“Montani Semper Liberi” is the state motto of West Virginia, and it simply means Mountaineers Always Free. It seemed appropriate to the start of our four-wheeling adventure that would begin in the Appalachian Mountain region.
It was early summer, and I was on a trip with the folks from Florida Adventure Rigs, a group of off-road enthusiasts dedicated to taking multi-day expedition-style trips exploring the backcountry across the Southeast. Most of the group had made the long drive up to Charleston, West Virginia, where we spent our first night tent camping, as we would each night on our trip.
For our first day, we were headed to the Hatfield-McCoy trails. The recreational network offers eight unique trail systems, covering over 700 miles of trails. However, only Ivy Branch is open to fullsize 4WD vehicles at this time. Like most trail systems, the routes are rated by difficulty from easiest (green) to most difficult (black/red). User permits are required, as are helmets for all drivers and passengers.
We locked in and ventured into Ivy Branch to find a maze of interesting trails. The terrain consisted primarily of heavily forested hills and rocky creek beds where we found a little boulder crawling. We spent a good portion of the day here crisscrossing the maze and emerged relatively unscathed, save for a rear axle brake line that was torn off Mike Marrero’s Nissan truck by a fallen tree limb. He was our main trip leader, and we helped repair his rig so we could continue onward. We tent camped near Charleston once again and slept satisfied that we’d had a fun day on the trails.
The following morning we broke camp and prepared to put some miles under our treads. We followed remote backroads through the West Virginia farmland until we arrived at Thurmond Ghost Town. This was a bustling community during the early 1900s. The boomtown grew from thriving coal and rail passenger businesses tied to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. With the area ripe with coal barons, the Thurmond banks were some of the richest in the state. Sadly, the transition to diesel locomotives spelled a steep decline to Thurmond, and it is a mere shell of its former magnificent self. We explored the area and some of the well-preserved commercial buildings, then followed the winding mountain road through the residential area before leaving town.
We were in the New River Gorge and had gotten word of an interesting dirt route that paralleled the river here. We found the start after a few wrong turns and headed into a wet, overgrown trail that hung hundreds of feet above the lazy river below. Near the beginning of our jungle-like trek we came upon a German tourist in a rented SUV who was lost and contemplating following the same route we were on. Fortunately, he turned back. We travelled forward into what turned out to be a sloppy, rutted trail that was awesomely scenic.
Our road day also included a quick stop at the Herns Mill covered bridge. A number of these bridges are scattered across this area of the country and this one is a nice example, having been originally constructed in 1884. We crossed from West Virginia over into Virginia, and as the end of the day was nearing, we pulled into a scenic riverside campsite. We arrived just in time to set up camp before dark and break out some dinner and cold beverages by a comfortable campfire.
As another day dawned, we loaded, refueled, and headed into the George Washington National Forest (GWNF), following soaked dirt roads towards our destination for the day. Our plan was to locate some of the interior trails and cut through more remote areas of the forest. We soon found our route and locked hubs. We wheeled into the trees and onto a muddy trail. Slipping and sliding our way over and around a few hills, it became evident no one had been through here recently. Eventually, our forward progress was stopped by a downed tree. We figured out a way to clear it from the trail with a winch, but someone then found a huge tree ahead that completely blocked the trail. Without a chainsaw available, we had no choice but to turn and backtrack. However, the narrow shelf trail had a drop-off on the driver side and a steep hill face on the passenger side. Turning our whole group around on this slippery trail, with no spots to pass, was an amusing exercise requiring some crafty steering and the use of winches a few times. What we originally thought would be a great connector trail through the woods spit us out right back where we started, only we were a whole lot muddier. The unplanned ordeal was a blast nonetheless.
We travelled onward through GWNF, and by late afternoon, we arrived at the Cove Campground near Gore, Virginia. It was here we planned to participate in the Big Dogs Spring Fling. The three-day event had guided trail rides Friday through Sunday. We dodged some afternoon rain and enjoyed a good night in the wooded campground.
We hit a handful of Big Dogs trails the next day, challenged with some rocky creek areas and some rutted hill climbs. We got our fill of wheeling and got the chance to watch others at play. The event is a popular one in this area, and we were all glad we were able to attend. The day after, it was time to unlock and air up one last time to head home. We said our respective goodbyes and parted ways.
There are trail runs and then there are four-wheeling adventures. Our trip was definitely the latter. We had a wide variety of vehicles in our group, a fun bunch of people, and found some great trails to explore. That’s what it’s really all about.