West Virginia's Hatfield-McCoy Trail opens

Mountain Bike (5/10/2002)

Brion's comments:
'The Hatfield-McCoy Recreation Area in southern West Virginia is an intriguing blueprint for mountain bikers hoping to open new terrain. This article ran in Mountain Bike magazine. '

Feature article:

Columns of mist rise like spectral sentinels among the timberlands of southern West Virginia. Ghosts are prevalent in this beautiful but melancholy place. Hidden deep in these hardwood forests is a history of heartache resulting from bitter feuds, the brutal extraction of natural resources and violent battles over human dignity itself.

No time to think. With my rear end perched precariously above a skidding rear wheel, I bounce down a tight, slick-as-snot ravine with mossy, high-banked walls, lots of rock, and precious little sunlight to guide my way. Just moments before, under a withering sun, I was pedaling leisurely along the Copperhead drainage outside Pineville, a wide-open hardpack trail reminiscent of the broad expanses of Utah's White Rim Trail. Weird. Like an illusion, the landscape can change without warning in these haunted woods.

The change can't come fast enough right now. My saddle is jackhammering my gut. Damn hardtail! Bad, bad choice for the day's spin. If I had six-pack abs, I'd be left with nothing but a half-dozen crushed cans. But I'm lucky. Careening along this fresh new singletrack, I only need to focus on dodging low-lying tree limbs and a few moss-covered boulders. I don't need to worry about dodging bullets.

It wasn't always that way. Bullets and buckshot play a large role in the tragic history of this area. It began when a Kentucky farmer named Asa McCoy was shot dead in 1865. His family blamed another family-that of Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield, a farmer on the West Virginia side of the border. And so was born the Hatfields and McCoys, America's most famous family feud. For 25 years, the vendetta raged on their land, before a Supreme Court ruling and National Guard action finally halted it, but not before more than a dozen family members lay dead on the soil I now ride.

The bodies had barely cooled before coal mining and timber cutting went into full-scale automated production here. What started in the late 1800s with the introduction of a rail line turned into a gluttonous harvest that fueled the great industrial complex of the United States. The toll taken on the landscape, on natural resources and in human lives was enormous. Workers weren't just treated unfairly-they were forced to rent their tools from the company, buy their food from the company store, and rent their houses from the company-death was always knocking on their doors. If the Black Lung didn't kill you, chances are an accident would. West Virginia lagged far behind other major coal-producing states in regulating mining conditions, and it had the appalling worker death rate to prove it. Between 1890 and 1912, West Virginia had a higher mine death rate than any other state, with numerous lethal mining accidents, including the nation's worst coal disaster. On December 6, 1907, an explosion at a Fairmont Coal Company mine in Monongah (north of where I'm now riding) killed 361. In the words of one historian, a West Virginia coal miner had less of a chance to survive than a U.S. soldier in trench warfare did during World War I.

The warfare analogy is fitting, as it aptly describes many of the union battles that ensued. By 1912, many miners had had enough. The following decade saw violent organizing campaigns and strikes that sought to improve the working conditions for the average miner, and led to the emergence of such legendary union leaders as Mary Harris "Mother" Jones. The efforts to end the violence transformed much of southern West Virginia into an armed camp. Residents of the area were fed a steady diet of martial law before finally fighting back. When the smoke cleared in early 1921, scores of miners, strike breakers and local officials had been killed. The strength of the unions went back and forth for years until the early 1930s, but the hills kept producing black gold all the while-billions of tons of the stuff in all. In 1947, production peaked at 173,653,816 tons. By the 1950s, the area's economic success seemed assured, after nearly half a century of bloodshed.

Then the coal seams started to dry up, and the boom turned to a bust. Communities that sprang up to support the mining industry were left with few employment options. New approaches in coal extraction led to more profitable strip and mountain-top mining practices, which reduced the number of jobs in the area and established these lands as prime examples of bad environmental behavior. Fifty years later, there are but 15,000 miners here (compared to 125,000 in 1950). Unemployment hovers at double-digit levels. In McDowell county alone, the rate has gone as high as 37 percent.

So why am I so happy? Blame the bike. Blame the transcendent mountain trails I've been riding. And blame the guys who used these backcountry trails to bring southern West Virginia to the edge of redemption-Leff Moore and John English.

In 1989, Moore and English, a pair of lobbyists with the Motorcycle Industry Council, had a brilliantly simple idea: Build an alliance with private landowners to gain access to their land. Create a model trail system to attract outdoor enthusiasts. Bolster a faltering economy.

Simple in theory, perhaps. States east of the Mississippi don't enjoy large tracts of public land. At best, it's a mosaic of public, quasi-public and private lands-so partnering with those private landowners would be a real benefit. But it wouldn't be easy. The property eyed by Moore and English runs through eight southern counties-including the coal-mining counties that are now some of the most depressed in the country. Most of the big chunks of land are owned by huge corporations, none of which were enthusiastic about legalizing trespassing, due to liability, arson and theft concerns. Yet Moore and English saw the recreational potential along these Appalachian ridgelines, and were able to convince the corporations that tourism could help reverse the economic outlook of the region.

"We took a corporate ownership pattern of land holdings, where the primary purpose of the land was mineral extraction and timbering, and showed Corporate America that it's in their best interest to allow diversity for recreation, properly managed, on that land mass," says Moore.

"We want to be good corporate citizens," says Jon Burris of the David L. Francis Trust, which owns more than 30,000 acres in the Buffalo Mountain area. "We have a comfort level with the Hatfield-McCoy people, and we all stand on the same ground with bringing recreation to this area."

Moore and English were able to spread that sentiment in their inaugural campaign-they persuaded more than 30 landowners to agree to open their lands. From that, they created roughly 300 miles of trails. When the system was officially christened in the fall of 2000, it was called the Hatfield-McCoy Recreation Area-a name that's ironic when you consider that the trails are open to all recreational users (equestrians, motorcyclists, ORV-ers, mountain bikers, etc.), and are the result of friendships between incredibly disparate groups. The three distinct trail loops created in the Recreation Area-Buffalo Mountain, Dingess Rum and Browning Fork-are designed and managed by the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority. All reflect the same basic design: Each has trailheads near established communities (Williamson, Logan and Man, respectively), rangers to manage the trails and provide law enforcement, and a primary route embellished with various arteries spiraling out and back. Of course, all this comes with a price. To offset construction, maintenance and patrolling of the trails, admission is charged. Annual passes for nonresidents are $100, $25 for residents. A three-day pass runs $25. Given the quality of the trails, and the scope of the trail network, it's a small price to pay.

Despite the success of this initial offering (more than 7,000 permit sales in 2001), Moore and English aren't stopping. They believe the popularity of the existing trails will spur a domino effect, encouraging other landowners to sign on. Another 200 miles of trail should be completed by this fall. By 2005, Hatfield-McCoy officials feel they can meet their goal of more than 2,000 miles of trail, winding through more than 5 million acres. Trails may branch into neighboring Virginia and (in a sweet postscript to the family border war a century ago) even Kentucky. Once complete, it will be the largest trail network east of the Mississippi, rivaling the famed Appalachian Trail in total mileage. Further, Moore and English hope that Hatfield-McCoy will provide the necessary cornerstone to promote this elegant concept of shared use elsewhere.

When I finally finish pinballing down the mossy chute off Copperhead, brake pads and rims smoldering, Troy Dymock is waiting for me in full motocross regalia. To my mountain biking mind, he looks like a storm trooper from Star Wars. "So," he asks, grinning impishly. "How does that rate on a scale of one to ten?"

"Going up, or going down?" I reply, clearly biased toward the latter. Dymock is a foot soldier in this effort for recreational freedom, a trail-building expert with the federal Bureau of Land Management on loan to the Recreation Area. His participation represents not only the federal government's support of the project, but the commitment of Hatfield-McCoy officials to create a top-notch trail network.

Straddling his enduro dirt bike, Dymock admits he's partial to motorized exploration. He's not alone. While mountain biking purists might object to sharing the woods with throttle-twisters, their presence is a lesson in economic reality. First, the majority of trail riders in this end of Appalachia profess a distinct preference for the internal combustion mode of transportation. This is, after all, NASCAR country. Second, the motorized crowd has discretionary income, and they're willing to spend it. And money is driving this project. Moore and English needed the huge infusion of cash that ATV enthusiasts promised to bring in order to sell their idea of economic recovery. To that extent, even the first 300 miles have proved to be wildly successful, says Mark Whitt, executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Project.

"Just the other day, one of our business people in Matawan told me 'It wasn't very often that you saw a lot of traffic come through, but now it happens a lot,'" says Whitt. "On any given day, you can see a $40,000 vehicle pull in with an $8,000 trailer behind it, with five or six $7,000 machines. We've had motels that have never been filled in the past 15 to 20 years, and now they're full on weekends. The restaurant business is thriving. And in the town of Matawan alone, four or five new businesses have come in."

That economic revival is essential to the continued allegiance of the landowners. Diversifying the economic base of the region is one of the prime reasons that they're involved in the project. According to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study, the trail system could bring upward of $107 million annually and 3,200 new jobs to the cash-strapped region, currently littered with run-down shacks and trailer homes.

Moore also makes it clear that, despite the early popularity of the trails among the motorized users, he's committed to the trail's multi-use blueprint.

"Every user group, from the equestrians to the mountain bikers to whoever, everyone is anxiously awaiting an expansion of their part of the program," he says. "It's sort of like President Bush's education plan, 'Leave Nobody Behind.' The idea is to leave no recreational trail user behind. If it's trail recreation, we want to be able to provide it, in a quality fashion."

Dymock motors off along the Pinnacle Creek Trail. I pedal after him. We follow the rutted doubletrack that winds along a tired streambed, as Dymock mentions that the channels are the work of local poachers, typically ATV riders trespassing on these private lands. "People are using this land anyway, illegally," he says. "So the landowners like that we're actively managing, and policing, their resource."

The moment the word "resource" escapes Dymock's lips, we round a wide corner and ride smack into the pages of a dark, disturbing Orwellian novel. Before us, without warning, is a monstrous coal-processing plant, owned by U.S. Steel, belching soot into the sky from numerous fixtures and pipes and smoke stacks, nearly blocking out the sun.

It is a colossal, man-made apparatus that, at first gulp, appears wildly at odds with the surrounding forest. In truth, it's a reality check-not only does it crystallize the somber history of the area, but it's also a clear reminder that this is not "open" or "public" land. Or unfettered. Or pristine by any definition. It is what it is-coal country. Gas country. Timber country. The region has a raw and muscular allure, like a battle-tested jungle cat that bears its scars proudly, but has scars nonetheless. If nothing else, the region is a testament to Mother Nature's recuperative powers.

The plant also reflects the limitations of the Hatfield-McCoy Recreation Area. This is a stunning but rugged landscape-coal mining and timber are not gentle industries. It's a tough, hardscrabble existence, and much of the riding here reflects that. The newly cut singletrack is challenging, snaking along eskers and between tight stands of thick trees on a rollercoaster ribbon of trail, revealing an artist's flair for the topography. "We just follow the contours," deadpanned Dymock. Most doubletrack trails follow mining roads, once abandoned and now reclaimed, which boast views of the serrated, heavily forested countryside. It's all good, even if it isn't polished.

The battle is far from over. The success of the concept (the trail network was named one of 16 Millennium Trails by the Clinton Administration, which gives it a measure of support in its promotion and in its work to preserve open space and its historical value) and the inaugural 300 miles only serve as a starting point. Moore says the authority is constantly facing budget constraints, creating a dilemma regarding expansion.

"Right now, the authority is continuing to ensure that we deliver a quality product, and operate what's open," says Moore. "At the same time, we have to expand staff to create and improve more trails. Those aren't great big negatives, just challenges of operation that any entity would have."

Whitt says negotiations with landowners also are time-consuming, but he sees encouraging signs. "We had a landowner who told me, 'When this thing first started, and Leff and others were talking about it, I was wondering why all those people were wrong and I was the only one who was right. But after studying this thing, and seeing how well it's come off and how well the land is being managed, I'm finding out all those other people were right, and I want to get on the right side.' And he signed right there in front of us to give us a licensing agreement."

Moore and English leave the day-to-day operations of the Hatfield-McCoy system to Whitt and others, so they can cultivate their vision beyond West Virginia's borders, and seek new acreage to open for recreation and new owners to convert. "We've seen a paradigm shift in the way most corporations view their land holdings," says Moore. "We've demonstrated that recreational use doesn't need to be an impediment to the primary function for which the land is owned. Now that Hatfield-McCoy has shown how that partnership works between land managers and landowners, that cracks the door open for all kinds of mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, all kinds of use. The opportunities, we believe, exist for these kinds of successes throughout Appalachia, from Maine through Alabama."

We hope they're right.


Pay to play: Permits are available at the ranger stations situated at each trailhead, Thursday-Sunday, from 9-11 a.m. You can also buy permits ($25, annual, in-state; $25, 3-day; $100, annual, out-of-state) through the Hatfield-McCoy website, at the authority's administrative offices on Rich Creek Road, halfway between Bear Wallow and Rockhouse trailheads, on Route 10, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, or from various local vendors (listed on the web site).

The right terrain: The three existing trail loops all feature "Easiest," "Difficult" and "Most Difficult" trail options. Similar to the standard ski area trail map, the labels of the trails are color-coded on the maps supplied by the Hatfield-McCoy Recreation Authority. Every system has a primary loop rated "Easiest," with a variety of other loops spinning off. All singletrack is rated "Most Difficult." Due to the changing nature of the trails-these lands are still actively used for mining and logging operations-visitors are asked to always check the message board at each trailhead for trail updates.

Getting there: From the West Virginia capital of Charleston, follow Route 119 south into the town of Logan (trail officials recommend avoiding backroad shortcuts, since many are twisty, mountainous roads that wind through many small towns-Route 119 is a four-lane highway).

To the trails: To reach the Bear Wallow Trailhead for the Dingess Rum loop from Logan, go left on Route 10 for a couple of miles, then left on Route 17. The trailhead is three miles ahead on the left. The 80 miles of trail here offer more singletrack-which is closed to four- and three-wheeled ATVs-than any of the other trail loops.

The Rockhouse Trailhead of the Browning Fork Trails is situated on Route 10, about 12 miles south of Logan. Targeted for new singletrack additions in 2002 to complement the existing 80 miles, the Browning Fork Trails offer the most varied trail conditions of the three loops.

The Reverend Compton Trailhead of the Buffalo Mountain Trails can be found on Route 52, roughly 5 miles outside Williamson. Featuring 80 miles of trail, and sights such as old mining portals, the Buffalo Mountain Trail offers a 25-mile epic from the trailhead to a trail access point near the town of Matewan. Be forewarned, however, that a section of this route-Trail 98-is rated "Most Difficult."

Up to the minute: For information on the Hatfield-McCoy Recreation Area, including trail fees, detailed maps and special events, call 800/592-2217 or visit

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