About this Itinerary
In a state with many fabulous rail-trails offering tranquil riding, spectacular views, and an abundance of natural wonders, the nearly 80-mile long Greenbrier River Trail is the crown jewel of West Virginia’s impressive trail selection. The gravel surfaced route travels from Caldwell in the south to Cass in the north, passing through several small towns along the way. Bike alongside the Greenbrier River for most of the trip and enjoy the serenity and solitude this remote section of the state has to offer.
Back in late 1800s the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad built a rail line along the Greenbrier River in order to haul timber and almost immediately mill towns sprang up along the river banks. Later the route became a vital link for passenger service between the Midwest and the East Coast. For nearly 100 years this line carried passengers and freight before finally being abandoned in 1978. While the route has seen a new life as the longest rail-trail in the state of West Virginia, many of the small towns that served the timber trade are long gone or a fraction of the size they were in their heyday.
Biking the Greenbrier River Trail is truly spectacular, but for those attempting to ride the entire 77-mile route, planning is essential. There is only one significant town along the trail and no other easy access to food or bike repair services (potable water is available at campsites along the route and restroom facilities are located every 8-10 miles). Be prepared and pack everything needed before setting out, including plenty of water. Also note that hunting is allowed in the woods surrounding the trail. During hunting season it is strongly recommended that all trail users wear brightly colored clothing.
There are several different ways to tackle riding the entire length of the trail depending on the amount of time and resources at your disposal. Several businesses in the area cater to bikers who come specifically to ride the trail, and offer shuttle services to and from various points along the route. For this itinerary, we will take advantage of this opportunity and split the trail in to two sections. The first day will be 53 miles of biking and the second day will be 24 miles. We have broken the route up this way so that both days’ rides end at our base in Marlinton, which will allow for riders to bike at their own pace and not be concerned with the timing of a pick-up. There is a 1% grade to the trail and biking north to south is slightly easier, so if this is a concern, you may opt to do this itinerary in reverse and depart from Marlinton and arrange for pick-up at the southern terminus (as noted below, trailhead access at the southern end is actually at milepost 3) and at the northern terminus in Cass.
In Marlinton, located just outside of the downtown, stay at the Locust Hill Inn. This charming inn offers four spacious rooms with a full hot breakfast each morning. A cabin that accommodates up to seven people and features a fully equipped kitchen, outdoor grill, and hot tub is also available. Guests can also enjoy an onsite pub. With advance notice the inn can arrange bike shuttle service. If you are unable to reserve a room at this property, also in Marlinton, try Knapp’s Creek Trout Lodge. This property features two rooms in the lodge (one that can accommodate up to seven people) and guided biking, hiking, kayaking, and bird-watching excursions can also be arranged.
Bike rentals are available at Appalachian Sport. Located in Marlinton, this outfitter rents mountain bikes (as well as kayaks), and offers a bike shuttle service. Also in town, Dirtbean Café & Bike Shop is a full service bike shop that rents mountain bikes and has repair service, but does not offer shuttle service. For any bike rentals or shuttle service needs, book in advance. Biking is a very popular activity in this area and especially in high season, demand outstrips supply.
Arrange for shuttle service to drop you at the southern terminus of the Greenbrier River Trail and bike 53 miles back to Marlinton. Pack everything needed for the day including water, lunch, sunscreen, and a bike repair kit. As noted, water fountains and restrooms are available at several campsites that are located along the trail. Food is not available unless you travel well off the trail, and then not until you reach the town of Seebert (around milepost 46). For this reason, we recommend packing food. Lunch can either be arranged at the inn, or in town stop at Subway for a sandwich. Dirtbean Cafe & Bike Shop also has a selection of innovative sandwich options available including Hawaiian ham and veggie sandwiches with mozzarella and pesto. Be sure to pick up one of their ‘super cookies’for the trail. These high energy treats include lots of nutritious ingredients like peanut butter, pumpkin seeds, and raisins, and are popular for a quick fuel boost.
The closest you can access the southern trailhead of the Greenbrier River Trail is at milepost 3, where there is a parking area and water fountain. From here bike north (or if you are determined to ride the full trail, head south first). Along the trail you will find several campsites as well additional trailheads, but you will not pass through any significant towns and you will likely not encounter a large number of other trail-users. This route is popular with horseback riders, however, so be cautious approaching the animals. In the woods surrounding the trail look for some of the colorful native flowering plants such as common Joe-Pye, jewelweed, wild columbine, black-eyed Susan, dame’s rocket, and fall phlox, amongst others. Also keep your eyes open for some of the numerous native and transient birds such as yellow-throated warblers, northern parula, northern flickers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and more.
As you approach milepost 48, you will reach the old town of Watoga. This was one of the logging boom towns from the early 1900s. At one time the town had a sawmill and a kindling wood factory, today all that remains is part of an old company store, which you can find located along the east side of the trail. After passing through, there is only five miles remaining. In Marlinton, turn right on 9th Street (next to the elementary school) and follow this until it ends and turn left, then take the first right on to 8th Street. Turn left again when this road ends and take the first right on to Sewell Street. Follow Sewell to the end and turn left and then right to turn in to the Locust Hill Inn (this route zigzags you through town to avoid riding on the main road). Or take a left on 9th Street and the first right on to 3rd Avenue to return to Dirtbean Cafe & Bike Shop to sample some of their delicious ice cream from the Homestead Creamery in Virginia. Flavors of this homemade ice cream change regularly (although vanilla appears regularly). Top off with a brownie, cookie, or another ‘super cookie’for a real indulgence.
Tonight enjoy dinner riverside at the Greenbrier Grille. Located in Marlinton on the Greenbrier River, sit on the comfortable outdoor deck and savor a dish of Rainbow Trout, Country Fried Steak, or the West Virginia Original, which includes kielbasa, home fries, mushrooms, and onions. Note that this restaurant does not serve alcohol, but it does offer a spectacular view in its convenient downtown location.
Arrange for the shuttle service to drop you at the northern terminus of the Greenbrier River Trail in Cass and bike about 24 miles back to Marlinton. As always, bring plenty of water and supplies. Lunch can be found in Marlinton when you return, or take it with you for a trailside picnic.
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park draws large crowds for its spectacular train excursions, as well as being the northern terminus of the trail. Located here is the world’s largest fleet of geared Shay locomotives, including one turn-of-the-century class C-80 Shay that has been traveling this route for almost 100 years. There are train excursions available ranging from 1.5 to 5.5 hours in length. Consider taking a short trip before you set out on your ride, or return at another time during your stay.
Spend time today exploring the Greenbrier River. There are many opportunities to jump in for a quick cool down or just wander along the riverbank. The river is a popular fishing spot for small-mouth bass and you are likely to see people out along the banks. The northern part of the trail near Cass sees a little bit more crowds than other sections, but again, once you leave the trailhead behind, it will be a tranquil, scenic ride for much of the route. Many consider this northern section in particular to be the most remote feeling in part because there is less development nearby.
As you approach Marlinton, you will come upon the only remaining water tank from the former railway. Built in 1923, this tank was recently restored. Here you will also find the remains of the C&O turntable about 50 feet from the trail. Retrace your route from yesterday to return to the Locust Hill Inn once you reach Marlinton.
Tonight, head about 28 miles to Slatyfork for a real treat. Dine at the The Restaurant at Elk River, one of the premier restaurants in the area. The Restaurant has been featured in Bon Appetit and Cooking Light and is known for its creative and healthy dishes. The ambiance is casual yet elegant and guests can enjoy live music on Thursday evenings. Try the house made sausage, shepherd’s pie, or locally sourced free-range chicken amongst the many dishes. Be sure to save room for one the homemade desserts.
There are several other restaurant options in this area as well since it is close to Snowshoe Resort. Popular restaurants include The Fiddlehead Restaurant and Bar which serves deluxe burgers and wood-fired pizzas, as well as hosting live music. Within the resort also find Alpine Ristorante serving fine Tuscan food in a casual atmosphere.
Have an extra day in your itinerary? There’s lots to do in the area. You will notice that your cell phone does not work in Marlinton or surrounding areas. For this you can thank the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in nearby Green Bank. Named after the late West Virginia Senator, Robert C. Byrd, who pushed the funding for the telescope through Congress, this is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope, in addition to being the world’s largest moveable land object. All broadcast transmitters within about 13,000 square miles of the site are in a National Radio Quiet Zone, and are forced to operate at reduced power (restrictions within 20 miles of the site are even tighter) so as not to interfere with radio transmissions. Observatory staff actively police the area for devices that emit noticeably high amounts of electromagnetic radiation, especially microwave ovens and WiFi routers. Yes, people who live in closer proximity to the observatory are forced to live without these modern amenities. Take a guided tour of the grounds and see the telescope in close range, visit the informative hands-on science center to see interesting displays that explain some of the work being done at the observatory, and learn more about radio science.
Other highlights of the region aren’t too far from Marlinton, including West Virginia’s highest peak, Spruce Knob. Hike to top of this 4,863 foot mountain and then climb the observation tower for a 360 degree view of the area. Tour the mystical Seneca Caverns on a guided exploration of this underground world that was a ceremonial place for Seneca Indians. Explore the enchanting Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, which offers a spectacular landscape of bogs and heaths that is more commonly associated with southern Canada. Within the more than 17,000 acres of Dolly Sods’ visitors can take long meandering hikes or enjoy rock scrambling close to the parking lot.
For those interested in mountain biking, nearby Snowshoe Mountain has one of the best mountain bike parks in the country and one of the largest trail systems in the East, with nearly 40 trails and 1,500 vertical feet of descent. Spend a day biking the trails and swimming, kayaking, or paddleboarding at Shavers Lake, located within the property. Snowshoe also has some fabulous hiking. Hike down in to the valley, stop for a swim, and take the chairlift back to the top for a full day.