Hatfield-McCoy Trail celebrates its 13th year in Mercer County


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BRAMWELL — Thirteen years ago, a new form of outdoor tourism came to Mercer County and started bringing visitors and their dollars to the county and large swaths of southern West Virginia.

Local officials and members of the media took a ride Thursday along the Pocahontas Trail, Mercer County's branch of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail. The Pocahontas Trail extends for 70 miles through forests leading to scenic overlooks and other sights such as artifacts from the region's coal mining heritage. It also offers routes ranging from easy to extreme for ATVs, UTVs and dirt biker enthusiasts.

Jamie Null, executive director of the Mercer County Convention & Visitors Bureau, welcomed guests at the Pocahontas Trailhead off Route 52 in Coaldale, a community a few miles from the town of Bramwell, and spoke about the Pocahontas Trail's economic impact. In 2023, the Hatfield-McCoy Trails system sold 92,000 ridership permits.

"It's been 13 years since this trail was opened in Mercer County, and we couldn't be more excited to celebrate 13-years-worth of riding in the mountains of West Virginia," Null said at the trailhead.

"We've seen huge growth in ATV tourism," she said." We've seen a lot of entrepreneurs coming and opening up lodging to cater to these visitors and we've also seen the demographics of the riders change. We've seen more families coming now — extended families that come as a group and they bring children along, so it's turned into a family vacation on the Hatfield-McCoy Trail."

The county's ATV economy is expected to keep growing.

"I see continued growth," Null said. "The outdoors industry in West Virginia is certainly important and I believe Hatfield-McCoy Trails plays a positive role in that."

Mercer County's tourism industry has become a significant employer.

"In Mercer County we have about 2,000 tourism jobs," Null said. "And the Department of West Virginia Tourism has done a wonderful job at trying to expand educational opportunities within the vocational schools and eventually into the high schools and local colleges to train people to work in the outdoor industry; so we're going to work hand-in-hand with them as well to make sure Mercer County is part of that."

"As tourism grows in West Virginia, there's going to be a lot of jobs that open up; so it's a career choice that a lot of high school and college student should look at when planning their futures," Null said.

Unlike economic development that starts in cities, the tourism industry reaches into Mercer County's rural communities.

"I think it's exciting and it revitalizes these communities and it shows them what can be done with hard work; and a lot of these entrepreneurs, they have used their own money to create these businesses and I think that's something to showcase, that they're willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work," Null said.

One local official was getting ready to drive a UTV in the celebration's caravan. It wasn't his first ride on the trail system.

"It's my first time for this anniversary event, so this is pretty exciting to check it out," said Mayor Grant Bennett of Bramwell.

Having the Pocahontas Trailhead so close to Bramwell brings benefits to the town, he said.

"Oh, business opportunities for sure and economic. The economy we have in this area, here and north, is tourism now because of the trails," Bennett said as more pickup trucks hauling ATVs and UTVs arrived at the trailhead. "It just brings great business opportunities for the locals and everyone around."

Bennett said that the Pocahontas Trail keeps offering opportunities for businesses.

"I think as the town's flourished things have been popping up left and right," he said. "Places to stay. More places to eat, other venues. I think a lot of people like to see things to do in the evening times after they're through riding the trails. I know for myself a big factor is the connect-ability between the trails. To me, it's a destination adventure. People may stay down here towards Bramwell and destination out to Mullens or Northfork and loop around back, so any trails that make a destination where you can loop around and not hit the same trails twice, which makes it a little bit more of an adventure."

The off-road caravan left the trailhead. Soon the UTVs were going up steep and rocky trails and taking sudden hairpin turns. Springtime forests sometimes plunged the trail into shadow as tires gripped the muddy route and splashed through mud puddles. Bennett compared the scene to driving through the movie "Jurassic Park" and compared the route to a "wooden rollercoaster."

Soon the caravan stopped at what looked like a cave lined with bricks. It was one of the many ovens used to create coke, a substance processed from metallurgical coal and used for manufacturing steel. A historical marker showed visitors that it was operated by Buckeye Coal & Coke/Booth-Bowen Coal & Coke circa 1886 — 1960's. When fall arrives and trees lose their leaves, it's sometimes possible to see the foundations marking homes and other buildings that stood decades ago when workers used the coke oven.

Today ATV tourists sometimes leave trinkets like little gnome figures or painted rocks for others to find and distribute around the trail system, Bennett said.

As the caravan headed into Bramwell and lunch at The Corner Shop, it encountered another caravan heading up the trail. The media caravan's lead driver held up fingers to show the approaching drivers how many vehicles needed to pass. Bennett, being in the last UTV, raised a fist to show his was the last vehicle. The other caravan's riders headed for their own day of adventure on the Pocahontas Trail.

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com