Greenbrier River Trail, West Virginia

Posted 06/01/12 by Jake Lynch in America's Trails

Greenbrier River Trail bridge | Photo by

Trail of the Month: June 2012

Though I live in Washington, D.C., West Virginia is still a huge part of my life. It's a salve and a haven, just a few hours drive away.

It's family, too. My wife was born and raised in West Virginia, so she and I often make the weekend trip over to Charleston, beating the traffic out of town on a Friday afternoon. Driving west out of D.C., passing rivers and mountains, I'm like a dog with my head out the window. The smells, the colors, the endless forests—they quickly wash away the stresses of the big smoke.

The Greenbrier River Trail, through Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties in east-central West Virginia, is the perfect embodiment of these sensations. In its 78-mile length, the rail-trail contains many of the elements that make the Mountain State one of America's favorite retreats: the peaks and valleys, the lush forests, the pioneering history, the genuine hospitality of its small towns, and, of course, the river. Sometimes silent and lazy, in other seasons full and ambitious, the Greenbrier River is an almost constant companion to the trail and flavors the journey at every step.

Trains ran here around the turn of the 20th century. Construction began on what would become the Greenbrier Division of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O) in 1899, and for the next 77 years trains hugging the river carried lumber and passengers beyond the valley and through eastern West Virginia.

When the line became unprofitable in the 1970s, the last remaining depots closed their doors. But when C&O donated the corridor to the state, a new opportunity emerged. Realizing the tremendous resource before them, local communities mobilized a force of trail supporters and volunteers behind the effort, and three decades later the Greenbrier River Trail is one of the most famous and well-loved rail-trails in America, and an object of tremendous pride among the communities that built it. (As of this June, in fact, the trail is the newest member of the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.)

My wife and I took some friends to the trail this past April. We had visited a few times before, but the area changes so much from season to season that it seemed as new and as compelling to us as it did to our friends, who were first-timers.

We stayed in a cabin in Seneca State Forest, adjacent to the northern reaches of the trail. It was inexpensive, comfortable, deep in the forest and without electricity—I cannot recommend these cabins highly enough (they're called "Pioneer Cabins"). It was a bit of ride from our cabin to the river crossing point onto the trail at Clover Lick, but an easy drive when we revisited the trail the next day. There are similar cabins, and campgrounds, at Watoga State Park, some 30 miles south along the trail.

Whether it was the environment or the great company, the rain that weekend took nothing from the pleasure of our adventure. I had ridden the trail in fair weather before and could recall the sun glinting off the river. This time, the cool of a wet weekend in late spring brought its own gratification—we had the trail and river to ourselves.

The pallet of my native Australia is browns, dusty yellows and blues, so I am constantly hypnotized by the incredible green of this part of the world. The river and the trail are surrounded by forest and the occasional clearing; hemlock, red spruce, oak, pine, honeysuckle and azalea—even the occasional balsam fir, rarely seen this far south. In the few sections where the river leaves the trail, the water is replaced by light strands of forest.

Watoga Bridge, at mile marker 47.9 north of Watoga State Park, and another about 10 miles north of Marlinton, bring the trail back and forth across the river. This later bridge, known by some as the Greenbrier River Bridge, is one of the more memorable features of the trail. Built in 1900 by the Pencoyd Iron Works in Pennsylvania, it spans 230 feet and curves from Sharps Tunnel at its north, bending south with the river.

The next 10 miles from Sharps Tunnel to Marlinton take you through a great slice of Greenbrier scenery. If you only have a day to spare, I recommend this section. Coming in and out of Marlinton also gives you a chance for a good meal and a bed right off the trail in town.

We took advantage of those amenities the next morning, when we realized we had prepared poorly in terms of sustenance. Luckily for us, the terrific Dirt Bean Café and Bike Shop opens early, and we were able to pick up a few delicious egg and bacon biscuits—one each for on the spot, and a couple more for the backpack. During our subsequent visit to Seneca State Forest, we prepared a little better and were able to pick up all manner of snacks and drinks at an excellent gas station and supermarket south of Greenbank along State Route 28/92. Farther north, the larger communities of Moorefield and Petersburg will have most anything you might need.

For the beer aficionados among us, the opening of the new River Pub across from the Greenbrier Grille and Lodge in Marlinton is great news. Featuring the Ohio-made Great Lakes Brewing Company beers on tap, this place is just what the town needed to provide an added attraction for riders and hikers looking to make a weekend of it. (And the co-owner, Todd, knows something about rail-trails – in 2001 he rode from Columbus, Ohio to Charleston, S.C.)

One of the best features of the Greenbrier River Trail is that it has achieved accessibility without compromising its remote character. A number of small shelters and fire-rings along the trail provide hospitality for trail users, yet these amenities feel more like genuine relics of the pioneering days than intruding modern amenities. The old-fashioned water pumps and restored depot buildings along the way contribute to this vibe.

Most trailheads pop out into tiny communities of well-kept colonial-style homes, among lovely valleys and far from any sounds but the river. The roads are windy and often rough, so cars move at a pace appropriate to the relaxed nature of the scene. Though the northern reaches of the trail are a little wilder and isolated than the southern, the difference is not marked, and any stretch of this wonderful trail has a wilderness feel.

We learned recently that West Virginia State Parks has completed the much-needed connection to the trail from the town of Cass. Visitors from the north and northwest are now able to cut some time from their drive to reach a convenient trailhead, and the new section will also encourage trail users to explore this historical railroad town.

Though a much smaller community, this direct link will no doubt help Cass as it has helped Marlinton, but without infringing on the natural landscape. And that, perhaps, is what we love most about the trail; it brings us into the precious wild environment of West Virginia without lessening it. The towns along its route have been sustained by the trail, but not compromised. This balance is evident in wild stretches along the pathway and in the communities that connect to it, and both of these qualities count highly among the journey's many charms.


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