The Appalachian Mountains
have long held a firm grip on my imagination. As one of the oldest mountain ranges on the planet; time, wind, and water have whittled once massive, jagged summits into a more modest, tree covered range of peaks and valleys. It's never been about the size, however, or else the appeal here wouldn't compare to the mountains of the American west or in Europe. It's that primordial impression that, for me at least, is the primary appeal of this archaic range that spans from southeastern Canada to the southeastern United States. It's all about the nooks and crannies in these mountains and valleys, and the ancient and often stunning secrets they hold. In my estimation, West Virginia is the complete embodiment of Appalachia and its most beautiful representation.
The town of Davis is West Virginia's highest incorporated community, and second only to Beech in North Carolina on the east coast; situated at the top of a plateau 3200' above sea level in Tucker County. To the north is the pointy end of Maryland's panhandle, and to the west, you'll find the state's most popular state park in Blackwater Falls. In virtually every direction you will find some of the most stunning terrain in the country. The climate here is more typically associated with the Pacific Northwest, with no real "dry" season, and a fairly narrow scope between average highs and lows. It rains quite a bit, hence the green glow that seems to almost permeate from the valley. Moss and ferns line the forest floors, while dark ribbons of loamy earth slash and wind their way through forests of red spruce, eastern hemlock, yellow birch, American beech, red maple and black cherry trees. As I make my way towards the cabin I'll be spending the week at, I struggle to stay on the road as my attention is almost entirely focused on the lush forest around me, as shafts of sunlight illuminate the abundant mounds of moss and loam just waiting to explode beneath my wheels.
Brian Sarfino cut his teeth building jump lines and big mountain trails in South Lake Tahoe for the better part of a decade before moving back
to Davis in 2010. He remembers buying his first ever mountain bike, a decidedly fragile Raleigh in 1988, but credits the South Lake crew for truly igniting his passion for riding. It was there he remembers riding trails originally built, but subsequently abandoned, by Paul Basagoitia. Growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, Sarfino attended Davis and Elkins College, where he would receive a bachelor's degree in recreation management. Despite enjoying his time in the Sierras, Davis was never far from his thoughts, and just a few years after returning to the region, he turned his passion for the West Virginia highlands into his career, becoming the marketing manager for Tucker County tourism. It's a position that suits the passionate rider and West Virginian well.
"It’s amazing to me just how many people don’t know what we have here
," he tells me as we gear up for a quick ride shortly after I roll into town. "in West Virginia generally, but specifically here in the Canaan Valley. We’re so close to the DC, Baltimore and Pittsburgh areas. I just want to reintroduce this place to people
." He's right. The drive time from any of those three large cities is between 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours. This place hasn't always flown as far under the radar as it does currently. For a stretch early in the history of mountain biking, Davis and the rest of the Canaan Valley were one of the world's premier destinations for mountain bikers. "The 24 Hours of Canaan is what brought so many people to this place initially. That was a monstrous push for Davis back in the day, 24-hour races just died off, and we've been a bit slow to adjust accordingly.
"This town was at the center of a lot of attention
," Matt Marcus says with a slight tone of resentment in his voice. "But then competition in the form of new riding areas popping up began to take place, which drew riders away from the area.
" Matt, 56, moved to Davis from D.C. in 1988 when mountain bike hall of famer Laird Knight offered him a chance to manage the town's mountain bike shop, Blackwater Bikes. The former bike messenger first came to town in 1984 to compete in the Canaan Mountain Bike series, and in his time here has served as president of the West Virginia Mountain Bike Association, as well as the IMBA representative for the state.
"We came through town here in 1988
," Jeff Melnyck remembers. "And we came across that bridge over the Blackwater River. When I came into town, there were like 400 mountain bikers here for a NORBA National event. All of the top pros in the country were here. I was just getting into mountain biking and I stopped to check it out. I came back the next year, became friends with Matt Marcus, and he’s probably the reason why I’m here today.
" Matt and Jeff are joining Brian and I on our short, late afternoon ride to give me a quick sample of the trails in town, and to help me stretch my legs a bit after the 5-hour drive from Philly. Afterward, we head to the town's newest brewpub, Stumptown Ales, which the two long time friends built and help run. The brewery is actually closed that day, but they have keys and we sit at the bar to discuss the history of the region a bit more over some non-local selections.
"When I first started, all of the federal lands were all open to bikes
." Matt says between sips. "As soon as I moved out of D.C., everything began to shut down. There just weren’t very many places to ride on the east coast. This was one of the locations that was left wide open. It was like the wild west, you could go in any direction from town as far as you wanted to go. People brought bicycles, motorcycles, four wheelers, anything they wanted, and could just go anywhere. I lived here for years and was still going on trails that I’ve never seen before. That was the initial draw.
"The motorcycles and four wheelers made a lot of the trails here.
" Jeff adds. "They were here long before the mountain bikers.
"Eventually, the lands in the area began to shut down.
" Matt says. He admits to being a bit jaded when it comes to Davis, with the bitter taste of what could have been
still lingering. "Wilderness areas, the wildlife refuge. We supported the wildlife refuge, and they had a plan in place where we would need to find a new location for a race that we held on their lands, but they’d allow us to continue to ride there. But they eventually shut down over 100 miles of trails in their valley. It was bad. We’ve had issues with the power company selling properties to non-profits, who fold and their land gets absorbed by state forest agencies instead of recreation agencies, which restricts our access. Little by little, we lost trail mileage and trail building opportunities. As a result, all of these 'social' trails began to pop up all over the place. We lost a lot of the beginner terrain that was in the valley as well. Things are good now, and certainly on the upswing, but there’s no doubt we experienced a setback as a result of the mismanagement of so much of this land.
Davis went from being one of the industry's darlings to an under appreciated destination with a growing number of riding options between it and it's closest population centers. "Like a lot of other things,
" Brian tells me the next morning. "The Tucker County mountain bike scene is 5 years behind most of the world. All of these other places that have been developing trails throughout the region are half the distance to the population centers we’re trying to bring out here.
" We're joined at his dining room table by Rob Stull, the current owner of Blackwater Bikes and, alongside Brian, one of the at-large board members of the newly organized Blackwater Bicycle Association.
"For a while,
" Rob says, his baritone voice seemingly rattling Brian's kitchen cabinets. "We were the only place to ride in the region. We didn’t have to work hard to bring people in because they just didn’t have a lot of other options. Now, with all of these IMBA ride centers popping up, and stacked loop systems everywhere, we’re seeing that other places are ready and willing to start pumping a lot of money into that kind of stuff. We now see that we’re needing to step our game up. It’s taken a long time, and we’re finally starting to come around. There’s a long history of timber and coal industries in this area. When the coal mines dried up, people began to put their hopes in false expectations. People here are finally starting to see that industry isn’t going to drive things and that tourism is our best bet for the future. It has to be. We don’t have anything else
Jessica Scowcroft is the Director of the Tucker County C.V.B., and believes that the shift from industry to tourism has finally begun to take hold. "Mountain biking is an anchor for the outdoor recreation in this area. Our community wouldn’t see any success without it. We have 3 breweries for a population total of 7,000 people in the county. We’re starting to see younger people come up in the community and embrace it. Tucker County culture has been reshaped from being reliant on coal and timber industries, to finally embracing what the outdoor industry can bring to the table, and the mountain bike community has played a huge role in that
Jessica, who hails from southern New Jersey, originally came to the area to pursue skiing opportunities, has been with the local C.V.B. for over 7 years after attending college at nearby Davis and Elkins College. I ask her about the dichotomy between born and bred Davis residents, and the influx of transplants and the entrepreneurial energy they're bringing to town.
"We have a lot more entrepreneurs in the area
," she admits. "Or even people who are willing to work multiple seasonal employment opportunities. But yeah, we do have a lot of people coming into the area to start a business and are also working to develop a solid pay scale. If we train West Virginians in tourism, we can make it so that the pay scale for that industry is comparable to what the coal industry provided for years. They’re realizing that and it’s starting to happen. We have a new group of people who are rooted here and are taking on projects that had been stagnant for a long time. Rob has taken over the bike shop, we just had a $30 million renovation over at Canaan Valley Resort, and Sue has put a ton of energy into the mountain bike festival.
Sue Haywood, who spent several years as a full-time World Cup athlete, fell in love with Davis over 20 years ago during her first ever mountain bike race while attending West Virginia University in nearby Morgantown. During a highly publicized battle with USA Cycling over her omission from the Olympic team in 2004, the town of Davis was steadfast in its support for her. "I really felt the love here
." Sue remarks. "I moved away to Harrisonburg, Virginia for a couple of years, but came back into town 4 years ago because it’s just home to me. There’s a good mix of long-time locals, and a new group of transplants who just love the lifestyle. It just a really beautiful place. I can walk out my door, walk my dog in the woods, go for a bike ride, go XC skiing in the winter, and it’s all right there. That’s the lifestyle I want; I want to be in the mountains, in the forest and on the river. I don’t want to have to drive to get to those things. That’s the sacrifice a lot of people make here in lieu of a better paying job in other places.
Brian, my guide throughout the week, is excited to move forward as one of the region's biggest champions for mountain biking. It may have taken a while to get back on track, but there's no denying the momentum swing these guys are finally beginning to experience. "The chamber of commerce is pretty astute here, and they get it. They’re behind it. They’re an influential group, and they have the ears of all of these land managers. So having their support helps us enormously. The bike community has proven to be an industrious group, who gets things done around here and we don’t ask for much. A lot of other groups need a lot, we don’t. We’re self-sufficient. They listen to us and they respect what we say.
Yes, I have a propensity for east coast riding, but I am also an especially big fan of the trails and terrain found in the northwestern corner of our country. I think that's ultimately what I find so compelling about Davis; the idea that elements from both worlds, that northwest grease and loam coupled with an old world, east coast aesthetic, can and does
actually exist. It would seem that northern Vermont and western North Carolina have some company at the top of the "must ride
" list east of the Mississippi. In the beginning, the Canaan Valley was one of the country's premier riding destinations, but some of that luster was lost as more and more communities and towns began building trails of their own. But we all know that history repeats itself, and now the town of Davis and the surrounding mountains and valleys are ready to remind everyone just how and wild and wonderful the riding here is and has always been. When you do decide to make the trip, just be sure to find a local and have them show you around. The Appalachian mountains are some of the oldest hills and forests on the planet, and you best believe that there are more than a few surprises hidden away in their nooks and crannies.Davis mountain biking trails
EB&D Travel Information:
For information on the area, including restaurant selections, lodging options, and activities for the whole family, visit out the Tucker County Tourism website.
Here's the website for the Blackwater Bicycle Association.
Looking for a bike shop? Head to Blackwater Bikes. They're currently looking for a full time, experienced bike mechanic. Contact information can be found following the link.
Blackwater Falls State Park is the state's most popular. They have a ton of lodging options, including deluxe cabins, perfect for a large group of riders!
Joining the Wednesday night ride? Be sure to join the group at Hellbender Burritos afterwards!
Sirianni's Cafe doesn't have a website, but they have a phone! 304-259-5454