Here's what I know: If I go too far to my left, I'll fall off the face of the earth and die. It would be a dramatic turn of events, but having geographical boundaries when you're lost is comforting. This is what explorers must have felt like back when they thought the earth was flat. That edge of the world on the map was scary, but comforting at the same time. Thousands of years later and it's still flat, at least for my current situation as I ride the rim of the New River Gorge, a dramatic, 800-foot-deep canyon in West Virginia that's managed by the National Park Service. The New River is best known for its Class-V whitewater and steep rock climbing, but in recent years the park service has welcomed mountain bikers with (relatively) open arms, and a flurry of trailbuilding on park service land and beyond has begun.
"We're really pushing partnerships with different land owners," says Adam Stephens, owner of Marathon Bikes in downtown Fayetteville. "The Boy Scouts have a huge presence, the park service manages most of the gorge, raft companies have huge campuses. The bike potential is huge here. The plan is to get the park service and private landowners to build more trail and then start connecting those systems."
The plan started with a bang in 2011, when the Boy Scouts built a 12-mile stacked loop system on National Park land called Arrowhead. More recently, Gravity Logic finished 30 miles of sculpted flow trail on the Boy Scout-owned Bechtel Summit Reserve, just outside of the National Recreation Area. And the local club is working diligently on a 40-mile system of more technical trails on park service land called Garden Ground. Add all that new trail to the 'heritage' trails in and around the gorge that locals have been riding for decades, and very soon, you'll have 100-plus miles of singletrack and forgotten mining roads that you can explore from the small, dirtbag-friendly town of Fayetteville.
I'm doing laps in Arrowhead at the beginning of Fayetteville's signature ride, a 20-mile romp that takes in new-school flow, historic mining roads and gnarly, old-school singletrack. And I'm not exactly lost; I'm just not sure where I am. I'd ask someone, but I'm out here alone. The town is packed with adventure-minded tourists, but the trail is empty. All those people are here to paddle and climb in the New River Gorge. Mountain biking is an afterthought, which is fine by me because that means I have the dirt all to myself.
Arrowhead is all about flow, but not the over-engineered bike-park flow that you might expect. You're not going to find massive berms or big tabletops. It's legitimately tight, hand-built singletrack that maximizes the give and take of the forest. Most riders start with Adena, a beginner-friendly loop over mostly sandy tread with all kinds of quick elevation changes that enable you to push and pull through the endless rollers as you weave through skinny hardwoods. Then you move on to Dalton, which is a bit more technical with plenty of rocks and B-lines over boulders. The flow is still there, thanks to the sweeping turns that arc through a hardwood forest with low, Yeti-Cooler-sized boulders covered in thick, green moss.
Arrowhead begs for speed. Put your bike in a heavy gear and go faster until you're 4 miles into your first loop and your hands are shaking because you've been hammering the whole time. You can loop it as much as you want, gaining speed with each lap.
After several miles of Arrowhead speed, I finally find what I'm looking for: a chunky gravel road that drops quickly to the middle of the gorge, passing huge, 100-foot-tall cliffs tucked behind thin veils of rhododendron. The road T-bones into the Cunard to Kaymoor trail, which hugs a ledge carved into the middle of the gorge. It's an old mining road that's been absorbed by the jungle that dominates the canyon walls. In recent years, hikers and mountain bikers have carved a skinny path through that jungle again. It's a rugged trail with chattery rocks and a tread that's black from millions of coal shards. Occasionally, you can hear rafters screaming as they flow through the New River's rapids 300 feet below. It's one of the most interesting roadbeds I've pedaled, full of big gorge views, waterfalls, historic mining sites and tall cliffs. Ride it in the fall or winter and you'll have endless views of the river below along the entire length of the trail.
Riding in Fayetteville is like pedaling into Superman's Bizarro World, that alternative universe where everything is backwards. Mountain biking was created in a landscape where the earth rises toward the sky in the form of mountains, but here the topography is inverted; the earth drops away from you. Mountain bikers often lament being shut out of National Park land, but here the National Park Service welcomes fat tires. Up is down. Left is right.
"The last coal mine closed here in the '30s," says Adam Angelona, owner of the new Arrowhead Bike Farm, a beer garden/bike shop/campground near Arrowhead's trailhead. "Since then, the area has been hungry for business, and recreation has filled that gap. The park service knows that. This gorge is about recreation, so they're more open to things like mountain biking."
I climb back out of the gorge on that chunky gravel road and make another pass through Arrowhead on my way to the Fayetteville Trail, a 3.5-mile singletrack that drops from the rim of the gorge on the edge of town to the river bottom.
The trail is old-school East Coast singletrack-more fall-line descents, longer climbs and playful root gardens through rhodo tunnels and open pine forests, where fallen needles lay a soft, slippery carpet. The long descents are highlighted by fun, short drops, but don't think the Fayetteville Trail is 3.5 miles of downhill bliss. You've got to pedal as the trail travels in and out of dry creek drainages, giving you fast, rooty downhills followed by steep, intense climbs over more roots.
Eventually the trail dumps out on a one-way road near the bottom of the gorge. Pedal downhill against traffic (which is admittedly sketchy) and you'll find a big parking lot that leads to a sandy beach and swimming hole on the New River directly under the New River Bridge-the longest arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere. More importantly, it's a great place to drink a post-ride beer. Pace yourself, though. You have 3.5 miles of climbing back out of the gorge via the Fayetteville Trail if you want to finish where you started. Or you can be smart and get Angelona and the Bike Farm to shuttle you back to the trailhead.
BIKE SHOP | Marathon Bikes, in downtown Fayetteville, has high-end rentals and maps. Marathonbikes.com.
CAMP | Pitch a tent at the 40-acre Arrowhead Bike Farm, and you'll have a beer garden out your tent flap. You can also pedal from the Farm to Arrowhead.
PAY YOUR DUES | If you want to ride the flow trails at Bechtel Summit Reserve, you have to be a member of the New River Bicycle Union, which manages the system for the Boy Scouts when there are no campers on the reserve. It's $30 and totally worth it. Get set up at Marathon Bikes or Arrowhead Bike Farm.
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