New Trails For Off-Highway Vehicles Mean Adventure For Visitors, Much-Needed Revenue For Southwest Virginia

September 2016 Powersport News By Bill Lohmann, Richmond Times-Dispatch

Pocahontas, VA – For the first time in a long while, the future of the town of Pocahontas includes a glimmer of brightness.

A long-ago coal boom town in Tazewell County, Pocahontas has lost jobs and population over the years. In recent times, crumbling buildings have fallen or been razed, leaving Pocahontas looking like a ghost town.

That is why the hum of all-terrain vehicles echoing across the countryside is a sweet sound — and a signal of hope.

“Pocahontas was a dead town, maybe beyond dead,” said David Woodard, who grew up in Pocahontas and is tourism coordinator for Tazewell County. “The only real business inside of town is the funeral home, which speaks volumes.”

But with the development of the Original Pocahontas Trail System and its 65 miles of trails for off-highway vehicles through the surrounding woods and fields, visitors are coming to Pocahontas and bringing their money with them. Tazewell and other counties throughout southwest Virginia, a region hit hard by the decline of the coal industry, are banking on visitors coming and renting ATVs, staying in motels and cabins and buying groceries. Southwest Virginia Community College in Cedar Bluff is offering programs for displaced coal miners in trail design, maintenance and security.

“A game-changer,” Woodard said of the potential impact on the economy.

The Original Pocahontas Trail is part of a larger system of trails that is being developed throughout southwest Virginia. Spearhead Trails includes more than 250 miles of trails for off-highway vehicles — a figure that is expected to double in the coming year — and construction of two equestrian trails is expected to begin later this year.

Spearhead Trails is Virginia’s answer to the popular Hatfield-McCoy Trail System in West Virginia. Woodard said as weekends approach you can “lose count” of the number of pickups and campers hauling ATVs and other off-road vehicles toward southern West Virginia, heading for the Hatfield-McCoy trails.

“That’s starting to happen here,” he said.

Developers have built cabins for rent, and another group has acquired the empty Pocahontas High School (the school was closed a few years ago) with plans to transform it into an inn catering to trail-riders. The bigger of the two cabin developments, Trailhead Resort, opened on the outskirts of town in May and includes 14 well-appointed cabins, renting from $179 a night, as well as camping sites. Resort partner Matthew Kesler said his company spent about $1.2 million to build the hilltop resort, which he’s been told represents the largest private development in that part of Tazewell County in more than 40 years.

Chris Sturgill, field operations supervisor for Spearhead Trails, took us for a tour of the Original Pocahontas Trail — named for the coal, marketed as “Original Pocahontas,” that made the town famous at the turn of the 20th century — in a 4-seat side-by-side ATV. The trail meandered here and there along dirt and gravel — and sometimes muddy — paths, through woods on land formerly mined for coal. It was an exhilarating ride through wilderness, and though we were never more than a mile or two from town it felt like we were far from everything.

The General Assembly created the Southwest Regional Recreation Authority in 2008 to oversee the trail system with board members coming from the various localities touched by the trails. Currently, there are four ATV trails within the Spearhead system — in addition to Original Pocahontas, there are Mountain View (St. Paul), Coal Canyon (Grundy) and Stone Mountain (Pennington Gap) — with a fifth (Ridgeview, near Haysi) under construction. All eventually might be connected if enough land can be acquired, said Woodard, who is Tazewell’s representative on the authority board.

“ATV riding is very big,” Sturgill said. “It’s changed from being just one of the good ol’ boy type sports to now we’ve got families that travel all over the country doing this.

“For a lot of people, going to the beach is over. They want to get out in the woods. Up here, you’ve got deer, you’ve got bear, you’ve got turkeys you can see along the trails. Coal Canyon (Trail) has the elk you can see. You go down to our Stone Mountain Trail, and you’ve got views you would not believe.”

Photo Credit: Bob Brown

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