Wednesday, November 13

Rail Trailin' on the Dawkins Line

Throughout the KBBC conference there was constant reference to the new Dawkins Line Rail Trail.  The location for this year's KBBC conference at Jenny Wiley was a direct result of its proximity to the eastern terminus of the trail.  The Dawkins discussion reached a fevered pitch on Friday just before lunch, and I'd finally had enough.
I wanted to stand up and shout: "Less blabbing; more biking!"  All the praise of the trail made me want to go ride it.  And then there was a presentation on the Virginia Creeper Trail.  Mandy and I have been talking about revisiting it with the kids now that we're back East and the kids are older and can enjoy it.  I wanted to pack up and shoot down into Virginia.  I didn’t have to be back in the office for three days after all.
Along the Virginia Creeper Trail, 2004-ish
At one point I even leaned over and suggested to Mandy that we should just get up and walk out while announcing over our shoulders that we were going to go ride the trail.
I call shenanigans on the KBBC for scheduling the annual conference for the week after Daylight Slayings.  The least they could've done was truncate the agenda on one day or the other to allow an evening jaunt up to Dawkins.
Or to ply the 3 mile Mountain Bike Trail in the state park.  Oh yeah, I'd seen a few months ago that Jenny Wiley has a 3 mile biking loop.  I forgot all about it as the conference approached, and despite having the Laser and a suitable mountain bike I missed my best opportunity to ride the trail.
Maybe that's what Troy was talking about when he said he was going to go for a night ride...
I remembered it as Mandy and I drove out on Saturday morning past the trailhead.  "Mountain Bike Trail" read the sign alongside the road.
"What the...?!" I cried.
We could have stopped and ridden the trail then, but it was early and cold.  I decided not to subject my loving wife to an impromptu--and brisk--mountain bike excursion.
It was a short drive up to Hager Hill from Jenny Wiley, and it was easy to find the Marathon Station off US 460 and KY 1428 which serves as the unofficial trailhead at the east end.
We saw the end of the trail as we approached the gas station.  While the old rail alignment continues eastward into Hager Hill, the actual trail terminates at KY 825 just east of the intersection of US 460 and KY 1428.  It's easy enough to park at the Marathon and ride east on 1428 to the start of the trail.  Just be aware you'll be crossing oncoming traffic to make the left onto KY 825 at the trail.
Looking east toward the eastern terminus
I don't know what the actual temperature was Saturday morning, but suffice it to say it was cold.  Being somewhat out of practice as a cold weather cyclist I hadn't prepared very well.  At least I remembered gloves for both of us, but neither Mandy nor I had adequate head coverings or heavy enough tops.  I was actually wearing mountain bike shorts which for me are okay.  Mandy's toes were little toe-scicles because she was wearing her running shoes since her mountain bike has flat pedals.
I kept offering to turn back as we pedaled away from Hager Hill but she insisted we keep going through chattering teeth.  I wondered how blue I should let her lips turn before I exercised some kind of executive power.  
Initially the trail passes through a moderately dense residential area.  You literally ride right through some people's front yards.  Then you cross under 460 and the houses seem more spread out for a bit.
We both noticed a small country store at Collista just off the trail and thought there is some good potential there for catering to trail users.
Our plan was to ride all the way to Royalton and back; from Hager Hill Royalton is 18 miles one way. Royalton is the current western terminus of the trail.  Again, poor planning on my part thwarted that possibility.  We had enough time, but I'd not brought any food along.  The one positive thing in that regard was we did eat a decent breakfast in the room, but 36 miles of riding with nothing to eat along the way turns into a mini-Bataan Death Bike real fast.
By the time we'd gone five miles out I was beginning to feel an empty stomach.  The sun was climbing, and the temperature seemed to be as well, though whenever we passed into the shadow of a hill there was still heavy frost on the ground.
When we passed through Denver, Kentucky along the trail I could squint my eyes and almost-not-quite imagine I was back riding my bike in Denver, Colorado.
See the mountains over the Denver skyline?
After Denver it seemed as if the houses were even more spread out, and there were even moderately long sections of trail where you could look forward or back and not see a house.  It started to feel like you really were in rural Eastern Kentucky, and not in a bad way.
We continued on to what looks like a trailhead/parking area at Swamp Branch.  About four horse trailers had passed on the adjacent road and when we neared the kiosk there were people unloading their horses.  We decided it was time to turn back.  Both of us were hungry, and it was still cold enough that weweren't just loving the experience.  Swamp Branch is 8 miles from the eastern terminus.
The trail itself is amazing.  The surface is a dense aggregate (i.e. small gravel) that is packed.  For the most part we could just cruise along on our 2 inch tires inflated to 50 psi (just for that ride), though there were some places where the surface was a little softer, and there was one short section just east of Denver that was really rough for that type of trail.
Near the Mountain Parkway on my tour in on Thursday

Dry Bread Fork Trestle

Near Dobson


When we turned back toward Hager Hill we discovered that we'd been climbing though we hadn't felt it.  Heading east from Swamp Branch it was easy to crank along in my big ring with little effort.  I noticed then that the stream runs from west to east.  Ah-ha!
It was nice being able to ride along side by side in peace and just chat.  We talked about coming back soon and bringing the kids and the niecely a nephewly type people.  Of course we also talked about a bigger trip south to Virginia to do the Creeper Trail.  It's going to be hard for the Dawkins Line to ever exceed the Creeper Trail in my mind, but that has a lot to do with the Creeper Trail being in the Virginia Highlands.
The last time Boone rode the Creeper Trail
From our front door Royalton is 70 miles.  We could be there in an hour and a half easy.  That's pretty convenient for us.  From Lexington it would be just over 100 miles, and again, a pretty easy drive.  You take the Mountain Parkway east to Salyersville and then drive just six short miles south on KY 7 (Royalton Road) and find the trailhead behind the Royalton United Baptist Church.
There are continued improvements planned for the trail for the coming years.  The most obvious is the doubling in length on out to Evanston from Royalton.  There are also plans for "sweet smelling toilets" (no lie!) and running water along the way, as well as trailhead improvements for better access.  I'm sure as time passes the trail managers will refine the trail itself and all of its accoutrements.
The one thing I think the trail is seriously lacking right now (at least as far as I can see) is opportunities for camping along the way.  I see two benefits for a good area for free or low cost public camping: 1) people around the state could bike tour TO the Dawkins Line and camp; and 2) you could do the finished trail as an out and back over two days as an easy introduction to bike touring or bikepacking.  After touring out to the conference I'm certain I could make the Dawkins Line a destination for a future Front Porch Bike Tour.
Realistically there is seasonal camping at nearby Jenny Wiley and Paintsville Lake State Parks, but having places to camp right along the trail would increase the utility of the trail by an order of magnitude.
Mandy and I didn't get far enough to see Gun Creek Tunnel.  Our next trip we'll plan on taking all day to ride the trail and see it all.  It'll be fun to just take it nice and slow and explore.
I'm also really looking forward to when the entire 36 mile trail is opened next year.  That would make for an incredible 72 mile out and back ride.  Of course that would be less of a family-type ride.  That is, unless those kids start training now.

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