Off-Road in the Coalfields
Rugged beauty and excitement make the Hatfield-McCoy Trails in southern West Virginia a top tourist attraction.
Every year, thousands of people from across the U.S. put on a helmet and hit the hills of southern West Virginia—flying through leaves of red, orange, and gold in the fall and taking in scenic mountain views year-round. The opening of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System in 2000 has not only given all-terrain vehicle (ATV) riders hundreds of miles of remarkable roads; it’s changed the face of once-depressed coal towns.
Executive Director Jeffrey Lusk says the trails were created to bring tourists into the southern coalfields of the state. People were skeptical at first. “It was an unproven concept when we did it. It’s really paid off,” Jeffrey says. Today, nearly 30,000 people—more than 80 percent of them from out-of-state—travel to West Virginia for the trails. They spend an estimated $10 million per year, and their presence has influenced other growth—more than 40 lodging businesses have opened since the trails’ inception and new restaurants have popped up, too.
Riders come from all 50 states and 11 countries, many traveling from Ohio and other border states. The trails were started by the West Virginia Recreational Vehicle Association and the Motorcycle Industry Council—groups that worked for seven years to get the system going—and in 1997, the state legislature created the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority to run the trails. The system started with 300 miles in two counties and is now nearly 600 miles in Wyoming, McDowell, Mingo, Logan, and Boone counties, with a trail to open soon in Mercer County. And it’s just getting more popular—less than 5,000 riders visited in the first year compared to nearly 30,000 last year. “We have had double-digit growth in nine of our 10 years,” Jeffrey says.
The trail system is the largest of its kind on the East Coast and the second largest in the country. When it opened, riders from up and down the East Coast all of a sudden had the “Disney World” of ATVs to visit, Jeffrey says. Bruce “Pork Chop” Melton started traveling more than four hours from his home in South Carolina to ride on the trails in 2001, after friends suggested he check them out. Now he knows many paths by heart, and he likens the experience to an adult amusement park. “Except you never have to stand in line,” he says.
“If you want to go and spend a day riding around in the woods—just being away from all of the hustle and bustle of city life—you can get up there and just look at the scenery. But if you want to go up there and you want to ride hard, it’s all there,” Pork Chop says. “I get six weeks of vacation and I try to go up there at least five weeks a year. And that’s not counting my weekend trips.”
Everyone who makes the trek to the trails says the communities there are nothing short of inviting. Jeffrey says the trails flow around 11 ATV-friendly towns that allow limited all-terrain vehicle traffic within city limits. Riders don’t have to leave their ATVs to get food or travel to their hotels. “The folks up there are just so friendly,” says Pork Chop.
Jeffrey says the face of ATV riders is evolving, with the rise of utility task vehicles, also called UTVs or Side by Sides. “It looks a lot like an off-road golf cart,” he says. These allow four people to ride together, more like a car, and are more comfortable, he says. More couples, women, and even baby boomers like the UTVs. Each trail offers something different, too, from the difficult Bearwallow Trail to the accessible Rock House to the scenic Pinnacle Creek that takes riders by a trout stream and rhododendron groves.
Pork Chop says he often takes his 20-year-old daughter and 76-year-old father with him on the trails. He’s also made new friends on his journeys—people from Canada to Florida. “We have a ball up there. I wish I could do it more,” he says.
Permits and protective gear are required on the trails. Permits cost $50 for non-residents and $26.50 for residents.
Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, 800.592.2217