The powerful machine hummed along the jagged rocks of a slight embankment, a narrow grade that would lead to a picturesque view of the hilltops of southern West Virginia. It’s a different view of Wyoming County that not many people are used to.
"The view is incredible,” said Jeff Lusk, Director of the Hatfield McCoy Trail.
Four ATV’s and a fifth vehicle called a "Rhino" rolled single file up and down the winding paths of the Castle Rock Trail situated in the Pinnacle Creek drainage of Wyoming County. The trailhead is located on the outskirts of Pineville, but the view Lusk pointed out include downtown Mullens two mountains to the southeast of where we started.
The Hatfield-McCoy Trail is a growing and increasingly prosperous piece of tourism for southern West Virginia, where the economy has long been dominated by coal, timber, and natural gas. However, the enhanced popularity of the trail is coming alongside those operations–rather than in their stead. Our ride wound through an active timbering site where operators on a skidder and dozer gave a friendly wave as they patiently waited for the column of four-wheelers to pass by the high stacks of logs.
"We have to work with the landowners’ primary use which is natural resource extraction,” said Lusk. "We move our trails to accommodate that. We found a very good marriage where we can operate our trail system without hindering what’s economically viable for them."
Without that marriage–the trail is what would be non-existent. The trail system is situated on a 250-thousand acre footprint consisting of 350-private landowners. The system stretches from its northern end in Boone County to the southernmost trail in McDowell County. It offers a variety of trails with varying degrees of difficulty.
Much like ski trails, each is clearly marked with a number and a color indicating what kind of terrain a rider is headed toward. New riders are encouraged to avoid the black diamonds (most difficult trails) however, there are miles of easier terrain available to traverse.
"There’s nothing of this size anywhere in the eastern United States," explained Lusk. "You have several small trail systems with 80 to 100 miles of trail, but when you talk about 600 miles of trail the next closest thing to us is the Piute ATV trail in Utah and that’s on federal property."
The West Virginia Legislature authorized creation of the state maintained trail system as a tool of economic development and post-mine land use in southern West Virginia. Slowly, the system is working. Several new businesses offer ATV rentals and adventures. Pineville’s newest and fastest growing storefront is Happy Trails ATV Adventures. The company offers nearly 50-machines for rent and all of them were hired out for the day of our ride.
Guided trail adventures are also growing in popularity. Wyoming County native Steven Anderson travelled the country, but recently came home to open West Virginia ATV Tours based in Beckley.
"There are some places you can go out and ride a 100-acre tract, but to be
ATV rentals and guided tours are exploding in poularity among large, out-of-state tourists in search of the next big adventure in WV
able to go out and ride a 100-mile tract up and down with the terrain is really something different,” said Anderson. "I get people all the time from Ohio, Maryland, and even as far away as Chicago where they ride on farms on the weekend, but they come here for their vacation because they know the terrain and the conditions are going to be different."
"We’ve been to West Virginia to go on rafting trips, but never to go on the ATV trail,” said Cindy Coffman of Cleveland, Ohio a passer-by who stopped for lunch along Pinnacle Creek "It’s awesome!"
Cindy and her husband had never ridden ATV’s, but were soon splashing through the mud like veterans.
"I’m bringing my son on Monday," said her husband Dave. "We’re coming back in September to raft the Gauley, but in the meantime we had a couple of days off and we’re here. It’s beautiful, everything looks great, it couldn’t be nicer."
The ones who’ve been slow to warm to the trail system are the locals who had ridden on many of the logging and gas well service roads for years. However, the cool reception appears to be changing as well.
"It’s the best kept secret in Wyoming County," said Richie Walker of Pineville.
Walker says in recent years, ATV riding away from the Hatfield-McCoy system has become increasingly limited as gates were erected and old access roads were closed.
"For a while, I stayed away because I believed it just wasn’t for me,” explained Walker. "Everybody thinks it’s ‘regulated riding’ but truly the only thing regulated is for safety. It’s great."
Walker is now a gospel-preaching disciple of the trail’s attributes. He commonly encourages trail use and believes others in the local area will eventually discover what they’re missing.
Lusk and his staff at the trail office in Logan hope so as new trails are cut through the rugged hillsides inviting more and more ATV riders into the region to see what’s hidden away on the backs of those West Virginia mountains, most commonly viewed through the window of a passing car.