Deep in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest, a 34-mile long ridgeline juts prominently into crisp mountain air, with knife-edge cliffs that drop 200 feet to the rugged slope below. Between thick forests of spruce and birch, sweeping views of the Mountain State’s tallest peaks and the Potomac River give you the feeling of being somewhere bigger, somewhere more remote.
Welcome to North Fork Mountain.
Although hikers know it for its breathtaking views, serious mountain bikers know the North Fork Mountain Trail as one of Appalachia’s best rides. The NFMT was even dubbed the “crown jewel” of West Virginia mountain biking by Bike Magazine back in 2000, and with the calm pace of life in the Potomac Highlands, little has changed since then. A few cows and fewer homes dot the peaceful Potomac Valley as it weaves between the Tuscarora Sandstone escarpments and steeps of the Allegheny Mountains.
Climb up into the mountains, though, and the peaceful vibe changes to a heart-pounding world of high adventure, where tight singletrack, rock gardens and big drops await. This undertaking is not for the timid— the point-to-point ride runs the entirety of North Fork’s 25 rugged miles, with little to no opportunity for bailouts from start to finish.
The NFMT is recognized as an International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) Epic Ride, which means a trail must have “demanding, mostly singletrack adventures in natural settings,” and that you are in for a truly challenging, backcountry experience.
Holding the title of driest single ridgeline in the Appalachians, North Fork offers up some of the best conditions in a state that is a temperate rainforest during most of the year. When other trails have deep puddles, rutted bogs and slippery roots, the NFMT stays quite dry (even after a downpour). Unfortunately, this means that there is absolutely no water source to refresh thirsty riders— so be sure to bring plenty of water.
Riding North Fork from south to north will give you three blissful miles of screaming downhill at the end. Most riders set a shuttle from the south end off of US 33 at Judy Gap to the north end on Smoke Hole Road to avoid the added marathon of riding WV 28 and 33 south along the Potomac to complete the circuit. The southern shuttle is set at an obvious hairpin turn that crests the ridgeline on US 33, where there is a pull-off with room for several cars. The northern exit is set at the marked NFMT trailhead on Smoke Hole Rd.
Although the southern trailhead is initially unmarked, the NFMT’s signature blue blazes quickly become apparent once you get past the gate. Your ride starts under a thick forest canopy on soft trail before rolling hills lead into the rock gardens and hardpack singletrack that characterize the remainder of the NFMT. If your rock garden technique isn’t up to snuff, expect to walk a few sections. But with all the views, you’ll likely be off your bike several times to take it all in anyway.
Follow the trail along the eastern slope of North Fork Mountain, and expect a variety of rock steps and narrow moves through tight trees as you work your way north. The most technically challenging sections await your tired legs at the end, where many riders will be off the saddle. To reach the final viewpoint at Chimney Top, stay to the left at the junction of the Redman and Landis trails and work your way through some pines and across rocky slabs to reach the hikeable user trail to the Top. Enjoy the view and prepare yourself for the grand finale— three miles of adrenaline-pumping downhill with bermed turns and rock drops.
Riding the NFMT from south to north gives you 2,447 feet of gain and 4,916 feet of overall descent with a 6% average grade and a 27% maximum grade on the final downhill. The trail’s elevation profile peaks at 3,773 feet and finishes at 1,120 feet.
Give your crew anywhere from 6 to 8 hours to allow for rests, flat repairs, meals,and soaking up those views. With a ride as epic as this, who wants it to be over quickly?
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Originally written for West Virginia .