I’ll never forget the first time I caught a sunset from atop Snowshoe Mountain Resort in the heart of West Virginia’s highlands. My friends and I rented out a three-bedroom condominium situated just below the main road that runs along the ridge of the 4,848-foot-tall portion of Cheat Mountain. Our headcount exceeded the bed count by one, and with a clear forecast and cool evening temps on tap for the weekend, I volunteered to take the air mattress. I promptly placed it on the covered deck with plans to fall asleep under a vibrant Milky Way. Our first evening brought with it a staggeringly beautiful golden hour—the time leading up to sunset when the sun sits close to the horizon line, illuminating the sky with an almost artificially saturated lightshow of orange and pink hues. I was completely ensnared by its beauty and lost track of how much time I stood motionless and staring.
Growing up in the foothills of the Appalachians in western Maryland, I always looked to West Virginia as the pinnacle of beauty throughout the East Coast, a place where the mountains seemed to pile up on each other like sardines in a can, as if they’re all clamoring for the front row of some ancient concert that only they can hear. It’s an affinity I’ve carried with me since childhood, matched by an equally strong sense of concern over the well-being of the forests and landscapes within the nation’s 10th smallest state.
You don’t have to look hard for signs of industries that have left their scars on both the landscape and the people who call it home. Extractive industries reigned supreme for much of the 160 years since West Virginia was admitted to the Union, and for years those raw materials, among others, were as good as gold here. But standing there for God knows how long during my first Cheat Mountain golden hour, a new kind of gold was staring right back at me, and the hills of West Virginia were awash with it.
“Golden hour” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s typically something that lasts for two to three hours depending on a number of conditions, including time of year, location, weather, and morning versus evening. I suppose it rolls off of the tongue a bit easier than “golden hour-and-a-half to three hours” does. There is certainly something about the radiance of a morning sunrise or the all-consuming wash of warm light accompanying a sunset that stirs our souls as human beings.
New research suggests that sunrises and sunsets evoke the hard-to-reach emotion of awe in decidedly profound ways, and that awe itself can improve mood and increase positive emotions. I would say that I’m especially attuned to this particular phenomenon given my career choice as a professional mountain biker and photographer. As one might imagine, golden hour in a place like West Virginia, with its bevy of world-class trails and stunning landscapes, has a particularly strong pull on folks like me.
Riding during golden hour can bring a host of added sensory stimulations to the experience. While my job grants me the unimaginably fortunate opportunity to explore trails around the world, some of my very favorite trails are right here in West Virginia. Very few locales can compete with this place when it comes to the depth and beauty of these forests. There’s an ethereal glow throughout the forest during golden hour, and our deep and dense forests act as a force multiplier for becoming awe-struck.
Every inch of the Mountain State lies within the Appalachian Mountain range, the only such state to make that claim of the 18 that make up the U.S. portion of the range. There’s a ruggedness here, both in terms of the landscape as well as the lifestyle, with stacks of high ridges separated by narrow valleys and deep gorges that have historically led to much of the state’s sense of isolation from the rest of the nation, despite other regions being highly dependent upon the state’s resources.
But the sun is setting on extractive practices in West Virginia and around the globe, and the need for a new source of commerce is becoming more evident by the day. As things grow dark for one industry, new light is beginning to shine on another. Counties and communities throughout the state have been embracing the mountain biking boom via construction of purpose-built trail systems and the amenities that help support them. From privately owned land and volunteer-built trails like the Meeks Mountain trails in Hurricane and county-supported trail systems like the Wolf Creek trails in Fayette County to collaborative regional efforts like Heart of the Highlands and the Snowshoe Highlands Ride Center, the transition to a bike-fueled economy is well underway.
As a professional photographer, shooting on the trail during midday hours can be a painful proposition. While our naked eyes rapidly assess and relay information to our brains that allow us to navigate highlights, bright spots, and shadows without much trouble, camera sensors are far less sophisticated. Taking photos that accurately capture light midday requires a whole suite of setting adjustments and even filters to reduce how harsh the light in an image appears when the sun is high in the sky. Whether you’re underneath a forest canopy or in a wide-open space, rarely do midday photos feel worth the effort. The colors are bleached, the highlights are harsh, and the scene is generally less than awe inspiring. For most of us, those early morning or late afternoon hours tend to yield the best harvest. Capturing self-portraits of my riding in action has been a key component throughout my career, and these images were made possible via a shutter release camera system that shoots thirty photos per second. Although the files are massive, the results are well worth the effort—especially when coupled with that perfect golden hour light. Photo by Brice Shirbach
Because West Virginia is fully enveloped by the hills and hollows of the Appalachians, it is poised to support these burgeoning trail-town economies more so than any other state in the region. With seemingly endless terrain perfectly suited for exploration aboard two wheels, West Virginia’s economic future as a global mountain bike destination is as bright as gold in the sunlight.
The gnarled and knobby mountains of West Virginia are among the oldest on the planet, and while their heights are just a fraction of what they once were, the depth to the valleys seem to grow ever deeper with time. It’s a place where even the midday sun, try as it might, struggles to mask the beauty and expanse of the ancient and rolling landscape. Golden hour here simply hits different. It’s a colorful uprising that takes over the mountains and valleys alike—a radiant, full spectrum splendor casting a beguiling and golden glow over everything within its sphere.
It hasn’t been lost on me just how precious this place is, and how precipitous the relationship is between the land and those who call it home. I know just how lucky I am to make a living riding bikes and telling stories, and frequent stops in West Virginia only serve to cement that realization. The opportunities I’ve had to experience this place and these trails are often due in part to a growing realization throughout the state that as dusk closes in on the old way of life here, a new day is dawning on another.
Brice Shirbach is a husband and proud father of three rad kids, all of whom adore West Virginia. He’s a professional mountain biker and storyteller who is ever thankful for the opportunity to share his adventures aboard two wheels.