The best riding of the year

Oct 21, 2014

There's a pattern in the Tweets, Instagram photos, e-mails and other riding-related bits of virtual sharing that float into my online sphere of awareness these days. I see repeated mentions of the West Virgina and Virgina borderlands.

The explanation is simple. I know some smart and experienced riders who know where to go to find a good time. And for these few fleeting moments of beauty each October, there is perhaps no better road riding to be had.

fall colors
I love the colors of fall: the oranges of the maples, the reds of the Daytona... Photo by Lance Oliver.

It's often been said that fall is the shortest of seasons. Each year, we may only get a few days where all of the elements align: sunny days with pleasant temperatures to make wearing all the gear feel right, the peak of the foliage colors provides a stunning backdrop, and the knowledge of impending winter provides the kick in the seat to get me out and going. And while the days keep moving the sweet spot southward, if the timing is right and the opportunity arises, I know where I want to go: those mountain ridges along the Virginia and West Virginia border.

view from U.S. 250
A valley view from U.S. 250, one of the most fun roads on the Virginia-West Virginia border. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Is there any better riding anywhere east of the Mississippi in the United States? Arguments can be made for Arkansas, northern Georgia, or the famous areas around the North Carolina and Tennessee border. One of the things I love about eastern West Virginia is that its fame among motorcyclists is dispersed, not concentrated around one road. So I don't encounter hordes of riders all seeking an "I slayed..." T-shirt, all wanting to ride at different speeds, all vying for space with everything from sports cars to law enforcement. Nowhere on my West Virginia map does it say, "Here there be dragons," and I'm fine with that.

Cass Scenic Railway
The Cass Scenic Railroad hauls leaf-peepers through the West Virginia mountains every fall. I prefer to do my sightseeing on two wheels. Photo by Lance Oliver.

This section of the Appalachians gives me the full array of curves to sample, generally light traffic, mostly smooth roads, and little notoriety to attract trouble. Which is not to say nothing can go wrong. But instead of someone lowsiding in front of a photographer, the hazards tend to be wildlife crossing my path. Suicidal squirrels and chipmunks are most common, but I've also seen black bear cubs, foxes and coyotes cross my path, and I once braked for a helmet-high red-tailed hawk that was using the roadway as a channel for some low-level reconnaissance through the woods.

deer
The two things that can mess up your fall ride: deer and unexpected inclement weather in the mountains. Photo by Lance Oliver.

In fact, one of the changes I've seen in my lifetime, as a West Virginia native, is the increase in wildlife. We tend to expect ever-increasing human population and encroachment, but in these parts of the Appalachians, the population has been level or even declining, marginal farmland has reverted to wilderness, and species such as the black bear again roam where they once were nearly gone.

curves
In pursuit of curvy roads. Photo by Lance Oliver.
Along the border, the big mountain ridges tend to run north-northeasterly. Roads parallel to the ridges offer sweeping curves and a chance to catch my breath, while roads crossing the ridges serve up tight hairpins and switchbacks, mountainside plunges, and the occasional ridgetop view. Some of my favorites among the latter are U.S. 250 and U.S. 33 crossing the border, and Virginia 39 coming back. When I want a change of pace, I veer off onto a hidden favorite, such as Smoke Hole Road.

Smoke Hole Road
Smoke Hole Road: an old favorite. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Seneca Rocks, jutting from the colorful trees like a giant weathered gravestone, is one landmark that pulls my eyes from the road as I descend the hill on U.S. 33. I also enjoy the ride to the peak of Spruce Knob, West Virginia's highest point, and Blackwater Falls makes for a scenic stop. But there's a lesser known place in these mountains I find special to visit.

Dolly Sods Wilderness Area
The Dolly Sods Wilderness Area is a rare tundra-like ecosystem that's south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Photo by Lance Oliver.
The road isn't paved, but I've had no trouble on a dry day, even on a thoroughly street-going motorcycle. It leads to a high plateau and a unique place called the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area. The altitude and exposure of this high, wind-swept place makes it unlike anywhere else this far south. Plants left over from the last Ice Age still thrive here. Red spruce trees grow small and one-sided, stunted by the constant wind. It looks like a little piece of Canada, but it's south of the Mason-Dixon Line. If you're like me, and one of the payoffs of travel is that feeling of being somewhere very different from your life's norm, then this is one of the places worth riding to. And what better time?

The best days of fall are fleeting. Opportunities are few. Seize them when and where you can.

group ride
Everybody wants to get out and take advantage of the last great days to ride. Photo by Lance Oliver.