From seasoned mountain bikers and hikers to those who just want to mosey through the forest, West Virginia offers recreational opportunities across the state. With 78 percent — or 12 million of its 15.4 million acres — forested, West Virginia is the third most heavily forested state in the nation, behind only Maine and New Hampshire.
“We are fortunate to have many state parks, rail trails and municipal parks that offer multi-use trails that allow people of all skill levels to access places to hike,” said Sharon Cook, president of the Kanawha Trail Club.
Ella Belling, West Virginia Rails to Trails Council president, agrees. “We are seeing more people on the rail trails all the time,” she said. “From families who are walking with small children to mountain bikers participating in race events, the trails are busy year round.”
“Hiking is the No. 1 gateway activity for our state parks,” said Sam England, West Virginia State Parks Systems chief. “And our goal is to be sure that all trails in the state parks that can have multiple uses — hiking, biking, and horse riding — are designed to accommodate everyone.”
Thad Kelley, West Virginia Mountain Bike Association president, participated on a legislative subcommittee regarding trail development with England. “We need to look forward, considering what will help us expand trails and trail use, address maintenance and care issues and bring all parties together as we plan,” Kelley said.
Stephen McBrayer, WVMBA treasurer, and Belling believe that trail use will continue to grow, especially as developers and trail managers address some of the issues important to residents and tourists.
“Access to trails is key to their use,” said McBrayer. “If we could have ride centers in towns that have trail access, more people could make use of the trails for short rides or hikes and even for commuting.” He also said it would be beneficial to build skill parks and pump tracks.
Jared Hitchcock, owner of Charleston Bike Center, sees a growing interest in bike riding. “It helps that Charleston has some good local trails in Kanawha State Forest, Little Creek Park, Eleanor City Park and on Kanawha Boulevard,” he said. “And, trails at North Bend State Forest, Greenbrier River Trail and Huntington trails are close enough that people can plan day trips for rides.”
Hitchcock took over the bike shop in 2015 when Bill Nottingham, who opened the Kanawha City shop in 1999, retired. “We are seeing a renewed interest in mountain biking, and we try to help our customers decide what bikes are best for their interests.”
The Kanawha Trail Club has been leading hikes for more than 75 years. It was originally sponsored by the Charleston Daily Mail in July 1942, and has been sponsoring hikes ever since.
“Our main focus is hiking, but our members are a close-knit group and we have formed many lasting friendships,” Cook said. “We hike on Sundays and publish our schedule on our Facebook page, in the newspaper and on V100 radio station so that anyone who would like to join us knows about our plans.”
The places for their hikes are determined by club volunteers who choose the sites and distance for each hike. “The hike descriptions help people to decide if the hikes fit their abilities and the volunteer leader scopes the hike out in advance of the Sunday event.”
The club takes longer hikes on Saturdays and twice a year hosts overnight hikes that may be in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky or Virginia.
Kanawha State Forest is a popular destination for hiking and mountain biking. Naturalist programs provide guests with introductions to the trails and stories of the area.
“For people who enjoy learning about the history of an area or who are beginning hikers, the naturalist programs are great options for hiking,” said Sissie Summers, State Parks programming coordinator. “The naturalists tell the stories about the parks in ways that draw participants in and help them get comfortable with the trails as they look and walk.”
The Mountain State Wheelers club has been serving cyclists in the Charleston area since 1975. In north central West Virginia, Country Roads Cyclists has offered the same services since 1979. Both organizations, like WVMBA, promote cycling in the state through group rides, training and safety clinics. They also serve as advocates on the local and state level.
“There’s more to cycling than just hopping on your bike,” Kelley said. “We promote and sanction state mountain biking races and events and partner with businesses, communities and state organizations like West Virginia State Parks to organize our activities.”
“One of the most important things we can do is encourage new cyclists, especially young riders, to become responsible and safe riders,” said Scott Phillips, WVMBA secretary. “At many of our race events, we offer noncompetitive activities for children under 11 years of age. We help them get used to riding and racing.”
Both State Parks and WVMBA are active with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), a nonprofit organization that promotes middle and high school biking programs across the U.S.
“We are working with the state league director, Cassie Smith, to encourage the development of the program in West Virginia,” said Kelley, who is coaching a middle school team in Barbour County. “This is an exciting way for the kids to learn about mountain biking with their friends, and to discover the challenges of mountain bike racing.”
England said West Virginia State Parks is working with NICA as well. State Parks built an NICA-certified trail at North Bend State Park. The Old Farm Trail at North Bend is a modern trail with flow, fun and challenges that meets NICA standards for accessibility and rider safety. State Parks is designing a similar course for Canaan Valley State Park.
“Designed with young riders in mind, these trails will be the home courts for West Virginia’s NICA school teams and venues for racing for beginning to intermediate riders,” he said.
Beyond the trails, scheduled hikes and rides, races and growing these activities, both hikers and cyclists are dedicated to making sure the trails are safe and well-maintained. In some cases, groups like WVMBA have recently helped build trails at Tygart Lake in Grafton. Kelley has managed a trail in Philippi for 10 years. WVMBA volunteers helped to design and build trails at Watters Smith Memorial State Park.
“Volunteers are so important to our trails,” England said. “Our friends of state parks are a great resource and an invaluable asset for our system and our state. They really demonstrate the spirit of West Virginia’s people.”