The Allegheny Trail (ALT) is a 300+ mile footpath that runs north to south from the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border to the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. The trail features paved and unpaved roads, forest roads and rail grades, and luscious single and doubletrack.
Since the 1980s, the ALT has been in a state of disrepair and it’s still not complete. But the West Virginia Scenic Trails Association (WVSTA), a group that formed 40 years ago to build and maintain the ALT, is pushing to complete the project’s final miles.
The trail kicks off on the Pennsylvania border near Bruceton Mills. The first 90 miles follows county highways and back roads. According to through-hiker Emily Huguenin, who hiked the trail in September 2017 with her husband Tim, the entirety of the trail is lined with wild apple trees. “The very tastiest apples were around the Don Knotts Family Cemetery on Close Mountain,” she said.
After passing through Thomas and Davis, the trail enters Blackwater Falls and Canaan Valley state parks, then descends to the Glady Fork of the Cheat River at Gladwin. The ALT follows the sparkling Glady Fork to the eponymous town of Glady before reaching its headwaters. Along this isolated stretch the route manages to avoid all the wilderness areas that flank it, making the trail an exclusive destination for ALT hikers.
The ALT connects treasures through Randolph County as it traverses Shavers Mountain, crosses virgin forest on Gaudineer Knob, and drops into Durbin, Green Bank, and Cass, continuing along the Greenbrier River Trail for a few miles before entering Seneca State Forest. The ALT passes a Civil War cemetery before reaching Huntersville, a great spot to rest and resupply.
Leon Dubansky completed the ALT in spring of 2019 as his first long-distance hike. The section south of Cass was his favorite. He recalls walking along doubletrack surrounded by moss and old hardwood trees. “We were just going up and down along this rolling ridge for about 50 miles, it was really a beautiful section,” he said.
After passing through Watoga State Park, the ALT reaches the town of Neola, which has a post office, grocery store, and, according to the WVSTA guidebook, “sometimes a restaurant.” The final section contains both stunning scenery and ‘the gap.’ The trail passes under the Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory on Peters Mountain in Monroe County where volunteers count migrating raptors in autumn. It’s worth stopping and chatting up WVSTA president Brian Hirt, who can often be found tallying eagles.
Hirt has been involved with the WVSTA and ALT for over 20 years. He gets various complaints about the rugged nature of the trail and, although he understands why, he doesn’t empathize much. “One of the really great things about the ALT is that it’s not at all like the AT where it’s dug right down into the dirt,” Hirt said. “You have to keep your eyes open, watch for blazes, look for turns. It’s more of a wilderness hike like you might find out west.”
At its southern terminus, the ALT finishes along the well-worn tread of the Long Green Tunnel where it intersects the Appalachian Trail.
Currently, a 20- to 30-mile section of the ALT remains stubbornly unfinished despite perennial efforts from the WVSTA. The incomplete mileage is almost entirely in the Washington and Jefferson national forests and just over the state line in Virginia.
Doug Wood, who carved the original trail through the rugged Allegheny Mountains, is hopeful the trail will be completed soon. “We can build a constituency [of trail supporters] to pressure the landholding entities to let us fill in the gap,” he said.
Although the WVSTA had a route in mind for years, they re-walked it in January to create a GPS track to submit to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). They have permission from landowners and written support from local governments. Now, the WVSTA just needs permission and environmental approval from the USFS.
That approval comes in the form of expensive environmental assessments. There’s hope that recent environmental studies to related road damage from the 2016 floods will encompass areas of the gap that the ALT would cross, allowing the WVSTA to piggyback off the road rebuild. This opportunity combined with a shift in the political winds at the USFS could create a fortuitous situation. “We want to push pretty hard right now,” Wood said. “It’s right there. Anyone can hike it; we just can’t call it a trail.”
Keeping Up Appearances
Long-distance trails like the ALT can serve as points of pride for our state and create economic windfalls for the towns through which they pass. Laura Hirt, a lawyer who lives in Marlinton, hiked over half the trail earlier this year and has been a dedicated volunteer since. “A normal working person can make a goal of hiking the whole trail in an ordinary vacation,” she said.
Like many projects in West Virginia, a small group of volunteers maintains the ALT. “There’s been some attitude in the past that the trail was poorly maintained so we’ve tried to work really hard on maintaining it,” Laura said.
WVSTA made a push to re-blaze the trail last year, and as that project nears completion, it’s turning its focus downward. “For a long time, it was just trying to keep it opened up but now we’re going to try to actually improve it, to do a lot more tread work” said Wetzel County local Jeff Byard.
“The more people we get to use [the ALT], the more beaten down it is, the easier it is to follow,” Laura said. “It may take two years, or it may take another twenty, but I feel very strongly this trail is going to get done.”
Visit the WVSTA to join, support the push for completion, get info on trail workdays and other community events, or order the newest edition of the ALT hiking guidebook.
Katie Wolpert works for Experience Learning on Spruce Knob. She’s an accomplished long-distance runner and long-time ALT user.