Reignite your adventurous spark, like I did, on the Hatfield-McCoy Trails in Mercer County, WV
By Ryan Vance
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to drive. Whether it was the battery-powered toy truck I drove around our gravel driveway as a toddler, or the gas-powered go-kart I received for my 10th birthday, there was nothing I enjoyed more than mashing the pedal to the floor and feeling wind blast my face. But once I had my license, driving became a chore. It lost its fun. Or at least, that’s what I thought.
Leaving the road behind
A few months back, my wife, Christine, and I were looking for an adventure. We usually spend our time outdoors hiking or kayaking, but we wanted to try something we’d never done before. We decided to head to Mercer County and ride the Hatfield-McCoy Trails.
Opened in the early 2000s, this 560-mile network of off-road trails draws visitors from all over the world to southern West Virginia. Mercer County is home to the Pocahontas Trail System which, when connected with nearby Indian Ridge and Pinnacle Creek trail systems, makes up the largest continuous areas of the Hatfield-McCoy Trails.
We took our two-seater UTV (also called a “side-by-side”, unlike an ATV, which is usually meant for just one rider) with knobby tires and a short truck bed where we deposited our small cooler filled with water and snacks. We took our map of the Pocahontas trail system and sketched out a beginner’s route that would put us in Bramwell in time for lunch. People suggested we check out a haunted park, if we dared, on our way home after our off-road adventure. We put on our helmets and we were on our way.
But before long, we found the trailhead and started into the mountains, leaving my worries behind in a sizeable cloud of dust.
The trails were well-marked and color-coded. According to our map, green and blue were the easiest, so we stuck to those. Even the beginner-level trails were packed with sharp turns, big mud puddles and piles of rocks. Some led us into valleys, which were shady and jungle-like, fragrant with wet, earthy smells. Other trails had us rounding switchbacks, until we finally topped out on top of a ridge where the forest stretched out before us.
All the way to Bramwell we successfully jumped potholes, bounced over rocks and splashed through mud holes, all to the steady rumble of the UTV’s engine. We were having a blast! I don’t remember the last time I smiled just from the thrill of being behind the wheel.
About halfway through the morning, we switched off and Christine took the wheel. I had been trying to avoid hitting mud puddles too fast, to keep from splashing her, but she didn’t seem to share the same worry about my appearance. The mud and dust were beginning to cake my skin and clothes, but the dirtier we got, the wider we smiled.
A perfect pit stop
By midday, we’d worked our way down to Bramwell. Turning off the dirt trail onto a paved road, Christine pointed our UTV toward downtown and parked in a gravel lot reserved for off-road vehicles. We exchanged pleasantries with fellow, equally grimy trail riders and walked down Main Street in search of lunch.
We passed beneath colored awnings, past the post office and antique shop, until we came to an old fashioned-looking building on the corner, appropriately named The Corner Shop. Stepping inside, we were greeted with ceiling fans and dark woodwork. The young men behind the marble counter wore soda jerk hats and aprons. True to its corner-drugstore past, comic books, toys, candy and even some over-the-counter necessities were for sale. But the real attraction was the menu full of burgers and sandwiches, the homemade ice cream confections and, of course, the specialty sodas.
Once seated at a glass top table, Christine and I ordered root beers mixed with butterscotch on the recommendation of one of the “jerks.” It was one of the tastiest soft drinks I’ve ever had. For lunch, I got their patty melt and Christine got The Duke burger, topped with onion, coleslaw and a helping of West Virginia-style, all-meat-no-beans chili that would have definitely made John Wayne proud.
While we barely had room, we could not pass up an opportunity to try The Corner Shop’s homemade ice cream, which earned the establishment a nod from Zagat. We split a heaping scoop of Christine’s favorite, pineapple. My only regret was not being able to eat more.
We walked back down the sidewalk to our side-by-side, and spent the rest of the afternoon dodging, bouncing and splashing our way back to the rental agency. We arrived back in the parking lot much dirtier, and giddier, than we’d left. “Did you have fun?” one of the employees asked. I think they knew the answer just from looking at our faces.
It was strange to drive on smooth roads again, but there was one additional site I wanted to check out before leaving Mercer County—the haunted park we heard about when we rented our UTV. A 30-minute drive had us at Lake Shawnee in Spanishburg, a community that’s home to one of the state’s spookiest sites.
Lake Shawnee Amusement Park isn’t the place to go if you’re looking for midway games and roller coasters. The place has been closed since the 1960s after some deadly accidents. Currently owned by Chris White, his father, Gaylord, planned to reopen it in the mid-80s but changed his plans after experiencing some spooky energy on the property. Chris now only opens it for paranormal tours and events.
Peering through the chain link fence, I could see an old rusty school bus, swing set and a derelict Ferris wheel looming over it all. I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, but even in the daylight, Lake Shawnee definitely looked like it harbored unsettled spirits. Christine and I agreed we needed to book a haunted tour or come back for one of their spooky events to see the place in all its gory glory.
Back in the car, grimy and tired, I nosed the car north on Interstate 77. The ride was smooth. No puddles to splash, no branches or rocks to dodge. While the ride home wasn’t filled with as many challenges as the Hatfield-McCoy Trails, I realized driving could still be fun. I just needed to leave the pavement behind. I also realized I was still smiling, but now the windshield protected me from the dust.
Discover Mercer County’s all-terrain adventures for all seasons.