Riding the Hatfield McCoy Trails for Beginners

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If you’ve been reading My Itchy Travel Feet for awhile, then you know how much Alan and I enjoy fun four-wheel-drive trails. When I showed Alan the information on the Hatfield and McCoy Trails, he said, “When do we go?”

Unfortunately, we haven’t made it, yet. But Debi Lander has experienced the Hatfield-McCoy trails. After reading about her experience, and seeing the photos, you’ll be saying “When do we go?” too. The best part about this boomer travel adventure is that you can do the driving yourself or go with a guide.

Before I visited the New River Gorge National Park, I’d never traveled to West Virginia. If you were to ask me the first word that I’d associate with the state, I would have answered, “the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s.”

If you’d ask me now, I’d say whitewater rafting, but that’s another story. The folkloric tale of the mountain men, their families, and their fights remain part of the region’s history, so let’s start with a quick review.

Driving through a mud puddle on a dirt trail.
Driving the muddy Rockhouse Trail. Photo by Debi Lander.

The historical feud between the Hatfields and McCoys

The more prosperous Hatfields of West Virginia were led by William Anderson Hatfield, known as Devil Anse. At the same time, the McCoy’s of Kentucky were under the leadership of Randolph McCoy or Old Ran’l. 

The McCoy family mainly lived on the Kentucky side of the Tug Fork (gotta love that name) in the Big Sandy River. The Hatfields lived chiefly on the West Virginia side.

Over the years 1863-1891, many battles occurred. In the late 1870s, Devil Anse Hatfield got into a land dispute with Randle McCoy’s cousin Perry Cline. Anse won the land dispute and was granted Perry’s entire 5,000-acre plot of land.

The McCoy’s felt that Anse had used his political connections to influence the court’s decision. A few months after the verdict, Randle McCoy accused Anse’s cousin, Floyd Hatfield, of stealing his hog.

A lawsuit was brought against Floyd, and a jury trial ended with an acquittal (a jury trial- really?). As a result, the McCoy’s felt like they had been cheated again. Heightened ill feelings between the two families, romantic entanglements, and several armed confrontations followed. 

Deadly furor developed over a fight Devil Anse’s brother Ellison had with three of Randle McCoy’s sons. One of the McCoy’s pulled a knife, stabbed Ellison 27 times, and then shot him in the back.

Anse and a posse intercepted the McCoy brothers as they were being taken to a Kentucky jail. They then escorted them back to West Virginia.

Remarkably, Ellison was still alive and, according to Anse, the three McCoy’s would live if Ellison survived. The following day Ellison died (hardly a surprise).

Anse and his boys transported them back to Kentucky, tied them to several pawpaw trees, and shot them. Indictments were issued, but for five years, no action was taken.

In September 1888, the Hatfields were finally tried for their crimes. All were sentenced to life in prison except one who was later hanged.

Devil Anse made no attempt to get revenge for his family members’ conviction, which marked the end of the feud. Of course, both families were involved in the ongoing manufacturing and selling of illegal moonshine.

Four-wheel-drive adventure into West Virginia history

Muddy ATV parked on a trail.
The ride gets muddy. Photo by Debi Lander.

Today, many tourists travel to parts of West Virginia and Kentucky to see the restored feud sites, including the gravesites, the Hog Trial Cabin, McCoy’s homeplace, historical markers, and more. Driving the four-wheel-drive trails is a popular way to get there (trail permit required).

I flew to West Virginia to explore the New River Gorge National Park, located in the southern region. Afterward, I stayed on an extra day to learn about the feuding families and ride the Hatfield and McCoy ATV trails.

I wasn’t the only one wanting an off-highway adventure; hundreds of others were driving the tracks. In 2020, the pandemic year, over 65,000 multi-day permits were issued, not including single-day passes. 

Many enthusiasts bring their own ATVs, all-terrain vehicles meant for a single rider, or UTV’s…utility task vehicles (also known as side by sides). Originally, ATVs were designed for tight spaces and quick turns.

They also became machines used for racing. ATVs tend to be more physically demanding, as you need to straddle the seat and maintain balance for optimum control. But if you prefer to ride solo, they are also a lot of adrenaline-pumping fun.

On the other hand, UTV’s are beefier models that allow for two, three, or four-person side-by-side riding. If you’d like to ride with others and have safety in mind, the UTV would be your best bet.

Group of ATV's parked on the side of a dirt trail.
Stopping on the trail. Photo by Debi Lander.

Rich Warren, a first-timer who rode in a UTV, says he “appreciated the more comfortable car seat over straddling an ATV and the safety of a roll-cage.”

Both ATV’s and UTV’s come with storage space to pack your gear and food.

Cameron Ellis from Twin Hollow Campground and Cabins said, “The popularity of Hatfield McCoy Trail riding increased when the UTV’s came on the scene around 2016. Before then, almost all the participants were local. Now, families come from far away to ride together, enjoy nature’s scenery and have fun. The sport has turned into an authentic outdoor family vacation that includes extended days lodging in cabin rentals, RV camping, and bed and breakfast rooms.”

There are 10 trail systems total in the Hatfield-McCoy trail system. Each one includes trails that range from easy to difficult, plenty of choices for every skill level. All are scenic.

Note: Children must be six or older, and booster seats or car seats are NOT allowed. If your child is required by state law to use a booster or car seat in a vehicle, then the child cannot ride as a passenger on the trails. 

Riding in a UTV on the Hatfield and McCoy Trail Systems

Get ready, set, go. Photo by Debi Lander.

My trails adventure included a group of six riders. We had to wear close-toed shoes, old clothes guaranteed to get dirty and bring wet weather gear as we would ride rain or shine. 

We arrived at busy Twin Hollow Campgrounds. The mountain-top location offers ATV/UTV rentals, RV campgrounds, cabin rentals, a restaurant, and an entry point onto the Rockhouse section (map and details here) of the Hatfield-McCoy trails system. There are 10 trails in all, from easy to difficult.

The Rockhouse System also offers direct access to the ATV-friendly towns of Man and Gilbert, WV. It also connects with the Buffalo Mountain Trail System, the most historic of the trails. 

A show of a driver’s license was necessary to obtain a daily permit. Once granted, we fit ourselves with a helmet and gathered around a slick Kawasaki Teryx 4-seat rental.

The group listened to our guide give the easy instructions for operating the vehicle. If we encountered others passing by, we were told to hold up fingers to indicate the numbers of cars behind us.   

We also learned that trails are marked like ski runs, a green circle for the easiest course, blue square – more difficult, black diamond- even more complicated, and double back diamond– the most difficult. 

I hopped into the shotgun seat, tightened my seat belt, and off we went, shadowing our guide. Although a Hatfield McCoy trail map is readily available, I’d highly recommend a guide if you aren’t familiar with the territory (many trails look the same).

The width of the majority of tracks feels comfortable at eight to ten feet. Sometimes they are wide enough to pass others while moving, but narrower segments required a pull off to the side. 

My driver pressed the pedal to the metal, and my heart rate increased. We rapidly bumped and jittered along rocky, dirt trails.

At times, we snaked our way through devious twists and turns, like switchbacks, in the hilly sections. When driving through tree-shrouded areas, we encountered some big puddles which sent mud flying. These are not the ‘almost heaven country roads’ John Denver sang about; these were rocking and rolling wild rides.

Another driver in my group, Evelyn Kanter, said, “I was impressed with how easy it was to drive the UTV. I haven’t had so much fun getting muddy since I was a kid.”

While it’s hard to hear over the engine’s roar and through helmets, the four of us were able to communicate. We whooped and hollered and laughed as we got pelted with mud, enjoying the thrilling adventure. After nearly an hour, we took a much-needed stop at a panoramic overlook.

Note: You might not want to drink an extra cup of coffee in the morning; there are few porta-potties on the course. 

ATV's under Outlaw Waterfall in West Virginia
A waterfall ATV wash. Photo by Debi Lander.

Returning to our vehicles, we sprinted toward a majestic waterfall. However, in West Virginia, the Outlaw Waterfall acts like an ATV car wash.

Drivers back up their cars and maneuver them under a portion of the gushing water. Then, these macho guys pose for photos. I’ve never seen anything like it.  

Rock formation surrounded by trees.
Rock House. Photo by Debi Lander.

Soon we were off again, this time climbing up narrow, steep trails and eventually coming to the trailhead namesake-the Rock House. The natural stone monument stands as one of nature’s gifts. It’s captivating and unexpected, a treasure in this rural location.  

Stopping at Keith’s Bar and Grille

Lunch at Keith’s. Photo by Debi Lander.

Now hitting late afternoon, we were hungry and tired, so our group descended the trail to go to lunch at Keith’s Bar and Grille in the town named Man. We stopped to change the UTV out of the four-wheel-drive before entering the highway. In West Virginia, it is legal to drive ATVs on paved roads.  

The parking lot in front of the restaurant presented a sight to behold. It was jammed with mud-coated trail vehicles. It seemed that other trail riders were hungry, too.

Debi Lander after an hour on the muddy trail. Photo courtesy Debi Lander.

I’ve never been as dirty as I was coming off that ride, but looking in a mirror caused a shriek. Caked, dried mud splotches, water stains, and dirt stuck to my skin and clung to my hair. Hitting the ladies’ room before sitting down to lunch required a robust wet paper towel scrub of my face and arms. 

Despite our bedraggled appearance, we were warmly welcomed with Appalachian hospitality. The pub-fare menu featured chili dogs and burgers with names like the Real McCoy and the Outlaw burger. My sweet potato fries were yummy, as was the cold beer or cider. 

Back on the trail

Devil Anse Grave. Photo by Debi Lander.

After lunch, we drove miles on more paved roads, with a bit of off-roading, to reach a town named Sarah Ann. Here we found the Hatfield Cemetery perched atop a rugged hill.

A precipitous climb becomes necessary to view Devil Anse’s grave and other members of the Hatfield clan. I photographed Anse’s tombstone topped with a life-sized marble statue.

The sculpture details include the bearded figure wearing pants hiked high over his belly, a dinner jacket, boots, and gaiters. The Hatfield children spent $5,000 on the statue that arrived five years at his burial in 1921. 

Thinking about the notable families, I wished I’d had a chance to learn more about them, but time was running late. We returned many miles to Twin Hollow, happy to find nice bathrooms with shower facilities. However, my group decided to wait till later to relish a long, hot shower. (My filthy tee-shirt was beyond saving; I later trashed it.)

Fellow rider, Jennifer Prince, summed up her day,” Taking an ATV ride through the Hatfield-McCoy trails was a fantastic way to see little-known areas of West Virginia. I had heard about the two feuding families before, but visiting their stomping grounds and especially the graveyard truly brought the history to life. From passing by streams to going through steeper parts of the trail, it’s one of the most exciting ways to see rural WV. “

About the Hatfield McCoy Trails 

Rockhouse Trail #3. Photo by Debi Lander.

The Hatfield McCoy trails are considered Trails Heaven to be some of the best ATV, UTV, and single track dirt bike trail riding in the world. The trail system officially opened in October 2000 with 300 miles of trails.

In 2002, the system added an additional 100 miles and continues to grow. Currently, riders find more than 900 miles, making the Hatfield McCoy Trails the most extensive regulated off-road trail system in the world.

Hatfield McCoy Trails Lodging

End of the Rock House Trail. Photo by Debi Lander.

Twin Hollow Campground offers 11 mountaintop cabins to accommodate couples, families, and groups up to 10. Full hookup for 43 RV camping sites and 20 primitive sites. ATV rentals and repairs and an award-winning BBQ restaurant. 

Former coal towns like Bramwell and the town of Matewan have been restored. You’ll find cabin rentals, RV campsites, and resorts. In Matewan, add an airboat ride at Hatfield and McCoy Airboat Tours to your travel plans. 

Twin Falls Resort State Park offers a hotel-like lodge and restaurant, about an hour’s drive from the Rockhouse Trail. The park includes a golf course, hiking trails, and streams and rivers for kayaking and canoeing.

Adventures on the Gorge, within the New River Gorge National Park, offers a variety of lodging choices, from tent campsites to luxury cabins. They have several restaurants, a busy bar scene, a coffee house, a gift shop, a swimming pool, and connections to all the park activities. 

The town of Fayetteville, near the National Park, includes more lodging choices and some terrific restaurants. 

The Greenbrier, the granddaddy of luxury resorts, rests in Little Sulphur Springs, about two and a half hours from the trailhead. Guests find three world-class courses, elegant guest rooms, fine dining, and high tea. 

Scratch those itchy travel feet!

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