Dirt Rag Magazine

Riding Kennel Blind in the Mid-Ohio Valley? (Part 1)

By Chris Swarr

Within the world of dog breeders, there is a psychological condition known as “kennel blindness.”  Those affected by it are unable to see any imperfections in the genetic stock of the dogs that they breed.  They can, however, still easily pick out flaws in dogs from other breeders’ yards.  Therefore, in certain breeders’ eyes, their dogs are seen as ideal specimens, whereas others’ animals could never be as good.

This sort of mental outlook can often easily be extended to apply to just about anything a person, group, or region produces, sells, or promotes.  Just ask farmers in Idaho why their potatoes are superior, or ask Napa Valley viniculturalists why they are certain their grapes produce North America’s best wines, and they will no doubt and in much detail tell you. Such a tendency to see only the “positives” in what is yours and to see a much higher ratio of the “negatives” in what is somebody else’s is probably only human nature. And honestly, if someone is producing, selling, or promoting something, this really isn’t an unhealthy perspective to have.

In fact, it lends itself to a sense of conviction on the part of the person peddling any particular “product.”  As the old sales cliché goes, “Believe in what you sell,” right? This very kind of bias is why I would often write off my feelings about riding destinations across the country that I have visited to a sort of kennel blindness, when I would leave them thinking, “Wow!  The views sure were spectacular, but the trails back home still ride better.”

On more than one occasion while mountain biking buff singletrack in the American West, I have noticed something to be missing – a certain kind of undulating, organic complexity and over-the-top floral “greenness” that can only be found in the hardwood forests of Appalachia. And while I would never want to try to diminish the vast wonders of mountain biking that exist from the Front Range of Colorado onward to the Pacific, I do believe that there is a small point to be made: riding in the hills and mountains of the eastern United States is very often world-class fantastic in its own right.

This is something I’m sure many Dirt Rag readers would agree upon without question, and I certainly feel this applies to the local singletrack networks I regularly visit. Which naturally begs the question: Where, gentle author, are you and the trails you ride?

The Mid-Ohio Valley – A Mountain Biking Vacation Destination? I’m so glad you asked!  I’ve lived most of my life in an area that straddles the border between western West Virginia and southeastern Ohio known as the Mid-Ohio Valley.  Bisected by the Ohio River, it is a region that is rich in early-American frontier and riverboat history, industry, and Appalachian culture.  The mighty Ohio itself is fed here by smaller rivers and their limitless tributaries that have carved this place into steep-sided valleys and the rugged, rocky hills that surround them.  And of course, in the spring, summer, and fall months, the landscape is dominated by the at times dense, at times cathedral-like deciduous forests.

Since the late Nineties, the Mid-Ohio Valley has seen a boom in trail development spearheaded largely by mountain bikers who abide by IMBA standards for trail building, and who work year round to improve and expand this already rich area.  The two main organizations whose members have contributed most to the construction and maintenance of sustainable singletrack there are the River Valley Mountain Biking Association and the Athens Bicycle Club. Because of their work, there is currently enough singletrack in the Mid-Ohio Valley to allow for substantial rides every day for at least a week, literally without hitting the same trail twice — unless you want to (and I bet you will).

These riding areas are all within an hour or less of the Ohio River, making the MOV genuinely worthy of consideration as a place to visit for a mountain-biking vacation. For our purposes here, the Mid-Ohio Valley’s major (yet relatively small) cities are those of Parkersburg, West Virginia and Marietta and Athens, Ohio.  Each has colleges or universities, night-life, dining, and all the amenities (from primitive camping to historic hotels) that one would expect from such a demographic area.  The MOV is well-situated within a reasonable driving distance of many of the East’s major population centers, and generally offers a very pleasant cultural counterpoint to the urban pace. It also has a number of high-end bike shops to service any rider’s needs.  Three I would highly recommend are Athens Bicycle, the Vienna Bike Shop, and the Parkersburg Bike Shop.  They all have friendly, knowledgeable staff and carry both large-name and boutique brands, along with everything a biker who ticks off serious trail mileage might require while away from home.  Check them out online; they have links to printable versions of maps of most of the places described in this article (the above club websites also have map links). So, where to ride?  I’ll begin in my home state of West Virginia, already well recognized for its mountain biking opportunities.

Mountwood Park

First, a disclaimer: I live near this park, and I am on its governing board.  I also have served as the chair of its trail committee.  If this qualifies me as biased, I accept. Mountwood Park is located 12 miles east of Parkersburg city limits on U.S. Route 50.  It is home to the “Challenge at Mountwood,” one of the longest-running and best-attended races in the West Virginia Mountain Biking Association points series.  There is primitive and hook-up camping, and cabin and beach house rentals. Much of Mountwood’s 2,600 acres sits on the former town site of Volcano, which grew up in the mid-1800s as a result of one of the earliest major oil booms in world history.  The very geology which allowed for the existence of shallow petroleum deposits there also created a steep and rough terrain, with slopes at times approaching angles of 70 degrees (think: a whole lot of bench-cut trail).

While the oil of Volcano is long gone, it’s the singletrack that is now flowing — over 25 miles of bomber trails, to be precise.  They wind, wend, and switchback through deep woods and past rusty and creosote-preserved relics of this by-gone boom era, many of which still dot the hillsides, hollows, and ridge tops of this Appalachian gem of a park. As a member of the Wood County Parks and Recreation Commission, which oversees Mountwood, I like to boast that this park has the best-maintained trails in West Virginia.  Although it’s difficult to prove such a superlative claim, the dogged oversight and hard work of the volunteer crews there make it easy enough to believe.  I work with these people, and if a trail corridor is blocked by deadfall or blowdown (a perennial issue in the forests of the eastern U.S.), it’s never for long.

Mountwood was the first park in the MOV that the River Valley Mountain Biking Association really began to work to develop with IMBA standards in mind.  In fact, if one were to turn to page 12 of IMBA’s Trail Solutions, there is a picture of two IMBA Trail Care Crew vehicles and staff from right around the turn of the century, posing in front of Mountwood Lake after a day of instructing and leading RVMBA members in sustainable trail building. The results are plainly evident today, and the park’s trails are a flat-out blast to ride in either direction.  According to no less an expert than internationally renowned trail-guide author, naturalist, and National Outdoor Book Award recipient Leonard M. Adkins in his book 50 Hikes In West Virginia, “Around the turn of the 21st century, a dedicated group of local mountain bikers worked with officials to rehabilitate and expand the park’s network of trails, creating some of the most environmentally sound pathways I have ever seen volunteers build.”

Mountwood’s trail system has only grown and improved since the publication of Adkins’ book.  Numerous loop and stacked loop ride possibilities arc out in all directions from the lake at the park’s core.  There are RVMBA group rides on Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons, and the parking lot sees license plates from all over the eastern U.S.  I ride there most weeks out of the year and I never get bored.  There’s just that much to appreciate and explore.

North Bend State Park

Just a touch farther east out U.S Route 50 and southeast on WV 31 and CR 14 (good signage makes the route-finding easy) lies North Bend State Park, named for a particularly sharp curve in the North Fork of the Hughes River. In addition to all types of camping, full-amenity cabins, and a large lodge with a restaurant, North Bend has excellent riding to offer mountain bikers of all skill levels. The 72-mile scenic North Bend Rail Trail with its seemingly endless tunnels, bridges, and historic towns (slated in 2010 to link with Mountwood, opening up truly gargantuan riding opportunities) cuts through the park, and there are well over 20 miles of singletrack trails within the park itself.

North Bend has pre-IMBA trails that are frankly, marvelous fun to ride. It also has RVMBA-built trail, and a new, super-sweet multi-use trail built to IMBA standards that when fully completed, will circle a long, 305-acre lake that is truly gorgeous, even compared to other West Virginia lakes.  These trails have witnessed a number of sanctioned and stand-alone events over the years, and the natural, big-woods beauty of this park makes it a must-ride stop on any tour of MOV mountain biking. Park superintendent Steve Jones, a skilled mountain biker and savvy trail layout man himself, will be happy to provide maps and personally tailor ride routes to suit individual or group preferences.  Stop by the lodge and take advantage of all the info and insight he has to offer.  He’s a great resource in a state park with classic West Virginia riding.

Come Over To the “Other” Side – First Stop: Marietta, Ohio

No doubt, West Virginia has a well-deserved “buzz” when it comes to state reputations for mountain biking, and Ohio may not typically spring to mind when considering trail-riding destinations.  This is changing, however, due in large part to the singletrack in the southeastern Ohio portion of the MOV that is springing up like the multi-flora rose that the intrepid trail builders there have to deal with regularly. The city of Marietta, Ohio is 15 minutes north of Parkersburg, West Virginia on I-77.  It is also approximately an hour south of I-70.

As the first settlement in the Northwest Territory, it pre-dates Ohio statehood by 15 years and has done a great job of preserving and promoting its historic past. Marietta sits at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers, and it boasts an almost endless array of historic homes and buildings. It is noted for its brick streets, festivals, history, night-life and music, and Marietta College.  National Geographic Adventure named it one of its top 100 adventure towns for 2009 for its proximity to so many wonderful outdoor opportunities.  Marietta has a fantastic atmosphere and attracts tourists for many reasons, never mind if they ever throw a leg over a top tube. But if mountain biking is your reason for travel, you’re in luck.  RVMBA has worked with city officials over the last few years to create a network of singletrack using public green space, all within city limits.

There are currently over 10 miles of really, really fun and creatively designed trails in Marietta, with more coming online as this is being written.  Individual trails can be linked using city streets to create any number of options for shorter or longer rides.  There is just something delightful and quaint about being able to rip sweet singletrack and then pop out of a trailhead into old town Marietta, with its numerous restaurants, watering holes, storefronts, and cultural attractions. Another big reason for visiting Marietta is that it’s the gateway to the Marietta Unit of the Wayne National Forest, which due to the almost non-stop sweat equity invested by RVMBA trail crews, is garnering a real rep as the spot for big-woods riding in the MOV.

Click through to read Part 2 of Riding Kennel Blind in the Mid-Ohio Valley!

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