Motorcycle Touring in West Virginia (and a Bit of Virginia)
Michael F. McQueary
April 1, 2014
Filed under Favorite Rides: Motorcycle Rides from Rider Readers, Featured Favorite Ride, Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel
There’s an old joke about the Mountain State that goes something like this: “If you could flatten out West Virginia, it would be as big as Texas!” While my goal was to spend a few days riding my Buell Ulysses around West Virginia from my home in Tennessee, I needed to cut across the western tip of Virginia to get there. My routing, purely by accident, caused me to discover a great road.
No doubt you’ve heard of the Tail of the Dragon, U.S. Highway 129 in Tennessee/North Carolina? Well, in Virginia they have State Route 16 from Marion to Tazewell. The locals call it the Back of the Dragon. This 32-mile stretch of road has all the twists and turns a rider could want. To attract attention to the area (and some tourist dollars), Tazewell, Virginia, even holds a Back of the Dragon Day each June.
Tazewell is near the road that leads into Burkes Garden. This is a unique bowl-shaped valley sometimes known as “God’s Thumbprint.” Look at an aerial view on Google Earth and you can see how it got the nickname. Unless you’re riding a dual-sport, the only way in or out of the valley is State Route 623. Legend has it when George Vanderbilt was looking to acquire land for what was to become his famous Biltmore Estate, Burkes Garden was his first choice. But no one in Burkes Garden would sell! One farmer told him, “The only way to get land in Burkes Garden is inherit it or marry it!” Mr. Vanderbilt settled for a few thousand acres in North Carolina.
After touring Burkes Garden, I made a short jaunt across the West Virginia state line to Princeton, where I spent the night. The next morning I rode up to the New River Gorge Bridge.
It turned out my timing could not have been better, as I arrived on Bridge Day. It seems once a year, the civic-minded folks in West Virginia—along with a little help from the National Park Service—close U.S. Highway 19 across the New River Gorge Bridge and open it to pedestrians in a festival-like atmosphere called Bridge Day. What’s more, dozens of BASE jumpers line up for a chance to jump off the 876-foot-high bridge into the gorge. And people say motorcycle riding is risky!
Back on the bike, I did my best to wear out the sides of my tires riding down across the New River, turning every which way but generally south to Babcock State Park, stopping for some pictures of the Glade Creek Grist Mill. Now I was on the east side of the New River, taking lightly traveled back roads like State Routes 41 and 20. I couldn’t help but notice the quality of the pavement on all of the West Virginia roads was uniformly excellent. Nary a patch or pothole made for a smooth, flowing ride. Route 20 took me back to Princeton, completing a very good day of riding.
The next morning, heading north on U.S. Route 219 took me into the farm country of the Greenbrier Valley. A nearby bank sign read a brisk 36 degrees…brrr! Oh well, it was late fall after all, what did I expect? I stopped for breakfast in the thriving community of Lewisburg, voted the “Coolest Small Town in America,” or so the sign claimed. While I don’t think the local boosters were referring to the weather, I had to agree.
My destination for the next couple of days was Marlinton, West Virginia, in the heart of Pocahontas County. Marlinton sits in a valley next to the Greenbrier River, and the community serves as an important entrance to the Greenbrier River Trail. What was once the right of way for the old Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad is now an 80-mile-long hiking and bicycle trail along the scenic river.
I was staying at the Old Clark Inn, motorcycle-friendly lodging just beyond downtown. Nelson and Andrea, my hosts, made sure I had everything I might need for an enjoyable stay, including a road tip that turned out to be a highlight of my visit. When I told him I intended to ride the Highland Scenic Byway, Nelson told me about a little-used back road called Williams River Road.
“When you come to Fenwick, go north on Route 20 to Cowen. When you cross the bridge, Williams River Road will be on your right.”
And what a road it turned out to be. Just recently paved, the road hugged the Williams River for miles through the Monongahela National Forest. It had no markings, no centerline, and calling it a lane and a half wide would be generous. When the road finally broke away from the river to twist, turn and climb up the ridge toward U.S. 219 and Marlinton, it was like my own private track.
After a great night’s sleep, I was up early and on my way to Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, one of West Virginia’s 35 state parks. Cass is an old lumber mill town. A small rail system was built to take the lumberjacks up to the timber and bring the logs down to the mill. Because of the steep terrain, a special type of steam engine was pressed into service: the Shay Locomotive. The Shay was unique in that it had all-wheel drive, allowing it to climb the 8- and 9-percent grades needed at Cass. Today you can ride to the top of Cheat Mountain on the same tracks those hardy loggers used years ago.
After my train ride, I was back on the Uly for the short jaunt up State Route 92 to the Green Bank National Radio Astronomy Observatory. That’s a mouthful, so locals call it NRAO for short, or just the Green Bank Telescope. Rather than an optical telescope with lenses and mirrors, the Green Bank Telescope is a radio-receiving dish that the folks at Green Bank claim is the world’s largest land-based moving object. And move it does, as everyone on my tour was startled to see the giant dish suddenly began to rotate. It’s a bit unnerving to watch something the size of two football fields move on its own. The telescope also sits in the middle of the National Radio Quite Zone, where they can legally control all types of potential radio interference. So no, your cell phone won’t work at Green Bank.
The next day, the Weather Channel brought bad news. Hurricane Sandy was churning off the coast, expected to make landfall in a few days. It was time to head for the barn. In two days, the Buell would be safe in the garage. Four days after that, in a rare October blizzard, Sandy would dump some 30 inches of snow on the same West Virginia mountains that I had been riding on!
(This Favorite Ride: Almost Heaven was published in the April 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)