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Girls Gone Mild
This time, they did it the easy way. A set of hard-core outdoorswomen do a West Virginia trek -- from inn to inn.

By Jennifer Barger
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 14, 2003

I could barely see my girlfriends far ahead of me on the mountain path in West Virginia. Walking stick in hand, I huffed and puffed to the top of the incline, where a mammoth white satellite-looking thingy came into view in the valley below -- the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, it turned out. Its bigger-than-a-football-field antenna looked like the lair of a James Bond villain. But I knew once we passed the observatory, we would be nearly at the end of a beautiful yet grueling 10-mile hike.

My husband calls my fast-walking friends the Fitnessistas, three in-shape pals who haul me on long, sometimes punishing walks on the weekends. Leslie, Anne, Christine and I tramp along the C&O Canal, gossiping about husbands, jobs, kids and, occasionally, J. Lo's love life.

We wanted to take these walks to the next level: a hiking trip. The Fitnessistas -- outdoorsy types -- favored camping. Me, I'm a B&B babe. I want a warm bed and a cold glass of chardonnay after a day on the trail.

So when Leslie found the "Inn-to-Inn Walking Guide: Virginia & West Virginia," by Su Clauson-Wicker, it seemed like a way to satisfy everyone. Hard hikes for them, a soft mattress for me. Clauson-Wicker outlines 20 two- to three-day trips -- some 30 miles long, others just a few miles -- between country inns, bed-and-breakfasts and motels.

"I'd hiked in England and Scotland, and there are wonderful centuries-old trails with B&Bs and pubs along them," Clauson-Wicker said by phone from her home in Blacksburg. "I wanted to do that here, but I couldn't find any books on the subject. So I decided to write one."

Dozens of hikes later, she published the guide in 2001. Routes include a trek along the Virginia Beach waterfront and a two-day mountain hike starting at the swanky Greenbrier resort and ending at an antebellum mansion turned B&B. Most hikes link lodgings via bike trails, hiking paths and country roads; a few (like ours) require shuttles from the inn to the trailhead. For each the book gives walking times, difficulties and distances, lodging and maps.

After ruling out trips with motels (too dicey) and the Greenbrier hike (too pricey), we decided on a two-night adventure in Pocahontas County, W.Va., a region with many mountains and few people. Under a full moon, we set out on our "chicks in the sticks" weekend, singing along with "Take Me Home, Country Roads" as we drove to our first stop, the Elk River Inn in Slatyfork.

As our getaway Subaru barreled along curvy roads, we went over logistics. Extra socks? Check. Enough trail mix for lunch on the walk? Maybe. The book outlined everything from lunch stops to side trips (antiques shops, old mills, etc.), but prepping for the weekend involved some planning. I bought a backpack; Leslie arranged a shuttle -- provided free by the innkeepers -- from our final overnight back to where we'd dropped our car at Elk River.

After a soak in the inn's outdoor hot tub and a sleep in its rustic, comfortable farmhouse rooms, we awoke ready for the trail. We carbed up on good blueberry pancakes and coffee and then climbed into Elk River innkeeper Gil Willis's SUV for a short ride to the Allegheny Trail in Cass.

Nestled against the gushing Greenbrier River, Cass showed signs of its past as a logging company town. Identical white clapboard worker houses lined the main street, and the burned-out brick shell of the early-20th-century West Virginia Pulp and Paper Mill overshadowed the river. We browsed at the circa-1901 Cass Country Store.

"You'll want me to carry that pack by the end of the day," super-fit Anne told me, eyeing my stuffed bag that already felt like a steamer trunk. Eyes aimed skyward, where the endless ridge loomed, we began trudging up the skinny trail. Emerald green rhododendron drooped over the path, which climbed past cabins (some with driveways full of broken-down cars) before becoming what Clauson-Wicker's book promised -- one of the most solitary trails in the region.

Two hours into the trek, that enormous telescope antenna came into view, and we broke for a hummus and cheese lunch. The vistas -- not to mention the StairMaster-like workout -- made us linger. "I could eat this entire block of Colby with no remorse," Christine said.

Awe-inducing panoramas -- dollhouse-size cabins far below, nonstop mountains -- unfolded as we climbed. (Though this hike wasn't the book's longest, Clauson-Wicker ranked it among the most challenging. "That's not for the out-of-shape," she told me later . I made a mental note to try the short Virginia Beach trip next.)

By late afternoon, as the sinking sun cast an orange glow on the telescopes of Green Bank, we mountain mamas reached the end of our Allegheny Trail jaunt. After a gradual descent, we marched along a muddy road, eventually cutting through a high school football field in Green Bank. After an eternal mile of tarmac, we reached the Sweet Thyme Inn. The white clapboard Victorian with its glistening tin roof looked welcoming and, best of all, clean and warm to dirty, tired hikers. Triumphant (I'd lugged my pack the whole way), we collapsed on the columned porch.

One of only a few vegan B&Bs in the United States, the inn offers comfortable guest rooms (soft sheets and earthy colors) and inventive cuisine. "We enjoy cooking and eating vegan, and the inn is a way for us to share that," said Pat Merithew, who runs the B&B with her husband Chuck. After long, hot showers, Pat poured us tea and we compared war wounds -- blisters, tired feet.

In the coral-walled dining room, we tucked into a tasty cheeseless spinach-mushroom lasagna and onion soup with James Taylor playing in the background. Sweet Thyme doesn't serve alcohol, so we walked to a nearby gas station for beer. As we sleepily glanced around the table and clinked bottles, we felt celebratory and indulgent.

The next morning, we could've hiked to a different B&B as outlined in our book. But since our jobs and significant others beckoned in D.C., we settled for a stroll around Green Bank, past fields of cows and a quirky Victorian church. The inn's ample breakfast -- oatmeal and sticky buns -- seemed more sinful than wholesome. After eating, we walked over to tour the observatory, where we gazed at sunspots through a small scope and learned that the mammoth machine we saw from the ridge is the world's largest steerable radio telescope . Then Willis picked us up at Sweet Thyme and shuttled us back to our car. Anne's Subaru looked odd after such a foot-powered weekend. "Wouldn't it be nice to walk home?" said Leslie, eyeing the road.

She was joking. But the thing is, we all nodded.

Escape Keys

Booking It: "Inn-to-Inn Walking Guide: Virginia and West Virginia," by Su Clauson-Wicker (Menasha Ridge Press, $14.95), is available at Amazon.com, Borders and other area bookstores. The book details 20 fully mapped and scouted inn-to-inn hikes, including routes along the Appalachian Trail, Canaan Valley, Virginia Creeper Trail and Washington and Old Dominion Trail. The Allegheny Trail route we hiked required a short shuttle from the inn to the trail head (which the Elk River Inn provides on request), but most trails can be hiked from door to door.

Getting There: Pocahontas County is in mid-eastern West Virginia, about 260 miles from Washington. To reach Slatyfork and the Elk River Touring Center, take I-66 west to I-81 south. At Harrisonburg, take Route 33 west to West Virginia Route 28 south, then Route 66 west to Route 219 to Slatyfork.

Lodging: The Elk River Inn and Restaurant (Route 219, Slatyfork, 866-572-3771, www.ertc.com)offers simple yet comfortable rooms with shared bathrooms in its farmhouse starting at $60 per person on weekends. The posher lodge has bright, antiques-accented rooms with private baths starting at $75 on weekends. Breakfast included. The lodge's dining room also serves lunch and dinner, with dishes like pistachio-crusted salmon as well as a nice selection of wines. The Sweet Thyme Inn (Route 92, Greenbank, 304-456-5535, www .sweetthymeinn.com) has soothing, nicely furnished rooms with private baths from $50 to $120 a night. Arrangements must be made in advance for hearty dinners ($20 a person) or breakfast ($8); box lunches ($7) can also be arranged for hikers.

Dining: We brought our own lunch on the hike, but CC's Cafe (in Cass, near the Allegheny Trail trail head) offers easy-to- tote sandwiches and drinks. Other dining options in the area include the Red Fox Restaurant (304-572-1111) at the nearby Snowshoe Mountain Resort, known for its wild game and wine list, and the down-home French's Diner (220 Eighth St.) in Marlinton.

Information: Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-336-7009, www.pocahontas countywv.com.

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