Riding Kennel Blind in the Mid-Ohio Valley? (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a two-part series about rides in and around the Mid-Ohio Valley. You can read Part 1 here.

By Chris Swarr

The Wayne National Forest

Many folks have a misconception about the Ohio landscape.  A sort of flat, open topography with little elevation gain is the picture people often have about this state.  While this may apply to portions of Ohio, please allow me to disabuse you of such a notion regarding its southeastern regions.

In fact, if a person familiar with the eastern U.S. were to be blindly dropped into the woodlands of this part of Ohio and asked to choose between this state and West Virginia as their locale, most would likely choose the state to the east.  This is wild and woolly Appalachian Ohio, and it is nothing if not suited for mountain biking.

The monstrous Wayne National Forest covers nearly a quarter million acres in southeastern Ohio.  Over 63,000 of them lay in the Marietta unit of the Wayne, a half hour drive north of Marietta following the Ohio River on State Route 7.  Trail permits are required and may be purchased on a daily or seasonal basis at the National Forest Service office just north of Marietta on SR 7.

RVMBA volunteers currently work to maintain and improve a large portion of the over 70 miles of trails open to bikes there. This association’s efforts earned it the National Forest Service’s Northeast Region’s top 2008 Volunteer Coordinator Award for RVMBA president Drew Smithberger, and a 2008 honorable mention for RVMBA as a volunteer group. These are no small feats, considering that these awards cover much of the eastern U.S., including the Virginias and New England.

The Wayne is a large place with days’ worth of riding options and terrain that is as expansive as it is challenging.  It is highly recommended that anyone biking there who is not very familiar with the area carry both a map (available at the NFS office) and a GPS.  The climbs are big, the switchbacks are technical, and long stretches of uninterrupted singletrack through tremendous woods is the norm.  Rides of any length there require a good degree of self-sufficiency and your climbing legs, but the rough and rocky beauty of the forest make it well more than worth the effort.

A goodly number of killer rides in the Wayne begin out of the Leith Run campground in New Matamoras on SR 7.  It has excellent facilities for all types of camping, with nearby stores and a beautiful view of the Ohio River.  It makes a great place to set up a base camp for exploration.

While it’s possible to get your feet wet in the Wayne by setting out on your own or by hooking up with locals through the RVMBA website or at the local bike shops, one may also receive an excellent initiation by taking advantage of either of the two annual RVMBA-promoted events that begin out of the Leith Run campground.  “The Wayne Ultra,” going on its third year as a West Virginia Mountain Biking Association XXC Series race, offers two course-length choices that will give you a fine idea of some of what is available there.

“The Mid-Ohio Valley Bike Festival,” also held at Leith Run, is a weekend-long event in early fall that has food, music, and group singletrack excursions led by knowledgeable guides that range from the relatively short to epic in length.  It’s a great get-together where out-of-area riders can meet locals who have the skinny on riding west of the Ohio River.

Athens, Ohio – Where No One Will Ever Laugh At Your Bike Shorts

Speaking of riding west of the river, there is Athens, Ohio.  It is located 40 minutes west of Parkersburg on U.S. Route 50.  Anyone well versed on flaming-hip university towns knows of Athens, home of Ohio University’s main campus.  Suffice it to say that you’d need a detailed guidebook to address everything fun or enriching that goes on in a place like Athens on any given night.  It’s a multi-national enclave in the midst of sleepy Appalachian Ohio.  Many people begin by going to school there and wind up never leaving, including a whole lot of folk in bike shorts.

And that’s why Athens, much like Marietta, has taken a lead in providing mountain biking opportunities for its residents.  Athens Bicycle, just off the main university campus, is the place to go for maps, ride recommendations, or anything else needed to attack the singletrack starting a few short blocks from this shop’s door.

Drop by and say hello to shop owners Pete Kotses and Meredith Erlewine for any and all beta on the area.  Both are expert-level riders and racers who will ensure that you get pointed in the right direction.  Athens Bicycle also sponsors the four-day Gravel Rouser Classic in early spring, an event known for attracting smoking-fast talent that is every bit as much about having fun as it is mountain biking.

The Athens Trail Network is comprised of Sells Park, located in the heart of the city of Athens, and Strouds Run State Park, just east of town.  The city and state park, in conjunction with the Athens Bicycle Club, have created a trail system that allows earnest riders to follow routes along a lengthy ridge from town, drop down into Strouds Run, and circumnavigate three-mile-long Dow Lake on the bench-cut ridges and ravines surrounding it.  It is then possible to return to your vehicle in Athens on almost entirely different trail for a 20-mile loop.  Shorter options also abound.

While I don’t want to overstate this, these trails are truly outstanding on many levels.  Their layout and construction are top notch, and they traverse a landscape studded with beautiful cliffs, coves, and rock formations.  There are high ridges, deep ravines, and impressive lake and valley views.  The singletrack is fast and flowing and at times rocky and tricky-technical.  You will never be bored there.

I recently went on a club ride on the ATN with some West Virginians who hadn’t yet ridden there.  By the day’s end there was a feeling of disbelief on their part that they had been unaware that such classy trails existed so close by, and they vowed to return often.  You should visit as well, not only for the riding in Athens, but also for what lies just west of it.

Lake Hope State Park

At almost 3,000 acres, Lake Hope State Park rests entirely within Ohio’s 26,824 acre Zaleski State Forest, a half hour left of Athens on U.S. 33 west and OH 278 south.  Narrow ridgelines separated by steeply banked gorges rise above its namesake lake, and the park is home to abundant wildlife, historic structures, and ancient Indian mounds.

It is also home to 25 miles of mountain biking trails that have an extremely high fun factor.  Members of the Athens Bicycle Club have been instrumental in the design and construction of these IMBA-spec trails, and it is a testament to their quality that the West Virginia Mountain Biking Association and the Ohio Mountain Biking Championship Series have for years held a dual-points series race there.

Lake Hope’s trails have a swoopy, pinball machine-like flow to them as anyone who rides there will attest.  This park’s singletrack really has a sort of poetry, and on any given day there you are just as likely to have jaw cramps from grinning as you are to have leg cramps from spinning.  Again (with all due apologies to true poets of the world), Lake Hope is another MOV must ride.

Move Towards the MOV

I’ve taken enough mountain-biking specific trips to know when an area has the “goods” to warrant an extended stay.  And there’s no doubt in my mind, or in the minds of others who live, ride, and work the trails here that the Mid-Ohio Valley qualifies in this sense.  But perhaps the judgment of MOV mountain bikers is tainted from living and riding too close to these venues?

A bunch of us were cruising on a RVMBA group ride last year at Mountwood Park.  Among us was ex-local Cortney Bloomer, a former West Virginia Sport Women’s champion who had moved to the Lake Tahoe area the year before.  When pushed about the riding out there, she said that although there was some darn good stuff at Tahoe, she needed to come home to “remember what mountain biking is really like.”

Could this just be another case of “kennel blindness” caused by nostalgia for home?  Perhaps. But before you jump to any hasty conclusions, I suggest you open your eyes to what the MOV has to offer the off-road cyclist.  I guarantee that no matter where you call home, if you come here to ride, you will love it.