Saturday, August 14, 2010

Finding Rails-to-Trails Beauty in West Virginia

"Oh I wouldn't leave your car down there though. I'd just walk it. I wouldn't leave my car down there," the guide reiterated.

Disappointment had to have shown on my face. I was determined to find the Minden-Thurman Trailhead, and now that I did find it, and confirmed it, there was a mile of mountain between me and the supposed no-parking zone.

"We wouldn't mind the ride back, but we have the kids. About how far would you say it was?" I asked, hopefully, wanting to hear something like a half a mile.

"Over a mile for sure. Maybe two," she answered, then again, "but I wouldn't leave your car down there."

Again with the car warning. Now, there is a parking lot at the trailhead, mind you. Its on the map, and its in all the guides handouts, and we've seen it as we passed. Other than not being well marked, it is there. It exists.

However, it is at the edge of not only the national park, the New River Gorge no less, but also a very poor, very old, very forgotten old mining town of Minden. While the people of Minden looked just like any other small town people to my husband and I, when a local warns you not to park down there (repeatedly), you figure you better not take your chances with the only vehicle you have with you five hundred miles from home.

I practically stomped back to the truck and my awaiting husband.


"We have a few options," I started. "The first three involve us splitting up, and the fourth involves a drive over to the Southside trailhead and skipping the Minden-Thurman altogether."

We discuss for a moment the first three options, then decide that maybe leaving a woman and her two young kids in the woods in an area that is not safe to park in may not really be an option at all. Ditto to the woman riding down the side of the mountain (and more slowly back up it) by herself in the same area.

We drove to the Southside trail, against all of our plans.

Finding the Southside trailhead was just as exciting, especially winding around on West Virginia's beautiful but ridiculously danger-ridden roads with their excessive use of warning signs. Every turn showed trucks tipping over, warned of dangerous grading and brake-inspections before use, and of course the ever present threat and signs of falling rocks. Not the least of which were actual boulders bigger than a small automobile sitting dangerously close to the road after having obviously fallen, again proving the need for the massive truck we had decided to use for the trip.

We started the zigzagging drive around to our new destination. Marveling at the beauty of the area and the abundance of natural waterfalls we saw along the way, we were still discussing the possibility of leaving the truck empty with the windows down and a sign that says "Nothing good here" on the front seat. My husband was insistent, however, that it wasn't so much what was in the truck that would be stolen, but that the truck itself would be gone and stripped before we finished our ride. I have to admit, he did point out a few choice houses along the way that made it seem a real possibility.

Another mountain-scaling drive down into the riverbed area, a few more wrong turns (for all of WV's signs, they sure are missing a lot of trailhead signs), and three quarters of a very large gas tank later, we arrive at the parking area.

To a sign that states, "Commercial vehicles only."

Laughing, still in good spirits in the impenetrable way only vacations can create, I ask a National Park Service worker where we are supposed to park. A few minutes later, we are on the trail, and on our way.

Let me just say, if I had to WALK down the mountain carrying my kids and my gear on my bike, this trail is so worth it. It runs a gorgeous seven-plus miles next one of the most beautiful rivers in the country. There are just enough people to remind you to share, and miles where you may not see anyone at all.

There are inlets and footpaths down to the river, one of which we used to stop for lunch. The views are spectacular, the terrain on the trail almost flat, with easy grades leading slowly up and rolling slowly back down.

Its one of the rails-to-trails which are not paved, and I hope it stays that way. It is wide and open, yet rides immediately next to a drop off down to the river and a steep slope up on the other side. It is heavily wooded but you are not ever on single-track or crashing into tree branches. It is everything rails-to-trails strives to be, and well worth the effort to get there.

For the more ambitious of you, or at least for those not toting along a reluctant nine year old and a chatty pre-teen, there is a connector path of less than a half mile, to allow access to the Minden-Thurman trail and another three-plus miles of heaven.

Be warned, though, that you may have to walk your bike on the rocky connector, and you will have to carry it up a short set of stairs built around a rockslide once on the Minden-Thurman.

All in all, it was a beautiful day. We stopped for a hot lunch of tacos and chips, cooked earlier, on large flat rocks big enough for the whole family and seemingly made just for picnicking along the beautiful New River.

We saw rafters forging a Class III rapids, then catching an eddy to pick up their photographer. We saw a train ambling by across the river on the new tracks, and more blue heron and monarch butterflies than can be counted.

I had a healthy, active, fulfilling outdoor day with my children and husband, with beautiful pictures of a picnic by the river and a day on the trail.

Cherish the memories. Cherish the ride.

To find a rails-to-trails system, go to their website at:

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