West Virginia is for Motorcycle Cruisers

Hunting History and hot springs from the saddle of a motorcycle in the Alleghenies. Text & Photos by Jamie Elvidge.

We began our perusal of the Allegheny Mountains in Lewisburg, West Virginia, one of those staunch Southern towns that radiates history. In fact, there are more than 70 registered historic sites to contemplate, plus tours and reenactments galore. Just out of town are the expansive Organ Caves, which sheltered pioneers as well as Civil War soldiers, and for a time, even functioned as a chapel for Robert E. Lee's weary troops.

Ten miles east of Lewisburg, off Interstate 64, is White Sulphur Springs, where oozing mineral waters have been lulling the wealthy since the early 1800s (when colonists kicked the natives out of the hot tub). If you're rolling in the chips, you can stay at the famously lavish Greenbrier Resort and Spa (800/624-6070) or if you're not financially endowed, it's still worth a visit -- if only to brood over the secret Greenbrier Bunker. In 1992 the Washington Post blew the lid off an elaborate underground shelter, built by the government in 1958, beneath the swanky Spa. The shelter was intended to house Congress people and their kin (and perhaps a stray masseuse and hairdresser) in the event of nuclear disaster. Now that the skeleton is out of the cupboard, you can tour the barracks, a curious remnant of the Cold War.

But let us get on with the mountain roads. The Alleghenies are laced with back roads and byways that are perfect for riding. And the scenery is magnificent too. The problem is there are so many charming colonial towns, Civil War points-of-interest and natural curiosities, it's hard to build momentum. We left Lewisburg on U.S. Highway 219 heading north, and almost immediately got sidetracked by the Lost World Caverns, the Droop Battlefield and Pulitzer-prize winner Pearl S. Buck's birthplace. We took a side loop on the Highlands Scenic Byway (Highway 150) just to let our brakes cool. This sweeping two-lane is comparable to the Blue Ridge Parkway, but vacant of tourists and speed traps. It passes through natural cranberry glades and the Monongahela National Forest.

Returning to U.S. Highway 219 via State Route 39/55, we pressed on with our northerly quest, passing through Mingo and Elkwater before turning east on Highway 250 to ascend the western slope of the Alleghenies. John Denver's "Country roads...take me home..." was playing in my head relentlessly, but the scenery was so beautiful I could understand why the man likened it to heaven. The Confederate soldiers who held a fortified base camp here for two years may have seen it differently. War would be hell no matter how sweet the scenery.

A dramatic change in the quality of the road surface marks the Virginia border. West Virginia's portion was smooth from recent resurfacing, while its neighbor's asphalt was riddled with patches and potholes. We stopped at an old-fashioned gas station in McDowell for a cold drink. Highway 250 offers a great variety of vistas as it dips in and out of the many valleys, and each settlement appears to have its own prototypical 18th-century church, washed white from steeple to stoop. But by our count, the wee houses of worship were outnumbered by nostalgic Mail Pouch barns two to one.

We followed Highway 250 to Churchville, crossing the George Washington National Forest and Mount Shenandoah. Churchville is a biggish town with rudimentary conveniences -- a good place to gas up before heading south on State Route 42. After the kinked and calloused Highway 250, SR 42 is a good place to turn on the juice and make up some time.

We headed west again on tiny State Route 39/55 -- a highly recommended motorcycle road leading back into the Alleghenies. By the time we hit Warm Springs we were beat and easily smitten by the little town's inviting atmosphere. The Inn at Gristmill Square (540/839-2231) is a unique place to stay for the night. It was a working mill until 1970 when five of the 19th-century buildings, including the silo, were converted into guest quarters. Dinner at the attached Waterwheel Restaurant was delicious. Another interesting place to stay is the Warm Springs Inn (540/839-5351), a bed and breakfast-style retreat with accommodations situated in a converted courthouse and jail dating back to the early 1800s.

In the morning, our search for breakfast led us down Highway 220 and into Hot Springs, the well-dressed sister-city to Warm Springs. You can't help but gape at the massive Homestead Spa (800/838-1766), another world-renowned resort. This monolithic getaway, built on 15,000 acres, boasts its own nightly orchestra, a shooting range, tennis courts, three championship golf courses and of course, pools and pampering aplenty. We graced the formal brunch (which cost a ghastly $90 for two) in our rumpled motorcycle gear but the Southern hospitality seemed to bridge any boundaries of style.

From the indescribably luxurious Homestead we retraced our steps on the two-lane Highway 220 back to the trickle of tiny State Road 39/55. Our westerly course would eventually close the loop when it intersected Highway 219 at Marlinton. We procrastinated by exploring an intimate inner loop composed of State Routes 28 and 92. The dated farms and fenced pastures seemed to belong to the dense forest surrounding them, the way tide pools belong to the sea.

The Alleghenies may be shaded by the fame and grandeur of the Blue Ridge and Great Smokies of the South, but the treasures these mountains yield are far more diverse. It's like riding through a working museum -- a place where history is tangible and unfolding. This area is an excellent place for a vacation ride -- especially if you can swing a stay at one of the grand spas. After all, what could possibly outdo a skilled masseuse after a demanding day of motorcycle riding?

When not in the saddle, the author gets email at Jamie.Elvidge@primedia.com.

For more descriptions of our favorite motorcycle rides and destinations, visit the Rides and Destinations section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.