Experience Pocahontas County – West Virginia’s Best Treasure
Waking from a restful night’s sleep, I could have been in the Garden of Eden. There was a sense of complete peace. The fresh, crisp air carried delightful bird serenades. A mist hung over the serene valley as the sun began to peak over the ancient mountains. Everything was green, lush and bursting with life. All was well. I had to bring myself back to the present and remember I was at The Inn at Mountain Quest, in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, with my motorcycle parked outside my door.
The realization that I was about to embark on what would undoubtedly be another day of extraordinary riding pulled me back from my reverie and sparked me into action.
I was headed for the Appalachian Waters Scenic Byway, also known as Rte. 39, stretching 139 miles from Lexington, VA to Summersville, WV. Centrally located along its length, the area around Marlinton, WV, the County seat, makes an ideal staging point from which to venture out in any direction.
Lying completely within the Appalachian Mountains, Pocahontas County and its 9,000 residents are spread over 941 square miles, making it one of the most sparsely populated counties in the state. With well-paved, well-engineered and well-maintained mountain roads twisting and turning, climbing and dipping into valleys and offering spectacular views no matter which road you choose, it’s a motorcyclist’s paradise.
Heading west from Virginia on the Appalachian Waters Scenic Byway, the pull-off at Goshen Pass, four miles east of Goshen, begs a stop. Overlooking the Maury River Gorge, the river here has some of the most popular whitewater in Virginia. Visitors come for hiking, swimming, tubing and picnicking along the often-turbulent water.
Further on, just past the charming town of Warm Springs in the Allegheny Highlands, is the must-stop Dan Ingalls overlook The panoramic view of hardwood forests, glacial rock and mountain valleys create the perfect place to stretch your legs and breathe in the beauty.
While here, the Virginians pulled up; three friends out for a ride, enjoying the roads, the beauty and the moment. Fortunate to have plenty of riding in their back yard that most of us only dream of, they were destined for Pocahontas County, just over the Virginia border. After swapping friendly banter and road stories, it was time to saddle up again.
Back on the Appalachian Waters Scenic Byway, the road wound delightfully through the West Virginia mountains, cutting through the verdant canopy, often alongside tumbling streams. Turning north on Rt. 92, a broad, rural valley takes you to Frost and past The Inn at Mountain Quest.
Simultaneously an upscale B&B and Conference and Retreat center, it fulfilled a dream for owners David and Alex Bennet. When they’re not welcoming individuals and groups from around the world, they’re off around the world themselves, leading workshops on knowledge management, change management and leadership.
A hearty breakfast is served in the 1892 vintage farmhouse, and a renowned Saturday buffet prepared by Chef and Business Manager Andrew Dean. The 450-acre complex, which includes a working farm with horses, llama and long-horn cattle, offers plenty of space for quiet and reflective walks.
Fast food, sandwiches and freshly baked goods are available up the road at Dunmore Country Mart and Bakery, run by Kevin and Amanda Fraser. A motorcycle trip here from their home in Maryland in 2007 immediately engaged them. “The roads were just biker roads. We looked down on German Valley and it reminded us of our home in Capetown, South Africa.” They rented a furnished apartment and began escaping from the urban DC setting every weekend.
Not ready to give up their business yet, it took another few years before they relocated here permanently in 2011, opening up their combination bakery, restaurant, variety store and gas station last September.
In stark contrast to the laid-back, simple lifestyle, further up Rte. 92, your jaw will drop as mine did at your first glimpse of the Green Bank Telescope (GBT), the world’s largest steerable telescope, operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).
Director Dr. Karen O’Neill explains, “The computer telescope covers wavelengths your eye can’t see. The further away in space you look, the further back in time you go. We have instruments here on site that are designed to look back to the edge of the universe.”
It’s ironic. “People here work on the most high powered receivers and signal processing units in the world,” she continues, “but want to live out here in the rural community.”
With Congress cutting research dollars, Dr. O’Neill describes the immediate benefits of their work. “While we do give a lot of technology spinoffs like WIFI and CAT scan technologies, the bigger benefit is that we provide what civilization needs. We provide a lot of answers behind the curiosity people have in trying to understand the world around them. It’s one reason astronomy is a fantastic science for kids.”
Business manager Michael Holstine took us on a site tour that got us up close to the giant telescope. Weighing 16.725 million pounds, it can move 360 degrees in under nine minutes and can do a full elevation swing in four minutes. The 2.3-acre parabola reflects signals originating 14 billion light years away to the receiver. “We’re looking at what the universe looked like at that time,” says Holstine. “We can look at different distances at what we think are the same types of things, and therefore look at them at different points in time. It allows us to see the birth of stars, their life and death, and then form the theory about how that occurs.”
Mind boggled, I left with awe and appreciation for the work being done there. It was time to return to earth and mountain roads, this time winding through historic Cass. A vibrant lumber town in its day, it’s now rich in history of an era gone by. Careful restoration has brought the company town and many of its white clapboard cottages back to life for tourists, eager to ride the Cass Scenic Railway or just step back in time.
Turning south at Rte. 219, I found myself in Slatyfork and Sharp’s Country Store, family owned since 1884 and now also a living museum. Allow plenty of time to absorb the history both in artifacts and stories which owner Tom Shipley is happy to regale you with. He traces his family history back to his 8th great granddad William Sharp, who built the first house in nearby Huntersville in the 1760’s, “before it was even Huntersville.”
William Sharp III established a farm on the land on which Sharp’s sits today. The 2nd log home he built in 1841, which was the polling place for the 1864 election won by Lincoln, is still standing. Coverlets made by his wife are on display in the store.
Built in 1912, the 15-room farmhouse with wraparound porch stands behind the store and is where Shipley and his family live. They operate a Bed and Bring Your Own Breakfast, with meals being eaten at the giant table, which once seated farm hands.
“When people come into the store, there will be two or three old guys sitting around the counter, talking about life and solving the world’s problems, just like they’ve been doing since 1884. Everyone is welcome to join in the conversation.”
Down the road, dinner at Elk River Inn & Restaurant capped off an incredible day. Known for its gourmet menu, it was a relaxing, convivial atmosphere. Joined by Peter Youngblood and his wife, they were meeting up with an online group with members from across the country for an annual weekend of riding in Pocahontas County. Choose to eat on the large deck, or enjoy the view through large windows, or relax at the pub-style bar. Live local music completed a wonderful dining experience.
It was a picture-perfect day from any perspective and time to return to the Garden of Eden at The Inn at Mountain Quest for a sound night’s sleep, but not before a walk after parking my bike. No city lights means unobstructed views of the Milky Way, a billion stars and limitless imagination.
Pocahontas County’s idyllic setting in the Appalachians does require a bit of planning. Cell phone (and cell-dependent GPS) service are not reliably available. While there are plenty of gas stations, not all carry premium grades so top up before your tank gets too low.
Pocahontas County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau website is a complete resource for planning your trip, providing extensive information on points of interest, accommodations and events. Check out the motorcycle touring section and download the well thought out Motorcycle Touring Map with suggested routes covering over 1,200 miles of spectacular riding.
It’s easy to see why riders love this area and why people love living here. Try it. Not only will you be thrilled with your ride, no matter which route you choose, the beauty and the people of Pocahontas County will have you coming back for more.
Liz Jansen is an author, speaker and coach whose work draws from her experience on two wheels. Her blogs with practical tips and inspirational advice can be found on her website at www.lizjansen.com.