Riding West Virginia's Pocahontas County
What do you do when you find Shangri La? A place so special, you want to keep it to yourself, yet you know others would love it too. It’s a real dilemma and one I faced after riding in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Hugging the western Allegheny Mountains in southern West Virginia, it’s a rider’s paradise.
There’s an endless list of reasons why it’s becoming a magnet for bikers of all kinds – from sport to dual-sport to cruisers and touring bikes.
With the Monongahela National Forest making up half of the 900 square mile county, 1200 miles of roads have been plotted for motorcycle rides. These roads wind through thick forests of pine, oak, maple, sycamore, birch and mountain ash. Eight rivers have their headwaters here so rushing mountain streams are never far away as serpentine roads dip into valleys before traversing through verdant corridors and lifting you to scenic panoramas. As the elevation changes, the intimacy of the forest gives way to long sweeping curves and expanses of open plains where you can picture the herds of buffalo which once roamed here.
The two-lane paved Highland Scenic Highway cuts a must-see ride through Monongahela National Forest. Within its forty-three miles, the elevation rises from 2,325 feet to over 4,500 feet. Four scenic overlooks provide stunning views and over one-hundred and fifty miles of walking trails are accessible from the highway for those who wish to stretch their legs.
Nestled in the heart of the county is its business center, Marlinton, population eight-hundred. A bridge across the Greenbrier River connects US Highway 219 to the historic downtown where you’ll find the only two stoplights in Pocahontas County. Established in 1749 by James Marlin and Stephen Sewell, it was the first English settlement west of the Alleghenies. The two had a disagreement over religion and Sewell moved into a hollowed out sycamore tree, which remained standing until the 1990’s. With a history like that, you know you’ve arrived at someplace special.
There are no big box stores, no strip malls and except for a Dairy Queen and Subway, no big chains. The accommodations and eateries are all mom and pop establishments who roll out the welcome mat for riders. The entire population of the county is only 8,400 (9 people/square mile). The nearest interstate is forty miles away and access from any direction is via some of the finest motorcycle roads in the country. This means not only is there less traffic, but you won’t get caught plugging along behind long lines of RVs.
Pocahontas County boasts “1,200 exhilarating miles of riding covering 8 distinct rides” -- all laid out in a tank-bag sized brochure. Gas, food and attractions (with GPS coordinates) are well marked and there’s a listing of the nearest service center for all major brands. Although basic service is provided in town, the nearest OEM shop is sixty-one miles away.
As staging areas for the designated rides, the towns of Marlinton, Barlow and Snowshoe all have choices for where to eat or stay. The Dirt Bean and Rayetta’s Lunch Box in Marlinton will prepare delicious boxed lunches which can be enjoyed at one of the many picnic areas throughout the county. Another favorite watering hole is the Pretty Penny Café in Hillsboro where there’s live music on Friday nights and you can kick up your heels with local bands.
Riders Nelson and Andrea Hernandez, originally from North Carolina, heard about the roads in the area and came to scout them out nine years ago. They never left. They purchased The Old Clark Inn in Marlinton and have been welcoming bikers to their B&B ever since.
Built in 1924, the Inn originally housed sales people and families arriving by railway to visit husbands, fathers and sons working in the booming lumber industry. During the town’s peak in the 1940’s, denizens began arriving to visit those employed by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in conservation and natural resources development.
Now, the front porch brings together motorcyclists, meeting for the first time to enjoy beverages and swap stories, conceiving friendships that last for years. The back yard fireplace and grill serve as additional gathering points where guests can prepare their own meals.
Eight years ago Peter Youngblood stumbled across Marlinton and the homey Old Clark Inn while searching for an Eastern US location to host a rally for a group of Ducati owners. Hearing of his visit, the mayor stopped by with a key to the city and the rally has been attracting aficionados from hundreds of miles around every year since.
“The Old Clark Inn is an integral part of why we go there,” says Youngblood. They really go out of their way to accommodate motorcyclists. They have everything from wash rags to side stand plates to compressed air, a small covered bike parking area and covers for those that don’t fit.”
The Locust Hill B&B and Cabin on the outskirts of town is just as welcoming. Looking for a change after twenty-five year careers as Registered Massage Therapists, Dave and Paula Zorn heard that West Virginia was an up and coming tourism state and a great place to start a B&B. “We came up from Missouri in 2000 to have a look and when we drove into the area and spotted this house, we were done!” recalls Paula.
Set on twenty acres which were originally a dairy farm, an asphalt driveway leads up to the Inn. Big windows in its high-ceilinged sitting and dining rooms offer beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. Extensive renovations have transformed the farmhouse into a cozy home away from home, complete with a spa room. Imagine coming back after a day of riding, leaving your bike in the garage and relaxing into a therapeutic massage! Or unwinding with on-site badminton, horseshoes, volleyball or a paddleboat.
History buffs will enjoy a stay at Jerico B&B. With nine reassembled pre-Civil War cabins (with indoor plumbing) set back in the mountains, it’s guaranteed to create an unforgettable experience.
“Pocahontas County has a number of destination spots so you can incorporate more than riding into your visit” advises Youngblood. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) which houses the Green Bank Telescope, the largest fully steerable telescope on Earth and the largest moving structure on land is a group favorite. So is an excursion on the Cass Scenic Railway built in 1901 to haul lumber. Steam locomotives transport you back in time while huffing to breathtaking vistas.
By far the largest single group of riders will be at the year-round Snowshoe Mountain Resort in July. Home to the annual Snowshoe Mountain Freedom Fest, an all-brand touring rally for ten years, this year the resort is hosting the West Virginia State HOG (Harley Owners Group) Rally.
Gail Hyer, Marketing Specialist for Pocahontas County is proud of their people and their reputation for welcoming bikers. “It’s the reason the HOG rally is being held here,” she relates. “One of their main conditions was that they wanted to come downtown for a parade, and the people of Marlinton were highly supportive.”
“Our HOG Chapter rides up to Snowshoe and Marlinton a lot,” says Gary Martin, organizer of this year’s rally. “It’s one of the most scenic areas in the state of West Virginia, the roads are fabulous and the people are very friendly.”
With seventy-two rooms, Marlinton Motor Inn offers another alternative for accommodations and is well suited for mid-sized groups. For the second year in a row, it has been chosen as “base camp” for approximately one-hundred riders from the Mid-Atlantic region, introduced through the on-line ADV (Adventure) Forum.
While some ADV riders will opt to enjoy area byways, others prefer to rely on GPS guidance to explore secondary and forest access roads that aren’t on any map. Euclid Ohio resident Rick Gzesh was on last year’s ride. “You don’t see that kind of nature when you’re on the bigger roads,” he recalls. “They take you through old mining towns, past rustic farms and around protected game lands. It’s outstandingly beautiful.”
But it’s the people of West Virginia who leave the greatest impression. Gzesh maintains “They could give a lot of lessons on hospitality to the rest of the world. We’re going back because of the roads,” he pauses, “and how we were treated.”
Shangri La? Ideal primary and secondary roads that appeal to all riding styles, little traffic, unsurpassed natural beauty, easily to access, world-class attractions, outdoor activities – and genuinely warm, welcoming people. You decide. I’ll see you there.
More by Liz Jansen