesn’t seem to get any closer. Eventually, you wonder if you’re moving at all. It’s kind of like that feeling you get when you’re sitting in a parked car and other vehicles begin to move around you, and you think you’re moving. Only it lasts for a very long time and it’s pitch-black! Eventually, the light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter, clearer and bigger, and you return to the daylight on the trail with a thankful feeling in your heart.
This unique experience, and the sensations that come with it, is just one of the reasons to mountain bike the North Bend Rail Trail, which is something my 12-year-old son, James, and I did over two days and one night in the spring.
While we have taken overnight cycling trips on paved trails in the past, before the North Bend Rail Trail we had never mountain biked on a multi-use trail for any great distance.
A multi-use trail is used for walking, horseback riding, snowmobiling and mountain biking, but not road cycling. Most of the time, the trail is a mix of dirt, gravel and grass, so road bikes would be futile.
The two days we spent riding across this beautiful and peaceful landscape turned out to be some of the most memorable of our lives, as well as an eye-opening experience that taught us about the joys and challenges of long-distance mountain biking. In the end, we both can’t wait to do it again!
What Is The North Bend Rail Trail?
To reiterate, the North Bend Rail Trail stretches 72 miles across north-central and western West Virginia. It largely follows U.S. Route 50, but often deviates far into the woods and countryside. The wilderness path, which was once a very important railroad line in the state, takes travelers across 36 bridges and through 10 tunnels. It is part of the 5,500-mile American Discovery Trail, which spans the length of the United States. Mountain bikers will occasionally pass a hiker making her or his away across the country on the trail.
The railroad was constructed between 1853 and 1857 and 13 of the original tunnels remain, 10 of which can be passed through on the trail. The #10 tunnel, west of Ellenboro, is a “raw” or natural tunnel, meaning it was bored through solid rock.
The North Bend Rail Trail has become one of the most renowned recreational trails through the Appalachians. Along with the bridges and tunnels, the trail is known for its mountainous scenery and rock cuts, its varied views of shaded tree canopies, and, maybe most of all, for the small towns, villages, farms and parks that it passes through, including North Bend State Park. To top it off, one of the tunnels, the “Silver Run Tunnel,” is allegedly haunted by a ghost!
This is the great thing about the trail, the scenery is constantly changing. One minute you’re in a small town eating ice cream at a Dairy Queen by the bike path and the next, you’re in the middle of the woods crossing a bridge that stands high above a river, or startling a deer, wild turkey, turtle, hawk or other wildlife living along the trail.
Although the area is hilly and somewhat mountainous, one of the reasons James and I chose the North Bend Rail Trail for our first overnight mountain biking trip is because the path stays relatively flat.
Many mountain biking trails in Appalachia are extremely hilly and rugged. Because the North Bend Rail Trail was once a railroad line, it was made to be as flat as possible. Inclines take miles and miles to climb, as well as miles and miles to descend. James and I started noticing this pattern, not talking much on the slightly more strenuous inclines, and chatting away on the other side. Usually, in the middle of the climb and descent is one of the 10 tunnels, which makes the extra effort worthwhile.
While many mountain biking enthusiasts desire hilly and rugged terrain, for me, flatter meant safer and less intensive. Most mountain biking accidents happen while going downhill at unsafe speeds. On the North Bend Rail Trail, this really isn’t possible.
Since James and I were both inexperienced, it seemed like a good place to start and learn.
The trail’s close proximity to U.S. 50 and civilization also makes it ideal for beginners. Even though the trail goes miles into rural landscapes and wooded areas (especially on the western section), help and supplies are really never far away. Cell phone reception also stays relatively strong. There were only a few times that we went out of range, and only for a short time. As a parent, this meant that if something did go wrong, I wouldn’t be helpless.
How To Use The Trail
There are several ways to experience the North Bend Rail Trail.
Since James and I had only one vehicle, and since we were limited to two days on the trail, we chose to ride the eastern section. This took us from Wolf Summit to North Bend State Park and then back to our car, a distance of about 80 miles. It also contains the most, and arguably best tunnels, including Central Station, but not the haunted tunnel.
While there are backcountry campsites available for free along the trail (some even have rustic bathrooms, shelters and grills - see picture below), another reason James and I chose the North Bend Rail Trail is because there are several hotels located in the middle of the trail system, namely a Sleep Inn in Ellensboro (where we stayed) and the North Bend State Park Lodge. Along with the Log House Homestead Bed and Breakfast located near the state park, these are the only three options available, but they’re all quality places located very close to the trail.
This means that, whichever direction you start from, after a full day of cycling, you have the option to sleep on a soft bed in the air conditioning and eat a hot meal at any number of hometown restaurants, all before doing it again the next day. The Sleep Inn also has a pool and hosts food trucks in its parking lot during warm months. Plus, without concern for carrying tents, poles, cooking gear, bedding, etc., all that cyclists staying at hotels along the trail have to carry is water, snacks and a change of clothes, which is exactly what James and I did. Our bags were slightly heavier in the morning when we had the most energy and the most food and water and light by the afternoon when we needed the extra help. We ate breakfast before our ride in the morning, stopped at a restaurant or diner in one small town or another for lunch and ate dinner near the hotel. It all seemed to work out well.
Some important items to bring on the trail include a powerful flashlight or headlight to navigate the tunnels, sunscreen and bug spray (although the insects really weren’t that bad), and a tire repair kit. We forgot all of these! We brought a flashlight, but it was too weak to matter in the tunnels. This probably led to our “mystical” experiences in the darkness, which James described as being like, “that creepy tunnel scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
A tire repair kit might be a good thing to have. While we never experienced any problems, the varied terrain and long distance of the trip does increase the likelihood of something happening. The makeup of the trail changes often. Sometimes, it is a mix of gravel and dirt, which is fairly easy to bike across. Other times it is like biking in an alley, which is great! The hardest times, which thankfully never last long, are cycling through a mix of sand and gravel or just straight through grass. There are a few sections that are paved, but they are few and far between. For 98 percent of the trip, it’s basically like biking on a gravel road, which can be tough on tires. If something were to go wrong on the trip, Dodd’s Sporting Goods in Ellensboro can assist with tire and bicycle repairs.
There is one type of gravel that is impassable, even for mountain bikes. It’s made up of large loose stones (2 and 4 inches in diameter) and is only found in several areas along the trail, including inside of several tunnels. Because of this, it is advisable to walk your bike through several of the tunnels and across any of these rough patches. But not to worry, it is possible to cycle through four or five of the shorter tunnels where the gravel is flat and stable and there is enough light to somewhat see the ground, even without the use of a flashlight. Riding through the tunnels in the dark, I might add, is also a unique and intense experience!
Another option for those with only one vehicle is to cycle the trail to its end and back, a distance of 144 miles. This would most likely require at least four days and three nights to do. The average mountain biker can cover about 6-7 miles per hour, which includes plenty of breaks and sightseeing along the way. Wooden mile-markers are located along the trail to help track your progress and location. Several towns along the trail have information kiosks, maps and signage areas. They are often located in historic passenger rail stations that still stand next to the path.
Possibly the most ideal option is to have two vehicles to park at both ends of the trail, or to have someone drop you off at the beginning of the trail and then pick you up at the end. This allows you to experience the entire trail in one fell swoop over two days and one night. Uber services are available in Parksburg and Clarksburg (both ends of the trail), but whether they offer bicycle transportation is considered on an individual basis.
Not Far, Not Expensive
The western terminus of the North Bend Rail Trail is located near Parkersburg, which is located about 180 miles (3 hours) from most of the Miami Valley, just across the Ohio River.
At either end of the trail, as well as numerous points along the way, designated parking lots allow cyclists to leave their vehicles at safe spots overnight, free of charge.
In fact, if one were to mountain bike and backcountry camp along the trail, bringing their own food and supplies, the only cost for this trip would be the gas to get there, as there are no camping fees. Some mountain bikers even pitch their tents right on the trail at night.
Even with a hotel and dining out, the trip can be done for less than $200. Either way it’s an invaluable experience.
Along with bringing a head lamp or powerful flashlight, sunscreen, bug spray and tire repair kit, there are a few other things to remember about biking the North Bend Rail Trail.
The first is to remain on the trail. Along with private property issues, the real concern is avoiding poison ivy and sumac that grows along the path. Designated camping areas are usually safe and clear of growth.
The second is to stop and rest about every four or five miles at the most, even if you feel like you can keep going. This allows you to maintain your energy levels throughout the day. You can just stop and sit right in the middle of the trail. There most likely won’t be anyone around. In fact, in our nearly 13 hours on the trail, James and I only saw two long-distance hikers, one photographer and no other mountain bikers. It was just us.
Although we never had any problems, another thing to watch for is loose dogs. Almost every dog we encountered was in a cage or on a leash. The exception was a couple of friendly dogs that ran alongside us at one point, but were just curious. The best thing to do in this situation is to keep pedaling and guard your front wheel from the dog’s path. And never kick at it!
In the warmer months, it is a good idea to begin cycling as early as possible in the morning. Many parts of the trail are in direct sunlight, which, in the heat of the day can be taxing. This is one of the good things about the tunnels. They remain cool all the time and allow for a nice “air-conditioned” break from the sun. There are also many shaded, wooded areas where the sun is blocked for long periods, which is also nice on hot days.
One of the important things that James and I learned on our trip is that a hooded sweatshirt keeps you warm in the morning and then acts as a great cushion for your seat in the afternoon. You just tie it around your waste and fold under the hood, and you have extra padding. And, believe me, the more cushion, the better!
If you get the chance, including in the fall when the foliage must be stunning, a mountain biking trip on the North Bend Rail Trail is a fun, not-too-strenuous and safe way to introduce yourself to this popular recreational activity while also experiencing an amazing slice of Americana.