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History beckons around every rocky bend and in every chilly tunnel on the North Bend Rail Trail, which follows an old railroad corridor through hill and hollow in northern West Virginia. Winding through the counties of Wood, Ritchie, Doddridge and Harrison, it is the second-longest rail-trail in the state—after the Greenbrier River Trail.
Previously closed for over a year for the installation of fiber-optic cable, the entire 72-mile North Bend Rail Trail is now open to the public. The trail surface is primarily crushed stone or gravel and is typically 10-feet-wide. In West Union, there is a 0.8-mile paved section from about 0.7 miles east of Bridge #24 (over old U.S. Route 50) to Bridge #22 (over Middle Island Creek). There is a paved section roughly 4-miles long meandering through Salem between Moore Street and Brandy Gap Tunnel #2. For the unpaved sections, cyclists are advised to use tires 1.5-inches or wider. A flashlight is recommended as the tunnels can get very dark.
The rail-trail carries travelers down a corridor built for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) between 1853 and 1857. Known as the Parkersburg Branch, it carried Federal troops during the Civil War and served a string of towns between Parkersburg and Clarksburg as it became the system’s mainline to St. Louis. After more than 120 years, passenger operations ceased in 1971. The dwindling freight business was handled by CSX Transportation, which sold the corridor to the state in the 1980s. Work on the trail started in the 1990s.
Of the original 13 tunnels the builders bored through the rugged Allegheny Plateau to shorten the route, 10 are still passable today. Visitors in the summer will feel a blast of cool, moist air at the stone-block tunnel portals—quite a change from the smoke, cinders, and heat that filled the tunnels as 19th-century locomotives passed through. Some are long enough inside to require a flashlight.
At 2,207 feet long, the Central Station Tunnel, located at milepost 49.5 near West Union, is the longest on the trail and played a role in a 1915 train robbery that netted some $1 million in today’s value. The Silver Run Tunnel (1,376 feet long), at milepost 22.8 between Cairo and Petroleum, is reputed to be haunted. Tunnel No. 13, the Bonds Creek Tunnel near Cornwallis, was the site of a deadly train crash in 1956 when a westbound train emerged onto the scene of a fresh avalanche and plummeted into the creek below.
Other human-made features of the trail include the 36 bridges and trestles that visitors cross. The longest bridge spans Middle Island Creek on the east side of West Union. Old, refurbished B&O depots are still standing in Pennsboro, Smithton, and Salem. These towns and others along the route offer dining and refreshment to travelers, as well as marble and hand-blown-glass factories, arts-and-crafts markets, fairs, festivals, and veterans memorials.
A major attraction along the trail is North Bend State Park, located slightly off-trail between Cairo and Ellenboro. Here you’ll find more than a dozen miles of trails, camping, showers, and the only indoor lodging along the trail. Free camping is allowed anywhere on the rail-trail, and several campsites with fire rings and pit toilets are available along its length.
Be prepared for long stretches through rural areas (without services), where you’ll see deer in forest clearings, beaver lodges in ponds, and perhaps a black bear or two. The edges of farmland also provide habitat for bird-watching. Along some stretches of trail in the more rural areas, trail users might find rough conditions, better suited to mountain bikes.
While most of the trail traffic is locally generated, a growing number of travelers are including the trail on longer excursions. The North Bend Rail Trail is on the 6,800-mile, coast-to-coast American Discovery Trail. It is also part of the Parkersburg to Pittsburgh Corridor, a 240-mile corridor being developed by the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition, a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy TrailNation project to create a 1,500-mile trail network through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and New York.
While the trail is managed by West Virginia State Parks, the North Bend Rails-to-Trails Foundation is responsible for raising public interest for the trail as well as organizing many ongoing activities. One of the most popular is the evening Luminary Walk, for which 1.5 miles of the rail-trail, from North Bend State Park to Tunnel 13, is lit with luminaries. Check the foundation’s Facebook page for details and dates.
Visit West Virginia State Parks’ official website for any weather–related issues such as washouts and land-slides which can affect the trail’s surface.
There are numerous access points and parking areas along the entire route; refer to the TrailLink map for all options and detailed directions
Along the breadth of the trail, parking, restrooms, and other facilities are available at numerous points, including (from west to east):
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