By Josh Baldwin
Droop Mountain tunnel sneaks up on you, tucked into the long side of a right curve. After an obligatory picture of its entrance, you head in and wonder “are there lights in this thing?” Alas, there are not, and just at that moment when you think you are plunged into complete darkness, with only your projected line as a hint to where to point the wheel, light from the far exit of the tunnel illuminated the path ahead of you. But not before you feel the cold, pressed air of the mountain bear down on you. You can’t help but think about the crews that dug this massive thruway out of the hard, gray rock.
These and other meditations represent a small slice of what goes through your mind while pedaling all 78 miles of The Greenbrier River Trail. The trail is one of 50 Millennium Legacy Trails in the United States and follows the old rail grade engineered by Chesapeake & Ohio, or C&O, way back in 1899. Today, the trail provides an idyllic biking and hiking experience, with numerous access points along it’s Cass to Caldwell drop.
One of those access points, the historic Marlinton Depot, rebuilt after the devastating fire in 2008, is where photographer and business partner Mark Trent and I start our trek. We had only the best intentions of traveling to the northern terminus, but a combination of weather, work, and whiskey (per Smooth Ambler’s summer series Whiskey in the Park, which we attended the night before) had us getting a late start. The 50 miles to Caldwell seemed an eternity away already. How were we going to do this in one day?!
Eventually, the pedaling just becomes part of you. You forget after a while what gear you’re in, the speed you’re traveling, or the distance you have covered. Each rotation is as sure as the changing of each season, with moments of clarity hidden beneath the hypnotic cycle of life moving by.
At one point, the thick tree beside the trail shudders as a humongous bald eagle launches into flight and escapes downriver, around the bend, and out of sight. Beyond the gaze of tourists and campers alike. To find another limb on which to search for its next meal.
At another stop, a young snake suns itself on a rock, untroubled by the two of us, scrambling by for a better view of the bridge. In fact, the trail is teeming with wildlife and flora. Bears are no longer rare sightings along the trail, nor are eagles and great blue herons.
Though the trail is marked by post, south-to-north, the river itself flows the opposite direction, and the recommended route follows the natural course of the water. Many see the southbound trek from Cass as the more leisurely and isolated route. While we had done this section of it before, especially the unforgettable Sharp’s Tunnel, followed by the ubiquitous photo opportunity of Sharp’s Bridge, a trail favorite.
Well-kept, the trail has plenty of benches, fishing spots, and swimming holes; paved over five miles, the rest is crushed limestone. With 14 entry points and 16 campsites (many of which afford privies and rustic shelters), the trail passes through a sum of three state parks- Calvin Price State Forest, Watoga State Park, and Seneca State Forest, as well as Monongahela National Forest, surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains. Covering two counties, it heads north from Caldwell to Cass, even verging into the National Radio Quiet Zone surrounding Green Bank Observatory.
“Over the past 25 years of our business at Free Spirit Adventures, folks have hiked, biked, kayaked, floated, and even dog sledded the trail,” says Alinda Perrine, owner at Free Spirit Adventures. “We taught people to ride a bike on the trail, cycle on a tandem when they couldn’t balance due to a health issue, or just take a chance on their first bicycle adventure. People of all ages have enjoyed the trail.”
Perrine adds that families and organizations like the MS Association, Wounded Warriors, American Lung Association, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, school groups utilize this outdoor mecca.
“For the most part, the trail is non-intimidating and totally relaxing,” adds Bobby Guet, Alinda’s Husband. “Great swimming holes and the boat landing at Anthony is a great place to rest and enjoy the big mountain and river views.”
The Watoga Bridge, built in 1929 to carry the trains across the river, sits just a few miles above Seebert, and offers an excellent stop for photos in a lovely bend in the river. Hard pressed for a good trail down all the way to the water, and visitors are best to enjoy the views from the upper rocks just below the south end of the bridge. Be careful, as the fall into the water and rocks below is significant. Don’t lean too far over or let your kids down there unattended.
After you cross over the Watoga Bridge, the river moves to your left, where it remains throughout to its southern terminus. Pass through the town of Seebert and you’ll see a charming collection of cabins along the river. Greenbrier River Cabins, available for rent, provide a great “midway” stopover (provided you have a reservation) and enjoy beautiful views out to the river along a shallow section safe for wading and for kids to enjoy.
Just below that, you’ll find yourself at Jack Horner’s Corner, a must-stop along the trail. The folks at Jack Horner’s Corner are friendly and helpful. The sandwiches, which range from cold cut Italians to meatball subs, are well-made and perfect to eat on the porch or to take with you somewhere farther down the trail. The store also offers tons of gear, accessories, and Watoga and Greenbrier River Trail merchandise. Most importantly, for those trying to communicate with someone back home, they have wifi (as long as you purchase some stuff) so you can send a couple of texts to the outside world.
While the trail is out of cell range for most carriers, there have been many upgrades over the years, and campsites are well established, with toilets, bear-proof trash bins, and picnic tables, and tent platforms.
“The trail has also evolved with a better base,” explains Alinda. “It began with big stones, railroad grade. I think State Parks began to realize the surface is really important, and the crusher gravel they now use is bike-friendly. The area around Marlinton is paved and in my opinion, gave more options for people. The trailhead in Cass is also paved and expanded.”
The Greenbrier River Trail has seen its share of floods, and 2016 was significant,” adds Bobby. “As a result, we now have ‘Anthony Hill,’ the first uphill on the trail. It isn’t much of an incline, but we like to use it as a landmark. From the flood, the river changed its banks and new feeder streams appeared where none had been before.”
The most significant change along the Greenbrier River Trail is that locals have fallen in love. Throughout both Pocahontas and Greenbrier County, citizens are supportive of efforts for improvement. It has become a playground and exercise amenity for many and people are healthier because they have a beautiful place to be active.
As Mark and I pull into Renick, it is obvious the town has reinvented itself a bit by embracing the river trail. The Renick Park offers plenty of room to hang out and take a break or let the kids play on the playgrounds. If you are packing food, this is the perfect stop to eat for sure, and grills are provided at the shelter.
“As a realtor, property around the trail is definitely more valuable,” adds Alinda. “Renick is a great example of that.”
We take about an hour break before heading on to the southern terminus, passing through Anthony Creek (and over “Anthony Hill,” along the way and enjoying the view of scattered rapids that accent the river in its faster parts.
All said the trip to Caldwell took eight hours, precisely what Alinda told us it would take, including stops for photos and food. Bobby picked us up and took the bikes back to Free Spirit Adventures before dropping us back at our cars in Lewisburg, where food and drink awaited, and where we happily indulged in both.
To learn more about Free Spirit Adventures and their full-service bicycle shop, phone 304-667-3334, or visit