Trail of the Month: July 2008
West Virginia's Allegheny Highlands Trail
Water is always on the move in the Mountain State, where the first railroads had to follow winding rivers and arc along steep ridges to connect communities. Trestles played hopscotch over creeks, valleys and whitewater canyons, and mountains surged up on all fronts. West Virginia transportation, in short, had to bend to the will of the land, and on few trails are those bends more enjoyable than on the 24.5-mile Allegheny Highlands Trails from Elkins to Hendricks.
"You have these natural curves that give you a sense of being in and with the mountains, following them down and hugging the sides," says Kelly Pack, manager of trail development for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC).
Despite all the hubbub in topography, the trail still affords visitors a remarkably accessible adventure through remote, undeveloped countryside, pastures, farms and wetlands, and part of the Monongahela National Forest. "It's a long-distance, well-maintained trail in the middle of one of the most pristine and protected areas of the state," says Pack, a native West Virginian.
Built with the help of the West Virginia Division of Highways, the Allegheny Highlands Trail (not to be confused with the Great Allegheny Passage) carves an ambling route along the original path of the West Virginia Central and Pittsburg Railway—which once used Elkins as a commuter line hub. Today, the pathway heads north from Elkins at the Highland Park trailhead on pavement before transitioning to smooth, crushed stone. Nearby wooded peaks, like Bearlick Knob, Pheasant Mountain and Polecat Knob, hunch over the trail as it works through the shadows and meadows of the Appalachians, and Leading Creek paces the pathway for the first 12 miles.
The corridor remains relatively level until a slight uphill grade heading into Porterwood, where the small elevation spike gradually tapers off along the Shavers Fork River into Parsons, a small community that has rebuilt itself since a devastating 1985 flood.
From there, the final few miles are paved and scoot alongside the Black Fork River to the trail's end in Hendricks. Ambitious pedalers can then hop over to the Blackwater Canyon Trail for a 10-mile, huff-and-puff climb to Thomas (elevation change: 1,300 feet). This largely undeveloped pathway cuts along the high canyon ridge, and Pack says early spring and late fall—when the leaves aren't as dense—are great times to get a clear sense of the steep mountainside and the Blackwater River rushing through the canyon below.
Craning your neck and soaking up the mountain vistas may be the hallmark of the Allegheny Highlands Trail experience. Yet visitors to the pathway now have good reason to keep their eyes glued to the ground as well: geocaching. Starting this past June, the trail became a destination for the popular adventure game, in which participants use handheld GPS (Global Positioning System) units to find hidden "caches."
Gordon Blackley, president of the Highlands Trail Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports local trail development, spearheaded the drive to register cache sites, known as "smilies," on the Allegheny Highlands Trail. "I decided it would be fun to make the trail intellectually, as well as physically, stimulating," he says. "While you're [geocaching], you're getting some exercise, out in the sunlight, in some pretty countryside. Makes it kind of different."
Now, interested gamers from all over the world can visit Geocaching online to find those coordinates, known as "waypoints," and set off on their hunt (see sidebar for more details). Most GPS units can track the caches to within 10-20 feet; the rest is old-fashioned, roll-up-your-sleeves detective work. Gordon uses Tupperware to hold his caches, which he's hidden in various places along the trail corridor—under porches and bridges, behind fenceposts, but never buried or too mysterious. "It's like designing a golf course," he says. "You try to make it interesting and scenic and fun, but not too difficult."
What's inside the cache varies widely by location and organizer; gadgets, toys and logbooks are common finds. The main rule, though, is that if you take something from a cache, you should leave something behind for the next discoverer.
Another dimension of geocaching, which Gordon hasn't tried yet, is the idea of "virtual" caches: logging particularly striking views or attractions for others to find and enjoy. "This is more than trinkets and pens and things to stick in your hat," he says. "What you're doing is sharing something beautiful with other people. This whole element hit me like a thunderbolt."
On the Allegheny Highlands Trail, you won't need satellites to pinpoint the trail's winding views and wooded serenity—they are on abundant display for all visitors. So pack your trail gear, and maybe a GPS unit for some mental exercise, and head to northeastern West Virginia for a showcase of the state's mountain lifestyle and leisure.
For more information, photos and user reviews of the trail, or to post your own, please visit TrailLink.com.