Hiking Across West Virginia On the American Discovery Trail
Walking the rails through Clarksburg, West Virginia. When I found out that the coast-to-coast American Discovery Trail passed near Harpers Ferry, the easternmost point in West Virginia, and Parkersburg, on the western side of the state, how could I not hike across West Virginia?
There are some good on-line diaries about doing this hike. I'm posting my own diary in case you'd like another perspective, and especially if you're thinking of hiking it in late fall/early winter.
The ADT is not consistently marked. I got the turn-by-turn directions from the ADT website, and some old maps of the National Forest section, but otherwise had very little to go by. The ADT mostly follows county roads, which are not on most maps. Even the Delorme atlases do a poor job of showing them.
My advice would be to get the official ADT maps. I haven't seen them, but anything showing the turns of the route would be better than nothing. As an alternative, you could photocopy the relevant pages of the Delorme atlas for WV, then use a site like Topozone to create a series of GPS waypoints, one for each turn.I'd divide the hike into six sections:
- The C&O Canal Path, Harpers Ferry, WV to Green Spring, WV. Easy to follow. The official Park Service "strip map" is more than enough.
- Green Spring, WV to Dolly Sods, Monongahela National Forest. This section is all county roads.
- Dolly Sods to past Blackwater Falls State Park. This section is a mix of trails and roads. Recent maps of the National Forest should be enough.
- Blackwater Falls to Clarksburg, WV. This section is a mix of highways and county roads, with a few miles of rail trail into Clarksburg. I have no idea how you're supposed to get through Clarksburg. A city map would be helpful.
- Clarksburg, WV to Parkersburg, WV. There's an unimproved railroad grade on the far side of Clarksburg that connects to the North Bend Rail Trail, which leads you all the way to Parkersburg. Once you find the rail trail, you're home free. No map needed.
- Parkersburg to Ohio River. The North Bend Rail Trail just dead-ends behind a U-Haul storage place. You'll need a map of Parkersburg to hike from here. I walked into downtown Parkersburg, cross the Hwy 50 bridge to Belpre, OH, came back across the bridge, and walked a few miles north to my parents' house in Vienna, WV. Parkersburg is a sprawling town without many of the services a low-rent hiker would want. It probably makes more sense to take the bus into P-burg, hike across WV, and end up in Harpers Ferry, which has hostels nearby.
November 30I arrived in Washington, DC by bus the morning of Nov 30, then spent the day at Union Station waiting for the train to Harpers Ferry, the easternmost town in West Virginia.
I got a coffee and sat down next to a woman who struck up a conversation. She'd completed her southbound hike of the Appalachian Trail a week before, and was headed home to Maine. We had a lot to talk about. She'd been in Burkina Faso with the Peace Corps for three years before hiking the AT, so her trail name was an African word, "Paaga."
Paaga (AT 05) in Union Station, Washington, D.C. I went outside to walk around, and a guy approached me holding a CD. He started "scratching" it like a DJ on the palm of his hand, and I realized he was crazy.
Mike: So you take the pill and your eyes turn orange?
Donald: No, it's natural.
Mike: Your eyes are naturally orange?
Donald: I was built that way. ...I was built to help humanity.
Donald trying to demonstrate an exercise technique he invented. It involves jumping, but my camera skills were not good enough to capture it. Outside Union Station, Washington, D.C.
December 1Major terrain: C&O Canal Towpath. The canal operated for about 75 years. It was always obsolete and almost never profitable. For decades, the towpath (where the mules towing the barges walked) has been a hiking and biking path, from DC to Cumberland MD.
Major adventure: One section of the towpath is not maintained, as it floods frequently. You're supposed to detour on roads, but I tried to walk along the shore, and fell into the Potomac up to my neck. I found a drier detour slightly inland.
Camped along the towpath.
December 2Major adventure: Stopped at a Park Service visitors center built in an old warehouse along the canal.
Major terrain: The towpath. Camped along the towpath.
December 3Major adventure: Stopped by an old lock to air out my gear and have lunch. A ranger drove by (only authorized vehicles allowed on the unpaved path) and asked what I was doing. I explained, and he started to lecture me about not camping next to the locks. I interrupted and clarified that I was just airing out my gear. He said, "Cool beans!" and asked about my hike. The cold and solitude had made it hard for me to communicate clearly, I guess.
Major terrain: The towpath. Camped along the towpath.
December 4Major terrain: The towpath. Camped along the towpath.
Major adventure: Walked through Paw Paw tunnel, about 3/4 mile long. Blasting this tunnel took forever and was a big reason that the canal wasn't finished until after canals were obsolete. Met three cyclists on their yearly overnight biking/camping trip. They would be the only "long distance" travelers I'd see my entire hike. (They were biking about 30 or 40 miles.)
December 5Major adventure: Finally got off the towpath, crossing the Potomac back into WV at Green Springs. Ended up camping in a wooded lot in a settled area of Ridgeley. I brought a tent for this trip, not my usual tarp. The tent is 3 feet high and reflective yellow. Not a good tent for trespassing.
Major terrain: West Virginia's county roads.
December 6Major adventure: I didn't have any proper maps for this hike, just a list of county road junctions, listed by #. (It's surprisingly hard to get a map that has the county roads on it.) The roads are not always marked by #, either. All my aches and pains were forgotten as I dealt with this navigational challenge.
Major terrain: West Virginia's county roads.
At the end of the day I found myself at a limestone quarry atop Greenland Gap. I went into a little general store nearby, and asked the owner if he could suggest a place to camp, or someone who might let me camp in their yard. He looked at me like I was from Mars. I camped near the quarry.
December 7Major terrain: Dolly Sods, an extensive High Plateau.
Major adventure: Mid-morning I stopped at another general store, where the owner said it would get down to 0-degrees that night! This town was at about 2000-feet, and I would be camping that night on Dolly Sods near 4000-feet, so I was really worried.
When I got up to Dolly Sods I finally left the road and started following a trail, completely obscured by snow in parts. The trail wasn't marked. There were some marked junctions on this trail, but they didn't correspond to the junctions on my map (I had a map of this section), so I began to worry seriously that I was lost.
I camped off the trail that night, worried that I might freeze to death.
Major adventure: Of course, I didn't freeze to death. In one nearby town it got down to 15 degrees, cold but not 0 degrees cold. I made it off Dolly Sods and stopped by a ski resort along my route for a couple hours to melt the ice off my gear. At dusk, I found myself on an unmaintained Forest Service road, trying to connect to a hiking trail. Never found the trail--it is unmarked, and was hidden by the snow. Camped off the road. A few inches of snowfall that night.
Major terrain: Forest Service roads.
December 9Major adventure: Walked into the post office in Parsons, WV. One of the clerks looked up from the customer he was helping and boomed: "There he is! What is it, Vinatieri?" I had mailed myself a big box of food c/o General Delivery, and several of you saintly people had sent me letters, so they were expecting a hiker. Major terrain: Highways. Camped in the National Forest.
December 10Major terrain: Icy county roads.
Major adventure: Finished the day in a lightly-populated area with no obvious campsites. Camped behind a graveyard.
December 11Major terrain: Icy county roads and highways. Banged up knee slipping on a parking lot in Philippi.
Major adventure: Another day of navigating un-signed roads. Camped at Tygart Lake State Park well after sundown.
December 12Major terrain: Roads.
Major adventure: Due to a change in my route, I ended up in the city of Bridgeport near sundown. This was a problem--the night would be cold enough that I'd need to camp before sundown, but where can you camp in a city?
I stopped by a Catholic church. The priest was on his way to an appointment, but took a moment to speak with me. He said he used to refer homeless people to a motel in town, but there were so many problems that the motel no longer accepts his referrals. He said the closest homeless services were in the next city on my route, Clarksburg.
There's a trailer park in downtown Bridgeport. I stopped by to see about renting a 10x10 square of ground for the night, but the manager wasn't there.
I started walking out of town, figuring I'd hit a semi-rural area a couple hours after sundown. I passed the city building and stopped there, and they said I should walk back into town and talk to the people at the Visitor's Center.
I did this, and Gabe Feist of the Visitor's Center was very hospitable. He called in the director of the Parks Department, and they outlined the various places in town that I could camp. (Bridgeport sees a handful of American Discovery Trail travellers each year, and would like to see many more.)
I chose to camp behind the Civic Center, and the Parks guy called the cops so they wouldn't hassle me.
December 13Major terrain: County roads and bike paths.
Major adventure: The turn-by-turn directions I used (I had no good map) tended to ignore less-than-utopian situations. For example, in the best of all possible worlds, the Harrison County Rail Trail would connect to the North Bend Rail Trail at Clarksburg. In reality, this connection is prevented by some private factories and some active rail lines. But my directions gloss over all this, and assume that the traveller will figure something out. My route included a short section of active railroad bridge, which I exited shortly before an oncoming train loomed into view. (Did I ever tell you about crossing under a stopped train on the Appalachian Trail near Erwin, TN, which started to move while I was under it? Remind me to tell you that one.)
And the North Bend Rail Trail doesn't even extend to Clarksburg, though there is some ungroomed railroad grade that does.
Finally got onto the NBRT. When I got to the town of Salem, I walked ten yards down a side road to scope out the town, and a guy came out of his house to greet me. He's a climber, and we talked a bit about outdoors stuff before I asked if I could camp in his yard. He said, "Of course." He was trying to fix his plumbing before his girlfriend got home late that night, and I was dead tired, so we didn't talk much more.
December 14Major terrain: North Bend Rail Trail. A rail trail is where there used to be a railroad, then they removed the tracks so it can be used by cyclists. Railroads are built on the gentlest grade possible, so rail trails are both easy and tedious to hike. Some of the towns on the NBRT still have the original train station buildings set up as little museums and such. In good weather the trail gets a lot of use, but not in December.
Major adventure: None. Just a mellow, long day on the trail. Camped beside the trail in North Bend State Park.
December 15Major terrain: Most of the day was on the rail trail. My dad drove out to say hello and relieve me of my extra food. (I was carrying enough for several more days of hiking.)
In the afternoon the NBRT ended at Parkersburg WV and I switched to the highway. I walked through Parkersburg (where I went to high school) and across the Ohio River to Belpre, OH.
As I walked across the bridge at night, a coal barge emerged from beneath my feet, silent, large as an island, large as some of the small towns I'd visited.
It was the most "Blade Runner" moment of my life.
From there I walked back into WV and north to Vienna, where my parents live. Part of the goal of this hike was to see Greater Parkersburg with fresh eyes. My conclusion: "This is a nightmarish area."
My feet were pretty sore slogging through Vienna. This was the sort of long day I did only because I knew I could collapse at the end. My dad thinks it was 50 miles, but I think it was in the low 40s.