West Virginia (GPS, Gravel, and All)


This trip got started when my college roommate, best friend, and periodic motorcycling buddy, Buzz, bought a new Suzuki V-Strom 650 with ABS. After he scuffed up the tires and bedded-in the brakes for 100 miles, we decided it was time for another Buzz & Rick Riding Adventure. We agreed to meet at Tygart Lake State Park in West Virginia, and to proceed from there.

Naturally, we each had to get there from our respective starting bases (Wooster, Ohio and Catonsville, Maryland). In my case, I’d always wanted to ride Route 50 across WV, so off I set (with a new Garmin Zumo GPS to help show the way).

Along the way, of course, there were some stately old houses to photograph…

…and some that were no longer quite so stately. (Kind of adds a new meaning to “opening up the house for the summer…)

The weather was perfect, as indicated by the sky behind this church in Capon Bridge that had an unusual, octagonal bell tower:

In Romney, I happened across this house, which had served as Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters when the Confederates captured the town in 1862:

In the middle of nowhere (where we spent virtually all of this trip), I rode past a covered bridge. I went back to investigate, and, as I rode through the bridge, I wondered why it was full of old bicycles, tools, appliances, etc. On the other side, I realized that it was a covered bridge / barn / garage that led directly onto someone’s farm! I beat a hasty retreat after taking just one picture…

Route 50 crosses a number of mountains, with the road typically looking about like this each time:

When I wasn’t bending into corner after corner, there was time to spot one scenic setting after another. This old log cabin was one of my favorites:

And speaking of log cabins, these two youngsters were intrigued by the tall, gawky, picture-takin’ motorcyclist who pulled up in the road out front.

Everywhere you looked, there were beautiful vistas–sometimes distant (as in the case of Saddle Mountain) and sometimes right in front of you (somebody’s field).

As best I could tell, this church in Gormania was now being used as a house:

Although virtually all of our trip was on pavement, I occasionally found some dirt whilst searching for more pho-op’s.

Meanwhile, Fearless Buzz was continuing to break in his V-Strom, stopping every 45 minutes or so for a stretch and photo op.

Back on Route 50, I crossed the Cheat River, which my Dad had canoed many a time back in his prime.

Not far before Grafton, I encountered one of the weirder settings of the whole trip. Every imaginable antique farm implement was sitting somewhere in this yard. For good measure, there were several train cabooses in the background. As Calvin and Hobbes would have said, “There was treasure everywhere!”

West Virginia is full of tiny towns that appear to be hanging onto viability by their fingertips. Not every residence in such towns was on the right side of the balance sheet…

Eventually, both Buzz and I arrived at the Tygart Lake Lodge, where we admired each other’s bikes and the view of the lake from our window, and compared notes on our adventures along the way. After a decent dinner at the Lodge, we hiked the trail to the dam holding the 13-mile-long lake in place (and found it to be the ugliest dam we’d ever seen! It clearly does not merit a picture.) Then we took advantage of the Lodge’s wireless Internet access and Buzz’s laptop to download our GPS data and check the next day’s route.

Bright and early the next morning, we set off for Philippi and breakfast. The way into town was through the longest covered bridge either of us had ever seen:

After a great breakfast at the Medallion Restaurant, we headed back through the longest covered bridge–and promptly discovered the shortest barber’s shop we’d ever seen (go figure…)

We continued on Route 219 until reaching a back road named “Frenchton Carter Alexander,” which almost sounded like it was named after Bob’s BMW salesmen… This took was well off the beaten path, where the RR crossings had never seen an automated signal, much of the rolling stock warn’t rollin’ no more, and the switchmaster’s house was long-vacated…

Eventually, after “40 Miles of Bad Roads,” we ended up back on 219. As had been the case on many of the other roads in West Virginia so far, roughly 1/4 of the corners were carefully marked by gravel… Fortunately, we managed to avoid The Dreaded Sideslip on these corners, but it definitely made for a more sedate cornering technique than we might have employed otherwise.

Before long, we turned off onto local route 66 to make a detour to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank. Along the way, we passed these twin mini dams…

…and the wonderful town of Cass, home of the Cass Scenic Railroad. Cass proved to be one of the most interesting places we encountered. It was built in 1901 to serve a lumbering company. The owners constructed standardized housing for their workers, and these homes now function as guest accommodations for visitors:

The railroad station was in good shape, to serve modern tourists who can ride the scenic railway, pushed along by one of the original “Shay” locomotives. (To negotiate the steep grades, water crossings(!), and tight turns, these trains used direct gear drive to each wheel.)

The train wasn’t in evidence when we passed through, but back in the day it looked like this:

Not all of the town’s housing was in such good shape. The larger units on the outside of town were gradually deteriorating. Also, as shown in the last shot here, it’s best not to be upstairs during a tree-snapping storm…

A former resort hotel might be undergoing renovation–but it has a long way to go.

On the way out of town toward Green Bank, we crossed over the famous Greenbriar River:

Eventually, we found the Green Bank Observatory, complete with fascinating public exhibits on how radio telescopes work. Among many other things, they had an infrared camera set up; just the thing for an impromptu self-portrait! These kids enjoyed the demonstration of convex versus concave mirrors.

We signed up for the free bus tour of the grounds, which included a demonstration of some of the special techniques used to minimize interference in radio reception. Have you ever seen a baloon dunked in liquid nitrogen? Quite a sight.

In this shot, the world’s largest radio telescope can be seen in the background. Its dish is 2.3 acres, and it’s approximately 500′ high at its tallest point.

Elsewhere, the grounds had a slightly surreal appearance to them, with other ‘scopes sticking out above the treetops.

We were joined on the tour by a rowdy crowd of motorcyclists–most of whom, as it turned out, were BMW riders from Philadelphia and New Jersey. They appeared on two more R12GS’s, an LT, and a nifty 1100RS in yellow and checkered flag colors.

Back on the road, we considered the late hour and decided to head to Marlinton rather than further on to Summersville. Still, we made time for further scenic shots, since Yr Fthfl Srvnt just can’t help himself…

Stopping overnight in Marlinton proved to be a great choice, principally because of the Old Clark Inn. Run by motorcyclists Nelson and Andrea, it offered covered MC-only parking (with air and other services), very nice accommodations, and good prices. It was originally built in 1924 as a residence hotel and operated by Lucy Clark, who appeared to have been a cheery soul.

Dinner was a nearby walk at the River Place Restaurant. The service was slow but the food was decent. This was Buzz’s kielbasa, which the waitress proudly proclaimed to be a WV specialty… Regardless, it was good!

Up early the next morning, we had a super breakfast at the B & B and then headed back up tight, twisty, 219 to Route 150–the famous Highland Scenic Highway–and scenic it was. The road was wide, smooth, and free of gravel! Best of all, every 600′ there was a beautiful vista, either to the south or north, and sometimes both. I was stopping every 601′ to take a picture, until Buzz reminded me that we had many miles to go that day. (Thereafter, I stopped only every 1200’…)

Route 150 ended at Route 39, but the Highland Scenic Highway continued right along with us. We went through many small towns, including one that had a nifty mural painted on the side of a building, portraying historic West Virginia scenes. (Anyone know who Nancy Hart was? She’s pictured at the left of the mural. I’d never heard of her, but she was a Confederate spy and saboteur during the Civil War, despite the fact that her two brothers were fighting for the Union. More information on her story is available at Nancy Hart.)

Riding on, we reached Hawks Nest State Park, which proved to have the most elegant stone restrooms we’d encountered:

When we’d left Marlinton, it was only 40 degrees. By now, it was rapidly warming up, so it was a good time to de-layer. Later in the day, it reached 80 degrees, adding quite an element of Meteorological Diversity to the day.

After a brief stop at Hawks Nest, we went in search of our major goal: The New River Gorge Bridge. Putting the GPS’s to good use, Buzz quickly figured out how to get there. On the way, we crossed the New River on Route 16.

Soon, we crossed on the New River Gorge Bridge on Route 19–the largest steel arch bridge in the country. The bridge is over 3000′ long and nearly 900′ high. In this picture, it’s hard to grasp just how big this sucker is–but if you could see the cars and trucks on top of the bridge, they would appear just as teeny objects.

This picture of Buzz’s gives a better perspective on just how large those girders are:

The goal, of course, was to find a way down to the river itself. This involved diving headfirst (headlamp first?) down some of the steepest switchbacks we’d ever experienced. Originally, this was the only route across the gorge, and it took approximately 40 minutes! The road twisted and turned and occasionally ran underneath rock outcroppings such as the one here. The next photo shows that travel by car might have been even more adventurous than travel by motorcycle, in the late 1910s!

Along the old route, we crossed the New River for the third time, on the third separate bridge. Someone had the nerve to park a yellow GS right on the bridge whilst taking pictures. Dang motorcyclists!

Heading back up Highway 16 to continue our trip, we re-encountered so many scenic views that I gave up trying to photograph even a tenth of them. Here’s an old mill and dam…

…and another pretty waterfall, this one natural…

…and another pretty scene, this one Japanese!

The Chief Mystery of the Day was spotted by Buzz while I was photographing waterfalls: Where did this old bridge lead to?? There was only little evidence of a road leading onto it, and no evidence whatsoever of where it went on the near side of the stream–which was bordered by a roughly 30′ embankment! Any ideas? (Inquiring minds want to know…)

With all our exploring, the day was beginning to draw on. We had an enjoyable lunch at Tudor’s Biscuit World (I can’t wait until this chain comes to Maryland!) and then continued up 16. Along the way were more twisty-turny roads, largely absent gravel (hurray!), which invited an aggressive riding style with constant left-right-left leaning the bikes well over. Great fun!

We reached Gauley Bridge, which deserved some thorough exploring, but we limited ourselves to Cathedral Falls. The water level was well down, so the full, multi-falls “cathedral” effect wasn’t evident–but the falls were spectacular nonetheless:

We rushed on, encountering more gravel on too-many occasions, but we were becoming expert at dodging it mid-corner. Highway 16, then 119, and 18, twisted back and forth for mile after mile, with seldom a straight section longer than a couple hundred feet. There were countless trailers along these roads, as well as a number of decaying riverside towns with anywhere from 3 to 30 houses. Some of these only counted as 1/2 of a house…

But, there continued to be beauty everywhere, and these roads really deserved a more relaxed pace. For example, I wish we’d had time to stop at Mike Fink’s grave. (For those who don’t remember the mid-1950s Disney TV movie about Davy Crockett, Mike Fink was a keelboat racer, gambler, brawler, and general ne’er-do-well. He was born around 1775 and was featured in many dime novels and other publications over the years.)

Late in the day, we ended up on Route 50 and darted over to I-79 and a Hampton Inn at Bridgeport. A Bob Evans dinner and a dunk in the jacuzzi, and all was well!

The next morning, it was time to go our separate ways. We oiled Buzz’s chain, packed everything up, and off we went–Buzz to the legendary Route 800 in Ohio, which he took for most of his way home, and me to visit Morgantown, WV–where I lived from ages 1 1/2 through 5 1/2, while my Dad taught at the university.

Thanks to the Zumo, I found my old house without difficulty. It had a later addition built on the near end, plus a stone retaining wall that didn’t used to be there … and it didn’t used to have trees in the front yard! (That may say something about how long ago I lived there.) But it was definitely the right place.

Down Grand Street a bit was the “castle” home of our friends, the Putnams. It was currently getting a new roof, which complicates the picture a bit, but it’s still quite an impressive place.

I also Zumo’d over to High Street, to see if it was as steep as I thought I remembered. You can judge for yourself, looking up and then down:

As I headed out of town, I went through the heart of the downtown campus of the university…

…and also along a “street” that the Zumo positively swore was on the right route!

Leaving town, I managed to find the original bridge over Cheat Lake, which I remembered from my childhood. Its trusses are not only rusted–they’re cobwebbed!

Next stop on the way to Catonsville was Cooper’s Rock State Park, which I’d driven by a hundred times but never visited before. It featured a great overlook, looking down on the Cheat River…

…plus, off in the woods (don’t ask me why I went there), a gigantic rock with any number of fair-sized trees and saplings growing out of it:

I took I-68 past Frostburg and Cumberland but then switched to Scenic 40–a real treat, for anyone headed that way. At the top of Town Hill, the Town Hill Hotel still stands proud and has been in operation since about 1920. Sadly, the rest of the town, which used to be a major waypoint for anyone traveling in this area, was mostly gone. But the spot still offered a magnificent vista, with I-68 way down there in the distance.

Continuing on, I mis-read a Scenic 40 sign and turned left instead of right. (I shoulda programmed the route into the Zumo, but I was traveling mostly by SoP.) Before long, I was inadvertently in Pennsylvania, on roads that got smaller and smaller by the mile. Fortunately, you’re never lost as long as you can see Sideling Hill!

In the meantime, Buzz was long since home, along the way having encountered a freshly painted Mail Pouch Tobacco ad, the Sistersville Ferry (where he’d thought that his Garmin 2720 indicated a bridge), and a barn that wasn’t quite built as solidly as a brick, uh, ‘house.

Finally, I realized that this house was the closest to civilization that I’d been in nearly an hour. I bit the bullet, told the Zumo to take me home, and arrived back in Catonsville a couple of hours later.

It had been a fabulous trip all around: Outstanding weather, with not even one drop of rain; fascinating and challenging roads; unusual sights; and an A-Number-One riding buddy (who had thoughtfully laid out the route in the first place, and then modified it as necessary along the way). All told, it was 999.5 miles over the course of 4 days–and I’d do it again tomorrow!

Rick F.

PS–Except that my GS is at Bob’s for the dreaded clutch spline lube/repair.

PPS–If I can figure it out, I’ll post the MapSource routes we followed.

PPPS–Many of the photos included here were taken by Buzz Barbu. The picture of the Shay locomotive is courtesy of the Mountain State Railroad & Logging Historical Association.

PPPPS–What does it mean when a West Virginia baby is drooling evenly from both sides of its mouth? It means the trailer is level…


Written by Rick

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