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ATV riders swarm back to Hatfield-McCoy trails after two-month COVID-19 closure

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GILBERT — During the two-month closure of Southern West Virginia’s Hatfield-McCoy Trails over COVID-19 concerns, operators of businesses catering to trail riders wondered when, or even if, the trail system would be allowed to reopen for the year.

That concern was alleviated two weeks ago, when Gov. Jim Justice gave the green light to reopening the popular venue for motorized trail riders, with certain restrictions, on Memorial Day weekend.

With an opening date in hand, trail-related businesses scrambled to get the word out in an effort to reclaim one of the busiest weekends of the year, while at the same time wondering how many trail riders were willing to make multiday visits, often involving long drives, during a coronavirus pandemic.

“After shutting things down, you never know if visitors are going to want to come back, especially with all this going on,” said Jeff Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield McCoy Recreational Trail Authority.

As it turned out, they did.

“We have two phone lines and both of them have been ringing off the hook since the reopening announcement,” said Cameron Ellis of Twin Hollow Campground and Cabins at Gilbert, the first locally owned lodging venue built to serve the trail system.

On Friday, the mountaintop ATV resort’s 45 campsites with full hookups for camping trailers and other RVs with self-contained dining and bathroom facilities were fully booked, along with all 11 cabins.

Since state requirements dealing with COVID-19 prohibit opening campground bathhouses, Twin Hollow was unable to open its primitive campsites.

“Otherwise, I bet we could have rented 100 primitive sites,” Ellis said.

Twin Hollow was not alone in having an abundance of trail-riding guests on hand for Memorial Day Weekend.

“We have 60-plus lodging providers serving the trail, and they’re all booked up for the weekend,” Lusk said.. “We truly appreciate getting to reopen. Being able to open now will help our trail businesses recover.”

All eight trail networks that make up the 700-plus-mile Hatfield-McCoy system were open for Memorial Day Weekend.

Lusk said trail pass sales for the Hatfield-McCoy system would generally total more than $1.1 million by now.

“We’re about $400,000 off that pace,” he said, “but I think we can make up some of that by the end of the year, since the riders are coming back.”

ATV riding is allowed on the streets of Gilbert, as it is in most communities with access to the trail system. On Friday, riders could be seen fueling up, buying groceries and snacks and departing motels, lodges and cabins for rides on the Hatfield-McCoy’s nearby Rockhouse trail network.

Among riders coming back for the Memorial Day weekend kickoff was Jeff Sowers of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who had parked his side-by-side at a convenience store in downtown Gilbert on Friday morning, preparing for a day on the trails of Mingo County with a group of friends.

“There’s no place like this for us to ride in North Carolina,” said Sowers, who had ridden the Hatfield-McCoy’s Pinnacle Creek trail network near Pineville during a previous visit.

“I’ve been riding up here since the ’90s, before there was a Hatfield-McCoy Trail,” Tony Banks, one of Sowers’ trail companions, also from Winston-Salem, said. “I’ve ridden from Bluefield to the Kentucky line, and had a lot of fun doing it.”

Pittsburgh-area trail riders Lindsay and Chris Rhome said they had enjoyed last year’s stay at Twin Hollow and riding on the Rockhouse trail system enough to book a reservation for Memorial Day Weekend seven months in advance.

“I had been holding my breath until we found out last week that it had reopened,” Lindsay Rhome said as she and her husband and their friends, Courtney and Evan Kissell, relaxed at Twin Hollow’s RV camping area.

“Places to ride in Pennsylvania are few and far between, and not as large,” Chris Rhome said. “Here, you can go for hours and hundreds of miles without having to repeat parts of the trail.”

“There’s a lot of variety in the terrain the trails go through and the skill levels needed to ride them,” Courtney Kissell added. “And the views are just amazing.”

Lusk said two more trail networks are on track to be added to the Hatfield-McCoy system later this year. One is the 55-mile Ivy Branch Trail, in Lincoln County, for ATVs, UTVs and full-size four-wheel-drive vehicles, which had been a part of the Hatfield-McCoy Trails it closed over landowner issues in 2015.

The other is the 70-mile Cabwaylingo system at Cabwaylingo State Forest, in Wayne County — the first Hatfield-McCoy unit located on public land. Under legislation authorizing the Cabwaylingo system, the trail will operate for a two-year study period to determine if it will remain open for motorized trail use.

Two new multimillion-dollar investments in off-trail amenities anticipate opening dates this summer, according to Lusk. A former strip mall at Lyburn, in Logan County, is being converted into Appalachian Outpost, where 25 rental cabins are under construction and awaiting a July 25 opening, with 10 additional cabins planned for opening later in the year. Dining venues, a gas station, retail outlets and canoe and kayak rentals also are planned.

At Coaldale, in Mercer County, architect Todd Boggess is developing ATV TrailCamp, with 21 cabins and a brick-fired pizza restaurant adjacent to the Hatfield-McCoy’s Pocahontas trail network.

In guidelines authorizing the reopening of the Hatfield-McCoy system, trail riders are urged to wear face masks while not riding and to observe 6-foot social distancing standards. Shared use of a trail vehicle by anyone outside a family group or a party of riders is discouraged. All public buildings and public restrooms along the trail will remain closed until further notice.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.