West Virginia’s Secret

Richmond – Marlinton, WV – Richmond

May 30-31, 2010

490 miles RT

West Virginia Scenic Highway near Marlinton

West Virginia is the butt of many jokes but those who haven’t dared cross the border don’t realize it offers stunning scenery, silky-smooth roads and solitude.

Highland Scenic Highway West Virginia

Holiday weekend traffic

We discovered this secret 10 years ago on our first tour of the state, covering 1,300 miles in 5 days. Three trips and another 2,000 miles later we’re still excited about going.  We only have two days so we decide to maximize our time in the mountains and stay off the highways.

Our first day is supposed to be hot in Richmond so we take off early. We stash our gear in the hard cases on my BMW F650 GS but the load is still light. Brother-in-law Jeff, an excellent rider, joins us on his Ducati Multistrada for the day.

goochland, VA farmland

Primo property, River Road West in Goochland County, Virginia

We head west on Rt. 6. It’s a beautiful ride between Henrico and Goochland Courthouse. Ironically, some of the prettiest property in the county, rolling hills bordered by the James River, is home to a variety of state penitentiaries.

We reach the George Washington National Forest after a few hours. A previous trip taught me to drive the speed limit in the National Forests. Ahead, Mt. Montebello awaits. The climb rushes back and forth like an over-caffeinated snake, making it impossible to stop for pictures. It’s beautiful, trust me.

Mount Montebello Virginia

Mt. Montebello awaits.

After 3 more hours of mountains we reach Marlinton, WV. Our hips and arms tired from shifting side to side through turn after turn. The Old Clarke Inn, a motorcycle-friendly B&B where we’ve stayed before, is booked for the holiday. Option B is Jerico Bed & Breakfast, just up the road. It’s tucked in a pretty canyon, a babbling mountain stream providing background music.

We check in and decide to explore, heading up the canyon.  At the crest of the first hill is a lovely barn. Around a curve, a toilet is propped against a tree. Hillbilly humor? Half a mile from the B and B is a shack with 6 decrepit cars sunk to the axles in mud and an outhouse.  OK, some of the stereotypes hold true.

Breakfast is good, the room is nice, but I can’t recommend Jerico unless you like cold showers. The guy that fires up the wood-burning hot water heater twice a day doesn’t show up during our stay.

On Monday morning we wake to cool, damp fog. It rained overnight and we set off wearing all the clothes we brought. You can count on cool nights here, a wonderful relief from steamy Richmond.

Only 10 minutes underway and the fog is gone, the sky blue. Our first destination is Rt. 150, the Highland Scenic Highway, a 22 mile road that was built just for sightseeing. It climbs to 4,500 feet with incredible vistas on both sides.  The scenic overlooks are ideal for photo ops.

West Virginia Scenic Highway near Marlinton and Snow Shoe

West Virginia Scenic Highway

Destination #2 is Snowshoe Mountain Resort. We want to check out their downhill mountain biking trails for a future trip.

Snowshoe Resort West Virginia

It’s cold on the mountain top and we talk with a member of the mountain bike patrol until we hear thunder. There are black clouds and grainy visibility in all directions. We hop back on the bikes, hoping to get to less twisty roads before the deluge. When we get to the bottom of the 7-mile drive to the resort, there is a tiny crack of blue sky in the purple and gray mess.

“That’s where we’re going,” I announce, aware of my unreasonable optimism. We floor it for the next 50 miles, hoping to get ahead of the storm. And we do, heading north and then east, staying dry through the twisties that border West Virginia and Virginia.

Suddenly, the clouds part like a theater curtain and we enjoy pretty weather again. More sharp curves up Lanz Mountain, down into the broad valley and Hightown. White barns with red roofs interrupt vast fields of bright green. We agree that the jagged, fir and hardwood cloaked mountains in front and back of us are prettier than the Rockies.  Another dizzying climb over Monterey Mountain and descent brings us into the town of Monterey. A courthouse, church, gas station, 2 restaurants and a hotel line the main street, Rt. 250. It’s as cute and old Virginia as you can get.

The diner, our lunch destination and the only open restaurant in town, doesn’t have power today. But they do have a huge, smoking grill out front with sizzling burgers, dogs and a 2-gallon iron pot of pork barbeque. The resourceful owner has emptied storage boxes to hold drinks.  Our Cokes come from an ice-filled plastic box marked “fax and printer.”

The clouds are inching over Monterey Mountain as we depart. It’s hot here in the valley. Although we have more mountains to climb, we’re losing altitude steadily and it continues to heat up. We hop on 64 east briefly but exit at Afton Mountain to avoid holiday traffic.  Starting at the exit ramp we inch down some of the steepest, tightest turns of our trip.

Scottsville is our next goal, the biggest town since Marlinton. We decide not to stop. It’s in the mid-90s today and we want to get back to air conditioning. 10 miles outside Scottsville the road bisects lovely farms and rolling hills, but we’d trade the view for some shade. The heat is coming off the road like a furnace, blasting up our Kevlar-lined slider jeans. I feel like I’m wearing a suit of armor in a sauna. In a sense, I am. My black mesh jacket is heavily padded – safety vs. comfort. For the last 50 miles my hamstrings are cramped and I’m thirsty. Good thing I have a full Camelback. Too bad it’s tucked in my luggage.

We pull in the garage 30 hours after we left, having covered almost 500 miles. That’s a mere 7 gallons of gas on my bike, about 10 for Scott. We didn’t have a meal over $20, a pretty cheap date. I give this route my highest rating. We’ll do it again.

See our route

Motorcycle Riding in West Virginia is Almost Heaven

Highland Scenic Highway in West Virginia

Motorcycle riding in West Virginia wasn’t in our plans, but when rain pelted our original destination, western North Carolina and Tennessee, we refused to chill out. We pulled up the radar app and replotted our route to anywhere that wasn’t wet. Fortunately, anywhere was West Virginia, one of our favorite motorcycle riding playgrounds.

Cheap Cruise Control for the F650GS

We started out thundering west on Rt. 64 from the western suburbs of Richmond, VA. I tested my new cruise control for the BMW F650GS. I went with the pros’ recommendation: the Caterpillar heavy equipment O-ring that slips over the end of the right handle and engages when you roll the ring to the edge of the throttle. This cheap cruise control has its limitations. It is really a throttle control – it holds the throttle steady, which does not equate to holding the speed steady when riding hills. I was thrilled with it anyway, especially for $5.

Motorcycling in the Mountains

If you are looking for a two-day ride with incredible scenery and adventure, this route is it. Rt. 64 rolls past Charlottesville, VA and then starts to climb Afton Mountain. Along the way there are several scenic overlooks that give a glimpse at the stunning views of the valley and blue ridge mountains. Wait to stop until you are heading east though. There is no access to the overlooks from the west-bound side of the highway.

When 64 splits at Rt. 81, we take Rt. 81 North for a few miles to exit 225. While our target, Rt. 250 west, runs straight through Staunton, we have learned the hard way to bypass the center of town. Traffic, lots of stoplights, and the bad memory of a tipover when stopped at a light on a steep hill (oh, the shame) lead us to take the Woodrow Wilson Parkway around town, which meets up with Rt. 250 northwest of the city. I describe our route below beginning with Rt. 250, which whooshes us to the foot of the first of many mountains we will climb in the next 36 hours.

Here’s some perspective on “many.” We covered this terrain from right to left and back:

west virginia motorcycle route terrain

The green squiggley things are mountains. Motorcycle riding in West Virginia is not for beginners. This route is deliberately twisty, so get a few thousand miles under your bottom before you take this ride.

Virginia and West Virginia Motorcycle Road Ratings

There are some good routes for motorcycle riding in West Virginia, as well as some bad ones. Here is how I rate our route west of Staunton in the order we traveled.
250 west  – A+. Twisty heaven.

92 south — B.  Relatively straight and flat. But if you enjoy off-road excursions, take one of the roads marked “Greenbriar River Trail”. We enjoyed a 5-mile ride on a gravel/dirt road to the beautiful Greenbriar river.

greenbriar river trail west virginia

The Greenbriar River from the Greenbriar River Trail off-road excursion

39 west to Marlinton — B.  Great switchbacks, but too much gravel in the corners.

219 north — A.  This would be A+ except for local traffic, and it isn’t fair to call it traffic in West Virginia – more like “presence of a car moving in the same direction as us.”

150 Mountain Scenic Highway — A+, Magna Cum Laude. This road just outside Marlinton was built for motorcycling. No trucks. No buildings. No intersections, no crossroads. Just sharp blue sky and stunning views in all directions, wind whistling over the ridges, and graceful, sweeping curves. Note: Don’t judge the temperature based on how it feels in Marlinton. The Scenic Highway passes over 4,500 feet and it will be at least 10 degrees cooler than in town.

39 west of Marlinton — A. Beautiful pine forests and hardwood canopies on a perfectly maintained road.

20 south — D. Gravel. Gravel trucks. Ambulance entrances to mines. Traffic. Broken down trailers. The only thriving business is in repainting “For Sale” signs.

60 east — C. Gravel plus traffic plus towns, but good road in between.

92 north connecting 60 and 39 — B.  Mostly flat and straight, but no traffic and beautiful farms, valleys and mountains.

39 east — A. Back in Virginia, do not miss the Dan Ingalls scenic overlook at the top of Warm Springs Mountain.

Warm Springs mountain view bath county virginia

Looking east at the mountains of Virginia from Warm Springs Mountain, Bath County, VA

42 north/254 east/262 back to 81 —  C.  Nothing special, just got us back to the highway.

Amenities on the route

Pit stops along this route — plenty

Restaurants with surly waitresses, menus with seven items (hamburger, double hamburger, cheeseburger, double cheeseburger, hotdog – you get the picture), and microwaved instant food (grits, mashed potatoes, spam) — too many

Decrepit towns — ample

Motorcycle-friendly B&B’s — Old Clark Inn in Marlinton. Clean, inexpensive lodging, motorcycle parking with tools and air, rocking chairs in front and picnic tables in back. What more could you ask for?

Stretch Your Legs town — Lewisburg exudes Americana with plenty of shops, respectable restaurants, theaters and street parking.

Good restaurant — Food and Friends Casual Dining in Lewisburg. Homemade everything, with pride. I had lobster and shrimp salad with spinach, avocado and cranberries topped with Pilot House homemade dressing. Scott had the best reuben he has ever had, just as our waitress had promised. Try the key lime brulee’ for dessert.