Touring Southern West Virginia

Text: Peter Jones • Photography: Peter Jones, Doug Shaw

The history of West Virginia, the only state established as a result of the Civil War, is defined by its location and geology. Allegedly split in personality, it has simultaneously been called the most southern Northern state, the most northern Southern state, and the most eastern Midwestern state. Seceding from Virginia during the Great Rebellion, grounded in Appalachian ways, and covered end to end with treed, tumbling hills, maybe West Virginia does remind one a bit of all those other regions. But for many others, riders particularly, it stands alone beyond compare.

My friend Doug and I start and end our big-loop tour of West Virginia outside the city of Princeton, located just off Interstate 77 at the central, very southern tip of this Northern, Southern, Midwestern state. Each of us have lived in various places around the country and we now live a block apart in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, so mountain motorcycling is the norm for us. Doug is on his Honda VFR and I'm on a 2007 Harley-Davidson Night Rod.

Heading northeast on Route 20 from Princeton, we find ourselves immediately snaking along twisting ridges and winding gullies. The road soon drops down into a forest that then opens up to reveal Bluestone Lake on our right, created by the Bluestone Dam on the New River, the oldest river in North America.

Bluestone is a damn big lake created by a damn big dam. At the foot of the 165-foot-tall and 2,048-foot-wide wall of cement that holds back the third largest body of water in West Virginia is the village of Bellepoint. Maybe it's just me but, although I have no problem with stopping there for lunch, I could never spend a night sleeping in that town. Closing my eyes for the night with a lake towering above my head spooks me out; the slightest snore from travel-buddy Doug would have me out the window and on my bike in a race for high ground, pajamas flapping in the wind.

Turning right we cross the old New River in Bellepoint on Route 3, then hang it right again, south on Route 12 and back down towards the Virginia border. This route winds through narrow gulches and over ridge crests, where we can see before us the long up-lifted igneous wall of the western Appalachian Mountains of Virginia.

Mountains or Hills?

Though travelers' concepts of West Virginia's terrain often posit the state in that mountain range flowing from Alabama to New England, it's not. The Appalachians are igneous rock uplifted by the Atlantic Plate driving into the North American Continent, while most of West Virginia's morphology is one of deeply eroded sedimentary rock. The Appalachians are hard, West Virginia is soft. And if you visit Google maps for a satellite view, you'll see that the state is jumbled in every direction, in contrast to the ordered ridges and valleys of the Apps, with the minor exception of the state's panhandle where, of course, West Virginia's highest peak sits.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the January/February 2008 back issue.