A mountaintop ATV resort in Gilbert draws beginner riders and thrill-seekers from around the world.
photographed by cameron ellis and nikki bowman mills
It’s been two decades since former coal miner Wayne Ellis was approached about allowing a new ATV trail system to run through his property. The land, a surface mine operation that Ellis and his father ran in the late 1980s, had been in the Ellis family for generations. The trail system would be named after the infamous feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, he was told, and it could have an enormous economic impact on southern West Virginia.
Some might have considered the request an inconvenience. Others might have viewed it as a threat. Ellis, who was working in logging following the decline of the coal industry, saw it as an opportunity. By April 2002, the Hatfield-McCoy Trails system ran directly through his land in Gilbert. And right beside it were campsites, built by Ellis in his spare time, ready and waiting for thrill-seeking ATV riders.
The campsites were “primitive,” laughs Cameron Ellis, Ellis’s son, who manages what has grown into a sprawling resort complete with campgrounds, cabins, a restaurant, and an outfitter.
“We didn’t have power,” he recalls. “We hauled water from town to our guests. We actually had an agreement with the local community center where our guests could go and shower.”
Today, Twin Hollow Campground & Cabins has 43 full-hookup camping sites and 20 tent sites, with picnic tables, fire pits, and a shower house for campers. Eleven mountaintop cabins, built in 2013, house groups up to 10 people; each has a full kitchen and bath. The cabins reflect an evolving industry, Cameron Ellis says.
“In the beginning, you’d see a lot of guys’ trips, and maybe a couple’s trip here and there,” he says. “But when side-by-sides appeared, they really changed the game. You started seeing two-seaters, then four-seaters, then six-seater units. Now, off-roading is a family thing. Mom, Dad, and the kids can all ride in the same machine. It’s a lot more economically friendly than going to Disney World.”
Guests travel from as far as Australia for West Virginia’s unique off-road experience, he says, which boasts inexpensive permit fees and a large, almost fully connected trail system. ATV-friendly towns like Delbarton, Gilbert, Man, Matewan, and Williamson allow off-road vehicles from daylight to dark within city limits.
“People who live here don’t realize how blessed we are to have the outdoor recreation opportunities we have,” he explains. “People come from all over—Washington State, Utah, Europe—and can’t believe what we have here. It blows their mind to be able to go through a McDonald’s drive-thru in their side-by-side.”
When guests arrive at Twin Hollow Campground, they’re likely to find Wayne Ellis outside, operating machinery and taking care of the property. His wife, Donna, works in the office, handling all the reservations and check-ins. Cameron Ellis’s wife, Karie, a certified chef, runs Trail 12 BBQ, an award-winning restaurant slated for a massive upgrade: by 2023, the restaurant will occupy a 4,800-square-foot mountaintop space overlooking the surrounding mountains.
Cameron Ellis manages Mountaintop Adventures, the on-site adventure outfitter at Twin Hollow Campground, which offers ATV and side-by-side rentals, guided tours, parts, tires, and repairs. And his brother Wayne Ellis Jr. oversees maintenance of the campsites, cabins, and other buildings. It’s a family operation, Ellis says, and what that means for guests is a family-sized dose of southern hospitality.
“We really take care of the property so it’s nice for our guests,” he says. “We see a little bit of everybody, from people who’ve never ridden before all the way up to experts and thrill-seekers. Our hope is just that everyone has fun and is safe out there while they’re doing it.”
Cameron Ellis says the region is starting to see the economic impact Wayne Ellis was promised 20 years ago. “If it weren’t for the trail system, it would be sad to drive through the town of Gilbert today,” he says. “There wouldn’t be much of a town here at all. Gilbert went along with the trail system early on, and these communities that have accepted and welcomed the trail riders are really beginning to prosper.”
It’s only going to get better from here, he says. Gilbert and other southern West Virginia communities blazed the trail, but there’s always room for more.