- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

GILBERT, W.Va. — Kendell Simpson rolls along a rocky, muddy path into the forest. His strapped-on helmet, waterproof suit and goggles are the only indications of what lies ahead.

Then he starts the rocky climb, the roar of his all-terrain vehicle getting louder as he gives the Rhino more gas and maneuvers around boulders and mud puddles.

The Rockhouse trailhead starts out steep, with tight turns. Then it gets even steeper.

“You haven’t seen nothing yet,” Mr. Simpson said with a grin.

He ought to know. More than a decade ago, Mr. Simpson helped start the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, which has grown into a network of about 550 miles of riding trails for four-wheelers.

Each of the six Hatfield-McCoy trails has a distinct vibe. While Pinnacle Creek’s runs are known for breathtaking mountain views, the challenging trails of Dingess Rum may provide the best adrenaline rush. Organizers say there is a trail for everyone, depending on skill level.

The trail system is named after two infamous families: the Hatfields of southern West Virginia and the McCoys of eastern Kentucky, who carried on a 12-year feud more than a century ago.

The idea behind the Hatfield-McCoy trails was to trigger economic development in nine economically struggling counties hit hard by the decline of the coal and timber industries.

The auto body shop that Mr. Simpson and his son-in-law, Bill Reed, run in the town of Gilbert is doing more business, renting and repairing four-wheelers, and equipping riders with gear. Everyone involved in the venture says there is unrealized potential.

“This thing is really in its infancy; we’re really just getting started,” said Greg Crigger, a customer-service coordinator for the trail system and one of its few full-time employees. “The ultimate goal is somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 miles of trail, all connected in this eight- or nine-county project area.”

Although the project is unique because it’s all on private land, it was patterned after the 900-mile Paiute ATV Trail in Utah.

With the sale of ATVs booming, demand for places to ride could be on the upswing. The Specialty Vehicle Institute of America says sales have more than doubled, from 447,000 in 1998 to 912,000 in 2004. Nationwide, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 7.6 million four-wheelers are in use.

Russ Ehnes with the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council says there are other trail systems, but few as well-known as the Hatfield-McCoy and Paiute trails.

“Most of the national forests in the United States offer some degree of off-highway access,” he said.

The West Virginia trails were designed for many uses, including mountain bikes, horses and hikers. But they are most popular with ATV and dirt-bike riders, who have turned them into a hot tourist attraction.

With affordable permits — $19 for a day, $37 for up to a week — many users are repeat visitors.

Todd Hershberger of Haymarket, Va., has been coming back for four years, trying out different trails.

On his most recent trip in March, he plowed his ATV through a giant, sloshing mud pit. It is not an official part of the trail, but it’s too much fun for many riders to ignore. “I thought I was going to get stuck,” he said.

Mr. Hershberger and three friends make the eight-hour trip here once a year, then ride from dawn to dark. “The trails change every year. … Every year they change, and they add new trails, too, so it gives us more variety,” he said.

Though the trails are long and plentiful, it’s nearly impossible to get lost.

Each is marked with a number and the other trails it intersects. Like ski slopes, they are also color-coded: Green are the easiest, blue are intermediate and black are the most difficult. Narrow orange trails are for motorcycles only.

Ken Shamy drove 650 miles from Monmouth Junction, N.J., to ride the 115-mile Browning Fork Trail for the second time. It’s the longest of the trails, with terrain for all skill levels.

“I just love it up here, just getting away. And the people are nice, too. I love it,” he said.

Mr. Shamy was riding with Sam Rodriquez, who flew from Miami to Charleston, then rented a car for the two-hour drive south.

“This is beautiful country,” Mr. Rodriquez said. “God’s country.”

They and nine friends stayed at the Twin Hollow Campground, the only place on the Browning Fork trail where people can camp or rent four-person cabins with picturesque views for just $99 a night.

“I look out on the balcony and think, ‘I could do this all the time,’ ” Mr. Shamy said.

Despite the remoteness of the trail system, civilization is never far away. The trails have direct connections to towns offering food, fuel, hotels and motels. Some communities even allow the ATVs on the street, as long as they bear a Hatfield-McCoy permit.

But the folks who run and benefit from the trail have more expansion plans in mind, including a new visitors’ center in Boone County, equestrian and hiking trails, partnerships with state parks and packages with whitewater rafting companies.

“I’d say they could make a killing if they had massage people set up here in the evenings,” said Jessica Carpenter of Parkersburg, who rode the trail for the first time recently with her husband, aunt and uncle.

“I’m sore,” she added, “but I had a blast.”

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