Steam Trains, beautiful scenery and a long tunnel are all part of a bike ride on the Greenbrier River Trail.
After a summer of road biking and some recent issues with a hilly 66 mile ride, a rails to trails adventure is just what I needed.
CASS, WVa. (Carlin the Cyclist) The Greenbrier River trail is an 78-mile former rail bed that stretches from Marlinton to Cass WVa. Our adventure started at Cass, home to the famous Cass Scenic Railroad, which takes visitors from the station on an excursion back in time.
From the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park website: Nestled in the mountains of West Virginia, Cass Scenic Railroad State Park offers excursions that transport you back in time to relive an era when steam-driven locomotives were an essential part of everyday life…
I’d like to take the train sometime, but on this day in late October the mission was to ride our bikes to Sharp’s Tunnel and return.
The ride had already gained some character before we cold even unload. The steam train was at the station taking on passengers as we pulled in to unrack our bikes and don our cycling clothes. Thick, black smoke (steam?) was coming from the old locomotive, contrasting with the blue skies overhead. Our group expected to see some of the most remote areas of the state, but a functioning steam train was a bonus.
As the train steamed out of the station headed north, we mounted our bikes and headed south on what was once the rail bed but is now a packed crusher run surface.
The day was gorgeous, even though the foliage was already well beyond peak. The Greenbrier River was on our immediate left as we headed south and stayed there for the entire ride.
We passed through several small communities with names like Slab Town, Stony Bottom and Clover Lick, all, I assume, names dating back to the area’s history with timber — the very reason that rail lines crisscrossed the region for decades until in 1978 the C&O Railway abandoned this line and donated it to the State of West Virginia. The state removed the rails and cross ties and created the Greenbrier River Trail State Park which is one of the longest rail trails in the nation.
There is a sense of history to the ride. The communities beside the trail sport older homes which bespeak the region’s heritage and a time when the now remote area must have been teeming with people. Many of the homes have been converted into what appear to be vacation getaways, B & B’s or cabins for the visitors of today, who like us, are here to see the region’s natural beauty be it on a bike, on foot or horseback, or perhaps with fishing rod in hand.
I was surprised we didn’t see any anglers in the river as my inner fisherman took in all the places the current merged or where deep pools led to riffles and even more pools, perfect lies for the river’s famous smallmouth bass. I vowed to come back and somehow combine the bike and fishing gear, perhaps to ride to a location beyond the reach of those on foot. There is nothing like fishing over water where the fish are a bit more gullible — as opposed to those educated by countless anglers flinging their wares at them day after day.
Alas, this was not a time for fishing. We were here to ride. The trail — as advertised was dead flat. Technically you’ll find no more than a 1-percent grade. The indicator on my Garmin flickered around a bit, but it showed no climbs or descents that I could describe or even feel. (At the end it registered a total of 390 feet of elevation gain over 31 miles.) What we all felt however was the need for occasional breaks. Unlike most rides on the road, there is no opportunity to coast down hill. So you are pedaling all the time.
No matter. There are plenty of places to stop. We opted for a crossing near a restored depot. It was closed on the day of our visit, but looked like it might be open to visitors at other times of the year.
There were lots of horses on the tail. We were careful to make ourselves known to the riders if we came from behind. We yielded as required and received many thanks from the riders.
Our plan was to ride to and through the tunnel, have lunch and return. At about 15 miles the tunnel came into view. We could not see through to the other side and it seemed a bit daunting. In fact I found a story in the Washington Post from the late 90’s where the writer/photographer walked all the way to the spot but couldn’t conjure the nerve required to walk through the 500 foot passage — leaving without the photo she went there to take.
Though it was dark and a bit scary — we had safety in numbers and rolled through without any problems. The tunnel curves a bit and once around the bend we could see the proverbial light at the end of the well, tunnel. We were surprised once on the other side by a long trestle over the river.
It’s funny how the trail, as beautiful as it is,can start to feel as if it’s all the same. Mile after mile of trees and the river — all of the stuff of postcards, but as you ride, you begin to wonder if there isn’t something else to see. So when you come to a marvel such as Sharp’s tunnel — it’s more than gratifying. And then to see this 200 foot long trestle, it’s icing on the cake.
We rolled over the trestle and found a place beside the river where people had created make-shift campsites. A well used rope swing hung from a tree near a small platform that had been nailed to the tree, creating a launching spot for the swing. By the time I got off my bike and down the path, Gary and Barbara Butcher had already commandeered the platform, and were happily pulling their lunches from Gary’s backpack.
With lunch completed we walked back up to the trestle and talked for a bit about how breathtaking the river was. Even though most of the leaves were off the trees, we couldn’t get over the beauty of the spot.
Perhaps as we age we tend to marvel more at life’s simplicities. Years ago I might have taken for-granted the idea that I could ride my bike to this place. I might have ridden right by and not stopped to smell the roses, or in this case to take in the blue sky reflected off the water. I might not have noted the effort it took to provide money for this project and everything else needed for someone with a vision to make it so we could ride over a trestle and through a tunnel once designed for trains. The older me realizes this stuff doesn’t just happen. I took a moment to be grateful that it did.
We were riding a mish-mash of different bicycles. Gary and I rode our 29er mountain bikes with the suspension locked out. My wife Mary along with Karen Deer and Barbara Butcher rode greenway/rails-to trails-bikes essentially designed for this type of cycling, with a more upright position, and tires (35 mm) that were not as wide as mountain bike tires, but much fatter than those on our road bikes. Steve Ruhf rode Gary’s old Cannondale Scalpel 800 with flat pedals and kept up just fine.
It was Mary’s first ride on her new Giant and she loved it. Gary has plans to tweak the old Scalpel to include narrower tires to make it a dedicated rails to trails bike. I have a couple of old mountain bikes at home that might be headed for the same fate, since my trusty Cannondale Trigger is the only mountain bike I ride in the woods any more.
I’m fascinated with cycling’s new trend toward gravel bikes and I couldn’t help but wonder how much fun it would have been to hit this trail with a bike that was designed to go fast on this terrain. The hard packed surface included a few places where the trail bed was a bit deep and loose. Our wider tires floated over these spots without issue where a road bike would not have been so fortunate. But, a dedicated gravel bike might have made the riding a bit easier. That’s why there’s the adage about the number of bikes you need is n + 1, where n is the number of bikes you already have. You can always find a bit more space in the garage.
At the last moment the members of our group decided to ride without helmets. I wish we hadn’t. the thinking was that compared to road biking or even true mountain biking, this effort would be a piece of cake and only marginally dangerous. While that’s true at some level, there is still the opportunity to take a spill, hit a tree or whatever other devilish mishap the cycling gods can create. At times we were riding 15 miles an hour — plenty fast to hurt yourself if you are unfortunate enough to have a sudden meeting with the ground. Next time I’ll wear the helmet.
The old rail bed still has mile markers along the way and I must admit that despite the flat terrain and the beauty of the day, I was counting them down. My legs were tired, I was beginning to get a chill from dampness due to sweating and a cold beer seemed to be calling my name.
As we neared the end of the trail, Gary pushed ahead to a half mile section we had missed on the way out. We discovered a small bone yard of abandoned rail cars still on a section of track tucked behind some local homes. We stopped to take a picture before rolling on.
Just as we returned to the parking lot, the steam train returned from it’s excursion. I snapped a picture of Karen Deer as the smoke from the train billowed behind her. The people on the train had seen their scenery and we had seen and earned ours. As I said before, someday I’d like to take a ride on that train, but for now I’m glad to be able to enjoy the sites under my own power.