West Virginia’s rail trails have seen an increase in activity this year as people have taken to the outdoors for their mental health needs during the pandemic.
As Lisa M. Carlson, president of the American Public Health Association, has said: “It’s good medicine, and time with nature doesn’t require a prescription.”
Rail trails also provide a way to combine fitness with a fun outdoor activity. West Virginia has 67 rail trails with 566 miles of open rail and logging trails, with more in development.
“Rail trails were originally railroad corridors and are perfect for multi-use trails because the terrains are flat or gently sloped and often connect communities and industries,” said Ella Belling, West Virginia Rails to Trails Council president. “They are generally wide enough to accommodate hiking, biking, horse-riding and cross-country skiing, so they are ideal for year-round recreation use.”
The biggest tourism news this year has been the upgrade of New River Gorge, now designated New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. This new name highlights the area’s exceptional park qualities and recreational opportunities. New River Gorge offers outstanding hiking and biking trails, including the Arrowhead Trails system for mountain bikes, and rail trails for those who prefer flatter terrain.
A popular rail trail that’s designated as easy is Keeney’s Creek Rail Trail. This former rail line once connected mining communities to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway mainline. Visitors can enjoy a leisurely bike ride on this three-mile trail, which offers scenic views of mountain streams and coal trestles.
This trail has two trailhead parking areas on Keeneys Creek Road. To get directions, contact or stop by the Canyon Rim Visitor Center.
The Greenbrier River Trail is the longest rail trail in West Virginia, with a length of 78 miles. The trail runs through Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties, crosses 35 bridges, goes through two tunnels and cuts through some of the state’s most remote areas. It is one of 50 Millennium Legacy Trails in the U.S., and was rated one of the top 10 hiking trails in the country by Backpacker Magazine.
The new Elk River Trail continues to grow, with about 30 miles completed. Gov. Jim Justice first announced plans for the 73-mile long Elk River Trail in 2019. The trail parallels the Elk River, and is shaded by a tree canopy. Finished segments have a crushed stone surface.
The 10 miles between Duck and Ivydale and the 12 miles between Ivydale and Dundon and another 3 miles from Dundon to Pisgah Bridge in the town of Clay are now open.
The town of Clendenin is scheduled to have two miles of the trail completed by late spring, with another three miles extending north to Queen Shoals expected to be ready by summer.
The northernmost trailhead is in Clay County at Duck, close to Braxton County. From here it continues south to the Ivydale trailhead, across the Elk River bridge from W.Va. Route 4. The Dundon trailhead is 12 miles south of Ivydale.
Once completed, the Elk River Trail will run from Falling Rock, outside of Clendenin in Kanawha County, through Clay County to Duck, and on into Braxton County. It will include a one-mile spur at Hartland called the Middle Creek Spur, and includes the entire 18-mile Buffalo Creek & Gauley Railroad (BC&G) that runs along Buffalo Creek between Dundon/Clay and Widen.
In addition to being wide, the trail has no inclines, making for an easy hike or ride. “A fun fact for me is that the grade of the trail exceeds one-half percent in only two places. One of those is less than one percent, and the other is less than one and one-quarter percent, making the trail virtually flat,” said Ken Tawney, a founding member of the Elk River Trail Foundation.
The Elk River Trail is easily accessed from I-79. For updates on the progress of the Elk River Trail, visit website at elkrivertrail.org, or wvrailtrails.org.
Another popular destination is the North Bend Rail Trail, which stretches 72 miles from Parkersburg to Wolf Summit near Clarksburg. The state acquired the line from CSX Transportation in the 1980s and began turning it into a recreation multi-use trail.
A popular access point to the rail trail is at North Bend State Park near Cairo in Ritchie County, at the western end of the trail. From there, North Bend crosses 36 bridges and goes through 10 tunnels. One tunnel, the Silver Run Tunnel, is thought by some to be haunted. Along its length the trail passes through hills and farmland under a canopy of trees.
The trail is designated as part of the 5,500-mile American Discovery Trail, a series of trails that connects the United States from coast to coast.
For those seeking shorter trips and stunning scenery, the Hawks Nest Rail Trail is an easy 2-mile trail within Hawks Nest State Park near Ansted in Fayette County.
The trail crosses two trestles, a waterfall, cliff wall, a mountain stream and ends at the tram. While biking is allowed, this is one rail trail that makes a good hike — especially for photographers wishing to take pictures.
The trail can be combined with other trails in the park for longer excursions. Hikers seeking a challenge can combine it with a more strenuous hike up the Cliff Side Trail (rated moderate to difficult) for a total of 7.1 miles.
For the latest news on accommodations, local convention and visitors bureaus are good resources for trip-planning information. For more information on the state’s trail program and West Virginia trails, visit wvrailtrails.org.