About this Itinerary
“Almost heaven, West Virginia.” So evocative were the opening words to John Denver’s song about the state that residents there took them to heart, thereafter referring to their home state as almost heaven. With miles of trails to explore and plenty of recreational opportunities from kayaking to rock climbing, West Virginia is indeed a little slice of heaven for outdoor enthusiasts.
Our featured rail-trail is the Deckers Creek Trail, found in the northeast corner of the state in Morgantown. It’s conveniently accessible by the Morgantown Municipal Airport, one of West Virginia's few commercial airports, located just three miles outside of town. Various groups have named Morgantown the best walking city in the state and the 34th best in all the country—distinctions perhaps not surprising given the city’s efforts to cater to its young, active residents. A quintessential college town, Morgantown has plenty of those: its population of around 30,000 nearly doubles in size each September when students flood into West Virginia University.
As the economic engine and raison d’être of Morgantown, any description of the city more or less has to start with WVU. The land grant university opened its doors in 1867, just four years after the state of West Virginia was cleaved from Virginia amid the Civil War. Originally called the Agricultural College of West Virginia, the school received its current moniker a scant year later in a bid to represent a broader range of higher education. Today, the city and university are inexorably intertwined.
Today is the day to explore Morgantown, starting with WVU; the university hit the natural limit of its growth in the 1960s, hemmed in on all sides by existing development and the geography of the area. The solution was to expand about two miles away, but this fractured campus led to major gridlock as thousands of students shuttled back and forth throughout the day. The solution, launched in 1975, was an innovation found nowhere else in America: a personal rapid transit system. Looking something like mini-buses running along an elevated metro line, the PRT operates much like a traditional metro system during peak usage times, but when demand is light, the personal in PRT comes into play: users call for a car and select their destination; think of it as a miles-long horizontal elevator. The PRT costs nonstudents only 50¢ to ride and is a fun way to take in a quick tour of the city. Note that bikes are not allowed on board.
Morgantown has been named one of a Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, so take some time to explore some of the cultural attractions like the Morgantown History Museum. The city was once home to two major glass-making companies, including one that supplied the White House with lead crystal glassware during the Kennedy administration, and this city-sponsored museum has a permanent exhibition on the city’s industrial history. Learn about these glassworks, an ordnance factory that supplied munitions during WWII, and more; it’s open Tuesday–Saturday and admission is free. The Monongalia Arts Center, or MAC, contains two art galleries that present local art exhibitions and a performing arts theater that hosts productions. It’s open Monday–Saturday; gallery admission is free while tickets to shows vary in price by performance. The neoclassical building that houses MAC was constructed in 1913 as a post office and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If live theater is your thing, you may also want to check out the Metropolitan Theatre, offering some of the city's best live entertainment; it’s housed in a historic theater that opened in 1924.
Morgantown is undoubtedly a college town, but if you’ve got children along for the trip, the Children's Discovery Museum of West Virginia is sure to please. Geared toward kids as young as six months and as old as 10, the museum offers hands-on exhibits exploring such topics as nanoscience, engineering and space weather.
For overnight accommodations, consider staying at the historic Hotel Morgan. Originally opened in 1925, the grand hotel has undergone a complete historic rehabilitation and now includes an 8th floor restaurant offering panoramic views of downtown.
Restaurants near the hotel include the Morgantown Brewing Company, a micro brewery offering burgers and sandwiches in addition to their highly regarded brews; and Chaang Thai, serving up authentic Thai food dialed in to your preferred spiciness level.
Now for the rail-trail. The only option to rent a bike in town is Wamsley Cycles, located just down the road from the university. In addition to bikes, they offer trailers and trailer cycles for kids not yet up for the challenge of a long ride; they are closed on Sundays. Passing nearly in front of the store’s front door is the Caperton Trail, a paved urban trail that meets up with the start of the Deckers Creek Trail just a mile away.
Before heading south to catch the trailhead, though, consider a quick jaunt north to check out the Earl L. Core Arboretum, a 91-acre woodland spread maintained by the university’s biology department. It features three and half miles of walking trails and is best known for its “spring ephemeral” wildflowers. The arboretum is open to the public daily free of charge and the Caperton Trail goes right through the heart of it.
As you ride south to the trailhead, you’ll see the Mon—the Monongahela River—on your right. In a quirk of geography, most of the United States’ major rivers flow southward, but the Mon is an exception, flowing north up to Pittsburgh where it joins the Allegheny to form the Ohio River. You’ll be following the same path cut by the Mon that the Morgantown & Kingwood Railroad, built in 1905, once followed. When the railway went defunct, West Virginians got the Deckers Creek Trail, considered the gem of the state’s rail-trail system; it runs 19 miles southeast to its terminus just past the small town of Reedsville.
You’ll find the trailhead at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Riverfront Park where Deckers Creek empties into the Mon. The park is dominated by an amphitheater and is seemingly always busy in nice weather, playing host to local festivals, concerts, and the Movies on the Mon outdoor film series. The first three miles of trail you’ll tackle are very urban and paved; as you wend your way out of the city, the surface transitions to crushed limestone and shortly after you pass underneath I-68, you’ll leave behind all traces of the city and be surrounded by scenic West Virginian countryside.
As you bike along the turbulent waters of Deckers Creek rushing in the opposite direction, you may have cause to question whether creek is quite the right description for this body of water. Placid in stretches, it’s a serious waterway with falls and dramatic rapids up to Class V, the second-most extreme whitewater classification. The run is a favorite of experienced kayakers, especially in the spring when the water levels are highest. The, ahem, creek will be your constant companion as you work your way uphill. The slope is noticeable but manageable; over the course of 19 miles, you’ll gain about 1,000 feet of elevation.
About 10 miles into the ride you’ll pass Greer Limestone, an active quarry, and three miles later you’ll pass by Masontown, a burg of around 500 people. Two miles later at Bretz on the outskirts of the town, you’ll pass by a long row of 140 abandoned stonework ovens.
To the uninitiated, they are utterly mysterious structures; ovens, clearly, but for what? And why so many? Those schooled in Industrial Revolution-era technologies will recognize them as beehive-style coke ovens, structures that once numbered in the tens of thousands and dotted the American landscape wherever coal was found. They were loaded with coal and operated at extremely high temperatures to burn off the coal’s impurities—things like tar, oils and gases—leaving behind a gray, hard, and porous material called coke, a vital component in steelmaking. Burning with little or no smoke, coke also made a desirable fuel for other uses, but its production wasn’t without a hefty cost: the coking process poisoned the surrounding landscape as all those impurities that were burned out of the coal were released into the environment.
The coke ovens at Bretz were among the last surviving beehive-style coke making operations in the nation. There are plans afoot to convert some of them into a rest stop and information center for the rail-trail.
Another three miles brings you to Reedsville where you can stay overnight. Technically, the trail extends an additional two and half miles before ending abruptly at a gate stopping further progress. Reedsville is home to about 600 people and has limited lodging options. We recommend the Homestead Inn Guest House.
A mile off the trail down an easily bikeable two-lane road lies Arthurdale, the first of many planned communities established under Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The town was intended to be a modern rural community that would provide impoverished laborers, farmers, and coal miners a means of self-sufficiency. Its creation was championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, who pitched the idea to her husband and made the project one of her chief priorities, even spending most of her own income on the project in its early years. Tours today often make note of the fact that the first lady personally chose the refrigerators that went into each home. The first 50 homesteaders were selected in 1933 and in 1938 Franklin Roosevelt delivered the high school’s commencement address—the only high school commencement of his presidency.
The community was doomed almost from the start, though. Amid tireless accusations by conservatives that the project was either blatantly socialist or a secret communist plot, the housing experiment lost support in Washington by the late 1930s and was returned to private ownership in 1941. Today, Arthurdale is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and includes nearly 150 buildings.
From Arthurdale, it’s a mile back to the rail-trail and 19 miles back to Morgantown. On the return trip, the grade you pedaled against all day yesterday now works in your favor, so expect to make good time back to the trailhead. It’s even possible to coast for miles at a time.
Back in town you’ll find one of the city’s best-reviewed restaurants just a block from the trailhead. Black Bear Burritos serves up burritos inspired by ethnic dishes from around the world—think Jamaican jerk chicken, black beans and pineapple in a tortilla; the restaurant regularly has live music, offers many vegetarian options, and kids 6 and under eat fee from their kids menu.
If your timing allows for it, consider checking out a sporting event at WVU before departing. In a state lacking a single professional sports franchise, the school’s Mountaineers command sports fans’ loyalty. And if John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” has been playing in your head since the opening paragraph, you’ll have a great opportunity to belt it out loud after a game. Following Denver’s performance of the song at the 1980 dedication of the Mountaineer Field stadium, it became a tradition—one named a must-see by Sports Illustrated—for fans to remain in the stands following every home game victory and sing the song with the players. A full schedule of all WVU athletics can be found here.