NORTHFORK — As the world famous Hatfield-McCoy Trail approaches its 20th anniversary next year, it can claim more than 50,000 permits sold per year. That’s a lot of folks coming with off-highway vehicles — ATVs, UTVs, Jeeps and dirt bikes — to scramble along mountain trails and along the highways connecting small towns in the southern coalfields of West Virginia having extreme riding experiences.
The Hatfield-McCoy Trail is actually composed of eight separate, smaller trails that together spread across eight counties for more than 600 miles on private land. Maps show interconnected trail systems, ratings on trails from easy to most difficult, community connectors and single track trails. The trail also includes 10 off-road-vehicle-friendly towns directly accessible by ATVs, including McDowell County seat and largest city, Welch.
It’s open daily year-round, but only in daylight, and has regulations that protect its impressive safety record. Riders must wear approved helmets and eye protection and, although there is no rule, it seemed snazzy latex outfits were also required. No alcoholic beverages or competitions allowed on the trail, and no off-trail riding.
Riders come from all over the East, with North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia well-represented. There are families, plus groups of men with and without female companions. They come because the 600-plus miles of trails are the second-largest system in the United States and the largest in the East.
They come for the thrill of the riding and for the enthusiastic welcome they get from folks along the way — a decided difference from the general prohibitions they face at home. They come for the scenic surroundings, including mountains that are so precipitous it would take a very long ladder to go up and down them if there weren’t trails to ride through.
Given how I looked at the end of our couple hours of riding the trails, they also come to be covered in mud. I did note that the trail is drier in Mingo County, an important factor for those not interested in mudding. Virtually all riders come with their own equipment. Fortunately, Alysa and Amanda — the A-Team at the Ashland Company Store, about 2 1/2 hours south of Charleston — took good care of us, including training my husband, Jack, on our rented UTV.
When I told friends that Jack and I were headed for the Hatfield-McCoy Trail, they laughed. Then they began admitting such a trip was on their bucket list. They anxiously awaited our return with stories.
We were trail virgins and impressed with the well-established, well-maintained trails. Although trail maps presented what seemed like a maze, in real life the trails were easy to follow even for first-timers like us. There was no trash or litter along them. Mud seemed to know its place so riders could plough through the many puddles while streams remained clear.
Rocks and dirt also seemed trained to stay in place. Trails were not rutted or torn up, even on steep portions where you might expect it. Our choice of easy trails was not threatening at all, but there were enough twists and turns and steep inclines up and down to satisfy the thrill factor, while occasionally anxiety-producing when Jack, who was driving, couldn’t see. Even though foliage was close, we never were whacked by tree limbs — unlike when you are hiking.
Noise was minimal and the people we encountered were considerate and polite, asking if we needed help when we were stopped along the trail. We didn’t see anyone doing anything unwise and found that the 35 miles per hour speed limit on actual roads seemed fast enough. We initially had concerns about narrow trails being two-way, but no problems materialized.
We set off for what we planned as a series of excursions in our newly acquired 22-foot travel trailer. Believing a vehicle, whether trailer or self-contained RV, must have a name, we whimsically called ours “Puff the Magic Drag Along.” Puff seemed content with its full-service site at Ashland Resort, the gold-standard campground in McDowell County, with quiet hours and strict rules against “yahoo” behavior, including prohibiting speeding, racing and spinning doughnuts, not to mention no guns or pit bulls. All along the trail, there are countless individual houses advertising rooms.
We did not pack up the kitchen in Puff, except for English muffins, coffee and beer, because we were committed to finding what there was to eat along the trail. We managed to score several excellent meals, but dining is definitely an opportunity waiting to happen in McDowell.
Open daily except Sunday, Ya’Sou Greek Restaurant, in Kimball, just down the highway from the campground, was our first choice, primarily because it was the only place open on Mondays and Tuesdays. They graciously stayed open past their 6 p.m. advertised closing time and fed us so well that we ate there both nights and were well-entertained with local flood, family and town stories by the owner, Markella Gianato. She assured us that latecomers can call and they’ll stay open.
Once we got over our amazement at eating Greek in a tiny, Southern West Virginia coal town, we settled in to enjoying the food. Both their Greek salad dressing and the tzaziki sauce for the gyros are made from scratch in house, as is the baklava. The Pastitsio, a Greek version of mac and cheese, with ground beef and a sturdy béchamel sauce, was tasty and ample enough to have for breakfast the next morning.
The Elkhorn Inn was the most singular of our dining experiences. Arguably the only chef-driven fine dining in the region, we delighted in the chicken picatta served with their own pickled ramps collected nearby and a spectacular caramel flan for dessert. Owner Chef Dan organizes foodie excursions from the Elkhorn, including digging ramps and picking blackberries. The cooked-to-order menu reflects his training around the world and includes Caribbean, Vietnamese, Chilean, Israeli, Indian, Mexican and vegan meals. Designed by preeminent regional architect Alex Mahood, the Elkhorn was built in 1922 as a clubhouse for Empire Coal. Its 2002 renovation into 14 guest rooms earned it two HGTV segments.
We were interested to discover Wrong Turn Pizza at the very top of a mountain past the Ashland Campground. It’s an anomaly at this time in the area — a bar open late but only on weekends. The camp store has a café opening by July.
A favorite attraction for riders is the Hatfield-McCoy Moonshine Distillery, where product is complete with seven to 10 days of fermenting and a day in an authentic 500-gallon all-copper still. Soon, the distiller will be doing whiskey, and then bourbon. But the heritage is in moonshine.
Distiller/owner Chad Bishop is descended from the oldest living Devil Anse Hatfield relative. A retired miner, Bishop learned his craft starting at age 8 from his grandfather, who was a real moonshiner. The moonshine is 90 percent corn, West Virginia corn from Yogers, in the Northern part of the state. Bishop has been producing legal moonshine since 2012. Two of the products are Hatfield recipes, two are McCoy recipes and Bishop is clear that the Hatfield products are the best-sellers, especially “Drink of the Devil.” Bishop hand-bottles his product, just like his granddad did.
We took a day to travel to Matewan, in Mingo County, along the Trail. The King Coal Highway to Matewan was spectacular and surprising, with incredible stone cut walls reminiscent of Western highways. The Western feel was heightened when we passed a herd of wild horses along the road. These are not former coal mine stone cuts but cuts made specifically for the highway.
The Hatfield-McCoy Trail is only one of the world-class attractions in the region. Elkhorn Creek, in McDowell County, is reportedly one of the world’s best for wild trout fishing. Catch-and-release fishermen can average 30 to 60 trout a day. And then there are the trains. For more than a century, when McDowell powered the world, the railroads made development of the coalfields possible. Today, almost constant train traffic along U.S. 52, which traverses several of the trail counties, continues. They are long trains, filled with coal cars, gas cars and container cars. Our hosts at the Elkhorn Inn assured us that railfans from around the world flock to the area — and to the Inn — for the best train watching.
There is plenty more to see in McDowell and surrounding counties. The four-story Gothic McDowell County Courthouse, in Welch, has a hand-cut stone wall and tower, and a storied history that includes Sheriff Sid Hatfield of Matewan and his deputy being gunned down on its steps.
The Old Matewan Bank Building is another Sid Hatfield monument, showcasing bullet holes from the deadliest gunfight in American history.
A Shakespeare Globe Theater replica is across the river from the Elkhorn Inn, and Kimball’s World War I Memorial, built in 1928, is the only existing monument to African-American participation in that war.
The first multi-level parking garage in the United States is in downtown Welch. A Coalwood municipal park boasts an authentic NASA rocket, a tribute to the Rocket Boys featured in author Homer Hickham’s “October Sky.”
The best part is that all these sites are accessible to ATV riders along the Hatfield-McCoy Trail.
For more information, check https://trailsheaven.com.