Summertime in Baltimore . . . and the living is right out of Dante's "Inferno."
But it won't last forever. Trust me: The cooler weather of late summer and early fall is on its way, bringing us some desperately needed relief.
That's the time we can pull out our fat-tire bikes and set sail for the mountains -- and enjoy one of the best-kept secrets in American mountain-biking: the panoramic alpine views and lush forests of nearby West Virginia.
Consider: With almost a million acres of peaks and ridges soaring to nearly 5,000 feet, the Mountain State's Monongahela National Forest is in the same class as distant cycling meccas such as Colorado, Northern California and New Zealand.
So jot down this recipe for a "can't miss" West Virginia mountain bike vacation: Pedal like crazy all day and pamper yourself at night. Next, throw in knowledgeable guides who double as skilled bicycle mechanics and a support van to carry your luggage . . . and you're on the way to an unforgettable experience.
More good news: The best that West Virginia has to offer is less than a day's drive from Baltimore.
At the Elk River Touring Center in Slatyfork, a village located near the center of the 850,000-acre Monongahela National Forest, both novice and advanced cyclists can choose from a wide range of multi-day mountain bike tours of the rugged Allegheny Mountains.
Elk River's most popular excursion is the six-day Cranberry to Canaan Tour, which takes fat-tire cyclists through some of West Virginia's most famous natural wonders: the Cranberry Glades, the Sinks of Gandy, Bald Knob, Shavers Fork and Canaan Valley -- at 3,400 feet, the highest alpine valley west of the Rockies.
On the tour, clients ride sturdy, low-geared mountain bikes up to 30 miles a day as they pedal over paved, gravel and dirt roads. For the more adventurous, daily options include routes on unimproved hiking trails and abandoned railroad grades.
In fact, a West Virginia mountain bike ramble has something for everyone.
"We get a full spectrum of folks -- from 8 to 80 -- and all bicycling abilities," says Gil Willis, who operates the Elk River Touring Center along with his wife, Mary. "While most people think of West Virginia as nothing but steep mountains, we've researched the trips and eliminated most of the long climbs. Plus, the shuttle vehicle is there for the mountain biker who wants to ride only the best rides of the day."
Cranberry to Canaan
In June, Karen and Jay Supovitz of Reisterstown joined five other vacationers on the six-day, 150-mile Cranberry to Canaan Tour.
"We had a great time -- and we really didn't know anything about our bikes except how to shift the gears when we started," says Ms. Supovitz, a counselor who works with children with genetic disorders. "But our tour guides were very flexible in choosing the trails we rode."
Elk River guides also provide the technical skills to keep clients' bikes in top shape throughout the tour. "The first day I had a flat tire, and they fixed it in about five seconds," Ms. Supovitz recalls. "The guides really made an effort to see that everyone had a good time."
And apres-bike? "The accommodations were really nice, and the food was great," Ms. Supovitz says. "Once you get to Elk River, you don't have to think about anything except riding and the scenery. It sure was better than going to the beach and gaining five pounds."
Last September, I joined Gil and Mary Willis on one of the regularly scheduled Cranberry to Canaan tours. To be blunt, it was a spectacular vacation: The leaves in the higher elevations were setting the woods ablaze in red, yellow and orange; afternoons were warm, while evenings and mornings were crisp and cool -- and it didn't rain all week. Here's a rundown on the trip:
Day 1: From Elk River Touring Center, a combination bed and breakfast, restaurant and bike shop located in the village of Slatyfork, nine clients and their bikes are shuttled in the center's Chevy Suburban to the top of the 22-mile Highland Scenic Highway. After some pointers on off-road riding, guide Craig Cartner leads the group for an introductory cruise on smooth dirt roads and the paved -- and very lightly traveled -- Scenic Highway.
After meeting Mr. Willis for a tailgate lunch at an overlook offering views of 4,000-foot mountains, the group embarks on its first trail (or in mountain-biker lingo, "single track") ride: six miles on the muddy, but flat, Gauley Mountain Trail. The ride ends at Elk River. Later, we eat dinner, relax in the hot tub and watch bicycling videos.
On to Greenbrier
Day 2: The group rides from the touring center on 10 miles of paved and unpaved back roads to the Greenbrier River Trail, a rails-to-trails conversion along the wild and scenic Greenbrier River. After another 10 miles of easy riding we reach Cass, home of the Cass Scenic Railroad, a steam locomotive that hauls tourists up Bald Knob, the second-highest peak in West Virginia.
In Cass, some of the group shuttle by car to the night's destination, Cheat Mountain Club. The rest of us get in a few extra miles riding roller-coaster back roads.
Cheat Mountain Club, a combination inn and resort, is a huge, 100-year-old log cabin on the banks of the fast-moving Shavers Fork of the Cheat River; the elevation is 4,000 feet. Dinner is served family-style by Norm and Deb Strauss, CMC's live-in staff. The next morning, the outside temperature is 27 degrees.
Day 3: It's warming up fast as we ride to Gaudineer Scenic Overlook and a stunning view across the ridges to both tonight's destination and the area we'll explore tomorrow. The group splits; half opt for flat river riding on the West Fork Trail, while four of us accompany Mr. Willis on a rugged single-track traverse of Cheat Mountain.
After meeting Mr. Cartner for a tailgate lunch, we start a long climb on a U.S. Forest Service dirt road to Middle Mountain Cabins, three primitive log cabins in a wilderness setting.
There we meet our support crew's latest addition: guitar-carrying Chip Chase. While the manicotti dropped off earlier by Mary Willis heats up in the propane oven, Mr. Chase leads a songfest, entertains the group with quips and stories -- and passes around a jug of surprisingly smooth West Virginia moonshine.
After dinner, Mr. Chase conducts an Indian sweat lodge ceremony in a tent he had erected earlier. Using rocks heated in the campfire, he creates a backwoods sauna that rejuvenates the group.
Day 4: This morning, Mr. Willis leads the group over single-track and double-track trails to the Sinks of Gandy, where a river flows into the side of a mountain. The rolling, high-elevation terrain and wind-whipped pastures remind me of England's Lake District.
After exploring the cave where the Gandy River disappears, we ride on to meet Mr. Cartner, who has lunch ready on the tailgate of the Suburban. Mr. Willis, leading the group by bike, stays in touch with Mr. Cartner via two-way radios.
After lunch, Mr. Cartner leads some of us on a single-track option featuring some of the toughest climbing on the trip -- and the best views. Next, we rejoin the others for a no-pedal, 12-mile descent on a dirt road through forests and pristine farmland lighted by the late afternoon sun. We shuttle to our night's destination, a ski chalet overlooking Canaan (pronounced k'NANE) Valley.
Day 5: The day starts with a road ride through upper Canaan Valley, a marshy area teeming with bird life. Then it's a short
climb to the Canaan Loop Road, an unpaved U.S. Forest Service road passing through a mature maple and oak forest that leads to Blackwater Falls State Park.
The day's single-track option is the Davis Trail, a rocky, rhododendron-lined path that descends for three miles. We eat our brown-bag lunches at a spot overlooking Blackwater Falls, then ride back on the loop road. A 1.5-mile hike to Table Rock overlook rewards us with a stunning view of the Dry Fork River 1,635 feet below. Dinner that night is carryout pizza from Sirianni's in nearby Davis.
Day 6: After breakfast, the group is shuttled back to Slatyfork, about a two-hour drive.
Any complaints? Not from my group, which included several folks with experience on commercial tours in California, Vermont, Maine and England.
Yet, Ms. Supovitz voices a small disappointment about her six-day tour. "I didn't see a bear on the whole trip, although we did see some tracks," she sighs. "Maybe next time."
IF YOU GO . . .
Folks interested in a West Virginia mountain-bike adventure can choose from three guided, fully-supported tours offered by Elk River Touring Center.
* The six-day Cranberry to Canaan Tour traverses the high ridges running the length of Monongahela National Forest. A vehicle transports luggage -- and the occasional pooped cyclist -- to each night's destination.
Late summer and fall dates for the tour include Aug. 9-15, 15-21, 23-29, Sept. 26-Oct. 2 and Oct. 3-9. The cost is $569 person, including meals.
* The Greenbrier Inn to Inn Tour is an easy, four-day ride along the flat -- but scenic -- Greenbrier River Trail. Dates include Aug. 1-4, 17-20, 22-25, Oct. 3-6, and Oct. 10-13. The price is $239 per person, including meals.
* Intermediate and expert mountain bikers should inquire about Elk River's Twin Peaks Tour, a ride that features difficult single-track trails, ridge rides and harrowing descents. The four-night package is $459 per person, including meals. Dates include Aug. 16-20, Sept. 14-18 and Oct. 11-14.
Don't own a mountain bike? Then rent one from Elk River. Rentals start at about $90 a week.
Elk River Touring Center is a six-hour drive from Baltimore. For more information, write or call Elk River: Route 219, Slatyfork, W. Va. 26291; (304) 572- 3771.