Touring wild and wonderful West Virginia by mountain bike

July 25, 1993|By Joe Surkiewicz | Joe Surkiewicz,Contributing Writer

Summertime in Baltimore . . . and the living is right out of Dante's "Inferno."

But it won't last forever. Trust me: The cooler weather of late summer and early fall is on its way, bringing us some desperately needed relief.

That's the time we can pull out our fat-tire bikes and set sail for the mountains -- and enjoy one of the best-kept secrets in American mountain-biking: the panoramic alpine views and lush forests of nearby West Virginia.

Consider: With almost a million acres of peaks and ridges soaring to nearly 5,000 feet, the Mountain State's Monongahela National Forest is in the same class as distant cycling meccas such as Colorado, Northern California and New Zealand.

So jot down this recipe for a "can't miss" West Virginia mountain bike vacation: Pedal like crazy all day and pamper yourself at night. Next, throw in knowledgeable guides who double as skilled bicycle mechanics and a support van to carry your luggage . . . and you're on the way to an unforgettable experience.

More good news: The best that West Virginia has to offer is less than a day's drive from Baltimore.

At the Elk River Touring Center in Slatyfork, a village located near the center of the 850,000-acre Monongahela National Forest, both novice and advanced cyclists can choose from a wide range of multi-day mountain bike tours of the rugged Allegheny Mountains.

Elk River's most popular excursion is the six-day Cranberry to Canaan Tour, which takes fat-tire cyclists through some of West Virginia's most famous natural wonders: the Cranberry Glades, the Sinks of Gandy, Bald Knob, Shavers Fork and Canaan Valley -- at 3,400 feet, the highest alpine valley west of the Rockies.

On the tour, clients ride sturdy, low-geared mountain bikes up to 30 miles a day as they pedal over paved, gravel and dirt roads. For the more adventurous, daily options include routes on unimproved hiking trails and abandoned railroad grades.

In fact, a West Virginia mountain bike ramble has something for everyone.

"We get a full spectrum of folks -- from 8 to 80 -- and all bicycling abilities," says Gil Willis, who operates the Elk River Touring Center along with his wife, Mary. "While most people think of West Virginia as nothing but steep mountains, we've researched the trips and eliminated most of the long climbs. Plus, the shuttle vehicle is there for the mountain biker who wants to ride only the best rides of the day."

Cranberry to Canaan

In June, Karen and Jay Supovitz of Reisterstown joined five other vacationers on the six-day, 150-mile Cranberry to Canaan Tour.

"We had a great time -- and we really didn't know anything about our bikes except how to shift the gears when we started," says Ms. Supovitz, a counselor who works with children with genetic disorders. "But our tour guides were very flexible in choosing the trails we rode."

Elk River guides also provide the technical skills to keep clients' bikes in top shape throughout the tour. "The first day I had a flat tire, and they fixed it in about five seconds," Ms. Supovitz recalls. "The guides really made an effort to see that everyone had a good time."

And apres-bike? "The accommodations were really nice, and the food was great," Ms. Supovitz says. "Once you get to Elk River, you don't have to think about anything except riding and the scenery. It sure was better than going to the beach and gaining five pounds."

Last September, I joined Gil and Mary Willis on one of the regularly scheduled Cranberry to Canaan tours. To be blunt, it was a spectacular vacation: The leaves in the higher elevations were setting the woods ablaze in red, yellow and orange; afternoons were warm, while evenings and mornings were crisp and cool -- and it didn't rain all week. Here's a rundown on the trip:

Day 1: From Elk River Touring Center, a combination bed and breakfast, restaurant and bike shop located in the village of Slatyfork, nine clients and their bikes are shuttled in the center's Chevy Suburban to the top of the 22-mile Highland Scenic Highway. After some pointers on off-road riding, guide Craig Cartner leads the group for an introductory cruise on smooth dirt roads and the paved -- and very lightly traveled -- Scenic Highway.

After meeting Mr. Willis for a tailgate lunch at an overlook offering views of 4,000-foot mountains, the group embarks on its first trail (or in mountain-biker lingo, "single track") ride: six miles on the muddy, but flat, Gauley Mountain Trail. The ride ends at Elk River. Later, we eat dinner, relax in the hot tub and watch bicycling videos.

On to Greenbrier

Day 2: The group rides from the touring center on 10 miles of paved and unpaved back roads to the Greenbrier River Trail, a rails-to-trails conversion along the wild and scenic Greenbrier River. After another 10 miles of easy riding we reach Cass, home of the Cass Scenic Railroad, a steam locomotive that hauls tourists up Bald Knob, the second-highest peak in West Virginia.

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