The mountains were heavy with July’s greenery. Summer was in full swing. The Greenbrier River loudly splashed over rocks. Tall ridges rose on either side of the waterway. Ahead, a narrow ribbon known as the Greenbrier River Trail cut a tunnel through the rich forest along the river. Hiker, biker, runner and yoga enthusiast Pam Morgan and I were beginning a 160-mile round trip that would take us five days to complete.
The Greenbrier River Trail is a longer version of our nearby Virginia Creeper Trail. Its southern end starts near Lewisburg, W.Va., just off Interstate 64. The Greenbrier River Trail follows an old railroad grade up to the town of Cass. Cass is better known for being near the ski haven of Snowshoe. For us it was a destination 80 miles distant that we would reach using our bicycles.
We carried our camping gear in a two- wheeled trailer attached to one of the bikes. We called the bike with the trailer “The Beast,” and took turns pulling it. The Greenbrier River Trail follows an abandoned railroad grade but isn’t overly steep. It still traces the river upstream, which makes it uphill going south to north, but it’s downhill all the way back.
“The Beast,” Pam and I set off full of first day energy and eagerness. But our outlook soon shot south. It wasn’t the physical challenge but a thunderstorm that quickly dampened our spirits. But once you get wet you get used to it.
We pedaled 17 miles the first day, then reached one of the several designated campsites that are situated along the rail trail. She and I set up in dark, dripping woods, anticipating rain, but it didn’t come. A cheery fire and hearty dinner buoyed the atmosphere.
The next day we traveled past more riverside shoals and bridged trickling tributaries. Canoeists and kayakers ran the winding Greenbrier. Other casual bicyclers made shorter trips. The pleasant, warm day passed quickly and we pedaled 36 miles into the town of Marlinton. Amazingly, we had a flat tire within 100 yards of a bike shop in town, avoiding a potential problem by paying for a repair.
We had a special treat awaiting us in Marlinton — reservations at the Old Clark Inn, a historic lodging facility in the mountain hamlet through which the Greenbrier River trail ran. The pleasant evening was capped off with a meal at a local restaurant. That saved me from having to cook over a campfire.
Next day we were eager to get back on the trail. Our early start brought a reward — a bear sighting. I was pedaling in front and glanced over to see a bear in the brush along the river. The bruins didn’t hear me over the rapids. Pam was a little behind me. The bear ambled onto the trail then along came Pam. You should’ve seen her eyes widen. This time the bear caught wind of us, then tore through a rhododendron thicket till he was but a black shadow disappearing straight up the mountainside.
Deer sightings were numerous and easier on the adrenalin. The path crossed long, wooden trestles that offered panoramas of the surrounding mountains. The rail trail even tunneled through ridges. We finally made it to a wonderful riverside camp. It even included a three-sided wooden shelter. But we didn’t need the living quarters as the skies were sunny. River access was easy and provided an opportunity to swim in the crystalline mountain waters of the Greenbrier. Later that afternoon we pedaled to the trail’s end in Cass, then backtracked to camp, capping off a 37-mile day. It seemed we were biking on air without the camping gear.
The two of us fueled up on a hearty blueberry pancake breakfast. before backtracking south the next morning. We had a little trouble finding a campsite, ending up bicycling 43 miles before calling it quits. I was getting a little saddle sore and was glad to be sitting at camp in a wide, folding chair rather than that tiny bike seat. Big storms were forecast and the predictions came true.
We ate dinner under a tarp, droplets of rain providing a suppertime symphony. We slept in the tent. Showers pitter-pattered on the plastic, lulling us to sleep. Next morning we ate breakfast under the tarp. Rain was still falling — perhaps heavier than ever — and was no longer pleasant sounding but rather an ominous pounding broken by occasional booms of thunder, as well as flashes of lightning.
I began wondering if I should’ve brought an ark instead of a bike.
The two of us tried in vain to wait out the storms but finally packed our gear in the downpour and intrepidly peddled through the storms. Greenbrier River and its tributaries were running a chocolate brown. Water rushed down the rail trail. We were soaked to the bone despite our rain gear.
At the height of the storm, in pounding rain, a spotted fawn stood beside the trail then dashed out in front of Pam just as she was pedaling by. Pam careened her bike away from the critter, barely missing the deer yet stayed upright on her bike. The bike-deer near crash was a shocker. But if you stay out out in the woods long enough, all sorts of things eventually happen.
The rain was still falling when we arrived at the car, then loaded our sopping gear. The two of us were glad to be in the dry automobile but sad our Greenbrier River Trail adventure was over.
To reach Lewisburg, take I-81 north up to I-64 then head west to the Mountain State. To create your own Greenbrier River adventure, do an Internet word search on Greenbrier River Trail and start planning.