Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Biking the Greenbrier Trail

Sunday, August 24, 2003

The Greenbrier Trail is an old railway line running along the Greenbrier River in West Virginia through valleys nearly parallel to the Blue Ridge Mountains between Caldwell (near Lewisburg) and Cass. We drove about 2.5 hours on Saturday afternoon to Lewisburg, enjoying sunny scenery along the way. The approach to the West Virginia-Virginia border along Interstate 64 is uphill for miles. C’s little 4-cylinder Saturn struggled up the hills in low gears. Eventually, we arrived in Lewisburg and found our borderline sleazy motel next to the State Agricultural Fair grounds. The motel looked like run-down apartments from the outside, but was reasonably clean inside. After storing our bikes in the motel room we drove to the start of the Greenbrier Trail. All thoughts of riding directly to the trail from the motel vanished as we traveled the 5.7-mile mostly downhill route to the trail! Neither of us wanted C to be riding that uphill route back to the motel the following morning!

Once we had located the beginning of the trail we drove back to Lewisburg and walked around the picturesque streets. Most of the buildings were constructed in the 1890’s, and it was easy to imagine dirt streets and horses in the town a hundred years ago. Many of the storefronts are now antique stores. Soon it was dinnertime. We tried a Western Sizzlin’, but we should have chosen the nearby Applebee’s. C’s steak tasted like plastic, and we continually brushed flies away from our food. With leaden stomachs we returned to the motel for an early bedtime.
Near dawn light was dim at the start.
Skies were clear overnight, and the temperature dropped to about 60 degrees by dawn. So it was a bit too cool when we started off on the trail at 6:55 am Sunday. A high fog hung on the slopes of surrounding mountains blocking the Sun. The fog did not drop to ground level, so although light was dim, we could see the trail and the neighboring river clearly. C wore a long-sleeved shirt, and I wore a flannel shirt to remain comfortable in the 60-degree air rushing by us. C planned to ride with me for the first hour and then return to the start. The first hour seemed to pass quickly. We noticed several houses built along the river including one large mansion. Soon it was time for C to turn around at the 14-mile marker. Since the trail starts at railroad mile marker 3.1, she had ridden about 11 miles. She was nice enough to take my flannel shirt back with her so I didn’t have to carry it the rest of the day. As I handed over my shirt we noticed a dog lying in the middle of the trail ahead. We wondered if it was aggressive. C waited to see what would happen while I rode toward the dog. Luckily, it was an old friendly dog who wandered off the trail back into his owner’s yard as I approached more closely.
C turns around at mile marker 14.
Now I proceeded on alone. The Greenbrier Trail was rougher than any trail I’ve ridden so far with the possible exception of the Virginia Creeper Trail. The gravel consisted of strawberry-sized rocks, making the ride quite bumpy. The bike seat was like a drumstick. My rear end was like a snare drum. All through the ride the trail beat a rat-a-tat-tat of accumulating insults to my butt! In many places heavy rain had washed out the trail bed. Repair crews had dumped fresh deep gravel, which was hard to pedal through. About 20 miles into the journey my rear was getting sore, my shoulders were starting to cramp, and I felt more tired than I wanted to be. With more than 50 miles yet to go, this was not a good sign! I ate a banana at 9:00. That seemed to pick me up. The next miles felt much better. By 9:15 most of the fog had burned off allowing sunlight to filter through and warm up the trail. Once the morning chill left, the remainder of the day was beautiful. The temperature rose into the mid-seventies, and much of the trail was shaded. No sweat accumulated on my arms or face. The trail was more deserted than any other I’ve ridden. Almost three hours passed before I saw another biker, and I saw probably less than 20 other bikers during the whole day.
The Greenbrier River. Notice fog on the mountainside in the center.
The Greenbrier River was shallow and rocky, often dotted with mild rapids. The trail ran closely along the riverside, so there were good views of the river all along, much better river views than from other trails. Long sweeping curves afforded wonderful views of the ever-winding river sparkling in the sunshine.
A small bridge along the trail
I came upon a young buck with half gown antlers standing in the middle of the trail. He walked into the shady woods to get out of my way, but not far into the woods. I could see him standing in the forest looking back at me over his shoulder. I think I also saw an eagle soaring at tree top level up and down the river. Its body was larger than the usual hawks I’ve seen, and its white head contrasted with its brown body. The trail cut through lots of interesting exposed crumbling rock layers. I hoped there might be some fossils in the frequent piles of rubble eroded out of the layers, but the rocks all seemed to be fossil-free. If there were fossils, I don’t know how I would have carried them with me. Rocks tend to be heavy!
Entrance to the Droop Mountain Tunnel
Speaking of rocks, at the 31-mile marker, after about 28 miles of biking, I came upon the entrance to the Droop Mountain tunnel. It was completed in May, 1900, and is 402 feet long. I biked right into the tunnel. Light from the entrance dropped to zero near the midpoint as the tunnel curved to the left. For about ten or twenty yards I couldn’t see the ground in front of me. Just as I was about to dismount, light from the exit became visible on the wall to my right. I continued on to the exit as the exit light increased. If the tunnel were 30 yards longer, it would have been very scary indeed at the midpoint!
Exit of the Droop Mountain Tunnel. Notice the square wooden framework shoring up the crumbling tunnel ceiling. Lots of rocks had fallen on this wooden framework.
The tunnel walls were mightily shored up to guard bikers against the crumbling collapsing tunnel roof. Many rocks had fallen from the ceiling, especially around the tunnel exit. C drove over the top of Droop Mountain on her way to meet me, so it is quite possible that she was going over the top of the mountain while I was riding underneath it!
Nice view of the Greenbrier River after the tunnel exit
Another typical trailside view. Don't you want to follow this path?
At mile marker 52, after 49 miles of biking, I came upon a welcome surprise. The trail was now beautifully paved. My battered rear end sang hymns of joy! My speed also picked up and I was able to ride with “no hands” to stretch and rest my weary shoulders.
The very welcome paved section of trail just before Marlinton.
In no time I came upon the small town of Marlinton where C and I planned to rendezvous. At mile marker 56 I got off my bike and looked for C.
My bike leans against mile marker 56 in Marlinton
It was 11:57 when I dismounted, so I had covered the first 52.9 miles in 5 hours and 2 minutes for an average speed of 10.3 MPH. Going fast was not my goal. The goal was to go at a comfortable speed and enjoy the ride.

We weren’t sure of our exact meeting place, so I wondered where to go. A few minutes later I spotted C waiting a few hundred yards further along the trail near the pretty restored Marlinton Railroad Station. I leaned my bike against the station. We sat in the shade while I had a little lunch break and a welcome relief from the hunched riding position. During the trip I ate 2 bananas, 1 apple, 2 small fruit danishes C procured from the free motel breakfast, and I drank 3 water bottles. Marlinton was a old-fashioned pretty town. There was an old “Rambler” dealership building with the original neon “Rambler” sign still operating! On the ride out of Marlinton I passed a street lined with small identical houses which looked like coal company houses. Some were stereotypically rundown with faded paint and the family wash hanging on the front porch.
C meets me at the yellow restored train station in Marlinton.
The journey resumed at 12:30 after a refreshing 33-minute rest in the shade. I felt great after the lunch break and for the first hour after this break. The smooth pavement ended at mile marker 57, so the butt-pounding gravel quickly returned. Marlinton was well beyond the halfway point. Only 23.4 miles remained. It would take about 2.5 more hours to complete the trip. I was now confident I would make it, and Candy could relax because she would more surely know where I was in case of a breakdown. Miles passed happily while I enjoyed more fine views of the Greenbrier River.
The entrance to Sharps Tunnel is just across this bridge.
At mile marker 65.3, after 62.2 miles of riding I came to the interesting entrance to the Sharps Tunnel. A bridge just before the tunnel crosses the Greenbrier River, and from there, the trail plunges almost directly into the tunnel. The Sharps Tunnel construction began in 1899. The tunnel is 511 feet long, but the midpoint was not as dark as the Droop Mountain Tunnel I had previously passed through. Once again, the tunnel ceiling needed massive support to shield trail users from falling rocks. The tunnel exit opened out to a magnificent view of the river.
Entrance to Sharps Tunnel
Sharps Tunnel exit. Note arch-shaped bracing to guard against rock falls.
View looking forward from the Sharps Tunnel exit.
Miles began to pass slowly now. The last 6 miles were tedious as I grew more and more fatigued. Approaching the end point near the town of Cass I passed a trailside stable with saddled horses waiting in stalls for riding along the trail. Earlier in the day I had seen lots of folks preparing horses for excursions along the trail. Fortunately, I didn’t come upon any horses during my whole journey. There must be a significant amount of horse traffic on the trail, however, because all day I dodged piles of horse droppings. In these final miles I also passed the interesting small cluster of houses called Clover Lick, which featured a nicely restored depot.
Nicely restored depot at Clover Lick
Mile marker 78. Only 1.4 miles to the finish!
At last, at 2:42, I reached the trail’s end at mile marker 79.4 near Cass. The trail abruptly ends with little fanfare at a small dirt parking clearing at the end of a mile-long dirt road. Beyond this endpoint the rail bed continues for about another mile into the town of Cass itself. This additional mile doesn’t seem to be maintained. The Internet trail guide said railroad ties were still embedded in the trail here, so I decided not to try to ride another butt busting mile into Cass. I don’t know why this last mile segment isn’t completed. It makes no sense to me at all!

At the finish I had biked 76.3 miles in 7 hours and 47 minutes for an overall average speed of 9.8 MPH. I covered the final 23.4 miles from Marlinton to Cass in 2 hours and 12 minutes for an average speed of 10.63 MPH in the final segment. If I neglect the 33 minutes spent in the Marlinton lunch break, I spent 7 hours and 14 minutes actually pedaling, so my average pedaling speed works out to 10.55 MPH. The 76.3-mile trip distance is the longest single day trail ride I've ever done.
Another fantastic trail ride completed!
It’s always nice to change clothes and clean up after these long, hot rides. C presented me with a cold wet washcloth from our cooler perfect for wiping myself down. Fortunately, the parking area was completely deserted, so I could change clothes in the car in privacy.

We started driving home at 3:08. The ride was very pretty, but also very slow! There are no interstate highways in this portion of West Virginia. The main road winds through mountainous country with lots of turns and hills. Quaint old-fashioned houses nestle in neat little hillside niches, and there were long lines of sight over fields and farms. Along the way we passed the Pearl Buck birthplace.

After about two laborious hours, we arrived at Interstate 64 near Lewisburg. By this time we were both quite hungry. We had been dreaming of Burger King for an hour. Foolishly, we decided to pass up the inconveniently located Burger King in Lewisburg. We thought another more convenient Burger King would come soon at one of the exits along 64. How wrong we were! We drove for hours without finding anywhere to eat. We were almost all the way home before stopping at the Cloverdale Burger King about an hour from home! By that time we were extremely hungry. That night we were both very tired. Sleep felt grand!

1 comment:

  1. I love that you guys have time for these adventures now. Any plans for the fall?

    Chrissy asked me to comment that she is very impressed with your long ride!


People say I'm crazy doing what I'm doing
Well they give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin
When I say that I'm o.k. well they look at me kind of strange
Surely you're not happy now you no longer play the game

People say I'm lazy dreaming my life away
Well they give me all kinds of advice designed to enlighten me
When I tell them that I'm doing fine watching shadows on the wall
Don't you miss the big time boy you're no longer on the ball

I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go

John Lennon