When in the late 1990’s a group of recreational-vehicle enthusiasts began developing a network of riding trails in Southern West Virginia, it didn’t take them long to pick a title that would immediately garner name recognition for the region.
“Geographically, this area is primarily associated with the Hatfield McCoy feud,” said Jeffrey Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield McCoy Regional Recreation Authority, referring to the notorious dispute of the late 1800s between the West Virginian Hatfields and Kentucky’s McCoy family.
“We've taken what was maybe otherwise looked as a negative, you know, one of the largest family feuds in the country, and turned it into a positive,” Lusk said. “[We] turned it into, you know, the most successful all-terrain vehicle trail system in the eastern U.S.”
Today, Lusk’s group works in 14 counties, maintaining and adding onto what is currently more than 700 miles of wooded riding trails.
Eight trailheads are open in five of those counties — Logan, McDowell, Mercer, Mingo and Wyoming.
The regional recreation authority sold roughly 50,000 permits to use the trails last year, according to Lusk. He said the group expects to sell around 55,000 this year, 85 percent of which are going to out-of-state riders.
Such tourists include Eric Hryhorchuck and Renee Simons from Texas, who were taking a break from fourwheeling one Thursday morning to check out the Hatfield family cemetery in Logan County.
“In Texas, it's just mud. You know, there's no hills,” Simons said. “It’s nothing like up here, and the colors up here are so pretty.”
The Hatfield McCoy trails are riddled with historical markers and sites, which can teach visitors more about a state some are admittedly unfamiliar with. As Hryhorchuck and Simons were leaving the gravesite that Thursday morning, riders from Illinois and New Jersey were approaching the same entrance.
Millions Of Dollars In Reported Economic Impact
Reports show that this influx of tourists could mean big bucks for southern communities that have traditionally relied on a waning coal industry.
In 2014, a Marshall University study showed tourists visiting the Hatfield McCoy trails generated an economic impact of around $22 million for the region in 2013. Lusk expects this number will double when Marshall University completes a new economic impact study in 2020.
These numbers didn’t happen overnight — developing a network of trails involves years of work, Lusk says. The recreation authority has to secure access to land from logging and mining companies who own much of West Virginia’s wooded areas. All of the private companies that Lusk says he’s worked with volunteer to share their space for free — he added that the regional recreation authority probably has access to more than 250,000 acres of private land.
“You have to have enough property to do it,” Lusk said. “You have to have willing landowners, all the pieces have to line up just perfect to get one of these open. [That’s] definitely why, you know, after 19 years we only have eight systems and not 19. You can't build one of these every year.”
Right now, the regional recreation authority plans to open two new trailheads in Wayne and Lincoln counties this spring, according to Lusk, and a second trail system spanning five more counties further north.
How Some Towns Are Becoming ATV-Friendly Communities
Work isn’t done once a trailhead is open — economic success demands a level of investment from the communities around the trailhead, Lusk says.
The city of Welch in McDowell County is working on that. Drive into town, and you’ll see welcoming signs advertising the city as an “ATV-friendly” place.
Restaurants and local businesses have similar signs welcoming trail-riders inside. During popular riding seasons, most parking lots have at least a few recreational vehicles.
“There's not a weekend that you don't come to Welch, that you don't see ATVs running all over the highways, all over the mountains,” said Jason Grubb, the city’s newly-hired business development specialist. “And every local restaurant, and every place you can imagine. A lot of people consider that they may be the salvation for Southern West Virginia by way of tourism.”
Grubb says the city started on its journey a few years ago, when it passed an ordinance allowing ATVs on public roads. Many communities along the Hatfield McCoy Trails have done the same.
There’s still a lot he says the city needs, specifically from its business community.
“We need more restaurants here in order to facilitate places for entertainment, we need more lodging in the area,” Grubb said. “And that’s something we have not had a lot of. In the past, we used to. In the 1960s and 1970s, when coal was popular, we had a lot more lodging in the area.”
Welch’s business situation and the work it’s doing represents several trail communities in southern West Virginia, even those where trail access points have been open longer.
In Logan County, entrepreneur Diana Barnette is working on redeveloping an old strip mall in Man.
“We envision it as a whole resort,” Barnette said, adding it will open as the "Appalachian Outpost."
"We have 25 cabins up so far, that will be open in April. We have 10 more additional cabins that we're going to build next year.”
Some of the old storefronts, Barnette said, will host an array of local mom-and-pop establishments to keep tourists busy.
“We saw this as an opportunity to diversify from the coal industry,” Barnette said. In addition to a local pizza joint, she said her main businesses are directly related to the coal industry. “This gave us a great opportunity to dive in, and we want to make a large impact.”
The People That Come 'Are People Who Come To Spend Money'
Almost an hour southeast of Man is the town of Pineville in Wyoming County, where other entrepreneurs like Barnette are expanding their horizons to fill a large need for more lodging.
John and Karen Bailey run a set of cabins along West Virginia Route 97, just minutes away from the Pinnacle Creek Trailhead in town. The couple retired from the mobile home industry a few years ago.
“We knew we had a good location to get to the trails,” Karen Bailey recalled. “So, we started looking around and we just decided, ‘Well, we weren't going to go home and sit down and not do anything.’”
The Baileys have been running Pinnacle ATV Lodging since September 2018. John Bailey said when he and others first heard about the trail system in the late 1990’s, he was skeptical it would be successful.
“One thing that people had a misconception about, back even in 1995, is that all you’re going to get is just a bunch of rednecks that are going to tear up the place. And nothing's further from the truth.”
“The people who come, the majority of the people who come, are people who come to spend money,” Karen Bailey said. “They have money. They're driving sixty, seventy, eighty-thousand dollar vehicles, they're pulling trailers that cost — I don't know how much!”
A few minutes away from the Baileys' is the Ole Jose Grill and Cantina. Owner Jill Hendrick said the site has been open for nearly eight and a half years now.
She estimates tourists make up more than half of her daily business, during the six to eight months when they’re most active.
“As the riders were coming in, we just started realizing that there was such a need for lodging,” Hendrick recalled. She has three houses, two of which are duplex models, for visiting ATV riders. As a real estate agent, she says she’s even sold a few vacation homes to out-of-staters.
“The people are coming and buying houses here,” she said. “I mean, when I was a kid, you couldn’t give away a house if it wasn't to a local … We're probably, in our little county, we may be selling four or five, maybe six a year, us personally.”
Tourists have definitely helped buoy the local economy with their spending, but Hendrick says having outsiders come into these small towns can boost morale within the community.
“Sometimes, when you've lived in a place and have been raised there, I think you become complacent,” Hendricks said. “Sometimes, you can become a little negative. And then you see all these people coming in that are so positive, and then you start looking around and going, ‘Wait a minute, maybe this is a pretty cool place to live.’”
This story is part of an episode of Inside Appalachia that explores tourism in southern West Virginia and the lasting impacts the Hatfield and McCoy feud has had on the region's identity.