There was no ribbon cutting or public announcement when 10 miles of the new Elk River Trail opened between Duck and Ivydale six weeks ago.
Avid hikers and bikers who were looking for new outdoor trails found it any way. They’ve been coming ever since.
“Because of COVID-19, we did not have an official event to let people know that this section of the Elk River Trail was open,” said Frank Jorgensen, a railroad developer whose companies, The Elk River Railroad and Buffalo Creek & Gauley Railroad, have a binding agreement to sell the rail corridors to the state for a new rails-to-trail system.
“But every weekend when I drive to Duck, the access parking lot is full and people are enjoying the trail.”
The scenic section parallels the Elk River, has a crushed stone surface where rails once lay and is shaded by a tree canopy. After the first quarter mile or so, there are no permanent residences until Ivydale.
Ken Tawney, a founding member of the Elk River Trail Foundation, said he believes that as more people visit the trail, they’ll see that hiking and biking on the rail trail isn’t the only way to enjoy the area. There is also a public access site at Duck for kayaks and small boats.
“The river itself is an amazing outdoor recreation feature. People can kayak and boat, swim and fish along the river. There are plenty of opportunities for enjoying the scenery and history along the Elk River,” Tawney said.
“People are passionate about all of the incredible recreational opportunities we’re blessed to have in West Virginia,” Gov. Jim Justice said. “That’s exactly why I was so excited last year to announce that we were on the move with work on the new Elk River Trail. Our people have been on it ever since, and I’m so proud that this fantastic new destination in our great state has become a reality.”
Since Justice announced plans for the 73-mile long Elk River Trail, work has progressed quickly. Once completed, the 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 West Virginia, only the Greenbrier River rail trail is longer by one mile. Jorgensen said that could change, as there are plans to add more miles in Braxton County.
The Elk River Trail will be managed by West Virginia State Parks. Mark Wylie, district administrator for the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources State Parks, said the new park will give the state parks system a presence in an area of the state where it previously had none.
The governor’s initiative comes at a good time. “West Virginia’s newest trail is all kinds of fun, and it’s a unique way to experience the natural beauty of our state, which is as good as it gets anywhere in the world,” Justice said. “In West Virginia, we’re naturally socially distanced, but we also offer easy access to world-class recreation opportunities you won’t find anywhere else.”
Wylie agrees. “I believe this new park will bring residents and tourists to this area of the state just as North Bend Rail Trail and the Greenbrier River Trail have done,” Wylie said. “With handy access to the trail and river from several locations along I-79, this trail will be easy for people to get to and bring economic benefits to the towns along the route.”
There is precedent for outdoor recreation benefiting local communities. “This trail system has the potential of bringing economic development and new entrepreneurial business to the area, just as the Hatfield-McCoy Trails is doing for southern West Virginia,” said Tim Brady, Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau president and CEO.
“New travel studies are telling us that post COVID-19, people are looking for outdoor activities and adventures in areas like West Virginia where they can stay in smaller cities and towns.”
The Hatfield-McCoy Trail system is popular for its off-highway ATV trails. It is also a multi-county project — including Logan, Kanawha, Wyoming, McDowell, Mercer, Wayne, Lincoln, Mingo and Boone counties.
The Elk River Trail will include trails that can be used for walking, biking, cross-country skiing and horseback riding. Class 1 Pedal assist e-bikes will be allowed on the trail, but not Class 2 and Class 3 e-bikes or off-road highway vehicles, such as ATVs. This is one of the regulations stipulated by the Federal Surface Transportation Board (STB), which regulates all railroads, rails-to-trails and rails-with-trails in the United States.
“The introduction of federal rails-to-trails legislation in 1983 makes this project and others like it possible,” said Jorgensen. “In the 1960s, railroads were beginning to abandon lines and the rail corridors in our country were broken up. The government realized that if these rail corridors would be needed in the future for security or economic reasons, they would be difficult to assemble. Thus, the idea of offering railroads the option of turning the railroad and rights-of-way over for other purposes was introduced.”
The outdoor recreation aspect of this secondary use is easy to understand, he said. “Railroads are generally built on relatively flat or low-grade routes and are required to have rights-of-way no smaller than 66 feet,” he said. “This provides wide trails that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and skill levels.” The average right-of-way along the Elk River Trail is about 100 feet, according to Jorgensen.
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 Tawney.
A four-phase project
The Elk River Trail project is being developed in four phases. The first phase is a 28-mile trail from Duck to Hartland, going through Ivydale, Clay and Dundon. This trail runs along the Elk River and includes a one-mile Middle Creek spur at Hartland. Most of the steel rail and ties have been removed. The surface and bridges are under construction.
Jorgensen said a 12-mile section from Ivydale to Dundon/Clay should be open by the end of July. That will give riders 22 miles of rail trail from Duck to Clay. The final 6 miles from Clay to Hartland will be open sometime in September.
“We are using the existing historic stone foundations of the bridges with new decking and side railing,” said Jorgensen.
The second segment is 4.3 miles from Clendenin to Queen Shoals. Trail work has started, and two major bridges need bridge steel and decking. This segment is expected to be completed in 2020.
The third segment is the 18-mile Buffalo Creek & Gauley Railroad that runs from Clay/Dundon to Widen. It is currently leased by the Clay County Business Development Authority, which is operating self-pedaled rail carts and a motorized jitney on 7 miles of the rails. The additional miles of rail track were damaged in the June 2016 flood and will be repaired as a FEMA project starting in 2020. During the FEMA repair work, the self-pedaled rail carts and motorized jitney will still be in operation.
“The Buffalo Creek & Gauley Railroad line was never removed, which allows for continued rail use,” said Jorgensen. He said this railroad was the last to operate steam engines in the United States.
The final section is about 24 miles from Queen Shoals to Hartland, and runs through Procious and Elkhurst. There are three major bridges that need steel and decking. Plus, there are access issues in some places to be worked out. Work will start in 2020 with an expected completion in 2021.
Economic impact studies suggest that travelers who use rail trails spend about $500 every two days on visits to the areas.
Cara Rose, Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director, said the Greenbrier River Trail, which runs through Pocahontas County, sees approximately 100,000 users annually.
“Sixty percent of our visitors indicate that they take hikes while visiting here, making it the number one outdoor activity,” she said. “We have seen several new lodging properties open in Marlinton and RV camping sites opening in the area. With the push to get outside for social distancing right now, trail use is busier than ever.”
Justice believes the Elk River Trail will have a similar positive economic impact. “With all the tourism it will bring in — people eating food from our restaurants and staying at our hotels — the multiplier effect it will bring is off the charts,” he said.
Brady is seeing entrepreneurs and local businesses gearing up for the influx of visitors along the Elk River.
“The development of fresh, local businesses will come along with the active use of the trail,” he said. “A local business is looking at opening a brewery in the Clendenin area, which will be of interest not only to those who come to use the trail, but to others who are coming to visit the Charleston area.”
Other businesses that are already open, such as a kayak livery service, are looking to expand their offerings to be more supportive of visitors. “The most important thing that the tourism industry can do all along the trail is collaborate to ensure that people see the potential for enjoying the trail and the towns and cities that are along and close by,” Brady said.
“We want visitors to realize that the Elk River Trail State Park is a great find, and that they want to come back.”
Wylie said that the easy access to the trail from I-79 is a distinct advantage for the new state park. “With at least four exits that will be 10 to 20 minutes from trailheads, people will be able to stop and enjoy the trail even if it’s just for a few hours on their way to other destinations,” he said.
He also believes the area’s historic and cultural heritage will make it interesting for people. All along the trail there are reminders of the past. “Visitors will be able to see the foundations of homes and businesses that once stood along the train line,” Wylie said.
The Elk River Trail Foundation is supporting the state’s efforts, and is working with the West Virginia University Extension Service on a marketing approach to highlight the varied biking, hiking and paddling possibilities along the Elk River.
“It is our mission to preserve, protect, and enhance the Elk River rail and water trails for public recreation, community health and well-being,” Tawney said. “For us, that means combining our resources to encourage conservation and economic development, care for the ecology, and to educate people who use the trail about the historic and natural environment of the area.”