We round a hairpin turn atop a large boulder after a snaking, steep hill climb. I grab my brakes and plant my left foot, gulping as I look over the edge of the 15-foot-tall monolith standing alone like a sentry in the thick forest. To the right, a 10-foot sheer drop leads to a sloped mound of dirt. To the left, the ledgey lip of the boulder leads to a 45-degree wooden ramp. The ramp, about three feet wide, is big enough to safely ride down, but I still shudder at the thought of accidently riding off the edge and plummeting 10 feet to the forest floor below. I walk my bike back a few feet, plant my feet on the pedals, and point her straight. I choose a clean line off the lip of the boulder, let off the brakes, and, before I know it, I’m down the ramp and flying along the loamy forest floor. My fellow compadres hoot and holler, and the next rider lines up to zoom down the ramp.
We’re mountain biking at Wolf Creek Park, the newest addition to the burgeoning mountain bike scene in Fayetteville. While the redesignation of the New River Gorge (NRG) as the country’s newest national park has made waves in national media, the story of the Wolf Creek Trails has been the buzz around town.
But the trail system’s instant success is more than yet another feather in Fayetteville’s blossoming outdoor recreation cap. It’s a paragon of the transformative power of the outdoor recreation economy, something I hope continues to flex its monetary muscle throughout West Virginia’s hills and hollows.
As the euphoric rush of endorphins and adrenaline carries me over feature after feature, I think about what these trails mean for Fayetteville and for the state. It feels like we’re entering the golden age of mountain biking in West Virginia, and I’m grateful to be here witnessing it.
By the time we finish our ride, I can barely pedal the final short hill to the trailhead. After hours of flying through flowy ribbons of manicured dirt, trudging through rock gardens, sessioning scary rock drops, and trying to balance our way across skinny log bridges, we’ve only covered about half of Wolf Creek’s 17 completed miles. I’m drenched in sweat, my calves are cramping, and I’m already scheming our next trip.
For local residents, many of whom helped build the trails, Wolf Creek offers endless features and fun trails to continue enjoying for decades to come. There are technical rock gardens, flowy downhill sections, and lines traversing exposed rock slabs. “Wolf Creek has a little bit of everything,” says Andy Forron, owner of New River Bikes in Fayetteville. “There’s even a jump line. It’s got some bike park elements smack in the middle of the woods, which is just awesome.”
One of the most iconic features is a series of downed trees on the Corona trail that were sawn to serve as narrow bridges, known in the mountain bike world as skinnies. Forron says that building actual bridges would have exhausted most of the project’s budget, so the crew got creative and utilized the fallen trees as logs to create the skinnies over a low-lying, swampy section. After making my way across each successively harder skinny, I can parrot the claim that they’re far more fun to ride than a standard bridge—if you can make it all the way across.
“Corona is really the showcase trail that we spent the most time on, it’s got the downhills and the skinnies, and has the most features to offer for all types of riders,” says Sam Chaber, a Fayetteville-based trailbuilder who was hired to build the Wolf Creek Trails. But Moonshine Hollow is his favorite trail to ride. “It’s just a classic, old-school, Appalachian tech trail. I’m proud of those rock gardens we built.”
Forron’s favorite trail is also Moonshine Hollow, a technical masterpiece that pays homage to the rugged trails of places like Davis and Canaan Valley. “It’s three miles of one chunky rock move after another with very few breaks,” Forron says.
Fortunately for novice riders, the most challenging moves are alternate lines to the main trails, so people aren’t forced to ride them. “As you get better, you can start attempting harder stuff,” Forron says. “The progression element is really great.”
Craig Reger, owner of Range Finder Coffee in downtown Fayetteville, had been turned off from mountain biking for years until the Wolf Creek Trails got him back on two wheels. “Within the course of a few months, my riding went from novice to beyond what I thought I’d ever ride because of the progressive nature of the trail system,” Reger says. “I’d go on group rides and throw caution to the wind, hitting drops and jumps and blasting through rock gardens. There’s nothing like cruising with your homies and having a bike party.”
A Community Effort
Located just south of downtown Fayetteville, Wolf Creek Park is a 1,046-acre former mining site that was purchased by the Fayette County Urban Renewal Authority (FCURA) in 2004. It’s billed as a mixed-use development, blurring residential, commercial, and recreational use within its bounds.
Fayette County envisioned Wolf Creek Park being a ‘live, learn, work, play’ community, which is a modern urban model of an inclusive community where folks can do all those things without having to travel outside the confines of the parcel. A few businesses, such as local craft brewery Bridge Brew Works and some governmental offices, reside in Wolf Creek along with a handful of residences. The park also features the Birding & Nature Center, an outdoor classroom that plays host to the well-attended New River Birding & Nature Festival.
According to Fayette County Assistant Resource Coordinator Abbie Newell, the park’s outdoor recreation component had stalled out due to various holdups. “Initially, the development was going in a few different directions,” says Newell, who’s also president of the Fayette Trail Coalition. “We went to a lot of county meetings and advocated for singletrack and multi-use trails.” After three years of community effort and the completion of the first phase of trail construction, Wolf Creek Park is finally living up to its promise.
In 2017, a group of locals, including Chaber and Forron, started bushwhacking around the property to see where the twisting ribbons of singletrack could go, marking out potential routes. The first few years of trail development, mostly involving route flagging and brush cutting, were completed solely by dedicated volunteers. Newell and Forron, who are married, worked many volunteer days together. “I feel ownership, and I feel like I helped build this awesome asset,” Newell says. “It’s really cool to ride past a feature and know you helped make it.”
In 2020, the FCURA secured funding and contracted SC Resources, a trailbuilding company owned by Chaber, to build off the volunteer momentum and finalize 17 miles of trail. Chaber started by talking to the community and seeing how they could elevate Wolf Creek to be a step up from the Arrowhead Trails, a 14-mile, beginner-friendly trail system in the New River Gorge National Park. “We wanted to build something unique to have two different zones and two different riding experiences,” Chaber says.
Chaber and his two-man crew started work in March of 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic was shutting the country down. Volunteers remained critical throughout last year’s building blitz, and the project provided them an opportunity to safely cut brush and build trails when everything else was closed. “There’s a huge sense of pride in it because we had 30 or 40 folks show up on every monthly trail day,” says Chaber. “It was a grand old time.”
Forron, who’s been building trails since his youth, still has a soft spot for cutting brush. “You’re looking forward, and it’s all brush and trees and saplings. Then you turn around and see this corridor cut out through the understory where the trail is going to be, there’s just something about seeing it open up that I still love.”
But trailbuilding is far more complex than simply clearing a path through the woods. Professional trailbuilders like Chaber scour topographical maps and images generated by light detection and ranging (LiDAR) to get a general idea of the terrain and how they can use it to create engaging trails. Next, the crew goes out and walks the terrain, searching for features like rocks, downed trees, creeks, and natural undulations that will make for interesting and fun riding. “That’s why we built things the way we did, to make it a bit harder and improve everyone’s abilities,” Chaber says.
Although Chaber’s only been mountain biking for a few years, his trails feel and ride like those of someone who’s been flying through the woods on two wheels for far longer. “Everyone is kind of shocked when I tell them that,” he says. “But even if you’re not a mountain biker, you can still know what people want. I was never a good artist per se, but I like to think of trail building as my kind of art.”
Because the system was constructed on land owned by the county, Chaber’s team and the loyal volunteers didn’t have to go through the red tape involved with building trails on federal public lands. Chaber recalls the freedom of using a blank landscape to create something that he knew people would enjoy. “We’d be out working and could hear riders coming down some of the hills, whooping and hollering through the woods,” he says.
The team astonishingly built 17 miles of trail in six months, making it the NRG region’s largest bike-specific trail system. “Wolf Creek more than doubled the amount of bike-specific trails in the area,” says Forron. “It’s also been a great showpiece for volunteer work and community involvement.”
With an additional 10 miles planned for phase two of trail development, Wolf Creek is bound to become a destination among the likes of Big Bear Lake Trail Center in Preston County, Canaan Valley in Tucker County, and the Snowshoe Ride Center in Pocahontas County, further cementing West Virginia’s status as a mountain biking mecca.
Path to Prosperity
Historically, economic development—especially in Appalachia—has been limited to extractive industry, manufacturing, and brick-and-mortar businesses like shops and restaurants. But the trail-town movement seeks to upend that model, showing that a place can, in fact, turn a trail into a dollar.
“We’re definitely seeing an increase in visitors. Whenever there’s a new trail system, people want to go check it out,” Forron says, adding that one of Wolf Creek’s several trail counters averages around 350 unique users per month. When a community invests money in a purpose-built trail system, riders will travel to use it. As it turns out, those riders have money and will spend it on their trips.
Newell says that doubling the amount of mountain bike trails in Fayetteville in a single year has provided a “huge influx of money” to Fayette County. While she says it’s hard to quantify just how much, she points to the constant presence of cars, mostly from out-of-state, at the trailheads and how many folks stop into Fayetteville’s various shops to get info about the trails. “I have a lot of customers coming through Range Finder that tell me how they’re here for mountain biking because they keep hearing about Wolf Creek trails,” says Reger, who typically serves up espresso to visiting rock climbers.
Newell also pointed me to a 2019 West Virginia University study on the economic impacts of mountain biking in West Virginia, which found that, on average, non-local riders spend nearly $400 on a weekend visit, and about $143 for a day trip. “If you multiply that by even just a portion of the 1.8 million visitors that the national park is estimated to receive this year, it’s a huge impact,” Newell says. “Now that we have been gifted national park status, it’s even more critical that we become a little more diversified in our offerings because the 20 per cent increase in visitation is happening.”
Adam Stephens, operations manager of Arrowhead Bike Farm (ABF), says the Wolf Creek Trails have undoubtedly been a boon for local business. Located adjacent to the Arrowhead Trails and just two miles from Wolf Creek Park, ABF is a bike shop that also features a campground and a beer garden. “We couldn’t be more stoked to have Wolf Creek as another asset to our community, it completes our recreation portfolio and we’ll retain long-term benefits from the trail system,” Stephens says. “I’m most excited about people seeing that it’s worth driving five hours to come and ride here.”
It’s not just visiting riders who are pumping up the local economy. When trail construction began, Reger bought a bike from Forron at New River Bikes, eager to test out the new miles. “All of a sudden, you have this community effort to pump up businesses,” Reger says. “We’re all getting our bikes fixed; we’re all going to Bridge Brew for a beer and some food afterwards. You’re supporting local businesses, drinking really great beer, perusing the shops in town, getting some coffee and all that jazz.”
In a county that is no stranger to the boom-and-bust cycle of extractive industry, those who are tirelessly working to further the transition to the post-coal economy are thrilled to see the fruits of their labor benefiting the region. “It’s a win for the community and the state as well,” Chaber says. “In West Virginia, we’ve already extracted all our resources, and that money always leaves the state. It’s nice when a trail build like this happens because all the money that comes in is staying in-state and recirculating here.”
Trail Map for the Future
Newell hinted that they’re planning to develop three other parcels in Fayette County that, if the funds materialize, could add an additional 50 miles of trails. “The explosion of people getting into mountain biking from the Arrowhead Trails was amazing, but it didn’t make us a multi-day destination,” she says. “If the community can get all this done, we’re poised to be a huge destination for mountain biking.”
The Wolf Creek Trails can serve as a blueprint for other communities looking to invest in trails as conversations about recreation infrastructure ramp up around the state. “This says that the powers that be see the importance of trail infrastructure and the things that can happen when you make cycling more accessible,” Stephens says. “It’s positively affected people’s perception of government investing in trails, not just for quality of life, but also for the economic benefits that help us develop our tourism economy.”
After riding there, I can’t help but feel that projects like this should be a no-brainer for local governments and planning groups sitting on swaths of undeveloped land. I live in Canaan Valley, where a robust trail system brings in mountain bikers every weekend, benefitting area businesses and providing a crucial boost to the local recreation economy. Considering that West Virginia is the most mountainous state in the country, this is a model that could potentially be implemented in counties from the Ohio River to the Potomac. “Wolf Creek offers a glimmer of insight into what can be done with more investment,” Newell says. “Mountain biking can be a huge economic driver if we, as a state, can get our act together. There’s so much potential.”
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors and an avid mountain biker. He encourages you to get involved with local trail coalitions to advocate for more trails and a better future for West Virginia. Viva la Appalachia!