Cycling in the Mountain State: The Singletrack of West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest
If the rising popularity of 24-hour mountain-bike racing is any indication, then fat-tire cycling is on a skyward trajectory. Before 1990, the notion of a 24-hour team relay race sounded just plain crazy, and while the idea may still strike most as insanethigh-deep mud, sleep deprivation, and the pre-dawn cold and dark, anyone?today there are dozens of official events worldwideand the numbers continue to grow. If a weekend in the throes of self-inflicted exhaustion doesn't sound too masochistic, then novices and veterans alike would do well to heed the lessons of history and travel to the place where the day-long mountain-bike-racing craze began: a cool, dense woodland in West Virginia called Monongahela National Forest.
The Mon, as it's affectionately known, is a massive amoeba-shaped swath of forest covering the western-central region of the state, lying across 900,000 acres from the southern tip of Maryland to West Virginia's Watoga State Park, just near the Virginia border. The tiny town of Davis along the Mon's northern border is where 24-hour racing started back in 1992 with the 24 Hours of Canaan, and makes for an ideal first stop. Although the original event has since migrated south to Pocahontas County (see below), the wet, muddy, rocky, highly technical singletrack that attracted the first hardcore cyclists isn't going anywhere. Head into town on Route 32 and stop at Blackwater Bikes (304.259.5286; www.blackwaterbikes.com) to grab a copy of the Canaan Valley Adventure Map ($8). Ask about trail conditions and hit the ones that match your skill level, or step up to some of the region's signature routes. The 25-mile Plantation Trail is quintessential West Virginia singletrack: dense foliage, equally dense mud, stream crossings, moss-covered rocks and roots, and tunnels of blooming rhododendron. The Forbidden Forest, accessible via Loop Road and Road 13, is right out of a tale from the Brothers Grimm: a minefield of rocks covered in vibrant green moss amidst a thin forest of tall pine and spruce. You know you've successfully threaded the maze when you hook up with the Davis Trail, another loose-rock, wet, riveting descent that'll funnel you back to the town. Lodging is available in town at the Bright Morning Inn B&B (866.537.5731; www.brightmorninginn.com) and at the nearby Canaan Valley Resort & Conference Center (1.800.622.4121; www.canaanresort.com).
Continue with your history lesson by driving south through Elkins to Snowshoe Mountain (877.441.4386; www.snowshoemtn.com; lodging available). When the resort inherited 24 Hours of Canaan (since renamed 24 Hours of Snowshoe), it reinforced its distinction as the most mountain-bike-friendly ski resort in the Mid-Atlantic region. Snowshoe currently offers over 100 miles of terrain on its mountain, serviced by chair lifts and a shuttle that deposits weary cyclists from the mountain base back to the 4,848-foot peak (single-day trail access costs $6; daily shuttle passes run $25 or $6 for one trip). The terrain on the main mountain is mostly downhill and VERY steep; full-suspension rigs, body armor, and full-face helmets are highly recommended. In early September, they up the downhill ante by opening the Western Territories and providing lift access to 1,500 vertical feet of West Virginia's most extreme descent riding. The resort rents late-model, full-suspension Kona bikes, and should have full-body protective rental gear by the 2004 season. There's also a good variety of less extreme terrain surrounding the mountain in the Monongahela.
If downhill daredevil exploits has you clamping on your breaks, or if you long to escape the mechanical distractions of resort cycling, nearby Elk River Touring Center (304.572.37714; www.etrc.com) is tailor-made for the free rider in us all. This modest, former mountain homestead near Slatyfork sits on 150 acres and offers the holy trinity of mountain biking: trail access, mechanical and trail expertise, and inexpensive lodging (not to mention a killer restaurant and an outdoor Jacuzzi). The refreshingly well-marked singletrack carves throughout the dense spruce and pine stands within the Pocahontas County section of the Mon, traversing rocks, roots, hard-packed dirt, streams, and wooden bridges. Elk Mountain Trail, a 14-mile run with a 900-foot elevation gain, and the 7.5-mile Sharp's Knob Loop both offer spectacular mountain vistas with relative ease, while the epic, 20.5-mile Props Run has long been regarded as one of the country's finest downhill tracks. Snag a copy of the Slatyfork Mountain Bike Trail Guide, one of the most articulate and informative maps around, and ask about local trail conditions. Elk River provides guides and shuttle service to and from various trailheads. They also specialize in fly-fishing and cross-country skiing.
Mountain biking at Snowshoe starts in early spring and stretches to mid-October, with a number of scheduled events throughout the season. They host both the 24 Hours of Snowshoe event and a NORBA Champion Racing series in June, and the Mayhem in the Mountains downhill race in early September. Exploration of the Mon itself, however, doesn't adhere to a set schedule; any time between spring and late fall is a good time to hit the singletrack. Spring brings the blooming wildflowers and the summer sun is kept at bay by the full forest canopy, while fall outings are blessed with a staggering display of autumnal foliage. Temperatures can drop, especially when it rains, so pack extra layers, and don't be afraid to get wet and muddylocals insist that it rains so much that the "s" has been washed away from the state name.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication