It’s All Downhill: the Blackwater Canyon Trail

The Blackwater Canyon Railtrail is an extension of the 35-mile Allegheny Highlands Railtrail, connecting to it in Hendricks, WV, and running through the gorge to Thomas. The railtrail is about 3 hours from Washington DC, but it’s a destination trail and worth the drive or planning a stay in Canaan Valley. You really need to ride this railtrail!! 

The Blackwater Canyon Railtrail travels 12 miles through Blackwater Falls State Park, between Parsons and the little coal-mining town of Thomas — now filled with cute boutiques and interesting cafes and restaurants, including the famous Purple Fiddle. 

The rail carries riders high above the canyon gorge, although in many places you hear the sound of the river, and there are several noteworthy mountain-side waterfalls that provide great stopping places for photos and to appreciate the surroundings. 

Often the trail is perched on a narrow shelf, with a significant (and scary) drop on one side and towering cliffs or mountainside on the other.

Although this is a popular trail by Canaan Valley standards, it’s fairly unusual to encounter other riders, so if you’re looking for a nature-immersed bike ride with mostly solitude, this is the ride for you. 
A plug for Blackwater Bikes — they saved our ride. I have tubeless tires, recommended for me by my local bike shop because I often go out alone and to be honest, I can’t reliably change a tire (I’ve tried and failed). We pumped up my tires — making sure they were full — before leaving home. But we arrived to the disaster of a front tire completely off the rim. 
Blackwater Bikes fixed us up in just a couple of hours, for an exceptionally reasonable amount, plus the owner gave us helpful information for the ride. Stop by, say hello, pick up a map, and purchase some gear there to help keep them in business! 

As per Blackwater Bikes’ recommendation, plan your ride starting in Thomas and riding downhill toward Parsons — that’s if you have a shuttle back to your vehicle (or can park it at the end of the ride).

There’s a significant elevation drop, more than 1 thousand feet, between Thomas and Parsons — we almost never actually pedaled our bikes, other than the initial push offs — the 3% grade allows gravity to do all the work. 
If you go one-way, then park in Thomas directly across from Miners and Merchants Bank right in the town itself, where there’s an access road to the railtrail. With your back to the town, turn left, heading downstream. You’ll first encounter a small wastewater treatment plant, just after which you’ll veer right across the foot bridge over the North Fork of the Blackwater River. 
It’s all downhill from there.
Don’t be dissuaded by trail washouts — it’s easy portage around them. Further on, you may encounter downed trees on the trail, likewise, easily passed.
Just outside of Thomas, you’ll see remnants of this railtrail’s coal-mining history: coke ovens line the trail along the mountainside. Soon you’ll come to the first of several gates — this marks the switch from a pure rail trail to a forest road leading to Douglas Falls. I believe at this point, you’re in Blackwater Falls State Park. 
This is a good time to note that the beauty of the area is a minor miracle — the last underground coal mine in the area closed in the 1950s. Those mines left acid mine drainage, abandoned industrial structures, coke ovens and a variety of unsightly debris. 

Three miles into your trip you’ll come to the second gate. Here you’ll hear Douglas Falls; you can view it by scrambling down a short rocky descent to better view the 30-foot waterfall. 

After Douglas Falls, the trail becomes a single-track as it enters the Blackwater Canyon, following the North Fork of the Blackwater River. Because we went in the summer, the trees were fully leafed out, and so we couldn’t seen down the 100 (or more) feet to the river flowing below. We could hear it though. Fall would be an incredible time to ride the Blackwater Canyon Trail. 
What made this trail challenging for us on our Trek hybrids was the inch-gravel and overall condition of the trail. Luckily, we both have knobby tires, helping navigate the rough trail and the ocassional mud puddles. My insides did feel rattled after the ride and I frequently applied the brakes to keep the rattle down to about a 6 on the Richter scale. This is a good trail for mountain bikes but doable on hybrids.
In 1888, the
railroad that was on what is now the Blackwater Canyon Trail, located in the Monongahela National Forest (and now part of Blackwater Falls State Park), was used to haul coal and lumber through this stunning canyon.

You know you’re nearing Hendricks when you come to  you’ll come to the second gate. This marks about 9 miles from the start of your journey. From here, it’s smooth sailing into Parsons. Eventually, the trail turns into a paved rail-trail as it follows alongside the Black Fork River.

We had two vehicles with us, so we were able to drop off our bikes in Thomas and park a vehicle in Parsons to await the end of our ride. We stashed extra water in the waiting vehicle, figuring we’d need a little extra hydration. That saved us from having to bike back to Thomas and up 1300 feet elevation.

If you’re a glutton for punishment, then start in Parsons/Hedricks, and take on the up-hill challenge first, and then once you’re good and exhausted, coast back down!
Know before you go: Didn’t bring your bikes? Blackwater Bikes can rent them — and can provide shuttle service, so give them a call.

Getting there: You can access the railtrail in Thomas at several locations. I recommend starting in front of the Miners & Merchants Bank on East Ave/WV Route 32 East/South. There’s ample parking.

To reach the Hendricks/Parsons side of the trail, head west on WV Route 32 out of Thomas, almost immediately turning left onto Rt 219 South (just after Thomas). Travel on Rt 219 for 11.7 miles. Turn left on WV Route 72 east. After 1.5 miles, turn right on Second Street. The trailhead is on the right. Look for the gazebo and parking at the trailhead.

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